The F-Word

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—

“I’M FAT!”

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?

Posted in Me, Reading Tagged , , ,

33 Responses

  1. Taryn says:

    Strangely, I’ve never had a problem with body image. Maybe this is because I’m a swimmer, and I’ve worn practically nothing in front of crowds since age six, or maybe it’s perfect parenting from my parents. Whatever the reason, I rarely notice the size of models, other than to say “Hmm, I could bench press her,” or “Those twig arms would suck to swim with.”

    I’ll keep an eye out.

    • Meredith says:

      That’s awesome that you’ve never had an issue with body image. Sounds like your parents did a great job. I can only hope I raise my daughter to be blind to it as well!

      • Susan says:

        It’s interesting, Taryn, because one of my BFFs is a swimmer, and she has also never had an issue with her shape. And her confidence is one of the things I love about her–and that makes all the boys fall in love with her too!

        It’s a great thing you’re happy with yourself because that’s exactly how it should be. POWER TO YOU!!

  2. Susan says:

    I’m 100% with you, Meredith. I went from being made fun of for my boniness to being 30 pounds overweight in college to finally–FINALLY–letting my body decide the right weight for itself. But by golly, I still fight with the stupid F-word constantly. I still have to remind myself that those girls on the magazine cover aren’t natural. That what my husband loves is ME. That at the end of the day, I look like this and I can’t really change that–and I don’t WANT to change that.

    I love that you’ve banned the word “fat” from your vocab, and I am going to do the same. Starting now.

    My body image issues (and my sister’s) came from our mother who raised us thinking it was normal to weigh ourselves on a scale 2+ times a day. She taught us it was normal to just STOP eating in order to get that scale back down to the right #. Only in the past 5 years or so, has Mom realized that nothing about her body image was normal…and that SHE LEARNED IT FROM HER OWN MOTHER!

    My mom and her 5 sisters all have the same issues, and they’ve passed it on to their daughters. Well, it is STOPPING with me. My kids will be the weight that good food and an active lifestyle make them.

    When I was in France in September, one of the biggest lessons I learned was that Americans have a totally effed up viewpoint on beauty. All these stunning Parisian girls are waltzing around the city in their short shorts, sharing their cellulite shamelessly (because really, it’s not as unsightly as we’ve all been trained! It’s just NATURE!) and enjoying their delicious French food. No one was shaped the same. It was SO refreshing and came as an almost slap-to-the-face-wake-up-call for me. Despite years of trying to come to terms with my body, it really wasn’t until that Paris trip that it actually happened.

    This is what I look like. No one else in the entire world looks like me, and that alone makes me beautiful. I weigh what I weigh. I wrote Eleanor Fitt in SS&D as plump because that’s who she is. It’s NEVER a part of the story, and she NEVER loses any weight. She starts the series curvier than the standard gal, and she will end it that way–and the love interest will only love her more for it.

    Phew. End rant. Sorry for getting carried away there…

    • Meredith says:

      I’m glad you got carried away! And really, it is such a testament to your strength as an individual that you were able to grow up in such an environment and then 1) realize how abnormal it was and 2) make a conscious decision to change it. That’s really admirable.

      Totally agree with you about Paris. I know we discussed this briefly, but it was so refreshing to be there. French women just have an air of confidence about them. It was inspiring to me. It’s totally the attitude of ‘This is me, and I’m awesome.’ I hope I can forward in my daily life with a similar mantra. Hard to do in this country, but I’m trying.

      And you already know how I feel about Eleanor. She has the potential to be such a strong role model. I just love her. <3

  3. This is just one of the reasons I should not be allowed to be a parent: I would have no clue how to instill a healthy attitude to food and his/her body.

    My mum has issues, I have a whole ‘nother set of issues, and every girl/woman I’ve ever known has mentioned being fat or needing to diet at some point unless, like me, they were actually overweight and so not likely to join that particular conversation. Funnily enough, genuinely fat girls tend to not want to draw attention to the fact by bemoaning how fat they are; that is the privilege of the average and underweight. Of course, that’s in public. Skinny or big, you can call yourself fat as much as you want in private with no-one around to slap you upside the head.

    And book covers don’t worry me as much as everything else (advertising generally) because I’d like to think girls into reading would pay more attention to the words between the covers than the girls on them. It definitely doesn’t worry me as much as whitewashing, because without the author writing the MC’s height and weight you could argue that it wasn’t clear how plump a plump character is, but race is something you have to actively ignore.

    • Meredith says:

      Parenting is definitely hard. Much harder than I ever imagined it would be. It’s so hard in the world today. It seems like no one is happy with the body they have—overweight, underweight, normal weight, doesn’t matter. We’re all chasing an ideal that is simply unattainable. It’s sad.

      You make a great point about race. I’ve read several great blog posts on this subject (and it’s a subject I would never be able to do justice), but you’re so right.

  4. Very funny opening to this post, Meredith! I know this is a serious topic, but your opening was hilarious!

    I try very hard to never make weight an issue around my daughter as well.

    Your strength in this area is inspiring, and I actually changed a beginning scene in my last book because of a comment you had made while reading for me.(Lily no longer mentions her size while being measured for her dress) So thanks for your insight!

    Keep up the good work, Meredith! : )

    • Meredith says:

      Oh Kristina, that makes me so happy to hear! And you’re doing a great job with your daughter. She seems so happy and well-adjusted, and that is not an easy thing to accomplish, so my hats off to you.

  5. You know what? I think it’s awesome that you wrote this. It’s something you never hear much about. Yes you hear about diversity on the covers, but not body type. My daughter is already stressing about being fat, which horrifies me. SO I talked to her about being “healthy” and I explained about Anorexia and Bulimia. She’s been focusing on moving more and eating healthy, but hasn’t given up eating what she wants ultimately, so I’m proud of her. Let’s hope it continues.

    • Meredith says:

      Thanks, Lisa. This is a post I’ve written and deleted so many times over the past few months because I was scared to post it. And then I got to the point where it was just like ‘eh, screw it.’ 😉

      That makes me so sad about your daughter. I was reading a study the other day that said that girls as young as kindergarten are already stressing about being fat. I can’t decide if I’m more sad or angry about that. Our society is pretty effed up, needless to say. I really hope your daughter continues on the right path too.

  6. Karen Strong says:

    I recently watched the documentary “MissRepresentation” and it really is a big issue — bigger than we realize.

    I get so overwhelmed by it because the media images are everywhere — and it’s especially hard for a young girl of color who rarely sees herself reflected in the media. It’s disheartening to be bombarded with “skinny white girls” because there is no way a girl of color can become that. My hope is that there will be more images of all different kinds of girls of all different colors and sizes.

    It also has bad side-effects for boys as well because they now have an unrealistic view of what girls should look like. The girls on the covers of magazines is pure fantasy. Real girls cannot compete with that.

    But I commend you because you have both the empathy and the means to not put all of these pressures on your daughter. You will be amazed at what young girls up from their parents — especially mothers.

    Great post, Meredith. :)

    • Meredith says:

      Oh, I was hoping someone would bring up MissRepresentation! There’s a great teaser video on their website that I was going to add at the end of this post but ultimately decided it was long enough. I think I’m going to post it tomorrow instead. But yes, that is a FANTASTIC documentary. Like you mentioned, what really stood out to me (and strangely was something I never thought about before) was how all of these images affect BOYS. Boys get a warped sense of the female body too, and so the cycle continues. Sad.

      You’re so right that a mother can go a long way in instilling positive body image in a daughter. I only hope I have the strength to do it. But I have great motivation.

  7. You’ve made some excellent points here, Meredith, and I have to admit that I never really gave the book cover models much thought. This might be because I don’t like having people on my covers. It could also be because I do do that comparison thing, though that happens more in real life than with models. It’s sad that the book covers now carry this messaging too. I think it’s fantastic that you’re eliminating that word in your home. :)

    • Meredith says:

      I think comparison is just a part of our being. We all compare, though I would venture a guess that it’s become more rampant in recent years. And the more media outlets there are for us to compare ourselves to, the more widespread it’s going to keep becoming.

  8. I’m not sure that banning the word “fat” entirely really will do what you think it will do, because then that gives the word its power as an insult. Certainly don’t use it to insult yourself or others. But using it as a descriptive (especially if one is objectively fat, like myself) is not a bad thing, if used in a way that empowers, rather than intentionally insults. It is just a word, like skinny and athletic and voluptuous.

    I like the Health at Every Size movement. The idea that there is only one “healthy” weight and that “overweight” (which implies in itself that there is only One True Weight) people can’t be healthy is, to me, just as damaging an idea as someone who isn’t fat calling herself fat because of poor self-image and reinforcement of that idea in cultural imagery. I personally am fat because my health is poor, not the other way around (i.e., I have health issues that prevent my metabolism from working correctly, and others which prevent me from working out as much as I’d like, so even when I eat healthily I gain weight; I’m more interested in being as healthy as I can be no matter what my size than in my size itself, though I’d also love to lose weight because it will make my knees work better).

    I completely agree on YA covers. It bugs me that someone described as fat–and not because of poor self-image but because her body is larger than average–is always depicted as either skinny or at least certainly not even voluptuous, and the narrative that accompanies it is often happiness=losing weight by the end of the book. It’s the same narrative we get everywhere else from magazines to The Biggest Loser (in an episode I happened to catch last year, one of the women who lost something like 60 lbs said, “NOW my life can start. NOW I can be happy!” as if she couldn’t be happy or have a life while fat, which upsets me). The idea that anyone who is fat must hide from the public eye until they “fix” themselves drives me batty.

    Of course, teaching the nuance of using “fat” in a positive way may be hard to do for a two-year-old, but I’d suggest checking out the Health At Every Size movement, the Shapely Prose blog (though I’m not sure if they’re even still around, but they’ve got great archives) and posts in the Child_Lit archives by a Simmons grad student (whose name I’ve forgotten, sorry) studying how these issues manifest in YA literature for more. That grad student also guest posted on Shapely Prose from time to time.

    • Meredith says:

      Thanks for your input, Stacy. You have a great point. The word “fat” does not have to be a negative word. And I do recognize that. I have a friend from high school who is very active in the fat acceptance movement, and she has opened my eyes so much (I’m sure she has no idea how much). And I suppose that when I say I’m banning the word from my vocabulary, I really mean I’m stopping myself from using it insultingly, from using it to hurt. You’re right that it is just like “skinny.” That word can be used descriptively or it can also be an insult hurled at someone. Words have such power. That “sticks and stones” nonsense is garbage….

      I have heard of Healthy at Every Size, but I admit that I haven’t spent a lot of time learning about it. I will now, and I’ll check out the Shapely Prose archives. Thank you so much!

  9. I don’t think you’re being hypersensitive, I think you’re more aware than the average person. I couldn’t agree more that book covers are as much a part of media influence as magazine and TV. I mean, YA is obviously aimed at teens so it has a more direct influence than some other venues. Diversity in YA should extend beyond including gay characters, which everyone recently jumped on the bandwagon about. I’m all for that, but you raise a very good point that needs to be addressed as well. Great post!

    • Meredith says:

      Thanks, Sara! You’re so right that book covers are aimed directly at teens, so they might have even more of an influence now that I think about it. I’m all for diversity in YA period, in the pages and on the cover.

  10. AJS says:

    As someone who has known and loved you through all of these phases, I ADORE this post. Not only have you moved past the destructive behavior but you’re diligently working all your knowledge into parenting your precious girl. I love that you’re conscious of what you say out loud not only to V but to yourself. Our internal dialogue creates more conflict than any external media.

    And don’t even get me started on the “skinny white girl” phenomenon…

    To Susan’s point, it’s stopping with you and you’re making it a priority. It’s only now as an adult that I can look at people and notice how different bodies are – not weight, not size but BODIES. You and me? We will never be the same – we are not the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. And you know what? I am totally OK with that.

    As for book covers (in full disclosure, I am not a YA writer or a huge fan), I think they have a bigger impact than magazine covers. A 2-page article on Kim Kardashian (I really don’t care if I spelled her name wrong) can’t hold a candle to 200+ pages about Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield; never mind the hundreds of books and short stories about the twins.

    Great post Mer. :) Love and miss your face.

    • Meredith says:

      You are totally right. We all have different bodies and body types. I can starve myself down to nothing, but I’m never going to be a twig. That’s not my body type. Even at my lowest weight, I still had a booty. 😉

      And dude. Jessica and Elizabeth. Even they’ve been slimmed down since when we read the books. They once were a 6, now they’re a 4 (and I’m willing to bet that someone in some sort of meeting recommended making them a 2 or a 0. That’s the world today). Sad but true.

      • AJS says:

        HA. I was totally going to bring up the sizes too and wonder what they are at now. But also? WHO THE HELL CARES WHAT SIZE THEY ARE? How doesn’t that even make either or them more or less of a character? Annoyance.

  11. Cy says:

    Very nice article–I’m glad someone is turning the spotlight on what is definitely becoming an increasing problem in the YA world. I just noticed it recently as well, because I started reading an EXCELLENT YA fantasy/adventure novel starring an amazingly appealing girl protagonist who was quite heavy and struggling with many very realistic issues of body image/perception, etc. She’s an incredible protagonist whom I love from the bottom of my heart, and it’s partly those weight issues and the way she deals with them that make you want to cheer for her so much. And yet, on the cover, they show a little bubble with her determined face and not even a hint of what her body looks like. I’m thankful that the publisher didn’t weight-wash her, but it’s sad that they felt they had to hide it. I didn’t think anything of it before the story, but after reading it and getting to know her, I love her so much I feel offended that someone felt they had to “hide” anything about her. I know people judge by appearances (book covers and people), but I’d love it if they would put full-body images of her on the next books in the trilogy.

    Bts, the book is The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson–I highly rec to one and all! Even if the cover was a bit misguided, the story and MC are just phenomenal.

    • Meredith says:

      I’ve heard of that book but I haven’t read it. It sounds right up my alley though, so I’ll be sure to check it out. And yes, I too would love to see a full-body shot on the next cover (featuring a model who actually looks like the physical description). But I won’t lie, I’m not holding my breath.

  12. I’ve never really noticed an issue with book covers – in fact, I see quite a mix as to what appears on covers.

    BUT – I know a little bit too well what you’re going through. With the ED. With trying not to say those things around my daughter. In the throes of mid-life crises, I drop the F-bomb a lot more, and my poor kid is in middle school. We’re human. It’s going to happen. But I completely get what you’re going through. Hang in there. :)

    • Meredith says:

      Thanks. :)

      And curious, when you talk about diversity in covers are you talking including both covers with people on the cover and covers without? Because I’ve been trying to come up with a cover featuring a person on it where that person was not super thin and glamorous. I even went to B&N yesterday and took a spin through the teen section after I put this post up and didn’t see one that didn’t fall into that category.

      Wow, that was like the most poorly written comment ever. I need coffee.

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  14. Amie Kaufman says:

    It drives me nuts when characters in books who are clearly described as being not-skinny (which encompasses anything from plain old regular sized (whatever that is) to larger sized are depicted on the cover by models who have thighs that don’t touch when they walk! It’s not that I have something against the models themselves–it’s that I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that a depiction of a character on the cover will look something like that character, and it looks suspiciously like the publisher doesn’t think that a larger girl would sell copies of the book. Which is just so deeply untrue.

    I spent June over in Europe, and I saw the same thing Sooz commented on above — and you know what? I bought my first pair of tiny shorts in years and wore them all over Italy, France and Spain, and I felt great about it. My legs were not perfect. I didn’t care–and my husband kept telling me how great I looked! It was a real reminder that often enough the only person judging how I look is me.

    I don’t want to write an endless comment, but there’s one thing I’d love people’s thoughts on–describing characters’ body shapes. It’s not something I’d usually mention with a character of any stripe, but reading this post made me realise that in one of my books I’ve got a character who’s pretty curvy… but I’m not sure anybody reading it would ever know that. I described her hair colour, her make up (she’s a goth, so it’s all black, black, black) and her outfit (miniskirt, ripped fishnets, corset — she is a biker goth), but I don’t think I said anywhere that she’s full of fabulous curves. It just didn’t occur to me. Do people have thoughts on the right language to use to describe a girl with curves (or who’s plump, as Sooz said above)? Since I’m not describing anyone else’s body shape, it feels a bit strange to just describe hers, but at the same time, I’d be a bit cross if people imagined her as stick thin.

    Just thinking out loud, really — and Meredith, THANK YOU for making this feel like a safe place to do that, knowing I won’t be jumped on.

    • Meredith says:

      Yay for feeling confident in wearing shorts! It’s the little victories that really add up, you know?

      You bring up a great point about describing characters. It’s something we haven’t really touched on yet, isn’t it? Speaking just for myself, I’m writing a character now who in my mind is very strong and athletic. Not small but not big. Right in the middle of the spectrum (a place where most of us fall, I think, but a place that is so often ignored by the media). I handled the description the way I do most of my character descriptions. I drop it in a little bit here and there. So rather than write “She is short with brown hair and an athletic build,” I make it subtle. She brushes a dark lock of hair off her face in one chapter. She slips a sweater over her strong, toned shoulders in another. That sort of thing. I think that’s the best way to write ANY character description, so I think you could easily slip some sort of subtle description into your book—maybe the way the fishnets hug her curvy thighs—well, that’s kind of a crap description, but you get where I’m going—without coming right out and saying she’s plump, you know?

      One thing that will make my blood absolutely boil every time I see it is when an author drops a size into their writing. No. Just no. Size is such a trigger for many people and it’s hard to resist comparing yourself to that character when you know what size pants they wear. Drives.Me.Nuts.

      • Amie Kaufman says:

        I think you’re right — it’s just a case of building up the description slowly. If I wasn’t such an under-describer, I’d be great at it! I have been known to get to the end of a novel and realise nobody knows what the protagonist looks like.

        (And sizing, in novels? Not just a lazy way to describe a character, but also irritating/confusing for those of us who don’t live in the US. Size zero? Does not compute! Does that person actually exist, or does the size indicate they have zero mass?)

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  16. TechnoBabe says:

    This is a very interesting subject and it hits home in my family.One of my grandchildren has an eating disorder. I use the present tense because he will always be in recovery for this illness. And it is indeed an illness. He almost died because of it, lost one year of school because of it and we almost lost him. The places he was sent to for help were geared for teen girls because apparently there are not as many teen boys with this illness. My grandson had a sweet slightly pudgy look. The kind we would call cute baby fat, and that some day he would outgrow it. He was becoming thinner and thinner and his parents were taking him to doctors and no one knew what was going on. Busy families don’t sit down to eat together much these days and his behavior was not being observed. The message we send our young people should be of love; love of self and acceptance and love of others.

    • Meredith says:

      That’s so sad. And you’re right that eating disorders are seen mostly as a teenage girl problem, when in actuality, it affects boys, girls, men, women. I’ve personally known boys who’ve suffered from EDs, and sometimes I think society is even harder on them because of the stigma associated with it. I really hope he’s able to rise above it and become fully recovered someday (because I do think it is possible to be fully recovered. I totally do).

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