Monday, March 9, 2009

Does complaining about being fat make me sound teenaged?

Tip of the Day: For a wonderful novel with a Southern, Fannie Flagg feel that's about body image, I recommend Artichoke's Heart by Suzanne Supplee.

So I'm reading my 10-year-old daughter a novel, which shall remain nameless, squarely targeted at the iCarly fan. She checked it out of the library because it was advertised in NG Kids. The main character says she's in junior high. This book is screaming Tween Girl to the world. And in the very first chapter, the main character, wanting to impress the popular girl, says to her, "Look at you, there's not an ounce of fat on you." And was rewarded with a popular girl smile.

OK, I'm probably oversensitive, being Mom of Tween and all, but at this point, I wanted to throw the book on the floor. I stopped and pointed this out to my daughter, who definitely thinks I'm overreacting, but it really bothered me. Do the skinny junior high girls who barely fit into training bras need to study each other to see if someone's gained an ounce of fat? Is being scrawny a good thing all of a sudden? How young does this start?

Like many of you, I logged countless hours in high school listening to my girlfriends complain about how fat they were. I didn't have that problem: I was short and undeveloped and could've passed for three years younger than I was for most of my teen years. But it wasn't chic or mature to complain about that. And truthfully, I thought my friends looked great! I couldn't see what they complained about. Being a size seven was so awful? So I get that thin, pretty teen girls angsting and moaning about how fat they are is realistic. And as writers, we have a responsibility to realistically capture what it's like to be a teenager. Otherwise, who would read us?

But I hated listening to it then and I hate listening to it now even more.

Oh, look, my characters have body image issues. If I wanted to write about people who had come to accept who they are, I wouldn't be writing for teens. I much prefer writing characters who don't like the way they look. But often, that's backstory for me and doesn't make it through revision or in the manuscript at all. The pressure to scrutinize yourself and your girlfriends for that ounce of fat doesn't seem like the same thing to me as wishing you looked different. It's more of a public ritual to prove how grown up you've become. I felt that way as a teen, anyway.

So, what do you think? Is this appropriate for a middle grade novel? Is leaving the "I'm so fat" whining out of a YA novel writing the world as I wish it was rather than as it really is?

-- Kate, Miss Perfecting the Pages


Lisa Schroeder said...

You know, I've never thought about this. But you're right, girls talk about their weight almost as much as they talk about boys. But I *hate* it. And so it's never occurred to me to put it in a book. But are we realistically portraying teen girls if we don't put it in as something they talk about? I don't know...

Kate Fall said...

Well, Lisa, maybe if it's in the back of our minds, it will pop up appropriately in one of our stories someday. Here's to the subconscious!

Emily Marshall said...

This is an interesting question Kate. I must say this is the time I sometimes appreciate not being a parent when writing YA, because I think you don't have to worry about what you are saying as much (as bad as that may sound). It definitely is sad girls talk about it so much, but it is accurate. Then again there are plenty of girls that probably never talk about it. As long as it fits your character. You don't have to include every topic in YA, because that would be impossible. However, I do think sometimes non-parents don't use as much of a filter when trying to determine what's appropriate to include or not.

Christina Farley said...

This is the age when girls are hyper sensative with their looks because this time of their life, boys are starting to notice them too. So I can see why they obsess with it. I always love books though where the main character is not obsessed with their looks. It's refreshing for them to be thinking of other things that have more value.