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