Glorious Bodies: Body Acceptance and Self-Love in Books for Teens | Great Books

Centering on fat protagonists who defy societal expectations and reject narrow beauty norms, these YA novels work to combat the messages that fat bodies are unacceptable and undeserving of respect.

Most people have struggled to love their bodies, and body image issues affect people of every size, race, and gender. In a society where we are bombarded with messages that fat bodies are unacceptable and undeserving of respect, stories about fat characters who have learned to accept themselves depict radical acts of self-love and hope. Adolescence is a particularly fraught time, with many teenagers grappling with self-image; the YA titles below work to combat fatphobia, centering on protagonists who defy societal expectations and reject narrow beauty norms. Though some of these stories unpack the personal and cultural politics of body image, others spotlight protagonists who are fat; however, all of them are compelling tales that offer strong representation.

Anderson, Lily. Undead Girl Gang. Razorbill. 2018. ISBN 9780451478238.
Gr 9 Up –Mila, a fat Latinx girl, and her friend Riley, who is white, enjoy dabbling in witchcraft. But when Riley and a couple of other girls at their school wind up dead in what looks like a suicide pact, Mila is skeptical—Riley wasn’t even friends with them—and uses her amateur Wiccan skills to raise Riley and the others from the dead to find out what happened. A fast-paced, entertaining tale that’s bound to appeal to fans of paranormal TV series.

Coccia, Paul. Cub. Orca. 2019. ISBN 9781459820821.
Gr 9 Up –Considered to be a “cub,” a term in the gay community referring to young, fat, and hairy men, Theo, who is white, struggles with body image issues. His baking prowess has always been a source of confidence, so his friend Di enters him in a cooking competition with a famous gay chef in Toronto, Kyle Carl Clark. Theo excels and is noticed by Kyle, who has more nefarious designs on the teen. But Theo’s friends help him when he realizes he’s in too deep. An engaging hi-lo coming-of-age story brimming with messages of self-acceptance.

Guillaume, Jenna. What I Like About Me. Peachtree. Apr. 2020. ISBN 9781682631607.
Gr 7 Up –Christmas break at the beach always seems like the perfect vacation for Maisie. But things don’t work out this year. Maisie, who is fat and white, has grappled with insecurities her whole life, and to make matters worse, romance blossoms between her gorgeous best friend and her crush. But when fashion designer Leila convinces her to audition for the beauty pageant that her older sister won years earlier, Maisie’s spirits begin to lift and her confidence develops. Told in a journal format, this is a quick, engrossing read that will have teens feeling they, too, can take on the world.

Jensen, Kelly, ed. Body Talk: 37 Voices Explore Our Radical Anatomy. Algonquin. Aug. 2020. ISBN 9781616209674.
Gr 7 Up –Another stellar entry from the editor of Here We Are and (Don’t) Call Me Crazy. This collection explores multiple layers of body positivity and acceptance. The contributions from a variety of authors, illustrators, and activists preach self-love in a way that is authentic to the teen experience and never didactic. These entries embrace identities often disparaged by our body-obsessed culture, including those who are “fat” and “disabled.” The diversity of voices—across gender, gender identity, race, and more—ensures that all bodies will feel seen. The eye-catching turquoise palette will draw teens in, and the rich further-reading section will delight librarians looking for ways to pair this nonfiction offering with fictional counterparts.

Kann, Claire. If It Makes You Happy. Feiwel & Friends/Swoon Reads. 2019. ISBN 9781250192677.
Gr 9 Up –Winnie, a fat Black teen, is spending the summer before college working in her grandmother’s diner. Winnie hopes that entering a cooking competition will help bolster business. Life takes a turn when she wins the Summer Queen contest—and her crush Dallas is named Summer King. In this breezy romp, Winnie navigates her queer identity, relationships, romance, self-love, and family, and copes with fatphobia—though she is comfortable with herself, she endures intrusive comments on her body from her doctor.

Mackler, Carolyn. The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I. Bloomsbury. 2018. ISBN 9781681195995.
Gr 9 Up –Mackler’s long-awaited sequel to her Printz-winning The Earth, My Butt, and Other Round Things revisits Virginia, a fat white New York teen who has started becoming comfortable with her body—but that doesn’t stop her friends and family from criticizing her. Mackler takes on a lot more than body image; in the first book, Virginia learned that her brother raped a girl while at college, and she reels as she watches her family attempt to excuse his crime. A thought-provoking, character-driven story about the often painful process of rethinking assumptions.

Mainwaring, Anna. Rebel with a Cupcake. Kids Can. 2018. ISBN 9781771388269.
Gr 9 Up –When your mom is a model and your dad is a rock star, maintaining a healthy self-image can be hard. Still, Jess, a fat white teen, is comfortable in her own skin—until a wardrobe malfunction results in fat-shaming from her classmates. When her crush invites her to a party, she starts to second-guess herself: Should she try harder to fit in or continue to be herself? Snarky and hilarious, with chapters that begin with trenchant observations from Jess, this is a sharply written, engaging tale of self-discovery.

Manfredi, Angie, ed. The (Other) F Word: A Celebration of the Fat & Fierce. Abrams/Amulet. 2019. ISBN 9781419737503.
Gr 9 Up –This nonfiction anthology centers on fat acceptance and features many of the authors highlighted here, including Julie Murphy and Amy Spalding. Other contributors include Isabel Quintero, Renée Watson, and David Bowles. The collection compiles personal essays, poetry, fashion tips, and art that emphasize the importance of challenging our culture’s narrow definition of beauty. Joyous illustrations of big bodies are peppered throughout, and the splashes of color bring an added zip to the volume.

Martin, Maggie Ann. To Be Honest. Feiwel & Friends/Swoon Reads. 2018. ISBN 9781250183156.
Gr 7-10 –Fresh off a weight loss reality show competition, Savannah’s mother pushes what she calls a “healthy” lifestyle on her daughter, but the young woman grows worried as her mom’s diet and exercise regimen becomes extreme. The aptly named Savvy, a white teenager, is well aware that health has nothing to do with size, and the first-person narrative is full of observations about how dangerous her mother’s actions are. In addition to handling body image and eating disorders with a keen sensitivity, the narrative also features strong friendships; Savvy’s pals help her deal with her mother, her anxiety and panic attacks, and her feelings for her crush.

Menon, Sandhya. There’s Something About Sweetie. S. & S./Simon Pulse. 2019. ISBN 9781534416789.
Gr 7 Up –A delightful companion to Menon’s debut When Dimple Met Rishi, this novel centers on the romance between Ashish, Rishi’s playboy younger brother, and Sweetie, a confident, athletic, and fat girl. Both are tired of their matchmaking parents and decide that their fake “relationship” might be the way to get them off their backs for good. This delicious romantic comedy has swoon-worthy moments and hilarious mishaps, and readers will especially cherish Sweetie’s defiance of her family’s beliefs that she can’t be completely happy because of her size. Characters from the previous volume in the “Dimple and Rishi” trio make cameo appearances, but it’s the butterfly-inducing connection between the leads that will have teens rushing to the end.

Murphy, Julie. Puddin.’ HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. 2018. ISBN 9780062418388.
Gr 8 Up –Murphy focuses on two characters from her wildly successful Dumplin’: mean girl Callie, a biracial teen who seems to have the perfect boyfriend and is working to make it to Nationals with her dance team, and Millie, who is white and attends fat camp each summer but longs instead to enroll in a prestigious journalism program. When Callie and her teammates vandalize Millie’s family’s gym, the two girls are forced to work together—and to realize they have more in common than they thought. A tender, authentic, and reassuring tale of young women supporting each other.

Rivera, Gabby. Juliet Takes a Breath. Dial. 2019. ISBN 9780593108178.
Gr 9 Up –Previously published by an indie press in 2016, this revised coming-of-age novel for older teens focuses on large, brown, and queer Juliet Palante, who recently came out to her family. The Puerto Rican Bronx native is rejected by her mother, but that doesn’t deter her from going to Portland, OR, for a once-in-a-lifetime internship with one of her idols. Juliet’s immersion into life as an out and proud lesbian, all while building relationships and learning to love all parts of herself, will resonate with young people. Themes of sexuality and confronting microaggressions and white privilege also permeate the narrative, making this layered take on loving brown bodies even more nuanced. The prose novel was recently adapted into the graphic novel format by BOOM! Box.

Rutter, Bethany. No Big Deal. Pan Macmillan. 2019. ISBN 9781509870059.
Gr 6 Up –Emily, a white high school senior, is excited when she meets Joe at a party—observing her best friends’ relationship “feels like looking into another world,” and she wants that to change. But her confidence dwindles with pressure to diet from her mother and as she realizes the rest of the world treats her differently. Rutter’s relatable, laugh-out-loud novel centers on a heroine grappling with insecurity who ultimately realizes that she’s awesome just the way she is.

Spalding, Amy. The Summer of Jordi Perez (and the Best Burger in Los Angeles). Sky Pony. 2018. ISBN 9781510727663.
Gr 7 Up –Abby, a fat white plus-size style blogger interning at an L.A. boutique, falls for fellow employee Jordi Perez, a Mexican American teen who documents her life through photographs. Coping with insecurities about her body—which are only heightened by her health-obsessed foodie blogger mother’s concerns—Abby prefers to stay out of the spotlight, so when Jordi posts photos of her online, Abby is forced out of her comfort zone and into a tailspin. This upbeat romance about finding happiness on one’s own terms is sure to appeal to fans of Becky Albertalli’s Leah on the Offbeat.

Kristin Anderson is a public services librarian at Lewis University in Romeoville, IL.

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