On Skinny Characters

Bit of a tangential post today, but I’ve recently gone jean shopping (in other words: everybody run) and have been mulling over this topic a lot recently and finally think I have my thoughts organized into a sort of sense.

To put it bluntly, I am sick and tired of skinny characters in MG and YA novels.  Flashback to me as a bespectacled, nerdy, pudgy and enthusiastic wee young sprite: I was reading constantly, and books had an immeasurable impact on how I viewed the world and myself.  It was the predominate form of media I consumed, and, since I was in my highly formative years, everything left an impression.  The lack of certain things made an impression.  (Hem hem.)  I loved being able to relate to characters–while breaking boards at Taekwon-do class, I would pretend to be a favorite heroine because that made everything easier, and the characters I read were kind of my best friends.  Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t isolated or bullied (which was magical–I think I must have gone to a really good elementary school) and I had a few friends in the realm of reality as well, but, you know, they weren’t as portable.

So.  Skinny characters.  They’re like white characters, and straight characters, in that when the character’s weight/race/sexual orientation doesn’t have any bearing on the plot, it’s the default.  It’s not a thing you tend to notice if you’re not consciously scanning books for it, but to me it seems like a disturbing trend.  Excuse me while I go through the archives of my favorite MG books growing up as well as some popular YA books:

confetti girl

Confetti Girl (one of my favorites in late elementary/early middle school)?  “The tallest girl in my class, all legs.  Too tall and skinny for my jeans no matter what size I buy.” I have the exact opposite problem, Lina.  “Everything is high water.  That’s why I’m a sockio-phile.  I need something to hide my knobby ankles.”

divergent

Divergent?  Here we have Tris, our strong and fearless narrator, who is always described as small and fragile-looking (even if she isn’t emotionally).

the hunger games

The Hunger Games gets a pass because most people are starving to death.  So, like, that’s legit.  (The Fault in Our Stars gets the same pass.  *produces pass from pocket, shines it on shirt and hands it to John Green and Suzanne Collins*)

Wait wait wait, John Green isn’t entirely scot-free either…

LookingForAlaska

Here we have a MC who’s so scrawny he’s ironically referred to as “Pudge”.

hp7

Harry Potter?  Harry’s all right, he’s pretty normal weight, though this isn’t really fleshed out (no pun intended) in the books; Ron, however, is described as gangly and scrawny.  The weights of the female characters aren’t elaborated upon (except for perhaps Cho Chang, whom I think was called tiny and fragile? but I could just be making that up), but they are all played by skinny actresses in the movies.   (Though I can’t mistake movie casting for author’s intent, and hereby apologize to JK if Hermione was actually supposed to be bammin’ slammin’ bootylicious.)  They even changed the actress for Lavender Brown from the original casting after they found out she was going to be a love interest for Ron.

lavender brown

This was the biggest WTH??!! moment of the series for me.

Matched?  matched

As I was looking for these examples, I came across more and more and more…and it got me thinking.  Hey, you know, the YA book I’m working on now also has–you guessed it–a lanky, scrawny white teenage boy as the main character.  So why, as authors, do we do this?

Well, naturally, we can’t make our characters average weight.  I mean, they’re our darling little muffin misfits, and their appearance has to match somewhat.  Especially if they’re a girl, in a culture where women’s weights are closely scrutinized, we need to have them feel the tiniest bit self-conscious about it, even if it’s not really relevant to the story arc.  And I get that–it’s great to have characters that break the standard mold and that “misfits” in your reading audience can relate to.  But…why am I grasping at straws here to come up with examples of “misfit weights” from the other end of the scale?

Honestly, I think it comes down to the fact that in our culture, awful as it may be, being overweight or obese or even slightly chubby is seen as a weakness.  It just…is.  Yeah, we’ve got all these beautiful plus-sized models and most people would agree that bigger girls can be gorgeous too, but only if they go the extra mile and doll themselves up with posh clothes and heavy makeup, right?  Only if they rock that Rebel Wilson vibe and base their whole personality around the fact that they’re fat and they don’t care, right?  The simple truth is that as much as we may pretend, there’s not nearly as much skinny-shaming in the world as fat shaming.  Carved into one of the science lab benches today I read “[name withheld] is a fat ugly bitch.”  (Fat was underlined, yes.)  It’s an insult.

The same day I ducked into the bathroom and overheard an agonizingly stereotypical teenage girl conversation issuing from over by the sinks.  You can probably predict how it went–“OMG you’re sooooo skinny!” “OMG what are you talking about I’m like so fat today I don’t even know how anyone looks at me oh my god” “but OMG no you always look so skinny and perfect”…I wish I could say that was hyperbole.  “Skinny”, in our culture, is praise.  I probably don’t have to tell you to walk into any clothing store at the mall and look on the walls–you’ll see posters of emaciated girls with the golden sun streaming through their hair and a huge smile on their faces as some anonymous sexy-time guy friend holds their waist.  Ugh.  We’ve perpetuated this idea that skinny equals glamorous, skinny equals powerful and “in control”, skinny equals lovable and commendable.  “Fat”, on the other hand–when it should just be a physical description like anything else with no negative connotation–is what noncreative people use for insults, a word like a dagger to be drawn out at sleepovers and in locker rooms.  And I feel like these connotations have wormed their way into our books.  We don’t want our readers to view our characters as weak or ugly, even if the characters themselves feel this way, and so we align their physical appearance to match.

So.  Chop chop, society.  More fat characters, less fat shaming, less skinny-praising, less weight-judging.  More POC and sexually diverse protagonists would not go amiss either, but I digress.

Just my 2 cents on the matter.  What are your thoughts?  Has anyone else noticed this, or am I seeing things?

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10 thoughts on “On Skinny Characters

  1. I think if you’re going to list HP movie characters you gotta out props out for JK who met a girl on special leave from anorexia IP at a book signing and told her she’d cast her at a healthy weight… I think it was Luna.

    • Yesyesyes! I’ve read a lot about this story and I think it’s pretty awesome–Evanna Lynch (who plays Luna) had been writing to JK for a while because she was a HUGE fan and needed someone to talk to about her struggles with anorexia. Then she met her at a book signing and confessed her dream to play Luna. Rowling didn’t have a lot of influence over the casting decisions, I don’t think, but she did tell Evanna that there was a good chance she could do it, if she beat her ED. (Most people think JK held the role out over her like a prize for beating ana, which would be kind of sick, but I think she just kind of offered gentle encouragement and inspiration.) And then Evanna recovered and got cast, much to Rowling’s surprise. THAT is a good story. Overall I think the HP series is a pretty progressive one in terms of popularity and diversity; I was just picking really popular book examples to showcase my point.

      • They were great examples! I sometime wonder, like your first example characters (especially female) tend to be described as too thin, and angular. If that was a trend that began in a time when “curvy” was the cultural ideal and just kind of carried through as a writing style.

        • Huh, that’s a good point! I never really considered it because, being a wee young sprite, I’ve only really experienced the recent skinny-mania in terms of body ideals. But that’s really something to take into consideration. The great thing about books, though, is their ability to reflect and capture modern times…so I’m still going to hold the book industry to this. 🙂 I have high hopes that we’ll start seeing more body diversity in newer works!

          • I think you are about the same age as my youngest sister (HS Freshman), she just read a book called “models don’t eat cookies” or something. About a non-skinny character. Our mom said it was good… And considering she’s raised 4 children with eating disorders, I trust her.

  2. Oh. And I read another book, I don’t remember the name now. It was about either sister princesses or twin princesses, one was very thin and kind if the badass. She also died and forced the other twin (sister?) to discover her own inner badass. My sister and I read it over and over and over and were constantly acting it out and attacking out brothers. We loved taking turns dying and discovering our own inner badass. It made an impact as adults. So I think you’re on to something.

  3. I must say that I haven’t exactly noticed the whole “skinny characters” trend in many books, but perhaps that is simply because I haven’t been paying enough attention. However, it does indeed seem as though most action/superhero/fantasy films and movies have skinny (or at least slender/fit/toned) characters as the protagonists. I rarely see a chubbier character fighting crime, solving mysteries, wielding a bow and arrow, or killing dragons. I too was confused by the fact that they decided to change Lavender Brown’s character once they decided she was Ron’s love interest–why was that necessary?? I suppose Neville Longbottom was the closest to being “chubby,” and for some “odd” reason he was the rather awkward and bumbling one–at least in the beginning. He turned out to be quite a strong character in the end, which was nice. You make some good points, though, and I think you are correct in saying that many authors tend to fall back on thinner characters as opposed to heavier ones. I too hate the fact that the word “fat” is used as an insult, just as I hate the word “skinny” being used as a compliment. Since I am fairly slender in my build, with a sort of straight-up-and-down body, I get quite irritated when people think it’s nice to compliment me on how “skinny” I am. Um, no, I don’t find that flattering at all! In fact, I wouldn’t mind having more curves on me. Once, one of my friends from ballet posted a picture of herself on Facebook with a caption saying something along the lines of “I can still fit into a size 0 dress!!” This really bothered me, even though she is an intelligent, kind, and talented person. Why should fitting into a size 0 be considered an accomplishment?? Aren’t there more important things to be proud of?? Of course, there is also the whole “real women have curves” backlash, which to me essentially says that women who are naturally slender are not “real” women. That is ridiculous–why should we be defined by our weight, whether fat, skinny, or in-between? It’s as though you have to be “just right” to be considered sexy or visually appealing–not too skinny, not to chubby, wide hips, big breasts, etc…This is why I hate it when people are told to lose weight for a movie, a TV show, a dance performance, or a fashion show–especially when they are at a healthy weight to begin with. Yes, we should strive to be healthy, and not just say “screw it, I am going to eat junk food all day and never exercise because I just don’t want to!! Who cares if I get fat??” However, there is a huge difference between being healthy and just trying to be skinny. So there are my thoughts on the matter, and I hope this comment wasn’t TOO incredibly long 😉 Great post!!

    • Oh, I should have brought up the Neville thing too. I think it’s another good example–while Neville does have some GREAT character development, he’s also the bumbling idiot for the first few books, at least. Even when we do get a larger (physically) character, it’s either a huge plot point–like books where you have an overweight female protagonist coming to grips with her weight and battling insecurity–or the character is treated comically, like Neville. We still have yet to see a popular protagonist who’s just casually…fatter than average. Without it being a big dal or a laughing point. And I think that kind of representation would be really powerful and important; it’s sorely needed.

      Yeah, the “real women have curves” thing is stupid–I think it started out as something to counteract the extreme-skinniness movement and got out of hand. Anything that shames any body type isn’t good. The fact is, no matter what someone’s body size is, they shouldn’t be judged for it! It has absolutely no bearing on their personality or how great of an individual they are.

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