Thin To Be Loved: Julie Daly talks fat representation in YA

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I’m walking to the chorus room from the cafeteria in ninth grade, my lunch in hand. The chorus room was my sanctuary at lunch time  – quiet, away from the cafeteria, just me, my friends, and our chorus teacher. We’d get extra voice lessons and drama practice and gossip in a safe space while we ate lunch.

The halls are still quiet. My previous class and my locker are close to the cafeteria, so I’m always one of the first in and out of the line, often finished buying lunch while everyone else is still at their lockers.

As he walks past me into the cafeteria, a boy mutters, “Are you pregnant?”

I freeze, too shocked to answer. I know this kid, used to play with him sometimes when we were in elementary school. Does he remember me? Does he know who I am? Does he remember our days on the playground?

Why would he say such a thing to me? How am I supposed to respond?

I’m fourteen and haven’t even kissed a boy and no, he doesn’t know that, but I’m still fourteen.

He walks into the cafeteria. I walk into the chorus room.

Three years later, I’m at a restaurant near my home with my mom and my sister, who’s visiting from out of town. We’ve just had a girls day and we’re feeling good. As we stand in the bar area to wait for a table, my mom and sister order drinks and I order nothing — I can wait to order a diet coke until we get to the table. A drunken man gets up from his barstool.

“Sit, you should sit. Ladies in your condition shouldn’t be standing.”

I force a smile.“No, sir, I’m really fine.”

“I insist, take the seat.”

The other members of his party apologize for his behavior. “He’s drunk, you know how it is!” They try to tell him it’s fine, that I don’t need the chair. He keeps insisting. They get called to their table.

I sit in the vacated barstool. My mom and my sister laugh about it.

I’m seventeen and haven’t even kissed a boy and no, he doesn’t know that, but he still wouldn’t listen when he was told I wasn’t pregnant.

Four years later, my family is wondering if there’s a guy in my life and really, when are you going to get married and start having kids now that you’re almost done with college?

I keep telling them: no, there’s no one. I try not to scream that it’s because this lack of a love life is not for my lack of wanting it. That there’s never been a guy that’s interested that didn’t creep me out. Most guys aren’t into girls like me – fat girls with sharp brains and sharper tongues.

But with time comes knowledge. I know now that this isn’t always the case. I know wonderful, amazing, intelligent, snarky, feminist fat women who have found wonderful partners who love them and cherish them. Their fatness is loved. Their partners don’t say “You’d be pretty if…”

When I was a teenage girl, I didn’t know that sort of love and respect was an option. I thought there was no way I’d find a guy that could love me while I was as fat as I was – although, back then, I couldn’t even use the word fat. In high school I was curvy or I was big or I was heavy. But I wasn’t fat.

Fat was an adjective when I was in high school – a dirty, rotten adjective I never wanted to hear. Fat is a noun to me now – still hard to say out loud, but just a thing all people have and I happen to have quite a bit of.

I took my solace in books full of girls kicking ass and being snarky and smart and feminist and finding love. Thin girls. Not girls like me. There were never girls like me in the YA I read — or, if there were, they weren’t ones with happy endings. On the rare occasions I opened a book and found a fat girl who found love, that love only came with her losing weight through the course of the book. She had to be thin to be loved.

Despite my eager acceptance of feminism, and despite seeing and discussing how horribly the media and Hollywood treated women’s bodies, I didn’t see how this was reflected in the books I adored. I didn’t start noticing how YA treats fat characters, but girls especially, until recently.

dumplin julie murphyIt started, I think, with Dumplin’.

Dumplin’ was a revelation. Willowdean was a fat girl who was happy with who she was, but still wrestled with insecurity. Willowdean was a fat girl who entered a beauty pageant to make a point, was a girl who was desirable to not just one boy, but to two. Willowdean was a fat girl who was loved. I didn’t even realize just how badly I needed Willowdean until I started hearing about the book. Once I read Willowdean’s story, it was like my eyes were opened to how things in YA could be – and how very far it is from getting there.

Suddenly the harmful representations of fat girls in YA seemed glaringly obvious and painful. The amount of good representation of fat girls was laughable. Ask on Twitter for a book with a fat character in it and get dozens of replies mentioning Dumplin’ and a couple of books with the potential to rip a hole in a girl’s self esteem.

If you’re lucky, somebody will recommend a book that might work for you, but wouldn’t work for others. If your tweet reaches the right people, you’ll get one of a handful of books where a fat girl can be a fat girl and find some degree of happiness. You call out representation that can be harmful and you notice how many people stay silent time after time. You watch as books that actively hate fat people get lauded over and over again with no mention of the pain they can cause.

I don’t get mad about this on my own behalf, not anymore. Time has brought me not only the realization that I can be loved as I am, but that I’m perfectly fine as I am. I’m not always happy with my body and sometimes I hate it, but most days, I feel good.

But I do get mad when I think about the 14-year-old me and the 17-year-old me who suffered through the rude comments of others. About how much I hated myself as a teen because of my weight and how I looked. About the continuance of high body standards set by Hollywood and the fashion industry, despite the outcry.

gabi a girl in pieces isabel quinteroDumplin’ is the only book most people can hand to a fat teenager to counter that standard. One contemporary book about a white, straight girl. A YA savvy librarian or bookseller might know the book about Gabi, the fat Mexican American girl from Gabi, A Girl in Pieces. They might know about Hope, the fat African American girl in Peas and Carrots. They might know about Rory, the gay fat boy who makes up part of the narrative in Weird Girl and What’s His Name. They’ll likely know about the many titles where the main character is fat because of an eating disorder, or where the main character loses weight and gets happiness, or where the fat character is just a combination of stereotypes, but there’s only a small chance they’ll know of the books where fat characters get to be fat just because they like food and still have a good ending. And I don’t blame them if they don’t. Dumplin’ aside, many of these books come from smaller publishers and most never got a big push.

It means that teens are the ones who lose out. It means fat teens, or even just teens who feel fat — which, if you remember your teen years, you may realize is most of them — won’t get to see that they are so much more than their weight. They won’t get to see fat characters have adventures and become heroes and heroines and fall in love and be loved in return without losing a pound.

I’m not going to expect Hollywood to suddenly turn around and start giving teens these narratives, but I can ask it of YA. Books have long been used to explore ideas and new narratives, and YA in particular has long been used as a safe space for teens to work out their identities and learn new ideas.

Why can’t one of those ideas be that fat people can be happy?

Why can’t we let teens know that it’s okay to have complicated feelings about your body?

Why can’t we use books to change the narrative around body standards?

Fat teens are capable of doing anything thin teens are. They’re capable of the same range of emotions, the same personalities, the same love lives, the same intersectionalities, the same friendships, and the same plots. There’s no reason for their weight to be their identity and their plot. They can steal spaceships and save the world, can be angry and anxious and depressed and happy, can be queer, can be people of color, be queer people of color, can fall in love, and can be loved in return. Just write them. Do some research, get some fat beta readers, and write them. Give millions of fat teens the chance to find themselves in your book.

While they’re waiting for you to finish, here are some recommendations and resources. I will note that I have not read most of these and had to rely on commentary I could find from people I trusted to be sure if the representation was good or not.

This is also not a comprehensive list. I purposefully left out a lot of books because I want this to be positive fat representation – not in that the characters are always happy and love their bodies, but in that it doesn’t make fatness – or any part of one’s appearance – a bad thing. There were many books I came across where the fat characters had an eating disorder, there was a couple where they were comfortable in their skin, but often mocked others for how they looked, there were a lot of books with weight loss narratives and cliches or plots that just made me uncomfortable. They’re all valid narratives and they’re all the true stories for someone out there, but with each book I asked myself if, based on what I knew, I’d be okay handing it to a teen struggling with their body. That’s what this list is for.

dumplin julie murphyDumplin’ by Julie Murphy
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Release Date: September 15 2015
Self-proclaimed fat girl Willowdean Dickson has always been at home in her own skin. With her all-American beauty best friend, Ellen, by her side, things have always worked…until Will takes a job at Harpy’s, the local fast-food joint. There she meets Bo, a hot former jock. Will isn’t surprised to find herself attracted to Bo. But she is surprised when he seems to like her back. Instead of finding new heights of self-assurance in her relationship with Bo, Will starts to doubt herself. So she sets out to take back her confidence by doing the most horrifying thing she can imagine: entering the Miss Clover City beauty pageant to show the world that she deserves to be up there as much as any twiggy girl does.

vintage veronica erica s. perlVintage Veronica by Erica S. Perl
Publisher: Ember
Release Date: October 11 2011
Veronica Walsh is 15, fashion-minded, fat, and friendless. Her summer job in a vintage clothing store is a dream come true. There Veronica can spend her days separating the one-of-a-kind gem garments from the Dollar-a-Pound duds, without having to deal with people. But when two outrageous yet charismatic salesgirls befriend her and urge her to spy on and follow the mysterious and awkward stock boy Veronica has nicknamed the Nail, Veronica’s summer takes a turn for the weird. Suddenly, what began as a prank turns into something else entirely. Which means Veronica may have to come out of hiding and follow something even riskier for the first time: her heart.

peas and carrots tanita s davisPeas and Carrots by Tanita S. Davis
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
Release Date: February 9 2016
Dess knows that nothing good in life lasts: her mother’s sobriety will inevitably fade, her abusive father’s absence is never long enough, and her brother Austin was put into foster care when he was still a baby. Disappointment is never far away, and that’s a truth that Dess has learned to live with. Dess’s mother’s arrest is just the latest in a long line of disappointments, but this one lands the teen with Austin’s foster family. Dess doesn’t exactly fit in with the Carters. They’re so happy, so comfortable, so normal, and Hope, their teenage daughter, is so hopelessly naïve to the harsh realities of the world. Dess and Hope couldn’t be more unlike each other, but Austin loves them both like sisters.

gabi a girl in pieces isabel quinteroGabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
Publisher: Cinco Puntos Press
Release Date: October 14 2014

“My mother named me Gabriella, after my grandmother who, coincidentally, didn’t want to meet me when I was born because my mother was unmarried, and therefore living in sin.” Gabi Hernandez chronicles her last year in high school in her diary: college applications, Cindy’s pregnancy, Sebastian’s coming out, the cute boys, her father’s meth habit, and the food she craves. And best of all, the poetry that helps forge her identity.

 

big fat manifesto susan vaughtBig, Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Release Date: June 23 2009
Jamie is a senior in high school and, like so many kids in that year, doing too much—including trying to change the world—and fighting for her rights as a very fat girl. And not quietly: she’s writing a column every week in the paper with her thoughts and fears and gripes. As her column raises all kinds of questions, so too, must she find her own private way in her world, with love popping up in an unexpected place, and satisfaction in her size losing ground to real frustration. Susan Vaught’s searing and hilarious prose will grip readers of all sizes, leaving them eager to hear more.

 

food girls and other things i can't have allen zadoffFood, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have by Allen Zadoff
Publisher: Egmont USA
Release Date: February 22 2011
Life used to be so simple for Andrew Zansky–hang with the Model UN guys, avoid gym class, and eat and eat and eat. He’s used to not fitting in: into his family, his sports-crazed school, or his size 48 pants. But not anymore. Andrew just met April, the new girl at school and the instant love of his life! He wants to find a way to win her over, but how? When O. Douglas, the heartthrob quarterback and high-school legend, saves him from getting beaten up by the school bully, Andrew sees his chance to get in with the football squad. Is it possible to reinvent yourself in the middle of high school? Andrew is willing to try. Can a funny fat kid be friends with a football superstar? Can he win over the Girl of his Dreams? Can he find a way to get his mom and dad back together? How far should you go to be the person you really want to be?

everything beautiful simone howellEverything Beautiful by Simmone Howell
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Release Date: October 28 2008
When Riley’s Dad gets a new girlfriend, life turns upside down for Riley. She doesn’t like Norma and Norma doesn’t like her. But it is not until Riley finds herself shipped off to ‘camp’ that she realizes just how bad things have become. Determined to continue on her path of bad behavior, Riley Rose is sure that she can turn this ‘spiritual camp’ upside down. And when she meets Dylan Luck, recent paraplegic, she thinks she has found a fellow troublemaker. What follows is a very surprising week for Riley. Truths are told and secrets revealed, and sex, cigarettes and booze prove to be a potent cocktail, but in the end Riley has learned quite a lot about herself, Dylan and exactly why she appeared hell-bent on self-destruction.

weird girl and what's his name meagan brothersWeird Girl and What’s His Name by Meagan Brothers
Publisher: Three Rooms Press
Release Date: October 13 2015
In the podunk town of Hawthorne, high school geeks Lula and Rory share everything—sci-fi and fantasy fandom, an obsession with old X-Files episodes, and that feeling that they’ll never quite fit in. Lula and Rory have no secrets from each other; after all, she knows he’s gay, and he understands why she worships the mother that walked out on her. But then Lula discovers that Rory has not only tried out for the football team, but has been having an affair with his middle-aged divorcee boss. With their friendship disrupted, Lula begins to question her very identity, and when she disappears in the middle of the night, Rory is left to survive on his own.

torn away jennifer brownTorn Away by Jennifer Brown
Publisher: Little Brown Books
Release Date: November 3 2015
Jersey Cameron has always loved a good storm. She lives in the Midwest, after all, where the weather is sure to keep you guessing. Jersey knows what to do when the tornado sirens sound. But she never could have prepared for this. When her town is devastated by a tornado, Jersey loses everything. As she struggles to overcome her grief, she’s sent to live with relatives she hardly knows – family who might as well be strangers. In an unfamiliar place, can Jersey discover that even on the darkest of days, there are some things no tornado can destroy?

 

this book isn't fat it's fabulous nina beckThis Book Isn’t Fat, It’s Fabulous by Nina Beck
Publisher: Point
Release Date: September 1 2009
Manhattan It Girl Riley Swain is no pudgy wallflower. She’s brash, bold, fashionable, and yes, fabulous. Riley has no qualms about kissing her best friend’s crush, or bribing her dad’s lawyer. But this spring break, Riley’s dad and wicked stepmother are shipping her off to New Horizons, a two-week fat camp in upstate New York. And it’s miserable: like military school without carbs. But then Riley gets to know adorable Eric, who sees beyond Riley’s tough exterior. Soon, Riley might just realize that maybe it’s not her shape that will change at New Horizons. . . but her heart.

 

fat hoochie prom queen nico medinaFat Hoochie Prom Queen by Nico Medina
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release Date: May 6 2008
Margarita “Madge” Diaz is fat, foxy, and fabulous. She loves herself, and is adored by almost everyone else…except queen bee/student-body president Bridget Benson. During a heated argument, they decide there’s only one way to end their rivalry: be named prom queen and the other backs off — for good. Of course, everything looks different in the sober light of morning, but pride is at stake and the race is on. Madge is committed to doing whatever it takes to secure the title, but so is Bridget. And everyone’s got something to hide.

 

pretty face mary hoganPretty Face by Mary Hogan
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: April 1 2009
Hayley wishes she could love living in Santa Monica, blocks from the beach, where every day–and everybody–is beautiful and sunny. But she just doesn’t fit in with all the blond, super thin Southern California girls who have their plastic surgeons on speed dial. Hayley is smart and witty and has such a pretty . . . face. Translation: Don’t even think about putting on a bikini, much less dating superhot Drew Wyler. Just when Hayley feels doomed to live her life in the fat lane, her parents decide to send her to Italy for the summer–not for school, not for fat camp, just for fun. It’s there, under the Italian sun, that Hayley’s vision of herself starts to change.

Sources: Sarah Hollowell on Fatphobia; An Interview with Kelly Jensen; YALSA’S Diversify YA List; Size Acceptance in YA – Kelly Jensen’s rec; Kelly Jensen on Fatphobia; Fat is Not a Disability;

Resources: Size Acceptance in YA; Writing Fat Characters; Fat Girl Reading; Writing Fat Black Women

You’ll notice a lot of repeat authors. There isn’t much out there that’s not by Kelly or Sarah that I’d trust and isn’t outdated. Basically, read through Stacked, read through Kelly’s BookRiot posts, read through Sarah’s blog, read through Angie’s blog. They’re the best resources we have.

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About Author

Julie Daly

Julie Daly is sometimes known as Julianne. A recent college grad, when not job hunting, Julie is watching Netflix, talking about YA on twitter, or trying to make her cats play. In 2009, Julie joined a group blog called Bloggers[Heart]Books and her obsession with all things YA has grown exponentially. Though she no longer blogs, she did create #quietYA and is a cofounder of Blogbound Con. Julie has also interned at several publishers and sometimes plays bookseller. Follow her on Twitter at @DailyJulianne.

2 Comments

  1. Great post.

    But I wouldn’t recommend either THIS BOOK ISN’T FAT, IT’S FABULOUS or PRETTY FACE. Both are what I classified as “good intentions” in my 2010 YALSA pre-conference on fat acceptance. Which is to say: they really had good intentions but, overall, read as pandering. You can be good and accepted and beautiful (well, in Italy, I guess) fat girls! (lil’ hair ruffle) For PRETTY FACE it’s insulting on a number of levels: fat hatred is world-wide, not just in the USA and when they talk about how “in Italy” fat women are beautiful (what?!) they still are talking about a very specific aesthetically pleasing type of “curvy” – that just re-enforces stereotypes that SOME kind of fat is OK (i.e. the kind men think is sexually attractive.) and THIS BOOK ISN’T FAT has a lot of that going on as well. Riley is often referred to as “statuesque” or “pear-shaped” – telling readers her body is the “right kind” of fat body. She weighs 188 pounds and talks about how there’s no way she’s as fat as the other kids at fat camp. (also, like in the very awful FUTURE PERFECT by Jen Larsen where the main character couldn’t have realistically gotten “weight loss surgery” – it’s not really believable that a “fat camp” would accept a kid that only weighs 188 pounds and is tall. Showing, again, this is a fantasy about fat life.) The book MEANS for Riley to be a figure of inspiration but…pandering.

    We’ve got to keep the convo up, we’ve got to center fat voices, we’ve got to call out problematic content. It’s not easy, but it’s OK – we’ve got big fat mouths.

    My blog on the symposium presentation: http://fatgirlreading.com/body-positivity-fat-acceptance-2010-ya-lit-symposium/

    The PPT (lacking in my narration, lol) http://www.slideshare.net/fatgirlreading/big-fat-books

  2. Pingback: Fat Narratives in YA // This Week on Our Shelf Life | The Passed Note