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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Deep Thought Of The Week: “Follow your dreams”…?

Ha.  Ha ha ha.  This is a “dry humor” laugh, if you couldn’t tell.  I have a story for you all.

First things first, a confession: I am notoriously AWFUL at room-cleaning.  I try to justify it by saying I work best in a messy area, but really, deep down, I like things tidy and organized and stacked into neat little piles.  Tied up with ribbons.  And raindrops on roses and whiskers on…well, you get the idea.

I suppose I would actually be pretty dang good at tidying things up if I didn’t get so distracted by every single mildly interesting thing I come across while sifting through the crap.  Today one of those “things” was my journal that I used from third grade to sixth.  Immediately all hopes of immaculate order being restored to my room were abandoned as I sank back onto my bed to flip through the pages of my sweet innocent youngling mind.

And I came across a rather witty quote (yes, I was full of those).  On page 67 (I number the pages of my journal so I can reference other entries) I was talking about inspirational quotes, and I had listed one very common one: Follow your dreams.  My footnotes for this quote were as follows: “I never really understood this one.  It’s the same thing as “hold on to your dreams”–do your dreams move?  Must you catch them?  I think a much better quote would be Live your dream, or, Make your dreams come true.”

Ah, how little I knew then!

This was before, of course, I had even the slightest inkling that someday we would move away from the house in which we dwelt.  I had my whole life planned out in Wyoming, baby, and did the thought once strike me that I wouldn’t graduate high school there early and then fly off to Brown the next year?  Nope.  So, you see, I had a very linear concept of “dream”.  I didn’t at the time understand that they could morph or vanish entirely, only to be replaced with something I would have neverevereverneverforevernever imagined.

But all this happened.

Obviously, when you move to a different environment, the experience itself, as well as your new “habitat”, shapes you as a person.  If you’re on your way to a successful life already, you might get lucky and it just kinda refines who you are, but if you’re still in your formative years, sometimes it can decide who you are at the moment is scrap metal and melt you down and form you into something completely new.

And you’re left doubting that you’re really yourself anymore.

I know, I know, this sounds like a bad chiclit book or something.  But that’s only because the scenario has been wrung out and relived by so many people that we’ve whitewashed it.  It’s a painful experience, for sure, but now it’s half the plotline of every major “moving away” book or movie and we don’t even stop to think that it still actually happens.

Okay, I’m rambling philosophically.  You guys probably skipped over half this post.  Give me a chance; the point of all this is coming shortly.

So, “me” now is pretty much who you guys are used to on this blog.  I’m the girl who’s a little bit quirky, is obsessed with the color orange, is writing a novel, has declared her cockatiel her soul mate, and likes to take pictures of her “weird vegetarian food”.  She’s also working on her running so she can join the cross-country team this year and she’s a bit of a nerd when it comes to school.  (She’s even got the square glasses and braces.)  Sometimes she manages to be organized and somewhat decently put-together, but other times…no.

Would you believe that that “me” was pretty much created in the space of two years?  Pre-move, I was still a nerd, a writing fanatic, and stunningly disorganized most of the time.  But until we moved I was bigger on dogs than birds (shocking, I know!), I liked yellow, pink, and lime green (?!), I shied away from sports like the bubonic plague, and I never. ever. ever. thought that I would become a vegetarian.  (There’s a sign, just below the “Welcome to Wyoming” one, when you’re coming in from Montana, that plainly states “You’re in cattle country–eat beef”.)  Especially one who shunned foods like Twinkies and Dairy Queen Blizzards and, God forbid, those Nesquik uber-pink strawberry milkshakes from the convenience store after Taekwon-do practice.

So sometimes I wonder if this is really who I’m supposed to be.  I know for a fact that pretty much all of these mega personality changes would not have been implemented had we not moved.  Sometimes I get a sick, churning feeling in my stomach when I’m blogging about my “weird vegetarian food” that I’m not being true to myself.

But, in all honesty, I think I am!  Myself and all my dreams have definitely morphed A LOT since we moved.  And I’m okay with that working on being okay with that.  I guess the bottom line is that I was happy then, I’m happy now…I have to accept that something, whether it was God or destiny or this-that-and-the-other (still working on sorting out my religion) knew that I should move.  That it was supposed to happen.  I have to have faith that if I just continue on the path that I’m on, even though I was dumped onto it rather unwillingly, things will turn out as brilliant as I dare hope for.

Sometimes you have to carve your own path.

Sometimes you have to make like a sunflower: bloom where you’re planted and tilt your face toward the sun.  And then you’ll stop seeing the shadows.

Hopefully.  If you’re still doubting yourself, then, aw heck, what can you do but drink a green smoothie? 😉  Shot with my crappy point-and-shoot, no less…

Yesssss please.