In a world of YA lit that is inundated with covers showing thin, model-like girls dressed for the runway, it’s refreshing to read books that feature protagonists with curvy bodies. The CDC states that 17% of children ages 2-19 are obese, and I believe it is important for these teenagers to see themselves in YA literature. Today I’m focusing on female characters; maybe in another post I can take a look at the guys.
As I was revisiting books to write this post, I realized that it’s hard to read a book with an overweight or obese character without bringing a great deal of personal judgment to the table. We have all been made aware of the health risks that are associated with obesity, so many of us deal with it differently than other types of diversity (sexual orientation, race, religion, etc.). Wanting people to lose weight, sometimes judging them if they don’t, seems justified. But is it? The following books, Artichoke’s Heart and Big Fat Manifesto, made me think about issues like these in deeper ways and also stirred up some feelings (past and present) associated with my own weight and appearance.
In Artichoke’s Heart by Suzanne Supplee, Rosemary Weldon was called a sweaty, fat artichoke by your quintessential mean girl in the 6th grade. Sadly, the name stuck. Rosemary is now an overweight teenager and is still suffering the attacks of the same mean girl. The bullying she receives is a constant part of school but is just a small part of this story, which focuses more on Rosemary’s struggle to lose weight, her first boyfriend, and her relationships with her mother and aunt. There are things I love about this book and things that I think are problematic.
My loves include the characters Kyle and Kay-Kay. Kyle is the boy Rosemary has a crush on, and he thinks she is wonderful just the way she is. As Rosie says, “There wasn’t a hint of disgust or disappointment behind his eyes; Kyle Cox looked at me the way I longed to look at myself.” Kyle is a total jock, popular at school, and he helps Rosemary see herself as something more than her weight. Kay-Kay is a gorgeous, blond cheerleader who also happens to be a wonderful, caring person. Rosie’s assumption that she will be another mean girl gets turned on its head, which is refreshing.
One of my problems is that the author gives stats for Rosie. She’s listed as 5’6″ and 190 pounds to start the book, and reaches a peak of 203 pounds, the “oh-so-frightening 203 hippo weight.” Her feelings of self-loathing ring true–I certainly had bouts of this in high school and college–but what happens when a teenage reader weighs more than Rosie? If they have self-esteem problems, does this just confirm them? For her weight and height, Rosie is above the BMI level for obesity, so it isn’t a barely-overweight-Bridget-Jones situation, but I still think it could be problematic.
Another problem I have is that when she decides to start losing weight, Rosemary uses meal replacement shakes for longer than anyone would probably recommend. They work to help her lose weight, so I’m not sure if the take-away message on dieting products is a good one. The book does show the effects of the shakes on Rosie’s digestive system (the first time she eats real food after being on the shakes, she immediately gets sick), and Kay-Kay expresses her concerns about the shakes as well. By the end of the novel, Rosie is using healthy eating habits and exercise instead of shakes, but it is still a slight concern for me.
In Big Fat Manifesto, Jamie Carcaterra is loud and proud about her weight–at least, on the outside. She’s a senior in high school who knows what she wants, and from the start of the book, she has a boyfriend who is large himself. The story revolves quite a bit around his decision to have gastric bypass surgery and her reactions to the changes he goes through.
The other major plot line is her work on the school newspaper and the â€œFat Girlâ€ column she writes to tell how it really is being fat in our society. The reader gets to see Jamie’s columns between chapters, and by the end of the book, compare her journalistic persona to the real Jamie.
Spoiler: The editor in chief of the newspaper, who is described as being lean and handsome, has a huge thing for Jamie. In fact, Jamie feels like there is no way he could be attracted to her since she is fat and he isn’t, and she has to come to accept the fact that he has romantic feelings for her. I loved seeing a romantic situation like this, and I’m not sure I’ve seen it in any other YA books I’ve read (other than The Girl of Fire and Thorns). Even in Artichoke’s Heart, Kyle is a big guy himself, and Rosemary makes a point of saying he makes her feel small and delicate.
One potential issue with this book is that at times the author seems to be pushing an agenda about the dangers of gastric bypass surgery for teens. This certainly has a place and is a timely issue, but it toes the line of being didactic and info-dumpy.
I would love to hear what other people who have read these books think. Are there other books with overweight protagonists (male or female) that you would recommend?
— Whitney Etchison, currently reading Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward