*Note: this blog post contains spoilers for The Girl of Fire and Thorns.
How is this still something we need to talk about?
Why do we keep telling girls that their bodies aren’t okay the way they are?
I just read The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson. There was a lot about this book that I liked. A lot. There was action, adventure, character development, interesting relationships, diverse characters, a neat system of magic and religion and history. There were some surprising twists and exciting moments. It’s definitely a girl-power book with magic and adventure and romance.
But there was also some serious fat shaming. As in, this girl is not desirable or likeable or able to rule until she is thin.
Not okay, Rae. Not okay.
Yes, Elisa’s transformation from an insecure binge-eater of a princess who has no interest in trying to rule her country to a strong, confident and wise queen is a good thing. But why does her body have to change so much? Why does the king suddenly become attracted to her and servants respect her once she’s thin?
We’ve been conditioned to think this way, that skinny is better and that a not-skinny girl isn’t as pretty or smart or worthy.
In The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Elisa is the younger princess who has never had to pay attention to learn how to govern because everyone knows her older sister will inherit the crown. And her older sister is so much better at everything than she is. Except for eating. Elisa is the stereotypical fat girl who eats away her sorrows and consoles herself with pastries for her bad performance at everything else.
The cliche got to me. And not just because it’s a cliche. It got to me because, once again, it tells girls that they have to achieve their worth by being pretty, thin, talented and more.
I need to pause and take a moment to tell you how much I really did like this book. The story is epic. The narrative is easy to read and flows wonderfully. The dialogue and characters are great. The world Rae Carson has created is so interesting and well-designed. I do not, in any way, think she meant to write this negativity of fat shaming into her book. I believe she wanted to write a story about a girl who felt overwhelmed by the prophecy about her, felt that she wasn’t good enough to make a difference, and yet who managed to step up and make wise choices to make an impact and come into her own. But, sadly, this conditioning of what makes a woman’s body beautiful has permeated everything and turned even wonderful things into holders of negativity, telling girls that we aren’t valuable because we aren’t skinny.
We are worthy of love and respect simply because we are human beings.
And then…then Elisa gets kidnapped and dragged across the desert, during which time she is forced to exercise more than she ever has (hiking day in and day out through the desert) and is practically starved because of her sudden drastically reduced quantity of food intake and increased level of activity. It basically amounts to forced labour and starvation, or you know, a sudden fad-practically-starve-yourself-diet and excessive exercise. And once she arrives at her destination she’s thin, and pretty, and excited that she can see her toes. And people start listening to her, and respecting her. And she starts liking herself, just a little bit at a time.
I love that Elisa gains confidence. I love that she builds strength. I hate that her dress’s size is mentioned, that it no longer fits because it’s so big and she’s so thin now. Can’t she gain confidence, then get pretty, rather than get thin, which makes her pretty and that being what gives her confidence?
Once again, despite a great story, there is a focus on the teenage girl’s weight, and we girls are once again told that to be pretty and to love our own bodies, and for others to love us, we must be thin. And getting thin, no matter how, is what we should strive to do.
By continually writing books with this fat-girl-turns-thin-becomes-attractive-then-gets-confidence plot point, we’re telling girls that they aren’t worthy of love or even respect unless they are skinny.
This negative, messed-up message in our culture is so ingrained. Women’s confidence in our bodies is in steady decline around the world. One in three six-year olds in Japan has low body confidence. At six years old! Eighty-one percent of ten-year-old girls in the US are afraid of being fat.
Obsession with what we look like and whether or not our bodies are beautiful is giving us anxiety and stopping us from doing what we want to do. It makes me so sad to see.
I was a pretty skinny girl growing up. But I read a lot, watched TV and movies, saw magazines in the grocery store and constantly saw that my body didn’t match the ideal. By the time I was in middle school I had a little pooch of a belly. Not much, but I wasn’t flat and toned. I exercised. I was a ballet dancer. But I wasn’t toned and super thin, therefore I wasn’t skinny enough.
One random, thoughtless, sarcastic comment from my big brother confirmed that my body wasn’t thin enough. We were on vacation, I was sixteen and was sitting on the edge of the swimming pool in my tankini. My brother walked up and said, “Puttin’ on a little weight there, eh, Trish” and pointed at my stomach, bunched from sitting in a slouch. I was afraid to wear a bikini for seven years. I wasn’t pretty enough or thin enough to wear a bikini. At least that’s what I thought.
Thin doesn’t equal healthy. You can be, and many women are, fat and strong and healthy all at the same time. It’s called body diversity and it’s a real thing.
Often, girl characters get healthy, gain confidence and more once they become thin. But why can’t they be healthy and be fat? Why can’t they love their bodies and have friends and confidence? Why do we keep writing books where it’s one or the other.
Let’s stop making this a plot point. Let’s stop telling teenage readers they need to be thin to be attractive or respectable.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about body image and body diversity.
It doesn’t mean characters in YA books shouldn’t struggle with their weight and being healthy and being confident.
Girls need to know that other girls struggle with this too. And boys, they also need to read about it. Teenagers need to know that BOTH girls and guys struggle with their weight and their body image. That that’s normal. That it’s okay. And that your weight shouldn’t have anything to do with how you feel about yourself.
Let’s stop reinforcing negative body-image stereotypes and negative self-talk. Let’s write about open, realistic stories of people of all sizes and shapes learning to their bodies, being healthy and confident and doing cool things.