Fat Shaming in Books: My Interview with Kelly Jensen
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Sometimes, a tweet or series of tweets gives me a great idea for a blog topic. As a registered dietitian nutritionist and nonfiction nutrition book author now tackling my first young adult fiction book, I am particularly interested in promoting healthy body image and acceptance of people of all shapes and sizes in all the work I do. Having followed the tweets of Kelly Jensen for the last year or so, I learned that this self-described former librarian-turned-editor for Book Riot with an expertise in young adult literature is extremely passionate and outspoken about fat shaming and how young girls are depicted in books.
Because I wanted to better understand Jensen’s mission, I reached out to her for an interview. She was kind enough to say yes, and I’m delighted to share her thoughtful responses to a recent email interview below.
EZ: What makes you particularly passionate/outspoken about the way girls and their bodies are depicted in young adult novels?
KJ: I’m fat and have been fat my entire life. But being fat has never held me back from anything. I regularly think about the interactions I’ve had with people in my life and how they’ve reacted and engaged with me based on my body, and I really think it’s important that girls know their bodies are right the way that they are, no matter what size or shape they take. We’ve been culturally ingrained to mistreat and find fat people deplorable in a way that we are told is completely wrong when it comes to people who look differently than us—and a lot of the hatred is subtle. There’s the way people move when you get on a bus seat. The way you, as a fat person, are expected to shrink yourself to be “acceptable” in public space. Not to mention the straight up laughter, the fat jokes, the millions and millions of advertisements meant to make you hate yourself JUST BECAUSE your body carries weight differently.
The reason I think it needs to be talked about in YA novels in particular is that, while I never believe books need to be prescriptive nor moralistic, I do think there’s responsibility in not being dangerous with how a character is rendered. Fat people have such rich lives, inside and out, and the way their body occupies space is but a part of who they are. It shouldn’t be their defining feature and it’s certainly not a thing to “overcome.”
EZ: What’s an example of a book (or a few books) that, in your opinion, get it right when it comes to depicting girls who don’t fit the slim/trim mold promoted by/portrayed in the media?
KJ: My Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught and Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero get it so right. The reason both of those get it right is because, while the girls are fat and define themselves as such, it’s not their singular quality. Likewise, I LOVE that Quintero offers a fat girl who isn’t ashamed to enjoy food. So often, skinny people can talk about how they eat an entire pizza or other “bad” food and people think it’s funny/amusing. If a fat person talks about enjoying anything other than salads, they’re told they should watch what they eat. It’s a double standard based on absolutely nothing. You can maintain a healthy diet and workout and still be fat…and socially, you’re still not “good enough.”
EZ: We unfortunately live in a society that values girls/women being slim and trim. Do you think things are changing for the better because of ads that promote fuller figure female bodies and because of the burgeoning popularity of actors/comediennes who don’t fit what many deem to be “the mold? like Melissa McCarthy and Amy Schumer?
KJ: No. And one reason, I think, is because we look at people like McCarthy and Schumer, both who aren’t “thin” by societal standards, and we write them off as funny girls. Fat people are funny people! They make a career out of this, and I’m happy that they do and I’m happy that people see this in the media. But they’re not above still being seen as “funny.” People don’t look at McCarthy and think she’s attractive or sexy. She’s funny. When you’re fat, you can be funny.
The other reason I say no is that recently, medical guidelines have shifted in such a way that any diseases/illnesses/medical problems a fat person is having should be treated by getting rid of fat first. (You can read more about this over on SHAKESVILLE.) Fatness is the evil causing every problem. Fatness is a thing to be solved. Fatness is why your body malfunctions. But the thing is: sometimes your body holds on to fat for reasons that are absolutely not your fault. And sometimes, being fat is healthy. Sometimes, your body functions better when you’re fat than when you’re thin.
I’d also like to hit that when we see socially acceptable fat girls in the media, they still fit only one mold: they’re hour-glass shaped. They still fall into a socially-acceptable kind of fatness. This article on DAILYLIFE hits on that a bit and has caused me to think a long time about body shape acceptability as much as fat acceptability.
For what it’s worth, I’m hour glass shaped, size 14-16, muscular, and morbidly obese by medical standards—but I see a physician who is amazing and treats my issues as issues and has assured me on numerous occasions that a body does what a body does when it comes to weight. That it has no bearing on my health or well-being. And I know how exceptionally lucky I have to have that kind of acceptance and care.
In many ways, it’s those things that make me recognize I have great fat privilege, too—and that I need to really advocate for and listen to the women who don’t have that. That means teen girls, too.
EZ: What is your hope for the future of YA books who address/tackle the topic of different body shapes and sizes among girls through protagonists/supporting characters?
KJ: I want it not to be the focus of the story, but I want it to be a thread that impacts the character in realistic, honest ways. See: Dumplin’. She’s fat, but she’s real. She doesn’t love herself all the time, nor does she hate herself all of the time. This is the same thing that thin girls go through! Fat people are not a whole other species; they have the same wants, fears, hopes, and insecurities as anyone else. The outside package just looks a little bit differently.
And for the love of all things: I would enjoy never reading another story where a fat character breaks furniture or it sags beneath them. I’d enjoy never reading another story where a fat character can hardly get out of bed because s/he is “so fat.” I’d enjoy never reading another fat character who finds making fun of other people’s situations a way to make theirs more bearable.
Jennifer Brown’s Torn Away, out a couple years ago, is about a girl who loses everything in a tornado. She’s sent to live with other relatives, and one of the small but important things about Jersey is that she’s fat. But the book never fixates on it—we know she’s fat because a couple of times, she mentions her stomach or her body. It was a part of her, but it was not her story. And I want to see more books that do this so effortlessly.
It’s about being careful and not stepping into tropes. You don’t want a 100% empowered girl. You don’t want a 100% self-hating girl. You don’t want just the funny girl. You don’t want just the girl who sings (weirdly, fat girls are singers frequently in YA). Like any character, fat people are complex. Write them that way! It’s totally okay for them to not love themselves all the time. It’s totally okay for them to want to lose weight. But these things should not be the entire focus of the story because it’s not reality.
What are your thoughts when it comes to fat shaming and how girls/people are depicted in books?
Check out my recent blog, Is Fat Shaming ever OK? 10 Dietitians Weigh In.
To read more of Jensen’s thoughts on the subject, check out the following:
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