NOTE: First of all, please forgive any typos. My RSI is flaring up something fierce and typing is difficult with these sexy, sexy wrist braces.

Guardian of the Dead cover image

Here is the progression of events: A friend recommends the young adult novel her friend wrote; I buy it for my Kindle; I sit down to read it at lunch one day; I close the ebook and consider deleting the title.

Now, that’s a pretty freaking strong reaction to have when I am all of 2% of the way through a book.

(Please note, in case you are the author or a friend of the author: I did finish the book and enjoyed it and will discuss all of that as well, just bear with me for a minute, I promise.)

But what happened is that I was faced with this (self)description of the main character, 17-year-old Ellie:

I, burdened by skin that was less “creamy” and more “skim milk,” and not at all blemish-free, avoided the mirror and peeled off my pajamas. I replaced them with my last clean long-sleeved blouse and the hideous maroon pleated skirt that stopped at mid-calf and made my legs look like tree stumps. My mustard-colored blazer was lying crumpled over my desk chair, so I grabbed the jersey instead. The scratchy wool cut into my upper arms and stretched awkwardly over my belly, leaving a bulging strip of white cotton exposed between skirt waist and jersey hem. I’d always been big, but after half a year with no exercise, living on the dining hall’s stodgy vegetarian option, I’d gone up two sizes to something that I was afraid approached out-right fat, without even the consolation of finally developing a decent rack.

I did not go to private school. I have never been compelled to wear a uniform at any stage of my childhood fatness, including when I was a Brownie/Girl Scout. But holy crap that hurt. It hurt because I was a fat kid and a fat teenager and was desperately, painfully aware of my fatness. And it also hurt because in every carefully self-loathing line of that character description I still have no idea what Ellie actually looks like. She’s gone up two sizes – but there’s no starting point so I don’t know if she’s actually big or if she’s big the way girls who break 100 pounds and freak out about it are big.

And there is that fear of out-right fat. It made me wince – like an actual, sitting in the kitchen at work while I was reading and eating my lunch wince.

My reaction to this passage, even having finished the book and largely enjoyed it, is painful and visceral in a way that is hard to express, even though I spend a lot of my time expressing myself through writing. It kind of makes me hunch my shoulders (though I am not tall to begin with) and hold myself tense in an effort to take up less space. It makes me wish I had chosen something baggier to wear in sympathy with that jersey that doesn’t fit anymore. It makes me feel like I am 15 years old and receiving, loud and clear and constant, the message that my body is not okay by any stretch of the imagination no matter how much I might like to comfortable in it myself. Hell, it makes me feel like I am 17 and in the exact same mental state as all of that because that’s how I spent pretty much all of my teen years. I was a solid 22/24 in high school in the early-to-mid 90s and I felt like I was quite possibly the most gigantic teenager to ever lumber across the earth.

Here’s the real kicker of it: I don’t recall any overt teasing about me being fat in high school. I definitely didn’t go to a high school located in a magical land of pastoral peace and love and diversity and acceptance. I went to a small North Florida high school (well, smallish – only high school in the county means we had plenty of students) with its quite generous share of everything from race issue to homophobia to tensions between the Future Farmers of America club and other segments of the student population. But somehow, whether it was because I was in with some of the popular kids or because I tutored a football player in 9th grade or SOMETHING, I never got called names because I was fat.

I didn’t need to be teased to my face, though, because I already was indoctrinated in the idea that fat was wretched and hideous and therefore my body was a thing of which I should be most ashamed.

And that doesn’t speak to the experience of kids who WERE teased – and I saw that happen everyday, too, for a huge variety of things including bodies that didn’t conform to some amorphous and ever-changing ideal.

Still, this reaction of mine caught me entirely off-guard. That character description is entirely realistic to the way body dysmorphia hits a lot of teenaged girls and it is entirely realistic to the way a lot of adult women would even describe their own bodies. It makes sense! And it develops through the novel as well as kind of a plot point (I’ll talk about that, too) so it is even more valid as a chunk of description. There is nothing gratuitous about it.

And yet. It just hurts. I don’t generally flinch away from fat-hate in cultural products because they are kind of inescapable. The less you expect them, the more you find. And the book itself is absolutely not advocating body shame.

In fact, while I wouldn’t classify it as a specifically fat-positive book (that “out-right fat” continues to kind of stick in my craw as though the text is drawing the line of acceptable fat and unacceptable fat), I think it is far more body positive in general than most fiction out there. The cast is very diverse in a variety of ways (it feels, in fact, a little self-conscious at first but smoothes out as the book picks up steam until the world is full of a rich group of people). The story is well-told and INTERESTING. The characters are enjoyable (one or two are downright fascinating, including the incredibly creepy Mr. Sand) and I liked spending time with them. The pacing is a little off and a couple of transition places in the story are a little rough but those aren’t unforgivable crimes by any means. This is, I think, the first in a series and I’ll read the next one because I’d like to see where things go and I think some of the stuff I just mentioned will have smoothed itself out in the second book if only due to more practice writing this world.

No one shames Ellie – she is entirely too accomplished at doing it herself. When she calls herself gigantic, later in the text, I once again experienced that heartbreaking recognition.

If she hadn’t come to some sort of positive conclusion about her body and her self-worth (which I think COULD have been a little stronger but one doesn’t want to preach, especially in a young adult novel) without some epic makeover or losing weight, I think I would not be able to continue to read this series. But she does. And it is something to hold on to especially when it is such an uncommon narrative. I’m hopeful that somewhere a fat teenager is reading this and seeing herself and realizing that she isn’t obligated to loathe herself because there is nothing wrong with her, just the way there is nothing wrong with Ellie.

But I also wonder if there just maybe reaches a point where some of us are too wounded to read that kind of description without reacting to it negatively because of the memories it conjures. I suspect, if I had not been a fat kid and then a fat teen and then a fat adult, I wouldn’t have had the same response at all. And I hate to label the kind of response I did have as “successful,” you know? Because I hate to think of any writer sitting down to intentionally make someone feel all of that.

And I wonder if it’s good to read that sort of thing anyway, to be reminded of the things we’d rather put away.

It probably is, on the days it isn’t going to hurt TOO much. And that’s something only each individual can say. I think I am okay. I think teenaged me would have been more okay to be the one reading that because it would have made so much sense, resonated with the world view that had been constructed for me by my environment and upbringing.

Overall, I’m going to recommend Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey. I liked it. I want to like more of it, so I’m hoping there is a sequel. I’m also hoping that, in that sequel, Ellie spends less of her energy on denigrating her body, even casually. I hope she continues to be herself, athletic (though she shouldn’t be required to be to accept herself and her body) and strong and bigger than the other girls around her. And I hope she sees that accepting herself does not mean rejecting the idea of anyone finding her attractive, “big” and “attractive” not being mutually exclusive states, everyone being deserving of love.

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  1. JupiterPluvius
    Posted April 14, 2010 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    Interesting points you make here. The understanding I have from reading what Healey has said about the book (I have not read it yet) is that it was her intention to depict self-loathing, not to imply that the self-loathing is at all justified.

    But depiction of self-loathing may be, on its own, extremely triggery for lots of people.

    • TR
      Posted April 14, 2010 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think I have anywhere suggested that the author is trying to justify self-loathing; if I did get that impression, I wouldn’t be recommending her book.

      And I don’t really think about triggers in my own context – but I am interested in the strength of my own response to that passage (which is why I said I hate to deem it “successful” because there was definitely a strong response but is that really a response you want to garner as an author? I don’t know) and why it might have been so strong. I think discussing this stuff is valuable regardless of the intent of the author.

      ETA: Because i am wordy, I add to my own comment! *grin*

      Really, because we are not as readers sitting there with the author to explain the intent, I’d rather discuss it based just on what’s in the text – and I think there is a LOT in the text that the author may or may not realize is there. As I said, it is a friend of a friend and so I am not assuming she is steeped in fat hatred and malicious intent – but I do think even when we are trying to be progressive and inclusive we make mistakes and cannot help but reveal our internalized and unprocessed shit. Like, there’s a part later in the book where Ellie bites back a comment that is really rather revealing about her own unexamined assumptions about race and it’s one of my favorite parts in the whole book because she REALIZES what her thought means.

      • Posted April 15, 2010 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        “… and I think there is a LOT in the text that the author may or may not realize is there. ”

        Oh man, can I relate to that one! I’ve written quite a few short stories over the years and when I go back and read one a couple years later, I’m often startled to see patterns I hadn’t consciously intended to create and themes I hadn’t realized I was using in them. Sometimes they make me think how very clever my subconscious is, and once in a blue moon they make me wonder what my subconscious was smoking while I wasn’t looking.

      • JupiterPluvius
        Posted April 15, 2010 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

        Well, you know I am not one of those “death of the author” folks, but my point was not KAREN HEALEY WOULD NEVER BE MEAN TO THE FATS but rather “this is interesting to me, especially in light of what I gather is her intent.”

        I totally agree that when you (me, in this case) write something it expresses lots of things that are different from the one thing you thought (still me) you were saying. We are all sometimes mediums for the many ghosts of our culture and our own personal baggage.

  2. Shinobi
    Posted April 14, 2010 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    This passage bothers me too. I don’t know if I hate it because I relate to it, or if I hate it because I don’t.

    I feel like it bothers me because even though I have hated myself for being fat, I never hated myself so much that I would describe my own body the way someone who hates fat people would describe my body?

    It just doesn’t feel like the way a person who has been living in a body would describe it. It feels like how a third person narrator would describe it, except it is in first person.

    Maybe I just never really hated myself enough to experience anything close to this… I dunno. Either way, I’m totally going to belly dancing tonight to make myself feel better after reading this.

    • TR
      Posted April 14, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      Either way, I’m totally going to belly dancing tonight to make myself feel better after reading this.

      I think that is a damn awesome response.

      My response is already influenced by knowing it is a friend of a friend writing. So I can’t assume it is a conscious malicious fat-hating thing. I don’t know how I’d read it in a complete isolation of influence, but I think there ARE fat people who would express that sort of self-loathing. In fact, I know thin people who tear their bodies apart. It really disturbs me to hear it in action.

  3. Posted April 14, 2010 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    By contrast, the book Susan Sussman’s The Dieter starts each chapter with the main character’s current weight. The character starts out obsessed with her weight and this takes a long time to change — but considering the book chronicles the main character gaining 80lbs after losing her best friend, the actual weights given serve as a reality check. Example: when she first goes to Weight Watchers, it’s pointed out that she is already within the recommended weight for her height — she had been officially “underweight” at the start of the novel.

  4. Gretchen
    Posted April 14, 2010 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    I’m hopeful that somewhere a fat teenager is reading this and seeing herself and realizing that she isn’t obligated to loathe herself because there is nothing wrong with her, just the way there is nothing wrong with Ellie.

    I think this is the crux of it for me. As a teenage girl who had a constant internal monologue that was just. as self-loathing as this girl’s, I would’ve needed to see that self-loathing written out in all its shameful glory before I could truly identify with Ellie. Without it my younger self would have easily rationalized Ellie’s later acceptance of herself in ways that distanced her situation from my own: she had better self-esteem than me, she had better social circumstances, she was inherently more deserving of acceptance than I was.

    So as uncomfortable as it is to look back now and be faced with just how hateful I was to myself and my body on a daily basis, I can’t imagine teenaged me would be willing to identify with anyone’s journey to self-acceptance if that journey didn’t start with a true acknowledgment of my existing headspace.

    • TR
      Posted April 14, 2010 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      This is so what I hope is going on with this book, you know?

  5. Posted April 14, 2010 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    This was a great post.

  6. Posted April 14, 2010 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    I feel your pain, I don’t get called fat and I don’t generally get teased, but people will make comments about others in front of me and that hurts just as bad.

  7. lilacsigil
    Posted April 14, 2010 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    I wore a school uniform exactly like Ellie’s (I’m Australian, Ellie is from New Zealand) and it fit just as badly, in exactly those ways – even though I was never teased or bullied for my weight at school (just at home!) I was conscious of my shape being wrong every time I put on that uniform.

    Actually, I wasn’t even “overweight” let alone “obese” – but I had a very, very curvy shape with most of that weight in my belly, and school uniforms were just not cut right for me. And no-one ever talks about things being too tight in the upper arms, but I was physically incapacitated by my scratchy (green) wool blazer: I couldn’t move my shoulders or upper arms. And jumpers (sweaters) had to be carefully stretched out of shape to cover my belly. So, for me, this was a big point of recognition, not traumatic.

  8. Posted April 15, 2010 at 3:36 am | Permalink

    Fantastic post. My empathy just went into over drive because been there and done that.


  9. Queenofnuffink
    Posted April 15, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    I will have to read and hope that if it becomes a movie Ellie is played by a weighty individual and not a petite actress in a fat suit or someone who has no jiggle factor.

  10. Posted April 16, 2010 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    Reading this passage, I was also surprised by the strength of my reaction-similar to yours and others who’ve commented.

    It was quite visceral and I think that’s because the passage misses it’s mark. It doesn’t convey insight into the process of internalized self loathing. Instead it reads like a fatphobe commenting on a fat body bolted onto a first person narrative.

    If she approached it more from this kind of perspective;

    “I was acutely aware that my jersey didn’t fit anymore. Because I felt it should, the feeling of it stretching tightly over my belly acted as a reproach….”

    OK, I’m not a writer, but you see what I’m getting at.

    I wish to be constructive not to condemn, but people have to stop assuming they know us because they’re used to seeing fat people parrot the lines our wannabe puppetmaster’s wish to hear.

    We have barely begun to tell our stories in our own direct, true voices.

    They’ll be a lot more interesting.

  11. Posted April 16, 2010 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    Hi TR and commenters,

    Author here, to announce that you are interrogating the text from the wrong perspective!

    Oh, wait, no, the other thing. Critiquing the text with thought and care, that’s what you’re doing.

    First, I am really sorry that that description hit you so viscerally and caused that pain. You are quite right that although I wanted it to feel real, I never considered that it would hurt someone that much. If I had, I think I would have revised it heavily.

    The description actually comes a lot from my own experience as a large body in a school uniform similar to Ellie’s, and how I felt getting dressed in it each morning. I distinctly remember writing that particular paragraph by thinking, where did my uniform not fit? Where did it rub? The thing I remembered was how often I would try to convince myself that I wasn’t *that* fat, not yet, just edging up on it, not *really* fat – and the fear running underneath that I already was – because of course, I knew that being fat was the worst, worst possible thing. That’s where the “outright fat” line comes from – that mingled fear/bargaining.

    Of course there was nothing wrong with my body, and so much wrong with my brain.

    So the body-shame Ellie evinces is, in many ways, *my* body-shame as a teen, and perhaps as an adult. Writing her acceptance of her body (which happened a lot faster than mine – wish-fulfillment!) was a way of writing to the teen I was and assuring her it was okay, that being fat was fine, that having the body she had was totally okay, no matter its size. Like you, I hope that other kids will see that message, and I sincerely hope that that passage won’t hurt them as it did you, for which I again apologise.

  12. Kimberly
    Posted April 16, 2010 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    I admit, that passage hurts. It’s exactly the kind of thing that ran through my head every morning of my High School career.

    Were I reading this book as a teen it would certainly help me relate to the character, and seeing her reach some sort of acceptance would have affected me positively.

5 Trackbacks

  1. [...] When Fat Characters Describe Themselves: A Response to a Book I Just Finished Reading (The Rotund) [...]

  2. [...] particularly pudgy (yes, Stephanie Plum, I’m looking at you). Marianne of The Rotund wrote a really compelling post here where she discusses her visceral response to Ellie’s hatred of her own body, which hit home to me [...]

  3. [...] at The Rotund, Marianne Kirby talked about “When Fat Characters Describe Themselves: A Response to a Book I Just Finished Reading” and I wanted to link here because they are very [...]

  4. [...] SAID. Here is one of the critiques, on descriptions of Ellie as a fat character, by Marianne Kirby of the Rotund, with my reply. Marianne is a noted fat acceptance activist, [...]

  5. By Review: Guardian of the Dead, by Karen Healey on November 28, 2010 at 10:56 am

    [...] friend Rebecca Rabinowitz pointed me to an essay about this issue in the book at The Rotund, and Karen Healey’s response on her [...]

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