Body image as plot device

There was a brief conversation on Twitter tonight about novels that use body size as the main plotline, and how that’s horrible and shouldn’t happen. I respect both of the people who were having this conversation, and I know one of them reads my blog, so I hope she doesn’t read this as an attack or anything, because that’s not at all what this is. I fully respect people’s right to disagree with me. I just thought I’d share my thoughts on the subject. I was going to respond on Twitter, but there was no way that I could share my feelings in 140 characters. Thus, I decided to write a blog post on it.

The novel that I just finished writing is called “For Real This Time,” and it is about a fourteen-year-old girl who’s trying to lose a bunch of weight before high school starts. There are several subplots – there are issues with her parents, there’s a cute guy who moves in across the street that she really likes, and she has to deal with unpleasant interactions with her friends and classmates – but the main plotline is her attempt to lose as much weight over the summer as possible. She starts the novel at 223 pounds, and she wants to get to a “healthy” BMI, which would put her weight around 155.

Now, the people on Twitter were partly complaining because the “fat person” in the novel was her size, and I can agree with them that that’s ridiculous. I’ve seen one novel out there about someone who’s struggling to accept herself, and she starts the book weighing 168 pounds or something like that. I can completely agree that it’s annoying to see thin people complain about being fat. Of course, fat is always a matter of perspective. For instance, if your weight starts with the number 1, I don’t think you should complain about your weight. Of course, that’s coming from someone who hasn’t weighed less than 200 pounds since ninth grade.

And that’s where my novel comes in. There’s a huge number of overweight children in the United States, and they’re constantly demonized as stupid and lazy and gluttonous. People act as if losing weight is easy and that anyone who can’t lose weight must not be trying very hard. Young girls especially are treated like crap if they don’t look like society wants them to look. Looks and body image are such an important part of today’s society. They shouldn’t be, but they are. It’s ridiculous to try to pretend that they’re not.

And that’s part of why I wrote this novel. I wanted to write a novel about a young girl who hates what she looks like and show how she eventually realizes she’s just fine the way she is. I’m sure a lot of people have no interest in reading this sort of book, and that’s fine. But I would have wanted to read a book like that. I still want to read books like that. I think this is especially important since everyone’s currently so worried about childhood obesity. Everyone’s so concerned about the number on the scale, not what they’re putting in their bodies or how much exercise they get. I want to read stories about fat people who feel out of place but eventually learn to be comfortable with who they are. It’s easy to look at someone who’s ten pounds “overweight” and say that of course they should be happy with who they are. It’s harder to look at someone who’s seventy pounds “overweight” and say the same thing.

I’ve always tried to what the sorts of stories that I would like to read but that no one else seems to write. Maybe I just haven’t found the books for me. Maybe I’ll never find an agent because most people don’t want to read the same sorts of books I’ve always wanted to read. But I have to write them anyway. I’m used to being the minority opinion on most topics. This is one of them.

Body image plays a huge role in people’s lives – even if they don’t realize it. If you’re happy with yourself, you have so much more confidence than someone who hates what they look like. There are tons of stories out there about “plain looking” people, or “fat” people who wear a size 8. I want to read about a high school student who wears a size 18/20. That’s where I was in high school, and I hated what I looked like. Now I wish I had just stopped worrying about it then, because now I’m even bigger. I wish I had realized back then that dieting doesn’t work.

I know that it’s important to show fat people as main characters without having their weight be an issue at all. Just like it’s important to show gay characters without making their being gay be the main focus of the novel, or minority characters without their race being the main issue. I understand, and I agree. But I think it’s also important to have some novels address issues that those people face. Some novels should show the struggles gay people face coming out, or the struggles that black or Hispanic people have in a society that’s not always quite as progressive as we seem to think that it is. And some novels should show the struggles that fat people face in a world that only seems to value thin people. Should all novels with fat characters be like that? Of course not. But I still think some should.

Hopefully my novel is a lot less preachy than this blog post is, but I’m not really trying to be subtle in this post. I just wanted to share my views on the subject. If you disagree, I’m open to discussion. And, again, I hope no one took offense to this post. That certainly wasn’t my intention.

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Posted on February 19, 2013, in For Real This Time, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. I promise I didn’t take this as anything other than your take on the discussion. And you’re right, 140 characters isn’t enough for a deep thought. Or even half a deep thought πŸ˜‰

    I agree that we do need books where people accept themselves for who they are, whatever that might be. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen (though admittedly not read) a seemingly large number of novels that focus on weight that I feel it’s being singled out disproportionately. It feels a bit like there’s a bandwagon effect going on there, and that may only be my perception. I may just have noticed that trend more than others.

    That said, I like the sounds of yours, especially as there’s more going on than just weight that’s making her unhappy and that she has to deal with. Some of the things you mention as subplots are universal issues that echo beyond any one set of traits. In fact, I think my biggest objection in this whole discussion is the idea that you’d classify a book purely based on one element like that. To me, it should be about a broader acceptance of the self that you are.

    I’ve battled weight issues myself, including maintaining perspective on what “healthy weight” looks like and the number that’s supposed to mean I have it. However, I would never have said weight was the only thing I was struggling with. I didn’t think I was smart enough, talented enough. I never believed I could succeed at the things that mattered to me. I certainly didn’t believe I deserved to be happy. I think anyone can struggle with these things and others at any weight, so I believe a story should be about more than just that, though it can easily be a major element. At it’s core, that was my real objection, the idea that weight on its own should carry a book’s main plot. I don’t think life and self-image are ever so narrowly defined as that.

    And lastly, before this comment becomes a novel itself, I didn’t find the post preachy, just asking that people understand the interest in books about those who feel they have to weigh less to be happy, and I do understand that. But I also learned that there’s more to being happy than just what the scale says or tag in your clothes. So I think stories should emphasis that, rather than fixating on a single thing as the magic bullet to cure unhappiness with oneself.

    • I’m torn in how to respond to your comment because I agree with most of what you’re saying, but I think there’s an aspect that you’re missing. I agree that weight isn’t the only issue, but I think it often feels like it is, so it almost might as well be the only issue. I’ll use myself to try to explain:

      I’ve always been really shy. I always assume I’m bothering people and they’re just too polite to tell me to leave them alone. I’m not saying that my weight caused those issues, but I definitely think it’s related. As long as I was fat, I could convince myself that that was the reason why I had no friends. It wasn’t personal; they were just shallow. But then I also could never lose the weight because then if I did and still no one liked me, then it would be my fault I had no friends, and I couldn’t stand that.

      So for me, losing weight was never the real issue. The issue was that I lacked all confidence in myself outside of academic pursuits. But I didn’t want to focus on that and address the real issue, so I blamed the weight instead. I still do that sometimes, even though I know it’s ridiculous. So one the one hand, I agree with you that weight is never the only issue. But I also disagree with you, because I think it can sometimes feel like it is the only issue, even if it’s not.

      I also think there’s a huge difference between being at a healthy weight and feeling like you’re fat (which is what it sounds like you’re talking about with your own body issues; if that’s not true, I apologize) and actually being obese. With the first example, it’s mostly in your head. With the second example, you have doctors and teachers and the First Lady of the US telling you that you’re horrible and unhealthy, so I think it’s a lot easier for the weight to seem like the only issue.

      I’ve been through like three drafts of this response now, and I’m not sure if I’m making sense to anyone other than me. And this is long. Sorry. The sad thing is I could have gone on for a lot longer. Haha.

      • You are making sense, and I agree that this is the sort of discussion that could go on forever.

        First, let’s talk about healthy weight. According to a methods of measuring, I’m overweight. I don’t agree, especially as I don’t think I’ve ever felt better in my life about how I look. And yet I still have those types of scales telling me I’m not. That’s the sort of thing I meant when I talked about healthy weight being hard to define. That’s not in my head, though I know there are people who insist they aren’t slim enough who really are just fine and it is in their head (in some cases, it’s even full blown body dismorphia).

        I agree that it’s harder when you’re obese. Everyone judges you, often excessively harshly. There’s little understanding, even when there’s a medical reason. And I totally agree that it can seem like the only issue. My concern, I suppose, is that believing it’s the only problem can lead to drastic and often dangerous behaviour in the pursuit of conquering that problem. That’s bad enough, but as you pointed out, what is that person then to do if/when they lose weight and then have to face the rest of the problems they may have been refusing to acknowledge and are unprepared for? I worry about that, what their reaction would be.

        I suppose the one thing I really want to say is that I’d rather see a balanced approach to portraying people’s problems, because it’s more accurate, but also because it’s healthier in the long run. I think addressing the whole picture can allow a person to more successfully deal with their problems. Yes, we’re talking about fiction, but that can be a way that people learn, through stories.

      • I completely agree with what you’re saying. Also, I’m sorry for wrongly assuming about the weight thing. I completely get where you’re coming from, and I agree that the number on the scale is a horrible representative of a person’s health. When I was 30 pounds “overweight” in high school, I could run a mile and a half without stopping. I felt good about myself. I was eating more fruits and vegetables and drinking lots of water. To me, that is what being healthy really means. The number on the scale shouldn’t have matted. Sadly, I didn’t see that at the time, and I kept trying to lose weight in unhealthy ways, and now I’m heavier than I ever was before.

        That’s why I agree with you 100 percent that believing that weight is the only issue can lead to serious problems. I can’t speak for the people who write the other types of books you’re talking about, but I know that that’s one of the main reasons why I wrote For Real This Time. Maggie doesn’t become anorexic or anything, but I do try to show how focusing on that one thing can be dangerous. That’s one of the things that she has to learn.

        I guess I see it like this: the protagonist is supposed to grow throughout the course of the novel. That’s why I’m okay with her starting the novel being unhappy with her weight and feeling like if she could just lose the weight she would be happy – because I know that by the end of the novel, she’ll have realized why she was wrong. So the main plot of the novel is still technically her quest to lose weight, but it’s really more about her learning to like herself for who she is. I definitely think that people learn things through stories. That’s why I’m so passionate about this novel, and why I’m so defensive about it – because I think that more people should learn to ignore the scale and focus on what they like about each themselves – but in order to learn that, they have to start out in a position where they didn’t know that.

      • To me, it sounds like you’re very much on a great track with the novel then. But I thought that from the beginning of this conversation.

        And no apologies needed. Communication is a two-way deal. Sometimes we don’t always come across as we want to because we didn’t include enough information. It happens. That’s why we continue the conversation, in pursuit of mutual understanding. Sort of like this. πŸ˜‰

      • Thanks! I probably could have stopped defending my novel a while ago, then. I think I’ve just spent so much time (especially recently) feeling misunderstood and disagreed with that it’s hard for me to recognize when we’ve actually reached an understanding.

        Oh, and you should definitely not worry about not being talented enough. My boyfriend’s currently doing his student teaching, so he recommended Bound to his mentoring teacher. Apparently they were talking about how much they were looking forward to the next book. So you definitely have your own little J. Elizabeth Hill fan club out in the suburbs of Georgia. πŸ˜€

      • But when something’s close to your heart, it’s hard not to hear criticism in a lot of things said on a related subject. I totally get that. I think we’ve all done it. I’m pretty sure it’s part of being human and invested in something.

        Omg, that’s awesome about both the recommendation and that they’re looking forward to the next. Yay! I’m just thrilled when people enjoy the book. I live to write and share stories, honestly. πŸ˜€

      • That’s definitely true. And they’re not the only ones looking forward to the next book in the series. πŸ™‚

      • I think I’m going to go squee in the corner for a while, where no one can see, try to maintain some semblance of dignity. πŸ˜€

        Oh wait, everyone saw that comment, didn’t they? *waves goodbye to dignity as it flounces out the door*

  2. I totally agree. The only problem I would have is a book where the main character starts off fat, miserable, and lonely, and then gains everything she ever wanted ONLY through losing weight–you know what I mean? Weight loss itself does not mean happiness or confidence (if it did, anorexia would not be considered an illness). The journey through weight loss needs to include other changes.

    • Oh, I completely agree! Losing weight might be the main thing that a person focuses on, but there has to be a mental transformation, as well, or else it won’t work. I think Sarah Dessen’s “Keeping the Moon” does a good job addressing this – Colie loses like 50 pounds before the novel starts, but she didn’t gain any confidence along the way, so she still acts like she did before she lost the weight.

      I also think, though, that sometimes losing weight isn’t even the issue. I’m starting to realize that, at least for me, my weight hasn’t been what’s holding me back; it’s how I feel about my weight that’s holding me back. I would like to read about a character who eventually comes to that conclusion, as well.

  3. Yeah…I always feel a little bit that way when, like, okay, have you ever read “The Cinderella Pact?” I’m not a big chick-lit reader, but that one’s okay. And obviously the character does go through a lot of mental change as well as losing weight, and she gets the hot guy and whatnot, but I’m always a little like…how come the fat girl can get the hot guy – but generally only once she’s lost the weight – but the fat guy can get the hot girl just by being himself and not losing any weight at all?

    (I mean, I’m perfectly happy with the fat guy getting the hot girl; I just want to know why it doesn’t work the other way around.)

    An exception to this would be Hairspray. I don’t know how many other exceptions there are, though. I think the overwhelming majority is, the fat girl can gain everything she ever wanted, but only once she has lost weight. Like we said, there’s a mental change that has to go along with this (or the weight loss doesn’t matter), but still – why can’t there be a mental change consisting of the girl realizing she’s an awesome person exactly as she is?

    • I’m not really familiar with either example, but I completely get what you’re saying and agree. It’s always annoyed me that men are allowed to be really fat and women aren’t. There should definitely be more books (and movies and TV shows) that show women being happy with who they are. The more I look around at the society we live in, the more annoyed I get. It seems to me there’s enough hate in this world – we don’t need to keep hating ourselves, especially for something as stupid as weight, and we definitely don’t need more stories encouraging this self-loathing behavior.

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