Sunday, April 26, 2009

Body Image Week: Author Megan Frazer Guests

Today I'm thrilled to host Megan Frazer, debut author of Secrets of Truth & Beauty - a book I'm very excited about that is coming out in July. So welcome Megan!

I'm a little bit ashamed to admit it, but I saw the first Scary Movie in the theater. I'm not sure exactly how my friend and I wound up there – it was almost ten years ago, now. What I do remember is our reactions. I was annoyed that the movie was essentially line for line the same as Scream, a lazy way to do satire in my opinion. My friend was annoyed at the scene in the garage where the overweight girl gets stuck in the elevator, unable to escape from the killer because she is too fat. The scene is drawn out so that the audience can laugh all the longer at the plight of this overweight girl.

I've had body image issues for as long as I remembered, but it took this moment, and my friend's explanation of her anger, for me to realize not only the prejudice against overweight people, but also that it's one of the last socially acceptable form of prejudice.

It was this same friend, who, when I explained the initial premise for Secrets of Truth & Beauty, and my difficulties in figuring out how to balance issues of self-esteem with the very real problems of teen obesity, said “Don't make her fat, and don't make her thin; make her something different.”

And it was that experience in the movie theater that inspired the scene in which Dara's friend Owen explains to her that people treating her badly because she's overweight is no different than people treating him badly because he's gay.

Unfortunately, this bias is not limited to bad jokes in movies. Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity has investigated the issue of weight bias and has several videos available about the issue on their website. A study they funded by Rebecca M. Puhl and Chelsea Heuer found that weight discrimination has increased 66% in the last decade and can be felt in all areas of life: jobs, healthcare, and school. Effectively, overweight and obese people are passed over for jobs, get lesser quality healthcare, and are attend colleges at lower rates – even when they are equally qualified.

Some people may argue that overweight people are getting what they deserve, that they did this to themselves. It's an imperfect metaphor, but people are less likely to make that charge against a cancer victim – or an alcoholic for that matter, so I cry foul on that argument.

The best way to combat this prejudice is with awareness. Start with those videos from the Rudd Center. I think we can also take a cue from multiculturalism in literature. The best multicultural books, in my opinion, have characters whose culture is of course a part of their identity, but it is not the whole story. Indeed this is another point made by Owen, an inspiring filmmaker, who wants to make movies with gay characters, “but not necessarily gay movies.”

There are a number of great books that feature overweight characters, but aren't just about the weight. They are real teens having real problems that may or may not have anything to do with their size.

An Incomplete Book List – I'd love to hear your suggestions

Paula Danziger – The Cat Ate My Gym Suit (I haven't actually read this since I was a teen, but I loved it then.)
Erin Dionne – Models Don't Eat Chocolate Cookies
K.L. Going – Fat Kid Rules the World
Carolyn Mackler – The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things
Susan Vaught – Big Fat Manifesto

Lenore here: Thanks Megan! It's true that overweight people face a lot of open prejudice, and it still just shocks me. Can anyone think of books that raise awareness of this issue in a sensitive way to add to Megan's list?

20 comments:

Adele said...

Australia author, Simmone Howell has written Everything Beautiful with an overweight protagonist who's confident, smart and unbelievably snarky. Definitely a book to look out for as it's amazing.

Kate said...

Great post.
Body Image Week is a great idea.

bermudaonion said...

Your Body Image Week is a fantastic idea! This post makes me think of one of the reasons I fell in love with my husband. One of my childhood friends who I'm still very close to is overweight. Whenever I would start dating a new guy and they would meet her they would always say something to me about her being "fat". (I, by the way, have never considered her fat.)Carl has known her for over 30 years now (and loves her as much as I do) and has never once mentioned her weight to me.

Marjolein said...

Great post, just discovered your blog! Saw your are from Frankfurt, then we are almost neighbours (Netherlands here)
best
Marjolein
www.marjoleinbookblog.blogspot.com

Jenna said...

Great post! Thanks Megan for your story and insight.

Page Turner said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Megan, wonderful post. Thank you for the book ideas!

Jen said...

Meg Cabot has that Size 12 is not Fat. I've always liked the look of that one but havent read it yet (my bookstore hasnt put it on sale yet like they did to all her YA). Also The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things is so good!

rebecca said...

Megan,

There are many aspects of Secrets of Truth and Beauty that I lappreciate, ideologically. Dara is a rich and likeable character, and the narrative offers several strong challenges to the cultural anti-fat prejudice that you mention in your post here.

However, the book's narrative also reinscribes that anti-fat prejudice by having Dara lose weight along the way. The book is nicely multi-dimensional, but here I am only commenting on fat-related topics, and the book's messages on this topic are: "fat people are human and should be respected"; "fat people can sometimes be beautiful and sexy"; and "fat people should lose weight and/or fat people *will* always lose weight when they eat healthfully and get a bit of exercise." You may or may not have intended this last message, but you placed it in the book by having Dara lose weight, even if she loses only a small amount.

In this post, you use the word "overweight," which inherently implies that a fat person is "over" whatever weight they should be. Would you ever use the word "undertall," or would that seem an unfair judgment on someone who is short?

Fatness is not necessarily unhealthy. Weight loss will not necessarily result from living on a farm and eating healthful homemade food. I invite and strongly encourage you to do some reading at the fatosphere at the blogs Junkfood Science, The Rotund, and Shapely Prose.

I invite you to begin with the post called Don't You Realize Fat Is Unhealthy?

Linda J said...

As an overweight person, I wish I was a size 12!

Liviania said...

I love Fat Kid Rules the world!

This post reminded me of a list I read entitled "Accepted Cultural Targets" - all about people who society thinks it's fine to make fun of.

Ladytink_534 said...

Fat people jokes, especially in movies has always made me cringe... especially since so many people tend to find it funny :(

Megan Frazer said...

Thank you all for your feedback. And thank you to Speedreader, everyone at MFA, Presenting Lenore, and the Story Siren -- this has been a great week to be a part of -- there's been a lot to think about for me. I've added some books (and blogs!) to my TBR list.

Jodie said...

Rebecca I’ve seen your ideas about characters losing weight negating fat acceptance mentioned by a few people during BI week. I agree that having a character lose weight does seem to unintentionally knock down the idea that fat can and should be socially acceptable and that big women should be able to be comfortable with their original size. However I also think that presenting a large female character as being wholely ok with her weight may be kind of unrealistic, considering the kind of society we’ve identified that we all live in. If an author was writing a book which featured a bunch of characters who were involved in the fat acceptance movement working on being positive about their size and shape it would ring true but when there’s one woman dealing with this issue in the midst of non-fat friends it sounds a bit like moral fiction, or a fairytale ending to me.

In the real world society points at big women and this is a large part of what creates the weight issues that all women have if they weigh more than a catwalk model. I personally don’t think it’s realistic to have a character stand up all on her own and say that she doesn’t need to lose weight to be confident about herself. It takes a massively confident person to be able to turn their back on what society thinks like that, without finding a group that supports and reflects her values (support about keeping your big figure only goes so far when it comes from skinny friends). I think with society the way it is about weight at the moment having your character lose a little bit of weight but not a massive amount of weight is a nice compromise between realistic fiction and moral fiction, which means that your character’s self-confidence increases.

I’d still like to see some books emerge about groups of big women who find support in the fat acceptance society and don’t lose weight, or makeover books where those women gain self-confidence through fashion. I think maybe fat acceptance is a fairly unknown area, do authors know much about it? If they don’t then they won’t know that including that circle of society in their books could be an alternative way to create a positive outcome for their large, female characters.

Oh and boy is it ever hard to write a comment like that without using judgement words like bigger, larger – new words needed I think.

Sadako said...

All of this is so true. Haven't read Cat Ate My Gym Suit since I was a teen myself, but I remember loving it (and everything by Paula Danziger).

vvb32 reads said...

good post. this one has got me thinking.

Emily said...

I love The Cat Ate my Gymsuit; the sequel, There's A Bat in Bunk Five, also deals with weight and body image issues in a way that's not so central to the story, but is still present.

Sydney Salter said...

Great post, Megan. I hate the way that overweight (as well as gay) characters are still fair game for teasing and jokes, especially in popular movies. I hope things change soon!

Zibilee said...

I am overweight, and sometimes do really feel the stigma of prejudice in society. I too hate it when the producers of television shows and movies make fun of overweight people. I feel like it is a cheap shot and an easy way for them to get a laugh, and frankly, it seems like an unintelligent way to find humor. I have stopped watching several shows that I felt have been unkind towards overweight people, and at times it really makes me mad. Not everyone who is heavy is that way because they sit at home and stuff their faces all day. Some deal with metabolism problems, or have little time for exercise, or just have obesity in their genes. Basically, I feel that any type of discrimination toward those who are different than the accepted norm is wrong, but I have a bit of a personal bias towards all those who discriminate against the overweight. Sorry for ranting, but thanks for posting this and having this event on your blog. It has been really interesting to read and think about.

rebecca said...

@Jodie,

I take your point that it might not be realistic to portray a fat character as wholly self confident given our current cultural fatphobia. I'm not sure I agree (good prose can make almost anything feel realistic!). However, that's not the point I was making. Frazer does a good job in this book portraying both Dara's confidence AND Dara's insecurity; I never said Dara's ambivalent sense of self is problematic.

What's problematic in the book is the fact the she DOES lose weight. The weight loss is portrayed as a "natural" result of healthy eating and farm life. This is harmful for myriad reasons: it supports the myth that nature and a bit of exercise cause weight loss; it supports the myth that eating healthful homemade food causes weight loss; and perhaps worst of all, it supports the myth that once you find your sense of self confidence and learn who you want to b and what's good for your soul, you will lose weight.

It's a cliche in YA lit to show weight loss happening at the same time as emotional growth. It makes them seem parallel and connected, no matter how many fat tolerance messages exist in the same book. It supports the fierce and brutal fatphobic oppression in our culture.

Having Dara lose weight in this book has nothing to do with whether or not she still needs to struggle to accept herself. One is about inner confidence, the other is a narrative choice about what happens to her body.

Laina said...

A good one to read is Life in the Fat Lane by Cherie Bennet. It shows a girl going through weight gain from a medical thing.

It's really irritating me that people are saying that it's bad she lost weight. For a teenager, it's usually not heathy to be overweight (and yes, it is overweight, your height determines a healthy weight range for your body and if you're not at least near that range, you're over the weight you healthily should be). If you ask any doctor, they'll tell you that being overweight in your teens can have serious reprecussions later in life, or even sooner than that. High blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, etc.

You guys are basically yelling at the author for writing that her character realized that she wasn't living as healthily as she could and decided to do something about it.

And hello? If you eat healthier and exercise (and by the way, "farm life" is tough), you're going to lose weight in most cases. And healthy homemade food compared to non-homemade food usually has less salt and fat then take out, both of which contribute to weight gain (salt through retaining water), so eating less of them will help you lose weight, that's a simple fact of life. I lost a jean size myself by not drinking pop for a few months (and still don't). That's the way the human body usually works.

I'm not saying promoting loving yourself no matter how you look is a bad thing, far from it, I think it's a great thing and should be promoted more, but it really irks me that people attack the author for having a character who wanted herself to be healthier and was brave enough to do that.

Sorry to rant, but that just seemed incredibly unfair to me.