Saturday, 5 October 2013

Fat/Thin in Teen/YA Savita Kalhan

Where is the dividing line between describing a character’s physical characteristics and stereotyping him or her? And should this be an issue for teen and young adult fiction?

Some children’s writers have commented that they don’t go into their characters’ physical descriptions to avoid saying fat, plump, skinny, thin etc, unless their book is addressing the issue of eating disorders. This is because apparently many more kids today suffer from eating disorders. That might well be true, I don’t know.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t see the “fat/thin issue” as being an issue in teen/young adult literature.

I’ve got an overweight boy in my current WIP. He’s black and he’s being bullied. It’s not the central theme of the book. I describe him as plump, but incidentally. Another character in my WIP is very skinny. Neither of them suffer from eating disorders. It’s just the way they are. Their weight is not an issue in the book and it’s not an integral part of the story. The overweight character is not bullied because he’s overweight. He’s not particularly lazy or greedy. The very skinny character is not anorexic. I could take out the descriptions but I’m reluctant to because they are relevant in our understanding of the characters and how we see them. Also because I don’t think I’m reinforcing any stereotype or somehow causing offense or upsetting younger more vulnerable readers.

When kids are under 10 they rarely notice things like the size and colour of their classmates – it’s almost never how they define them. That awareness comes in at some point in middle school and is definitely there by secondary school. Under 12s look for different things in fiction because they’re still seeing the world in a very different way. Yes, their outlook is far more innocent. By the time they reach their teens, their awareness of the distinctions that so pre-occupy adults has increased, and they are less innocent. So maybe as a writer for younger kids, the line between describing a character and reinforcing a stereotype is closer.

One of the commentators on the blog last week was a teen who said she quite liked reading about spotty teens because she was a spotty teen. Reading about spotty characters didn’t give her a complex about being spotty or make her feel that she was being singled out as a stereotype. Reading about an overweight teen does not equal lazy teen or bullied teen or greedy teen. A skinny teen does not equal anorexia or bulimia or body image paranoid teen.

The world is populated by all sorts of different people who are all sorts of different sizes and all sorts of different colours. Describing a physical attribute is not the same as pigeonholing that physical attribute with a way of being treated or viewed by people.

I guess stereotyping people should be avoided, but not to the extent where writers become afraid of describing how they look and who they are.
Twitter @savitakalhan


Susan Price said...

I largely agree, Savita, but surely a lot depends on WHY a character is being described as fat, spotty, skinny, plain or whatever.

If a character is described as 'fat and spotty,' but readers feel that the author's sympathy is with that character, and that we are invited to identify with them - well, that's very different from a character being described as 'fat and spotty' as a justification for their being disliked or bullied by other characters.

Sadly, you can also get a situation where the author's position isn't even noticed by a class, who all turn, point and snigger at their 'fat and spotty' scapegoat.

But I do feel it's the reading author or teacher's place to step in here, rather than expect writers to censor every physical description.

Stroppy Author said...

I agree entirely, Savita. No decent writer is going to stereotype, so to say we can't mention fat or thin people because we might offend or upset or alienate children is really a bit bizarre. And to suggest it will drive them to an eating disorder is to misunderstand eating disorders and to patronise readers. How long before there's a suggestion we can't mention hair colour because ginger people are teased?

In any case, to depict something is not to endorse it. Even if we did show a fat child being bullied, for good narrative reasons, that doesn't mean we are encouraging or endorsing it, any more than a book that mentions, say, kidnapping encourages that.

Surely it's a matter of writing responsibly rather than eschewing certain types of people? Children like to see characters like themselves in the books they read. Some children are fat. Who are we to say they can't read about fat characters? Surely it's even worse to keep them out of books?

Actually, as a child who was very thin, with daughters who were very thin, I'd say there is a huge amount of antipathy towards thin people. We don't all have eating disorders! Why are we ghettoised just because fat people are suspicious/envious/resentful? Let there be skinny kids in books, too.

Savita Kalhan said...

Susan - The author's intention and the reader's sympathies are key, I agree.

Stroppy - you've put it all far more succintly than me. Thank you.

Lynne Garner said...

I often build how a character looks in my minds eye as I read about them. I may alter my view of the character if the author mentions in passing but I certainly don't stop reading and start to dissect why an author mentioned a character is plump, thin etc.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I wish I was more like 'other girls', e.g. slim, confident, pretty, clever blah blah blah, you know the picture. But under the surface I am like that anyway really. People just don't see it immediately. And to the same extend, if I did look ' magazine worthy' I wouldn't want to be judged on that either, to be assumed to be those things either. So in either sense, I don't think appearance really matters, only in stories where you need to visualise the character, as well as feel their emotions.
great, perceptive post

rebecca said...

Where is the dividing line between describing a character’s physical characteristics and stereotyping him or her?

There's no dividing line between those two things -- those aren't the two things that oppose each other. We live in a world where body size and shape are considered to be symbolic of inner character, and authors can't get away frombooks exist within that world. The line is between supporting stereotypes or undermining them.

If your characters' body shapes are, as you say, "relevant in our understanding of the characters," then they are stereotypes in some way. In order to be a symbol, a body size/shape must lean upon traditional notions of what that symbol means.

You might not wish to be supporting a stereotype that fatness is related to being bullied, but given the vast numbers of fat victims in children's lit, you can't help but do so. Your book doesn't exist in a vacuum; it exists in the context of other books and the cutlure outside of books. I'm not saying every portrayal of a fat victim is bad -- I'm simply saying it does use the old stereotype, and depending on the plot arc, it may never bust away from that. Or it may. Depends on the rest of the book.

I'm unsure why you think that kids under 10 don't notice their classmates' size and shape. Google the study about children choosing which photo they'd prefer to be friends with, between photos of thin kids they don't know and fat kids they don't know. The study includes asking them which kids in the photos are smarter and other things they couldn't possibly know from the photos. Fat kids lose out dramatically. Believe me -- kids recognize fatness far, far younger than 10. They also recognize its supposed meaning in our culture.

Please read this: Who's That Fat Kid?

rebecca said...

Sorry about the typo in my comment above. A bit got cut accidentally. What it should say is:

We live in a world where body size and shape are considered to be symbolic of inner character, and authors can't get away from that. Authors can support it or confront it or any mix of those things. Books exist within the real world.

Miriam Halahmy said...

I do find physical description hard to do and hard to feel I am saying something reasonably original. Easy to rely on stereotypes. So you have flagged up our job well, Savita, to draw our characters as real people and not shy away from any characteristics. It is the personality and the voice which will ultimately count.