Ever since I had a baby, I’ve been making a conscious effort to ban the F-word from my vocabulary. But sometimes this is easier said than done. I’m human. I have my ups and downs, my highs and lows. Some days are really bad days. It was just last week that I was dealing with one thing on top of another on top of another, and the next thing I knew I was in my closet trying on a pair of jeans that used to be loose but now were tight. And I lost it. I took them off, balled them up, tossed them into the corner and let it fly—
Then I turned and saw my nearly two-year-old standing behind me with a confused look on her face. And I realized that I’d dropped an F-bomb in front of my daughter. The very word I was trying so hard not to say. What, were you expecting another?
I’m not a fan of using word “fat,” mostly because, well, I’m not fat. Rationally, I know I’m not. I have a very small build, and I work out a lot. But years and years of conditioning from advertisers and Hollywood execs have instilled this tiny little voice in the back of my mind that likes to freak out at the tiniest little gain of water weight. And when I use the word “fat” to describe myself, all I’m doing I’m buying into all of the lies I’ve been told and letting them control me, and I’m also instilling an unhealthy sense of body image in my daughter. My unhealthy sense of body image.
It’s hard to be a girl these days. From a very young age, we’re surrounded by images of model-thin women as our beauty ideal. There’s the princess thing that gets singled out a lot (and trust me, I could talk your ear off about this), but it goes deeper than that. And the older that you get, the more expansive it becomes. We’re bombarded with images of the skinny ideal everywhere. Movies, TV, magazines, commercials, even books. Yes, books. I’m not going to single any books out or post pictures, but go ahead and take a wander past the YA section at your local book store. Here’s what you’ll notice. Skinny white girl. Another skinny white girl. Oh, look at that, two skinny white girls.
Why is this?
I guess that’s kind of a rhetorical question. I know why. It’s because someone somewhere decided at some point that skinny white girls are good at selling products. And, when it comes down to it, a book is a product. But has anyone ever bothered to ask the consumer—your average teenage girl—what they think?
I’m not a teenager anymore, and I certainly can’t speak for all of womankind, but I can tell you what I think. Simply put, I think it stinks. Here’s something you might not know about me. I used to have an eating disorder. A pretty bad one. One that required professional help. How I landed at rock bottom is a long story for another day, but suffice it to say I never had a great sense of physical self-worth. When I put on the freshman 15 in college (ok fine, the freshman 20), my self esteem plummeted. I desperately flipped through magazines and TV channels to seek out “bigger” girls, craving some external validation to tell me that it was okay to be the size I was. I never found it, of course. All I found was confirmation that I needed to be skinnier if I wanted to be attractive. And then after I spiraled into anorexia, while I was in the throes of recovery, I still flipped through those magazines. Even though on the outside I looked just like those skinny girls on the covers, I still wanted someone to tell me that it would be okay to get back to a healthy weight. Once again, I never found the validation I was looking for. It had to come from within. But every image I saw—every thin, beautiful, glamourous girl—made me feel just that much worse about myself. Chipped away at whatever self-esteem I had left, little by little.
And now those skinny girls have moved onto the covers of books. Books. Even books that feature protagonists who are described as curvy or big or plump or any other such description suffer from this fate. Their protagonists are either slimmed down for the cover or are hidden and not featured on the cover. And I’m not saying that’s it wrong to be skinny. Dear lord, I’m not saying that at all. I have friends who were teased mercilessly for being thin in school. All I’m saying is that the lack of diversity on YA covers is disheartening. When you see only one body type being featured, how is any young girl supposed to not look at that and think that’s what she should become? I see book covers becoming yet another more medium to tell girls they’re not good enough, and that makes me sad.
Maybe I’m being hypersensitive to this issue because of my past history. That’s actually a really good possibility. I’ve had friends tell me this isn’t really an issue. But you know what? I disagree. It’s an issue to me. It’s an issue to a lot of girls out there. Sadly, I don’t think it’s going to change anytime soon, and if anything I predict it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any better. In the meantime, I suppose I’ll just try to keep protecting my daughter from going down the road I travelled as best I can. I have no idea how to do this, of course. I’m figuring it out as I go along. But I do know that the example I set for her is going to go the longest way in developing her future self-esteem, so that’s why the F-word and its resulting negativity is banned from my house.
I’d really love to hear your thoughts on this, amigos. Do you agree that featuring skinny girls almost exclusively on YA covers is harmful? Or do you think it’s not really an issue, or maybe even a good thing?