Body Image and YA… a Pause Point, with Christie and Karen
It’s interesting where things start. Karen J. asked a simple question about a book, I answered, and boom, we have six blog posts in the past month talking about body image and YA literature, and I’m sure many more to come. I think we’ve opened up an important dialogue, and it’s interesting to see that other bloggers in the YA blogsphere are talking about it now, so I’ll be interested to see where the conversation goes.
And it’s not just girls. In the coming months we’ll talk about how guys are affected by this as well. I’ve heard many a girl talk about how they’re looking for their “Prince Charming” or their “Jacob” or their “Jace”- how do teen boys, who don’t hit their final growth until college, feel about measuring up? What about movie theaters full of teen girls (and grown women) who cheered when shirtless Taylor Lautner shows up in the Twilight films? What about guys portrayed on book covers? Or in YA in general? How many pictures of guy models have abs and lean leg muscles photo shopped in? The incidence of eating disorders in teenage boys is on the rise, bullying against gay males is at an all-time high, and we’re still in a world where guys aren’t supposed to cry because they would be considered weak.
I am a librarian because I believe that the written word has the power to change lives and make the world a better place. I am a teen librarian because I have an affinity for the teenage years; I recognize that they hold tremendous importance – teens stand at a crossroad where they are making tremendously important decisions, often without even knowing it. Each word they read is taken in and helps transform. In that moment, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, teens are deciding who they want to be and how they want to live in their world. Part of the reason that I rave and rave about Ask the Passengers by A. S. King is because it sends an important message: It is okay to love yourself no matter who you are (and suddenly Christina Auguilera is singing in my head). But I also recognize that many of the teen books I read send other messages: you must be thin, you must be beautiful, you must be . . . Sometimes, I don’t think they are even intending to send that message, but we are all a product of years of media influence and even writers can send messages that have become a part of their own personal cultural narrative without realizing it. And then there is the issue of sales: at the end of the day, authors and publishers want their books to sale. No, they need them to. So the question is, how can we transform the dialogue and still sell books. How can we make covers that will sell books but still send a positive message. How can we tell the story of everyman and make a livable wage.
I believe that teens – all teens, regardless of race, size, or sexual orientation – needs to see themselves reflected in the books that they read. They need to see their stories being told. And more importantly, they deserve it. Books become transformative when they hold a mirror up to our culture, our selves, and help us see the truth and the error of our ways. To Kill a Mockingbird resonates because it helps us identify and understand not only prejudice, but every day heroism and how a simple act of standing up for what is right and true can give one a quiet integrity and strentgh. We embrace Katniss because we want to be reminded that girls can be strong and in control of their own lives. We embrace twisted fairy tales because they turn the tables and say sometimes, a princess can rescue herself.
But body image. Well, we all struggle with it. It doesn’t even have to be your weight. Some teens are having their noses “fixed” and their ears pinned. Nadia Ilse is a teen who was bullied. In an effort to help stop the bullying she received free plastic surgery. It breaks my heart that the answer for her was to undergo surgery, which always has its risks. Bullying is never okay. And one of the ways that we can help curb it is, I believe, to help our children and teens learn to be more tolerant and accepting of others by diversifying the types of people that they read about and see in their media. When day after day they are told that THIS is what is beautiful, the message is also that everything outside of that is NOT beautiful. When we fail to represent “the least of these” in our media – our books, tv, and movies – because that isn’t what “sells”, then we become a part of the problem instead of the solution. If we believe that words have the power to transform lives and culture, then we must use that power with wisdom and love. It becomes a responsibility.
As a librarian, I take that responsibility seriously and actively seek out the outliers in literature. I seek out books with multicultural character, I seek out books with GLBTQ characters, I seek out books about your average, every day teens who are simply trying to live their lives. If you haven’t read it yet, please do take a moment and read Wonder by R. J. Palacio. This is the story of a severely disfigured your man and how the world responds to him. As much as it is fun to read our paranormal romance and zombie books (and you know that I love them), it is also important that we make sure and get books like Wonder and Stargirl and Fat Kid Rules the World into our teens hands. Here we stand at a precipice, a moment in a teen life where we can send a formative message – let’s make it a good one.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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