April 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Our Bodies, Our Minds | Confronting Self-Image in YA Fiction

Physical change is one of the hallmarks of adolescence, and with it almost inevitably come newfound worries, anxieties, and insecurities. Titles about body image have abounded in recent years, but the storylines of the following books offer an alternative to the familiar trajectory of teenage girls developing an eating disorder that results in rapid weight loss. These protagonists confront varied issues that range from gender dysmorphia to morbid obesity, as well as feelings of doubt and–eventually–burgeoning self-acceptance. Young adults will appreciate the sensitivity and perceptiveness that these authors employ as they address this challenging subject matter.

“She lies like this mostly so that she can feel her hip bones against the floor, hard like rocks, leaving bruises.” In Alyssa Sheinmel’s Stone Girl (Knopf, 2012; Gr 9 Up), 17-year-old Sethie’s constant appraisal of her body has nothing to do with pride in her appearance; rather, it’s a symptom of the girl’s all-consuming desire for perfection and self-control.

A whip-smart, disciplined but tightly-wound senior at an elite Manhattan high school, Sethie is preoccupied with maintaining a sleek, slender body, overcoming her family’s financial obstacles to attend an Ivy League university, and retaining the attention of Shaw, the attractive but inattentive and capricious boy she’s dating. The overachieving teen has always engaged in ritualistic behaviors regarding food (counting calories, drinking large quantities of water before bed). However, her issues soon begin to escalate after she meets Janey, her confident and self-assured foil, whom Sethie views as physically ideal and who introduces her to bulimia. The realization that Shaw sees her not as a girlfriend but merely as a means for sexual gratification threatens to push Sethie further over the edge.

While Sethie’s descent is not portrayed as graphically as in books such as Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls (Viking, 2009) or Lesley Fairfield’s Tyranny (Tunda, 2009) (both her mother and a close friend intervene before her condition becomes extreme), the author thoroughly depicts the thought processes of someone suffering from an eating disorder through the girl’s obsessively vigilant observations about her own and others’ bodies: she admires Janey’s protruding clavicles, wishes that her own ribs are visible enough to count, and often catalogs what she perceives to be her facial flaws. Sheinmel has said by writing The Stone Girl, she sought to depict not a seriously ill adolescent but rather, “the girl who skates on the precipice of her disorder, not quite diving in.” As a result, Sethie’s plight will resonate not only with teens who have dealt with eating disorders but with any reader who has felt the unyielding pressure to conform to a just out-of-reach ideal.

Weighing in at  more than 400 hundred pounds, the 17-year-old title character of Erin Jade Lange’s Butter (Bloomsbury, 2012; Gr 9 Up) is physically restricted by his body–but more importantly, his size has resulted in his leading a merely half-lived life. He faces ridicule from his classmates; he is a gifted musician but his crippling self-consciousness prevents him from playing in public; and though he’s in love with the gorgeous, popular Anna, his interactions with her are limited to anonymous online conversations. When the bullying goes too far, he decides to commit suicide by overeating and creates a website where he will broadcast his own death. The site goes viral, and soon the obese teen is adopted by a popular clique that takes a morbid interest in Butter’s macabre plans.

While the hellish situations Butter’s tormentors have subjected him to are depicted in unflinching detail (he earns his nickname when a sadistic classmate force feeds him a stick of butter), his strong voice keeps this novel from becoming overwhelmingly bleak or melancholy. His wry observations are at times self-deprecating but never self-pitying (“See, there’s another awesome side effect of being 423 pounds: life-threatening diabetes”), and readers will root for this surprisingly appealing character. Lange keeps this dark novel firmly grounded in the realm of realism, refusing to veer down an artificially positive path in which Butter’s weight loss or social success is assured. Despite the unusual and potentially off-putting subject matter, however, Butter will provide plenty of fodder for in-depth discussions on depression, bullying, and familial dysfunction long after the book is over.

For many teenagers, the fantasy of becoming thin and attractive carries the same allure as a fairy tale ending. Fittingly, in Skinny (Scholastic, 2012; Gr 7-10), a story about an overweight 15-year-old girl named Ever who loses weight through gastric-bypass surgery, author Donna Cooner frames her protagonist’s physical transformation as a modern-day Cinderella story.

The novel opens with Ever as the long-suffering, overlooked member of her family: the mother whom she adored is dead, her father and stepmother barely acknowledge her, her gorgeous, airhead stepsisters view her with scorn, and except for one friend–the brilliant but awkward Rat–Ever is a pariah at school. But following her surgery, she sheds her drab, dull image in favor of a vibrant, new persona. Ever moves up the social hierarchy at school, finds herself flirting with an attractive and charming boy who barely acknowledged her before her weight loss, and develops the confidence to flex the musical and acting skills she’s been hiding for years.

However, Skinny is far from a simple makeover story, and Cooner expertly portrays the disconnect between Ever’s outward appearance and her inner emotions. The nagging voice in her head that continually expresses her feelings of self-doubt (“You’re still fat and ugly. Ugly. Ugly.”) refuses to be silenced, and she finds herself dissociating from her rapidly changing body (“I stare at my bare forearms on the desk. It’s like someone put the wrong arms on my body. Overnight.”). Not only are the technical aspects of this surgery explained in comprehensible terms, but readers will also easily relate to the emotional rollercoaster that accompanies Ever’s sudden metamorphosis.

Many teens cast a critical eye upon their perceived blemishes or physical flaws, but for the title character of Cris Beam’s I Am J (Little, Brown, 2011; Gr 9 Up), his body is a virtual prison that prevents him from living the life he wants. A biological female who considers himself male, J has coped with a body he views as foreign by shortening his name from “Jeni” to “J,” by hiding the curves that disgust him with oversize t-shirts, and by cropping his hair. But once he learns that there are other transgender individuals like him, J feels free to express his true gender for the first time. Complications arise when he tries to explain his feelings to others. J’s Puerto Rican mother and Jewish father have sacrificed for years so that their child can attend college, and they see his desire to obtain testosterone supplements and live as a man both as frightening and as a potential distraction from academic achievement.

Beam’s stark, straightforward prose sets the tone of the realistic, often harsh world J inhabits: his appearance results in bullying from others and his–not entirely unfounded–fears of disappointing his parents drive him to temporarily run away from home. Never romanticized, J’s raw, painful experiences are authentic; however, his small triumphs–such as successfully passing as male when he flirts with a girl or publicly displaying his photographs–infuse the novel with a genuine sense of hope. This unorthodox but poignant coming-of-age narrative sheds light on the gender issues with which many teens and adults are still unfamiliar.

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Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.