Book Review: Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaughn
Just a heads up – I have to read 24 books for my YA Literature class. Expect a lot of book reviews between now and November.
Title: Big Fat Manifesto (GoodReads)
Author: Susan Vaughn
Page Count: 320
Genre: Contemporary YA
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. Tapping into her own experience losing weight, her training as a psychotherapist, and the current fascination in the media for teens who are trying drastic weight-loss measures including surgery, Susan Vaught’s searing and hilarious prose will grip readers of all sizes, leaving them eager to hear more.
I was so excited when I read the article that this book opens with. I thought, Finally! A book about a fat girl who doesn’t apologize for her size and is actually perfectly happy being fat. Sadly, that’s not at all what this book is. From the opening chapter, it’s clear that Jamie doesn’t really believe what she writes about in her Fat Girl column, at least not completely. She doesn’t eat in public. She cries in the dressing room when she can’t wear a size 13 shirt. The more I read, the more annoyed I got that this book wasn’t what I thought it would be.
That’s not to say that it was bad. It was actually really realistic in some respects. I, too, have gotten really pissed off at the horrible treatment fat people receive while still feeling bad about myself because I’m so “overweight.” So I completely get where Jamie’s coming from. I understand her contradictions. They’re realistic and believable. But they’re not what I was expecting from this book, not after reading the first Fat Girl article.
There were other parts of the book that irritated me. The major thing that annoyed me was the portrayal of NoNo. NoNo’s a size 2 (or 4 or 6 depending on the store) and a vegan. She freaks out about every little thing. The dressing room scene early on was just a bit much for me. She clearly has some problems, and they mention her need to take pills. I liked her dedication, but I hated the way she was used as a joke all the time. I really hated the scene where her dinner consisted largely of plain lettuce and raisins. That’s the stereotypical vegan dinner, not the actual one. I mean, I know she’s at her friend’s house and thus has limited options, but Vaughn could have written her dinner to be anything. But no – she chooses to perpetuate the vegan stereotype. Because why write something realistic when you can keep using vegans as a punch line?
Something else that really annoyed me was her boyfriend Burke’s usual snack – four candy bars, split in half and eating in two bites per half. Jamie spends about $15 a week on chocolate bars for her boyfriend. Now, I’m not trying to say that fat people never eat too much candy (they do, as do skinny people), but COME ON. I’m so unbelievably sick of books and movies that show fat people who are always surrounded by candy that they have hidden all over the place and which they eat in large amounts all the time. That’s another one of those stereotypes that’s everywhere and which really pisses me off because I have never once seen that actually be true.
I actually think “really?” was the response I had the most while reading this book. I won’t list all the times that thought occurred to me, as I don’t like giving away anything that happens after the first few chapters, but trust me – I thought it a lot. At one point there’s talk about how dating a fat girl takes courage, something that really pissed me off. You have to be brave to date a fat person? Really? Not the sort of message I expected from a book like this – or at least the sort of book that I hoped this was. I mean, she mentions the National Association for the Advancement of Fat People in the opening article. How do you not expect great things after that?
That’s not to say that I hated this book, because I didn’t. Once I got over the fact that this wasn’t going to be the type of book I expected, I tried to change my expectations. This book brings up a lot of great topics, and it even made me think about some things in a different way. NoNo may not have been given the credibility or the attention I would have liked, but she was still given a little depth, which was nice. I liked most of the overall message, even if I feel like it should have been taken further.
Overall: If you go into this book expecting to read about a fat teenager who’s happy being fat, you’ll be disappointed. If you go into it expecting to read about a fat teenager who alternates between not caring that she’s fat and hating that she’s fat, you’ll probably be much better off. This book brought up a lot of interesting points, although Vaughn falls short of making this book as interesting as it could have been. The side characters were interesting but a bit undeveloped. I will definitely have a copy of this on my shelf when I’m an English teacher, although it will not come with the recommendation I originally thought it would.