How Finding a Fat YA Heroine Changed My Life
March 11, 2015 5:00 PM   Subscribe

I’ve been reading for, it feels like, as long as I have had sentience and consciousness, and it has taken me my entire life to meet someone in a book who looked like me and felt the same way I do and has struggled with some of the things I have struggled with, and is still loved.
Kaye Toal at Buzzfeed on finally meeting a fat girl in young adult fiction, at the age of 23. Contains spoilers for Eleanor and Park and Harry Potter.
posted by Stacey (22 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Rainbow Rowell, the author of E&P, responded:
@ohkayewhatever has written this piece about Eleanor, and it knocked me off my feet. It's beautifully written & really abt much more than Eleanor. And as she wrote about herself, I identified so powerfully, I had to sit down.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 6:09 PM on March 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

Great essay, and sounds like a great book. Yay new books!
posted by Malla at 6:11 PM on March 11, 2015

I like Harry Potter and Eleanor & Park, but I thought this essay was really terribly written. I felt like I was reading someone's high school English essay.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:14 PM on March 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Mod note: a comment deleted. Please refresh the page and also refrain from irony if possible - it tends not to read as intended.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 6:32 PM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

My love for Eleanor & Park knows no bounds, partly for the reasons Kaye Toal wrote about.
posted by sarcasticah at 6:36 PM on March 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

The problem is she's too young. If she were my age, she'd have met Marcy Lewis in The Cat Ate My Gymsuit. in 1974.

Man, I should go back and read more Paula Danzinger....
posted by tzikeh at 6:38 PM on March 11, 2015 [11 favorites]

What? No "Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack"?
posted by angeline at 7:12 PM on March 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

What about A Wrinkle In Time? As a pudgy girl growing up I never really felt at a loss for YA girl heroines who struggled with their bodies and weight.
posted by Anonymous at 7:46 PM on March 11, 2015

I came in to say The Cat Ate My Gymsuit. But then I thought, I haven't read it in three decades or so, and it was kind of a period piece even then. The story had the main character's favorite teacher get fired for not saying the Pledge of Allegiance as a protest against the Vietnam war. To someone born in 2002, that must be about as relevant as Little House on the Prairie.
posted by Daily Alice at 8:18 PM on March 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Roomthreeseventeen, I had exactly the opposite reaction. I thought the writing really helped me get into the essayist's headspace in a way I wasn't expecting.

In A Wrinkle In Time, Meg basically turns her inward shame outward and pushes her self-loathing of her body into antagonism toward the attractive in a sort of not helpful way. Or at least that's my memory. I did love AWIT though.

Off to re-read an old favorite, and discover Eleanor and Park.
posted by samthemander at 8:22 PM on March 11, 2015

Oh, Marcy. Yeah, I thought of that one too.

Oh, who remembers Elsie from Nothing's Fair In Fifth Grade and the sequels?

Though uh...both of those girls eventually end up thin and Elsie ends up quite glamorous. I did love Seventeen and In-Between for how she handled her relationships though.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:41 PM on March 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Fat girl radar feels like porn. You stumble across the discription of a character in a book, and everything goes quiet as the blood rushes to your head and you suddenly get really nonchalant. Maybe you even put the book down and look around a bit more before picking it back up, adding a few other books to the pile before you buy it.

I only became aware of my fat girl radar a few years ago, when I realized that I had a secret mental list of the fat girls I'd seen in media. It was like my brain had circled them all with a yellow highlighter, and I was studying them to find clues about myself. I didn't care if it was just a fat actress playing a character; that character's narrative was like somebody reading my tarot; it felt like the only clue I had to my own future. Did they find love? Did they lose weight? Were they happy?

It's still kind of weird to think that those characters go unnoticed to some people, because they were so insanely vivid to me.
posted by redsparkler at 9:05 PM on March 11, 2015 [10 favorites]

Eleanor & Park made me cry like a tiny baby, not least for this reason and also because holy shit! A male Asian character who gets to have a personality! Rainbow Rowell is a treasure.
posted by Phire at 9:37 PM on March 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

One of the many reasons I love Love and Rockets so much is that it is filled with heroic and interesting women of all sizes. It's so rare for fat women to be something other than Dahl-esque grotesques. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is the only other book I can think of right now.
posted by betweenthebars at 10:18 PM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, who remembers Elsie from Nothing's Fair In Fifth Grade and the sequels?

That was what I thought of. The Scholastic page notes that "attitudes regarding how to deal with overweight children have changed dramatically since this book was first published in 1981," which makes me wonder how awful it'd be upon a second reading.

There was also Judy Blume's Blubber, which was surprisingly dark. Not quite Lord of the Flies dark, but in a way it was worse because the story was realistic and could have easily happened at any school. God, kids are monsters.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:17 AM on March 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh, god. I reread Blubber a few years ago. I was not actually a fat girl when I read it at the age-appropriate time. Rereading it many years later as a fat woman was...yeah, a different and intense experience.
posted by Stacey at 5:19 AM on March 12, 2015

The thing about The Cat Ate My Gymsuit and Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack is that the fat girl is pathologized primarily for her fat; the books revolve around her being fat. I remember reading The Cat Ate My Gymsuit when I was twelve or thirteen and while I liked that the fat girl got to be the hero, it also just basically reinforced the idea that what was most important about her was how she came to terms with her body. And Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack - weird and wonderful as it is in many ways - is a "fix yourself and get thin" book, also basically a book that reads as very right-wing even though when it was written its critique of liberalism could be read as coming from the left. It's basically "mom neglects me to be an activist, so I am fat and messed up".

Blubber, now, Blubber focused all my dread when I read it.

One thing I remember that is a little weird about my childhood - there were a couple of years when I was nine or ten when I worried a lot that my classmates would actually kill me. I mean, not on purpose - I worried that they would push me down the stairs, I worried that someone's parents had a handgun and that they'd "pretend" to shoot me to scare me and accidentally shoot me for real. Basically, I worried that they would think it was funny to hurt me and accidentally hurt me too much. This was not wildly out of line with my lived experience, either. The fact that there were all these really apocalyptic books like Blubber (where no one dies, but from a kids' perspective people might as well die) really did not help at all. I wonder if Judy Blume really understood how that book would be read by a kid - she certainly understood that it would be gripping, but I wonder if she grasped how the book reads from the Linda standpoint. (Actually the other thing I remember was thinking that the end of the book was just stupid - that there would never, ever be a reversal.)

For years I had nightmares about being put on "trial" by groups of peers - I mean, these dreams persisted well into my thirties. I would always have done something utterly unacceptable but vague, and I'd be really angry and crying and helpless, and these feelings would carry over into waking up - I remember one time I actually got up and checked my email to make sure that it hadn't actually happened. As an adult, my dreams were always related to activism and I'd put them down to activist culture fucked-upness, but just now I realize that I'd forgotten the trial scene in Blubber and how much that scared me as a kid. It was something that I could absolutely see happening to me and I knew that no one would help and it would just destroy me forever.

One thing I particularly liked about the linked essay - her comment that she had a lot of trouble feeling her body. That has always been true for me too.
posted by Frowner at 6:38 AM on March 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

I read a lot of those earlier YA books, too. But I'm young enough that a lot of the "fat" characters of the 60s, 70s and 80s seemed unrealistic to me, because by the standards of my own teen years in the late 90s and early 00s, those characters weren't fat. They were just normal.
posted by ocherdraco at 6:59 AM on March 12, 2015

EVERYBODY, PLEASE GO READ THE GRAPHIC NOVEL SKIM PLEASE OK. I previously recommended it here. I didn't mention that the main character is fat, and teased about it, because it's not her defining characteristic; this is a good thing.
If anyone's looking for more queer graphic novels, Skim is incredible. I finished reading it and immediately restarted it. There's a certain two-page spread, where a piece of truth is revealed in an awe-inspiring, sweeping artwork when you turn the page; it's breathtaking. Also, DEPRESSED GAY TEEN WITCH HOW COULD I NOT LOVE IT.

Here's an interview with the Tamaki cousins, who created it; illustrator Jillian has a really cool book called SuperMutant Magic Academy coming out this year (many funny excerpts live here) and Mariko is a great writer and extremely cute and queer and I wanna marry her? Here is a cute photo of them at a con I'm dying.
posted by Juliet Banana at 12:36 PM on March 12, 2015 [5 favorites]

while I liked that the fat girl got to be the hero, it also just basically reinforced the idea that what was most important about her was how she came to terms with her body.

Yeah, though to be fair she seemed to be coming to terms with being herself in general as well, not just her body. She was making friends, talking to a guy, leaving the house, saying things in public....

And Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack

I'm sorry, we need a judge's ruling on this--
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:07 PM on March 12, 2015

I wasn't fat as a child/young adult - that came later - so maybe that's why I don't remember some of the books mentioned. Meg Murry, for example, I remember well because she didn't fit in and was smart - definitely problems I could relate to. I didn't remember her being pudgy at all.

That said, I found Toal's article really, really moving. This bit:
I think about how readily and completely I accepted that fat was innately and unquestionably horrible and I am terrified. Self-loathing in fat girls is condoned by everything around us. It’s in the shows we watch and the books we read [...] It’s in the implication that the Thin Girl Within is the one we really are, and we won’t be able to be happy until we become her — and that we don’t deserve to be happy, or loved, until we become her. It’s everywhere.
See, Toal writes that in the past tense. She accepted that, in the past; she doesn't accept it anymore. Meanwhile later, she writes about her eating disorder that caused her to lose 70 pounds in 6 months, and I can't help wondering how she did it, never mind that it was clearly a horrific experience for her.

It's not just in YA literature that we need Eleanors. We need them for grown-ups too, because I can count the positive portrayals of fat women on the fat, sausage-like fingers of one hand. But I've just bought a copy online, and one of Skim too, so from now on I might need both hands.
posted by Athanassiel at 11:28 PM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Meg Murry, for example, I remember well because she didn't fit in and was smart - definitely problems I could relate to. I didn't remember her being pudgy at all.

Meg Murry wasn't overweight. She had glasses and braces and was awkward. One of the reasons I was never fond of the character or those books was that I knew before even starting that she grows up to be beautiful and marries Calvin.
posted by betweenthebars at 11:58 PM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

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