A . . . Weighty Issue?

The Young Adult Library Services Association listserv, to which I subscribe, had an interesting round of discussion lately set off by this article, “YA Fatophobia”.

This all jumped out at me because there’d been some discussion a few months ago on YALSA about “fat pride.” It was the first time I’d heard the term, and I found it a bit problematic. I pretty much agree with one of the first YALSA responders to the “YA Fatophobia” article who, to paraphrase, says that she believes the focus should be on encouraging teens to be healthy, not to settle contentedly – let alone proudly – into habits that aren’t good for them. The YALSA poster says that she herself is overweight and that she’s long had weight issues connected less with genetics than with overeating and failing to exercise, and these are not behaviors she believes should be made okay for teens.

Let me say straight up that I’m aware that weight is often linked to genetics and that losing weight can be incredibly hard, and is harder for some people than others, which isn’t fair. Also, people are healthy at different weights. A teen can be a size 14 while having an active life and a nutritionally-balanced diet. It happens. But I don’t think this is the kind of overweight teen the article is discussing.

And the article makes some strong points. I agree that the covers of some of these books, like whitewashed covers on books with protagonists who are people of color, are shameful. If a publisher is willing to publish a book with a protagonist who is overweight, they should be willing to give it a cover that doesn’t feature a skinny model, or even an average-sized one. This kind of misrepresentation says that overweight people are taboo, that no one wants to see them, that even books that are about them have to pretend they’re not. And that’s a lot like bullying.

Naturally, I’m against bullying and shaming. Teens especially don’t need that from their books – as the article points out, they often turn to books in part to get away from the treatment they receive in real life. I certainly support the idea of books showing overweight teens as valuable people, with skills and friends and passions and all the things teens have, and not as fat jokes.

On the other hand, despite comparisons with whitewashed covers and with the treatment of characters in these other groups, being overweight, even with genetic components included, isn’t like being, say, queer, or a person of color, for two big reasons:

  1. It’s inherently a problem. Weighing significantly more (or less, of course, but I don’t think skinny characters have this problem in literature so much) than your healthy weight isn’t, well, healthy. It’s not something that’s a problem because ignorant, bigoted people might mess with you; it’s a problem because it increases your risk of heart problems, diabetes, and more. Because it can limit your ability to do and enjoy awesome things in life. And, yes, because jerky people might mess with you.
  2. There is an element of choice involved in whether a person stays that way.

I don’t mean to make light of the effort involved here. For teens, this can be an especially big problem, as they’re often not the ones making their own food and exercise decisions. I read an article last year by an eloquent boy who was, I believe, fourteen, and obese. He wanted to be healthier and to weigh less, but lived in an inner city and came from a family that could not afford a gym membership. After school, he came home to a house filled with fast-food takeout and, despite his requests for it, no produce. (His parents said fresh produce was too expensive and that the grocery stores that sold it were too far out of their way.)

What’s a young teen to do? He couldn’t drive and had no real source of income. Maybe he could start a low-cost exercise, like running, but then again, maybe his neighborhood isn’t safe, or he has to watch his siblings after school, or who knows what else. What I’m saying is that, for kids and teens, their weight may not always be something reasonably within their power to change. It shouldn’t, then, be treated as some kind of personal flaw, or even necessarily a life choice.

The article and the YALSA responders also say that overweight teens in YA fiction are often portrayed as binge eating, but without ever being diagnosed with an eating disorder, as if this is just something they do because they’re weak or disgusting. (Can you see an anorexic person being portrayed as someone who regularly makes him/herself throw up just because s/he’s weak and disgusting, with the disorder never being recognized over the course of a book?) Several YALSA listserv peeps who say they are overweight themselves were offended by the suggestion that people only get that way by snorking down boxes of Oreos in the dark. I don’t read a lot of realistic fiction, so I’ll take their collective word for it that these portrayals are overly frequent. I agree this is wrong. It fails to recognize what I suspect is the majority of problematically-overweight people, who simply have a diet that brings in a lot more calories than they’re burning off with physical activity.

While I’m not sure about books being what the article calls “fat-positive,” I would definitely agree that they should be fat-character-positive. From what I hear, some YA books are really doing pretty well at this already. The recent book The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin, of which I’ve heard great things, features an overweight teen who solves a murder. He doesn’t glory in being overweight – my impression is that he’s a bit frustrated with it, but recognizes that unless he chooses to change his eating and exercise habits, it won’t change – but neither does he angst over it. It’s not what his story’s about.

If an overweight person doesn’t take steps toward healthier habits, it’s that person’s life, and no one has the right to harass him/her about it. But I don’t think books need to portray that as a totally fine choice with no possible consequences. Teens – like anyone – should be proud of who they are. They should be proud of their drawing ability, their loyalty to friends, their skill with the saxophone, their stamp collection, whatever. But I don’t think an unhealthy weight – whether come by through genetics, bingeing, or unwillingness to exercise – is something to be proud of.

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