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.
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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