#MHYALit: The Fantasy of Being Thin and YA Lit, a guest post by Katelyn Browne
Last week, we had several conversations about the book Kill the Boy Band and body shaming. You can read post 1 and post 2 for background. In the midst of all these online conversations, Katelyn Browne contacted me and said I want to write a post about “the fantasy of being thin”. Today, we are honored to present that post to you.
I don’t think I’m alone when I say that Kate Harding changed my life. She continues to do good work as a feminist writer–I was on the Amelia Bloomer List committee that recognized her book about rape culture, Asking for It–but for me, it was Shapely Prose (RIP) that forever altered my understanding of myself and my ability to exist in the world.
In 2007, a post called The Fantasy of Being Thin (aka TFoBT) spelled out a cultural mythology I’d never been able to name or claim. In short, it describes the magical thinking that associates weight loss and/or thinness with character development. The list of examples ranges from “When I’m thin, I’ll be really extroverted and charismatic, and thus have more friends than I know what to do with” to “When I’m thin, I won’t be depressed anymore.”
Kate’s initial post about TFoBT served to explain why, in part, it’s so hard for many people to fully convert to fat acceptance for themselves, even after they’ve come around theoretically on fat acceptance for others. But today, I want to talk about the ways in which TFoBT is such a perfect, pernicious trope to hang a YA novel on.
TFoBT squares so completely with dominant American cultural values that it’s almost invisible. Of course weight is an issue of character and morality. Of course thin people take better care of their bodies than fat people, so of course they’re more morally sound. Of course anyone could be thin if they had enough self-discipline, and of course all fat people are binge eaters who don’t understand nutrition. Of course fat bodies are hilarious and desexualized, and no worthy partner would be attracted to a fat person.
YA fiction is, by its nature, about the adolescent development process of taking ownership for your own life, taking responsibility for your own decisions, and building the relationships that will carry you into adulthood. Because we’re conditioned to view thinness as a visible indicator of invisible virtue (self-discipline, self-esteem, self-care, a right relationship with food and exercise, and enough class markers to fill their own essay), it makes “sense” that weight loss is an appropriate outward journey to signify that internal character development.
Recently, we saw this in Sarah Dessen’s Saint Anything: Mac’s secret backstory is a weight-loss plotline that signifies his journey to seeing value in his own life, while simultaneously making him worthy of romantic love. (Sarah Dessen has a long and complicated track record with weight-loss tropes; Keeping the Moon, which has long been my favourite of her books, has a more complicated version of this same ideal going on as Colie struggles to inhabit her post-weight-loss body.)
For girls, it so often dovetails with the other obvious moral “truth” of YA media: that girls who care too much about their looks are vain, but girls who are good are naturally beautiful. We see this intersection in books like Fat Cat by Robin Brande, where Cat’s paleo-esque diet is motivated by science and vague notions of health; becoming thin and popular and loved happens as a side effect.
We see it in middle-grade books like Shelley Sackier’s Dear Opl, where weight is an indicator of mental health, and both are throughly rolled in with physical health.
We see it in Jen Larsen’s Future Perfect. Ashley gets non-specified weight-loss surgery because her grandmother bribes her to–she’s too good to care about her appearance, but the pursuit of her education comes with a magical opportunity to stop being fat.
And speaking of magical opportunities, my thirteen-year-old self read a paperback series book called Stranger in the Mirror about a gajillion times; its main character wishes on a magical meteorite that she can be as thin and beautiful as her sister, whose boyfriend she’s in love with. Instead of magical insta-weight loss, she wakes up with a sudden love of running, and the sense of self-discipline she gains from running wins her a romantic interest. (Stranger in the Mirror was co-written by Cherie Bennett; you may remember Bennett’s Life in the Fat Lane, about a beauty queen who has a metabolic disorder that causes her to gain weight for exactly as long as it takes to learn a Serious Moral Lesson about appearance, at which point she’s able to start losing it all again.)
Maybe it’s just a little thing. Maybe you feel like this book that uses a character’s weight to mirror their moral development is different, or is a subversion, or really deserves it. And this is somewhere that I think deeply about Karen’s recent post about the way trope-weary adults read books, versus teens who don’t have decades of mimetic knowledge piled on their shoulders. When I was thirteen, these books didn’t make me angry. They filled me with hope, with the false knowledge that once I grew up and learned to love myself and so forth, my body would change into something worthwhile.
(There’s a whole ‘nother essay here about how deeply Protestant-work-ethic-y this all is, but I’ll save it.)
For today, all I want you to come away with is this: the Fantasy of Being Thin is not neutral, even though it feels as natural as breathing to everyone who’s known since preschool that fat = bad. We need other narratives around fat bodies. (Yes, I love Gabi: A Girl in Pieces and This One Summer and that other book that’s on the tip of your tongue, but we need more.)
Meet Our Guest Blogger
Katelyn Browne is the Youth Services Librarian at the University of Northern Iowa. She is also currently a member of the Amelia Bloomer Project and curates the Feminist Task Force’s Women of Library History project. You can find Katelyn on Twitter at @brownekr.
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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