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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.