Saturday, August 4, 2018

Dear Fat Girl: A Love Letter (And Reading List)

This post has existed in my heart for a very long time. But several events over the last few weeks have pushed me to finally write it.

First, a week or so ago, lingerie blogger, (yes, that’s a thing!) Cora Harrington tweeted about the idea of “thin privilege” stating: "The ability to move through life without people insisting you need to be a smaller size...if you don’t have to think about that, it’s privilege.” The thread, which ultimately went viral, began with “Hey, you don’t have to “feel thin” to have thin privilege. Thinness isn’t a feeling. If other people perceive you as thin, you are thin. If you are able to walk into any clothing store and expect to see a wide range of options in your size, you are thin.” As someone who has been overweight my entire life, I recognized myself in many of the descriptions she used to illustrate how a person’s size affects the way they walk through the world. Unfortunately, reading the comments, I saw an all too familiar message; among the hundreds of people who found truth in Harrington’s words, were also many others who saw the thread as the perfect place to shame fat people for being lazy, lacking character and deserving of whatever hardship their size incurred.

Then, a few days later, I again saw myself in this article, featuring the story of a woman who, having been diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer, used her own obituary to call out the medical community for focusing solely on her weight as the cause of ongoing health concerns, ignoring other possible causes that may have led to finding her cancer earlier. The obituary reads, in part:
“A final message Ellen wanted to share was about the fat shaming she endured from the medical profession. Over the past few years of feeling unwell she sought out medical intervention and no one offered any support or suggestions beyond weight loss. Ellen's dying wish was that women of size make her death matter by advocating strongly for their health and not accepting that fat is the only relevant health issue.”
I’ve spoken to many fat women who, like me, dread going to the doctor for annual checkups or to address even a minor ailment, because they know that their weight will end up being the focus of the exam, consultation and treatment. That’s not to say obesity isn’t a serious health issue, of course it is. But when doctors decide, upon first glance, that what’s wrong with you is your weight, they often stop listening to whatever else you have to say about your body and how you're feeling.

And then, finally, last week I reread Renee Watson’s Piecing Me Together, a book that I have often wished existed when I was a teenager. Among the many scenes in Jade’s story that have buried their way into my heart, the one in which she is “rated” by a group of boys standing behind her while waiting for her food order at Dairy Queen stands out:
“One of them says, ‘I give her a five.’ 
The other: ‘A five? Man, she so big, she breaks the scale.’ 
Another voice, ‘Man, thick girls are fine. I don’t know what’s wrong with you.’”

When Jade’s food arrives and she tries to leave, one of the boys (wearing a green hat) calls after her:
“‘Hey, hold up. My boy wants to talk to you,’ Green Hat says. He follows me, yelling into the dark night.

I keep walking. Don’t look back. 
‘Aw, so it’s like that? Forget you then. Don’t nobody want your fat ass anyway. Don’t know why you up in a Dairy Queen. Need to be on a diet.’ He calls me every derogatory name a girl could ever be called. 
I keep walking. Don’t look back.”
Rereading that scene again this week, in concert with the other content about weight and body issues I’d collided with, had a profound effect on me. Not only did I see myself in Jade, the truth is, if I were to count all the times something similar to this has happened to me, I’d need a few more fingers and toes.

All of that said, although I haven’t always felt that way, over the years, I’ve grown to feel comfortable in my own skin. I like who I am. Most days, I like how I look. And, while it takes a daily practice, I don’t let my size prevent me from doing what I want. In short, I’m okay with being me. I can’t say that I’ll never try to lose weight again, but if I do, it won’t be because I need to do it in order to be happy or to feel good about myself. I’m already happy. I already feel good about myself. Those things are not dependent on my dress size.

And while I do see plenty of fat girls in literature for young people, most are either the chubby, but feisty, sidekick who “could be really cute, if...” or they are the main character, but they’re struggling with an eating disorder or their happiness or potential romantic relationships hinge on losing weight. What I don’t see that much of are fat girls who are NOT defined by their weight. Or who like themselves as they are. The examples of girls who are fat and still get the boy (or the girl or whomever), are few and far between. This is one of the MANY reasons why Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ remains one of my favorite books of all time. Sure, the eponymous Dumplin’ has moments of insecurity, because all people do, but she refuses to let her weight be the thing that defines who she is:

“I've wasted a lot of time in my life. I've thought too much about what people will say or what they're gonna think. And sometimes it's over silly things like going to the grocery store or going to the post office. But there have been times when I really stopped myself from doing something special. All because I was scared someone might look at me and decide I wasn't good enough. But you don't have to bother with that nonsense. I wasted all that time so you don't have to.”

I want to see more characters like Dumplin’ in literature: not because it’s healthy to be overweight, or because being fat is something people should strive for, but because being happy, self assured and at peace with who you are is something we all deserve, regardless of our size. To that end, in thinking about this post, I wanted to create a reading list, filled with books, containing fat positive characters, that educators could recommend to readers of all sizes. Unfortunately, I’ve found the pickings to be, in a word, slim.

Additionally, the lower the age of the target audience, the fewer examples there seem to be of books featuring fat positive characters. In recent years there’s been a litany of beautiful and thoughtful picture books published that focus on kindness, inclusivity and the harm that comes from treating people who are different from us as “other.” These books matter and are important. Some of them are among my very favorite picture books. But where are the picture books featuring the stories of smiling, happy children who are treated kindly by other kids, even though they happen to also be fat? Where are the books that help kids understand that bullying an overweight child is just as hurtful and wrong as bullying those whose differences lie in their skin color, gender identity or learning differences? Where are the picture books that feature fat little girls whose weight doesn’t hold them back or prevent them from being loved? I can’t find them.

Of course, no matter how many books I read, there will ALWAYS be more that I haven’t, which means any list I compile alone is bound to be incomplete. So... I’m hoping you’ll help me add to this list. Perhaps, together, we can create a resource to help all teachers and librarians “fatten up” their collections. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).



Although I may be comfortable with who I am and what I look like now, that wasn’t always the case. If books like Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ or Renee Watson’s Piecing Me Together existed when I was a poor, chubby teenager who hated herself for it, I didn’t know about them. Of course, I can’t help but think about the effect reading books in which being fat, beautiful and confident were not mutually exclusive might have had on me, or even on those who thought my weight made it acceptable to torment me. I’d like to think that I could have stopped “wasting time” worrying about what other people thought, because a character like Dumplin’ had already done it for me. Either way, I’m grateful they exist now, as love letters to other fat girls who desperately need to be told that whatever their size, they deserve to be loved. Because they do. We all do.

Further reading:
From Book Riot: Fat Positive, Queer YA Books
From Huffpo: Where Are All The Fat Girls In Literature?
From Bustle: Dumplin’ and 6 Other Body Positive YA Novels
From Epic Reads: Love the Bod You’re In: 9 Body Positive Books Recommended by Julie Murphy


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Postscript: I realize that body image is not an issue exclusive to girls/women. People of all genders/identities struggle with their weight and how it affects their self worth and/or how others treat them. By focusing on fat girls in this post, my intent is not to dismiss or diminish those experiences. However, I don’t feel qualified to speak for them either. I hope others who have been made to feel ashamed of their bodies, but who have come to realize that their self worth is linked to so much more than that, will share their stories, too.

And finally, thank you Donalyn and Travis for your feedback on this post. You make it and me better.

11 comments:

  1. Love, love, love. So much truth in this blog post. Brava!

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  2. Love this post so much. Thanks for this gift of words and advocacy! Such truths...

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  3. I never thought about the paucity of overweight characters in picture books before. Hopefully that's something that changes in the future. A very thoughtful post.

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  4. Beautifully written, Jennifer. Most, if not all of us, can relate to something said here. Thank you for all you do on behalf of the library community!

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  5. So sorry that you, or anyone, has gine through this. But know how much you are loved and admired by those who know you, and have yet to meet you!! #myhero

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  6. I hope you've got Valiant Comics' Faith Herbert in that list somewhere. We all need a superheroine!

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  7. Thank you! This post gives me hope and courage.

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  8. I don't know if you've got this book on a list: Hungry: A Young Model's Story of Appetite, Ambition, and the Ultimate Embrace of Curves. I haven't read it, so am not sure about age range, but I'm sure high school students would find it interesting. Frankly, I think Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women is one that has appealed to many of our students doing nonfiction research on images of beauty in our society. Both of these are nonfiction titles of course.

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  9. _When Zachary Beaver Came to Town_. I love this book, a bit of an "oldie" now or (I prefer) "modern classic." Must read on this topic and just because it's awesome.

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  10. This post is most appreciated. Thanks for stepping up and writing it!

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  11. Pfiouh, I'm so stunned I made into your whole article without crying. Not so sure about when I'll be done with the comment though. I saw Dumpling a couple of times but I was afraid of the way the character's size woud be portrayed so I never picked it up ... I so get the doctor's comment, the way they never seem to notice how much they hurt you. Well. Thank you so much for this article.

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