I consider myself a demonstrated advocate of Diversity in YA. I help run the We Need Diverse Books Twitter chats, and I started the YA Diversity Book Club with three friends to make sure that our regular readers are able to get more recommendations for books that feature diverse themes. But today I want to talk about a different kind of diversity that I think is really important: for big girls to see themselves adequately represented in YA books.
I admit that I have basically been fat since adolescence. I’ve always been able to buy clothes off the rack, but at 16, I was a size 9/10 or 11/12 (who else remembers those weird slash sizes that exist in the Juniors’ Section) among a sea of tanned and beautiful girls (I grew up in Miami) who were so thin they obsessed over their thigh gap before there was even a name for it. Clearly, I had low self esteem about my weight. I actually believed no man would ever find me attractive, and that I was destined for a life of “celibacy and spinsterhood” (I obviously don’t think of single women that way now, but as a smart but nonetheless naive teen, I believed this lie my mother and the media made be believe).
I resigned myself to the idea that no one would fall for me at first sight, so I figured maybe — If I was extremely lucky — I’d end up with someone who truly got to know me and could look past my weight — who thought I was awesome. But one day in 9th grade even that idea was shot to hell, because a girl told me she knew someone “liked” me (this was a lie; she was just being cruel), and a boy I considered a good friend overheard her and thought it was his civic duty to tell me: “You’re such a great friend, but you know no one would ever like you that way, right? I mean like you as a friend, yeah, but not ‘like, like’ you”
Reading Kaye Toal’s piece about Eleanor in Rainbow Rowell’s ELEANOR & PARK really resonated with me. But the BuzzFeed column also made me sad, because as singularly awesome as Eleanor is, she’s one character in one book. In most YA books there are girls who worry about their flat breasts and wide hips or their lack of muscles or their overly prominent muscles, but almost all of them fall within the boundaries of ideal weight.
As The Curvy Nerd said about YA heroines, the vast, vast majority of female protagonists or even strong supporting characters, are the following:
thin/of normative (ie: not fat) size
beautiful (like, to the point of every person in the book remarking on it, repeatedly)
unusual (but beautiful).
Aside from Eleanor, I can’t think of more than half a dozen YA protagonists who are “of size” or even slightly overweight. A recent, refreshing addition is Gabi from Isabel Quintero’s Morris Award-winning debut, GABI, A GIRL IN PIECES. Ann in 45 POUNDS struggles to lose weight before her aunt’s upcoming wedding. Ever in SKINNY is morbidly obese and wants gastric-bypass surgery. I know Elisa in Rae Carson’s THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS trilogy is large and loves to eat (and to describe her meals), but then…. crickets. I’m focusing on girls, but of course the same can be said about the guys in YA.
For now, I’ll take, at the very least, a YA girl who is tall, strong and athletic instead of super petite, but I hope that in the future we see more big girls in YA who are neither obsessed with food nor dieting their way to happiness and romance. Sometimes, like Eleanor, the big girl will find that amazing guy who loves them as-is. I know I did.