Weight in YA and Book Deal Breakers

At Stacked, Kelly talks about how fat stereotypes are her book deal breaker. I freaking love this post. You should read through the whole thing, but some parts I particularly liked:

“It makes me feel ashamed that the message of most YA books featuring fat characters is that your body is wrong, it’s going to kill you, it’s going to hold you back, and it’s not worth the space it takes up on this planet. Because this is a message we already send teenagers

What I want is for a teen to pick up a book that features a fat character who isn’t a silly sidekick or a laughing stock. Who isn’t seeking a way to better herself by losing weight.”

A-freakin’-men. As an overweight kid, I was particularly sensitive to these kinds of portrayals in children’s books. I remember reading some of the Sweet Valley Twins books, which featured Lois Waller, who was defined by how much she weighed and what food she ate. (Also, in a universe of Jessicas and Elizabeths and Lilas, of course the fat girl has a dowdy name like Lois.) Granted, it’s not like the Sweet Valley books were written to push literary boundaries and create compelling characters, but it reinforced the idea that only the perfect-size-6 Jessicas and Elizabeths can have interests and personalities and hobbies, whereas the we Loises were only defined by our size.

I don’t think YA authors try to only write about thin characters or to depict overweight characters with that being their only characteristic. But I think we, as writers, need to think more carefully about how these characters are represented and how our stories deal with characters of all sizes. So often I roll my eyes at depictions of characters who, when stressed or upset, suddenly lose their appetite. This is a totally realistic reaction to stress, but so is having a cupcake, and not many novels I can think of mention having a cupcake as a reaction to feeling stressed. Things like this may seem minor, but they can have a big impact on readers.

Like Kelly, I’d love to see stories about “fat” characters that don’t have anything to do with their sizes. About heavier girls fighting dragons, about overweight guys engaged in student council political drama, about any topic YA usually covers. In high school, I had a lot of friends of various sizes, and we all went to prom, had fights with our parents, dealt with grief, went driving with the windows down and great music playing. YA should reflect that.

Make sure to read Kelly’s post. And while I’m reminded of it, I’ll leave off with a great quote by JK Rowling about how we use “fat” to describe people in a negative light:

“Fat’ is usually the first insult a girl throws at another girl when she wants to hurt her…[Is] ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’ or ‘cruel’?”

Let’s stop looking at fat as the worst thing a person can be, and the only thing that can define someone. It’s certainly one of my book deal breakers, too.

11 thoughts on “Weight in YA and Book Deal Breakers

  1. This is a GREAT insight. I also wonder how an author could bring up a character’s weight without it defining them. I feel like being larger can define a character while being skinny doesn’t.

    • I think it would involve mirroring real thoughts about weight, like feeling weird about how your body jiggles in gym class, or wondering if you can pull off skinny jeans. Those kinds of thoughts creep into pretty much everyone’s consciousness at some point, regardless of size, but don’t define who you are and what you do or even what you think about.

  2. Amen!!! Fat shaming is o rampant throughout our culture, generally. Also, there’s a whole movement of folks reclaiming the word fat – it isn’t a moral thing, it just is. No need for it to be seen as a pejorative!

  3. Love this post! And yes, I read those SVH books, too, and felt the same way. Even I, who wasn’t really overweight but wasn’t overly slender, felt I couldn’t live up to the images of those girls.

  4. Interesting enough to me, the Sweet Valley High twins were “perfect size 0s” until recently when they changed them to a 6 because a 0 wasn’t deemed “healthy” or “realistic”.

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