Chatty Cathys

Talk Amongst Yourselves: Body Image in Literature

So today I was supposed to review “The List” by Siobhan Vivian. However, after going out to dinner last night and having THE MOST AWKWARD TIME EVER, I decided that a) enough people have read this book and don’t need me to review it and b) it would be a good time to have this discussion.

For those of you who don’t know, I’m less than 6 months away from turning 30. And I’m kind of excited about it. Lemme just say, my 20s have sort of sucked. And by sort of, I mean they were pretty horrendous. It’s only been in the last couple years that I’ve finally gotten rid of a lot of my self esteem issues and realized that this is who I am, this is what I look like, and hey, I think I’m pretty damn great.

“The List” tells the story of 8 teenage girls who have been put on this list that says who is the prettiest and the ugliest for each grade. We get to see how this list affects each girl’s life over the course of a week. With the exception of sophomores  Candice and Lauren – I’ll get to them later – I really loved seeing how each of the girls was affected.

However, the two stories that stuck out the most to me, and that have sparked this discussion, were Danielle’s and Bridget’s.

First off, Bridget’s. Bridget was always cute, pretty, but when she realizes she’s put on a few pounds – thanks to trying on a new two-piece swimsuit – she decides to lose some weight over the summer. By giving up eating (what is wrong with her? Doesn’t she know food is DELICIOUS???). She develops an eating disorder, skipping meals, barely picking at her food, and essentially becoming unhealthy. When Bridget returns to school for her junior year, she’s lost weight. And she knows that’s why she’s on the list, which makes her want to continue her weight loss.

Danielle, a freshman, is a swimmer and over the summer started dating a sophomore football player. She’s so cute and in love, but when she’s called Dan the Man on the list, she becomes instantly aware of her swimmer’s body, the fact that she’s athletic, and that she’s not very girly. Her boyfriend’s friends begin to tease him about dating her and she worries he’ll break up with her because of the list and how athletic she is.

So, as I said earlier, I think over the years I’ve developed a pretty good body image of myself. Yes, I could stand to lose weight. Yes, I should try harder on my hair some days. Yes, I should exercise more. But I like who I am. That being said, it was hard for me to really get these girls’ body image problems. I wanted to share my enlightened views and say “Who cares about these things? You’re awesome just the way you are!”

Insert THE MOST AWKWARD DINNER EVER. I went out with my cousin, who is tall, thin, and blonde. Exact opposites of what I am. All of her friends were pretty, tall, stylish, put together… I felt like dowdy old frumpy pants. And about halfway through dinner, not one but TWO large groups of girls who were dressed impeccably, had amazing hair, were pretty, etc. came in and sat at the tables around us. Yeah… I felt like  Ron Weasley at the Yule Ball. I finally ended up skipping out on drinks after dinner and fled home to pajamas and warm brownies.

My point is, I finally got Bridget’s and Danielle’s body issues. Last night made me remember just how horrible it feels when you don’t feel confident, when you’re self conscious, and when you feel completely uglier than everyone else.

Around the blogs, we talk about powerful, strong female characters – Katniss, Tris, Katsa – and how girls need these kind of characters. And I agree they do. We all do, no matter what age we are.

But do books really help to affect girls who have body image issues? Do girls take the correct message away from books that deal with issues of body image, the way we look and act? As an adult, I sometimes feel like these messages are lost on me. Been there, already learned that. But what about younger adults (25<) or teens? What do you take away from these messages?

After my dinner last night and really beating myself up when I got home, I looked to The List, mainly to Danielle’s story. Not to get all spoilery here, but she’s really the only one who had a happy ending. She found a group that accepted her, that she felt comfortable and started to feel confident with. I’m sure she’ll still have body image issues, as we all do, but I loved that she found this group of girls who loved her, regardless of anything. (And I vowed that I would not be going out again with the people I went out with last night!)

Bridget didn’t really have any kind of ending. She had an eating disorder and she was able to finally fit into a too small homecoming dress, but was majorly unhappy because of how she lost the weight. Erm… yay?

Okay, now on to my issues with Candace and Lauren from The List. First off, why does the ugliest girl in the sophomore class have to be named Candace? And why is she such a bitch in the book? I take major offense to this, Siobhan. Furthermore, my cousin – you know, the perfect one I went out with last night and have had major jealousy/inferior complex issues with my entire life – is named Lauren. Lauren is named the prettiest girl in the sophomore class.  That right there, my friends, basically sums up my entire childhood with my cousin. So yeah, I kind of hated this. Like a lot.

Anyway…. My question is this: do books, and characters, affect the way we see ourselves? Do they have any kind of impact on our self image and do we take lessons from them? Are they effective in pointing out our own problems?

Would love to hear your thoughts!

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16 thoughts on “Talk Amongst Yourselves: Body Image in Literature”

  1. I’d say that naturally, most of us go through this. Of course for me, it popped up in high school, mostly once I stopped playing basketball and wasn’t running around all the time. Plus, you’re right, that girl is crazy. Food is so delicious! Anyway, I tried to “diet” by cutting down my meals (which I really wasn’t smart because I gotta say, if a cookie is your meal, does that really count? At least I kept the good stuff!) but that was short lived because food is just too yummy! Other than actively participating in sports, I don’t like exercise. It’s boring! Ever since high school, I’ve main vain attempts to exercise and let’s face it.. I haven’t been to the gym in a month and a half AND it’s in my apt building AND I’m paying for it whether I use it not (after vacation… seriously).
    But now that I’m getting older, yes, I’m still unhappy with putting on a little weight but (I think) I hide it (kind of) well even though I’ve had to go up a pants size (boooo), but you know what? I’m finally starting to accept it. In all honestly, I probably wouldn’t if my boyfriend wasn’t so awesome about it. He doesn’t care and thankfully he’s amazing and gets mad at me whenever I talk about needing to lose weight. I’m accepting it little by little. I’m never going to be skinny again (unless there’s a famine), but if I ever get the determination, I may get fit. Who knows. Probably not.
    I think it’s also an age thing! As a teen/young adult, appearances are a big thing, especially when trying to snag a guy. I think as we get older, we realize there are more important things than having a “perfect body image” (no such thing anyway), and we find the things we like in ourselves and I think other people will be able to pick up on the GOOD things if we stop focusing on the bad.
    Whew, okay, sorry for the long rant. And way too much personal information lol. I just get really into this topic especially, and all the discussion topics!! I could go on.. But I’ll cut it off here 🙂

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  2. I think there are too many characters “who don’t realize they are beautiful.” Until they meet a guy who appreciates their unique look or whatnot. That just sounds weird to me – and it seems to be a common trope.

    Side note: I think the heroine of every other book I’ve read recently is a redhead. Red hair is pretty unique. My redheaded sister loves it, but it’s just another way in which authors descriptions of “ordinary” girls are not so ordinary at all…

    Have you read The Duff? It resonated with a lot of people for this reason, but for me it was a huge cop-out in the end. I wrote a rather ranty post here if you are interested… http://mysistersbookshelf.com/follow-up-is-the-ending-of-the-duff-a-cop-out/

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    1. What a great point! Why do so many of us (fictional and real girls) only see our beauty when a guy does? Also, I’ve always secretly (and not so secretly) wanted red hair, having been in high school when The Little Mermaid was released (I’m THAT old). My hairdresser convinced me it would look absolutely hideous on me, but I still crave it. It’s like an accessory unto itself.

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  3. Interesting question for sure… I think, especially as a child, I was very encouraged by book characters I related to. It was good to know that being a shy, smart, and awkward bookworm could be pretty awesome. At the same time, though, the Sweet Valley Twins books had me convinced I needed to be blonde to be pretty enough. So yeah, I think authors writing to a young audience need to take into account that character image does influence how their readers think about themselves.

    As an adult, I’m not sure it is quite as influential. Not to say I don’t struggle with body image issues, but I’m a lot less insecure than I used to be and I worry more about being good enough for myself than being good enough for others. Sure, I still enjoy characters I can relate to and continue to love reading about awkward, smart bookworms, but really… I roll my eyes when I read about female characters with purple eyes and perfect size 2 bodies and sunkissed skin and blonde hair that never poofs, curls, or wilts. I’m never going to look like that nor do I want to nor is it necessary to be beautiful beyond perfection to fall in love or be happy.

    Then again, I think I find myself relating to characters’ struggles, situations, or personalities much more than perhaps I used to. I recently reread Attachments and was struck by how I feel like Lincoln… like I’m sort of killing time, waiting for life to happen to me, instead of going out there and making things happen for myself. And Jessica Darling is like a flashback to my sometimes pretentious attitude as a teen/college student. I am much more attracted to the imperfections of characters now as they help me understand myself a little better, I guess.

    P.S. I’m sorry you felt like Ron Weasley at the Yule Ball at that dinner, but that sentence made me giggle.

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  4. What a great post! I haven’t read The List, and I probably won’t. It just doesn’t seem like my kind of book. But as to whether books and/or characters affect the way we see ourselves? I think they do . . . but only to a point. Well, at least for me. I’ll be honest here, I don’t read books for the messages they may or may not give. And honestly, I usually don’t like “message” or “lesson” books.
    I read to be entertained (first and foremost). I’m not sure why people think that reading for entertainment is a bad thing. I also love to read because it helps me feel connected to people (fictional and IRL), and to the world. Reading lets me experience things that I might not have been able to in my life.
    I do feel like books can help me through tough times, and certain things in my life help me relate to a particular character or situation.
    Let’s take Heather Wells from Size 12 is Not Fat by Meg Cabot. I loved Heather’s attitude in this book. That she was a size 12 (which is totally not fat!!!), and she doesn’t try to lose weight or anything. I loved reading that about her. It gives me hope that I can find a guy the way (and size) I am (not that I need a guy to be happy!). But after finishing reading it, do I still wish I were thinner. Yeah! I do.
    What I think books are best at doing is helping people be empathic! I think that is best thing books can give to people. Learning to understand where someone else is coming from is such a wonderful, valuable trait.
    Okay, that was a little ramble-y. Back to the original question. I do think that books can affect the way we see ourselves, but, I also think they affect the way we see each other (an to help us understand why people do what they do). I also think books can help us feel okay with who we are as people.

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  5. Why would an almost thirty-year-old be reading this teen trash in the first place? Now don’t get me wrong, when women act like girls, i.e: petty, with irrational fears and a mean case of self-absorbed dysmorphic issues, the public in general totally finds this attractive!

    Note my obscene sarcasm?

    Lady, let me ask you a very serious question that I have not been able to find an answer to… Why do women find comfort in acting like little girls? Why do you read novels that perpetuate this?

    Sorry, for ranting, not my intention. I seem to be mirroring current events in my life. I guess I am hoping you would give me an honest answer to this epic question.

    In response to your question, I think you already answered it.

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  6. I remember relating to a lot of The List. I still have body confidence issues, which is kind of weird because I’m a size 4 but on a good day can fit into a size 2, but I still think I could stand to lose like 15 lbs. I know, i know. But I think I am so ingrained into the media’s perception of what is beautiful that it’s hard to accept myself the way that I am.

    Alas.

    I just love this whole ranty post and honestly, I wish The List had been written when I was a teen because I don’t remember reading about body image or even really thinking about it beyond those Teen magazines.

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  7. HI 69sob – I think you may be posting a question about the blog in general and not in response to this post. If you are responding to this post, then I fear you may have completely missed the point and questions posed.

    Irregardless, you asked why women find comfort in acting like little girls and why they read novels that perpetuate this. I take from this that you are implying that all woman who read YA novels must find comfort in acting like girls, which you have described as being “petty, with irrational fears and a mean case of self-absorbed dimorphic issues.” Your implication that women can’t be both strong, smart women, with a healthy sense of self worth and read YA literature is not only offensive, but demonstrates your lack of depth. Simply because a woman decides to read a book which is categorized as being for teens does not mean that she spends her days crying about not being able to eat a cookie while waiting for her immaculately dressed Prince Charming to come rescue her. Women have more depth then the box you have chosen to put them in.

    I would pose that a better question you should be asking is, do my small views of the world have any impact on the relationships in my own life? I feel you would have more success in your personal endeavors if you started to explore the answer to this question.

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  8. Ok, I take it I might have been over generalizing a bit: Touché my dear.

    I would like to disagree with you. You did not even come close to answering the question through your jargon, did you now? I think the question was why “women” or more specifically, why do people mirror characters in fiction?

    Literature does affect people. Mary Beth Culp wrote, in Case Studies of the Influence of Literature on the Attitudes, Values, and Behavior of Adolescents, “teachers since Plato and Aristotle have believed in the power of literature to affect people’s lives – for good and for ill.” More importantly, literature affects adolescents, which I believe the book, The List, was written specifically with that in mind. According to English professor, Karen Coats from Illinois State University on neuro-research of literature affecting teens, adolescents are more impacted due to their “brain process[ing] information differently than a more mature brain,… brain imaging shows that teens are more likely to respond to situations emotionally, and they are less likely to consider consequences through rational forethought.”

    On that note, do women who have fully developed functioning brains and that can be, “strong, smart, with a healthy sense of self-worth,” read YA books out of pure enjoyment? What do those women get out of it?

    So once again, why do women read YA books?

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    1. So, I’m gonna step in here Mr. sob and comment, because I think that, aside from your commentary on women in general, you bring up good questions. Do we women read YA out of pure enjoyment? What can we get out of it? Why do we read YA books?

      Allow me to answer your question with one of my own: Why do we read?

      You can answer this in many ways. We read to be enlightened. We read to be entertained. We read to broaden our scope of knowledge. We read because we enjoy it.

      I think those answers to the question “why do we read” are answers to your posed questions.

      But let me go further. Yes, as fully grown people our brains process differently than those of adolescents. We do not take the same messages or experiences from books the same way as those younger do. Like any reader, those who read YA novels read for different reasons. I, personally, began reading it because I got sick of the material that was targeted to me. If I had to read one more book about a 20-something living in NYC barely making ends meet, drinking every night, and having an a-hole boyfriend I was going to scream. I lived that life; why would I want to read about it? Other books targeted to women didn’t appeal to me – Jodi Piccoult comes to mind – and I’ve never enjoyed thrillers or history books that so many of my male counterparts seemed to suggest to me. I found a place with YA books that initially allowed me to escape the struggles of adulthood. Call it what you will, but that’s what drew me in.

      Over the past few years that I’ve been primarily reading YA, I’ve found that like adult literature, it has its good books and its bad. Books that probably shouldn’t be best sellers but are. But what I find I get out of YA is a better understanding of not only the struggles so many young people in our country face but also a better understanding of my role as an adult. Often times I see lessons in these books that maybe I forgot or strengthen things that I’ve finally figured out – as I mentioned in my post, my 20s have been pretty horrendous.

      Reading YA literature isn’t a way for women to act like little girls. It’s not a way for us to stay young or live vicariously through the lives of teenaged characters. Perhaps yes, there are some women who use books in this market for those purposes and if that’s the reason then perhaps judgmental people should look at who those women are before generalizing why women read YA books. Chances are, those women don’t have much going on in general.

      Yes, I’m an adult. Yes, most of my fellow YA book bloggers are adults. Last time I checked, most of the men and women who write YA books are adults. We’re all adults here who have gathered together over a love of books. In today’s world, there are so many people, children and adults alike, that don’t read, that look down on reading, and are happy to throw the printed word aside for an episode of So You Think You Can Do Whatever It Is You Think You Can Do or I Got Knocked Up By My Big Redneck Boyfriend and Now I’m A Superstar.

      Instead of insulting those who read, who help promote books, who find passion in something, you, Mr. sob, should be thankful that people are still keeping the written word alive and passing our love of books and reading down to younger generations. Just because we don’t read what you enjoy doesn’t mean we’re less intelligent or less developed or “act like girls, i.e: petty, with irrational fears and a mean case of self-absorbed dysmorphic issues.”

      Thank you for bringing up some good questions and I hope that I have answered them fully for you so maybe one day you can have a somewhat better understanding of women and why we like things.

      And, since you backed up your argument with some quotes, here is a quote from an author who seems to be well loved by us women who love YA: “Angry people are not always wise.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

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  9. Your response is akin to disputing individual tastes. Why do some people like beer and not wine or vise versa? Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with both, and sometimes they are both great in moderation. However, I don’t know anyone who solely wants to mingle with wine connoisseurs. They are shifty characters with greasy hair and a dewy upper lip – Pardon to any that fall in this category, you just can’t trust ‘em.

    Coming back to the topic though – some individuals prefer to read, while others are content to watch the shows you mentioned. However, this does not answer my question or prove I am wrong, only guilty of narrowly defining women.

    My profound apologies, I did not mean to completely offend, only rouse a response. So I will cease, but before I go, here is my tit for your tat. “Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.” – Maya Angelou

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  10. Hi Candice,
    Love this post. First, I’m sad that you had an awkward dinner. 😦 Second, you are hard on yourself! I don’t think that particular book is my thing, but you (and it) definitely raise an interesting question. I’m definitely grown up-I will be 40 in 9 months so I’m definitely not an adolescent. I read books for fun, instead of television. I read a lot of YA books because I don’t care how old you are, that feeling of a first love is special and any chance I get to relive it I am all over it. If you had told me 5 years ago I’d be addicted to YA books I would have looked at you and laughed. Now, I’m so passionate about it and can’t get enough. I guess to sum up, reading makes me so happy and I have found pure joy in discussing books with my blogger friends. I have my RL friends and now blogger friends. I mean, who doesn’t want more friends or an outlet to be happy? That’s why I read. Great thought provoking post. ~Celeste

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