Body Positivity and Fat Acceptance in Contemporary YA Fiction @ YALSA’s 2010 YA Lit Symposium

November 7, 2010

I attended the 2010 YA Lit Symposium in Albuquerque. This post is a summary of one of the preconferences that I attended. Check out other posts tagged yalsalit2010 for more session recaps.

My second preconference was Angie Manfredi’s “Body Positivity and Fat Acceptance in Contemporary Young Adult Fiction”.

Angie started us off with a discussion of the general dehumanization of fat bodies in our society and the distorted view of what is normal and acceptable in body shape. She then introduced us to the Fat Acceptance movement (which I didn’t know has been around since the ’60s). Since more than half of 18- to 25-year-old girls would rather be hit by a truck than be fat, and two-thirds would rather be mean or stupid, we need to address body positivity and fat acceptance in YA lit. Teens are looking for themselves in the books they read, so Angie summarized how fat characters are (and aren’t) portrayed in YA lit.

She took us on a tour of books that positively portrayed fat characters, books that had good intentions but didn’t quite make it, and books that were problematic in their treatment of fat characters. The books on the “positive” list had multifaceted characters whose fatness usually wasn’t the primary issue in the story, or whose fatness was completely unrelated to the character’s struggle. The “good intentions” list included titles that seemed to want to treat fat characters fairly, but maybe had them lose weight to be happy or had covers with skinny characters on the front or occasionally used a character’s fatness as a crutch. The “problematic” books were problematic because they focused on weight loss rather than health, put everyone in fat camp and then totally fell apart, or conflated fatness with being a slob or some other character defect.

Angie also shared with us adult titles that treated fat characters positively that would appeal to teens and books that dealt with disordered eating in new ways. All of these booklists will be available on Angie’s blog, Fat Girl Reading, in the next few days.

After getting a taste of the good and bad in treatment of fat characters in YA lit, we talked a little bit about other fat acceptance resources and how to promote positive body image among library teens. One organization in particular that’s working for a broader range of body types is Delta Delta Delta through their Reflections Program. Every year at the end of October, they sponsor Fat Talk Free Week, which aims to eliminate “all of the statements made in everyday conversation that reinforce the thin ideal and contribute to women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies.” This includes things like “Do I look fat in this?” and “She’s too fat for that dress” and “I need to lose ten pounds.”

In your library, you can make a display or host a discussion group during Fat Talk Free Week. One audience member suggested bringing boys into the conversation and talking about what it means to be a man, since men are expected to adhere to restrictive body shape options as well. Angie also suggested using–with a little adaptation–the Reflection Project’s “Things Your Chapter Can Do to Promote Positive Body Image” with your library teens, too. She also said that Operation Beautiful has been popular among teens in her library. But above all, you should advocate and integrate by including fat lit in booklists, book talks, and book displays.

The second half of the session was an author panel with Megan Frazer (Secrets of Truth and Beauty), Madeleine George (Looks), Susan Vaught (Big Fat Manifesto), and Allen Zadoff (Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have). It was really interesting to hear from the authors what their motivation was in writing their books, what they hoped the books would convey to readers, readers’ reactions to their books, and some of the struggles they’d had in writing. Some of the themes I noticed running through their responses were:

  • feelings of being watched, being judged, and being acceptable
  • the “paradox of visibility” that Madeline especially talked about where being fat makes you both very visible and simultaneously completely invisible at times
  • books having alternate titles before being published: Big Fat Manifesto was originally titled Diary of a Big Fat Fat Girl, but marketing didn’t think that’d sell, and Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have was originally Invisible
  • covers not matching the contents of the book and publishers being unwilling to have fat characters on the covers of books
  • these books that didn’t stigmatize fatness weren’t about struggling with being fat: they were about finding where you fit, finding connection with other human beings, dealing with family relationships, handling change, and being lovable. Allen said of his protagonist, “it’s not his body that changes–it’s his eyes.”
  • a universal sense among all teens (and grownups, I think, if we’re being honest) of feeling different and unacceptable

This was one of my favorite sessions of the symposium. I thought it was a great introduction to fat acceptance and a good selection of good and problematic titles with excellent explanations of what makes for a positive or problematic story. And hearing from the authors about their motivations and why their books unfolded the way they did really reinforced a lot of what Angie had been telling us earlier. Themes of authenticity, visibility/invisibility, and moving beyond issue books also surfaced in later sessions.

Angie’s going to put handouts and booklists and resources on her blog in the next few days.

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6 Comments Leave a Comment

  • 1. Tweets that mention Libra&hellip  |  November 8, 2010 at 3:35 AM

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by JudiJ, Gretchen Kolderup. Gretchen Kolderup said: Blog post – Body Positivity & Fat Acceptance in Contemporary YA Fiction @ YALSA’s 2010 YA Lit Symposium – http://wp.me/pTkgT-9O #yalsalit10 […]

  • 2. Kasia Piasecka  |  November 8, 2010 at 6:43 PM

    Thanks for the wonderful summary, Gretchen! As you know I missed the panel, but I was excited to see that you posted this to your blog. It’s very thorough and informative, especially the resources/links to gain more information — Operation Beautiful, Angie’s blog, and Reflections [websites]. Thanks again!

  • 3. Gretchen  |  November 8, 2010 at 6:50 PM

    Of course! I always have a hard time deciding which sessions to attend, so I thought that posting detailed notes and links for the ones I went to would be useful to those who were elsewhere. I’m hoping to see good summaries of the sessions I missed somewhere!

  • 4. Tweets that mention Libra&hellip  |  November 11, 2010 at 10:06 PM

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Robert Thigpen, Mimi. Mimi said: Librarified » Body Positivity and Fat Acceptance in Contemporary …: Gretchen Kolderup said: Blog post – Body P… http://bit.ly/apz69f […]

  • 5. Body Positivity & Fat&hellip  |  April 7, 2011 at 12:43 AM

    […] recaps of the session can be found at the YALSA blog (thanks Meredith!) and at Librarified. (thanks, Gretchen!)  If there’s any other reviews/wrap-ups out there, please let me know so […]

  • 6. Gold Dress&hellip  |  September 6, 2015 at 5:55 AM

    Gold Dress

    Librarified » Body Positivity and Fat Acceptance in Contemporary YA Fiction @ YALSA’s 2010 YA Lit Symposium

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