Where have all the fat girls gone?

I’ve got a beef with young adult fiction right now, and it’s this — for all we try to do to promote body acceptance, we sure don’t like to show that in our covers. When was the last time you saw a fat girl (or boy – I’m inclusive here) being portrayed in a realistic manner on a cover? I’m loose in defining realistic, too. I just don’t want them being the villain or being the one belittled. Think about all of the covers you see: they’re ALL thin. Every. Last. One. Of. Them. Even if the book doesn’t talk about the weight or shape of a character, the cover makes him/her thin.

Let me give you a little illustration. We can thank the hard-working ALA “Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults” committee for compiling a list of books about body acceptance. I have taken that list and generated a gallery of those covers. For simplicity’s sake and for the sake of not needing to be politically correct here, I am using the term “fat.”

Tell me the trend you see:

Food. There is no fat girl here. The girl in the story is fat.

A rear shot of a boy with his shirt puffed out. We don’t know if he’s fat or not because we don’t see a whole body.

More food and still no fat girl.

Oh, a warning not to eat food. Still no fat girl.

I don’t even know what to say. To be fair, this is an older book with a cover that reflects the art trends of that time. But really? She looks goofy and she’s eating a cookie. You don’t see her body. She’s a floating head. And the skeleton below? Eesh.

2/11/10 Edit: I compiled this post not having read all of these titles. The ones I didn’t read, I tried to glean a sense of the theme from the ALA list. Fat Chance isn’t in the same league as the other titles on this list, but I think that there’s still something to be said for this cover and the EATING aspect. Plus, she has a fat face.

Isn’t this a book where she’s PROUD of being who she is? We get shoes and part of her legs. We don’t know she’s fat.

She’s got a pretty face, but we don’t see that. We see a scale and her feet. Where’s her pretty face and “atrocious body?” I know that the pretty face is meant as something else, but taken in context with the cover, it gives a different impression.

When I pulled this one up, I got excited because we see a fat body! There’s no face though, and quite frankly, she looks goofy and vilified, doesn’t she? Her stance is defensive and unapproachable while the skinny girl next to her is jovial and approachable.

Ahh, we get not only food on this one, but a skinny girl. This is about plus sized modeling and yet, there’s nothing to show that off.

This one, we get a face (which is thin) and a girl in black to cover her “fat.” I don’t think she’s fat at all.

We’re almost there now, except I’d hardly call this fat, either. And we see only her stomach that she’s pinching to make a “fat roll.” Where’s her face? How come we don’t get a full body shot so we can determine she’s really and truly fat?

This butt is curvy — also known as NORMAL. I like this cover, but again, it’s a part of a body rather than a whole person.

Apparently, Lara is so large they couldn’t bear putting an image of a person on the cover. It’s just a shirt dress floating in the wind (thin as air, right?).

I know she’s fat in this one, too, but why isn’t she there? I think that’s a book or something, but regardless, it’s a perfect hour glass shape.

We want good role models for girls to love who they are, but what do we see on every cover? Thin girls or fat girls looking goofy. Why can’t fat girls (and boys!) be on covers like their thin counterparts?

I’m sure you can’t forget the Liar controversy, where the cover featured a white girl when the main character was clearly not white. Why is it we put thin on the cover when the character isn’t (and in some cases is JUST ALRIGHT WITH THAT?).

So I want you to tell me: why can’t we do this? Can you find me a cover with a fat girl who is — how do I say this — a normal, every day person? We know our world isn’t full of perfect bodies and we know we want people to come to love who they are, but if we can’t see it in the world (especially in books that are meant to highlight these said issues) how can we make people believe they are ok?

Edit 9/30/11: This post has generated a lot of discussion recently, and I wanted to lead you to a few follow up posts I’ve written on this subject here and here.

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  1. says

    I think there's a tendency in general to show only pieces of women on book covers. It's true there are books with whole thin women on the covers, but in general most covers are pieces of women. I think it's odd because it objectifies women and has us seeing them as it. "IT's a butt." Not "oh there's a woman with a big round butt."

    I know that's not quite the point of your post, but that's what I got to thinking when I was reading it.

  2. says

    I think it's just about sales. I'm not saying it's admirable, but designers and sales teams want the cover to be as attractive as possible to make people pick up the book and buy it; and our society, well….has it's ideas on attractiveness.

  3. says

    You're right, too, that it's about sales. It's the same issue as the "Liar" controversy. Publishers believe that putting an African American on the cover doesn't sell the book to the widest audience possible. And obviously, since fat = bad, that's not going to sell either.

    It just drives me nuts that we want to publish the books about acceptance but it's right there in the publisher's knowledge that actually showing acceptance won't sell.

  4. says

    Fantastic post Kelly. It's doubly damning because the trend in YA covers is to put an actual person there, face included.

    I think I'm most appalled by "Life in the Fat Lane," because I am definitely not fat and my belly roll is bigger than that one. The cover girl doesn't have a belly roll – she's pinching skin! What a terrible message.

  5. says

    3 thoughts:

    1. This is one of the blog posts that I read and thought 'Man, I wish I had written that!' It's a topic I have thought of/been frustrated with SO many times. I really appreciate your post on this!
    (Also I now feel determined to write a book about a fat kid and actually have a fat kid on the cover! ha!)

    2. I'm a high school librarian, and last year I had 'My Life in the Fat Lane' out on display…and after MANY (too many) of my students laughed at it (etc) I became disgusted and put it back away on the shelf. Interesting, no?

    3. Another book you could add to the list would be Tucker Shaw's 'Flavor of the Week' – about a 'chubby' boy – but on the cover there is FOOD. Go figure.

  6. Miriam Heddy says

    It's interesting to see that Judy Blume's 'Blubber' now has a blue cover with a small circle design featuring a line drawing of a whale. I remember the old cover, which featured a fat girl at the chalkboard pointing at a drawing of a whale while, in the foreground, two thin girls are talking about her behind their hands.

    Because of the image on that cover (fat girl being mocked), I remember feeling slightly ashamed at anyone seeing me with the book, even though Blume was really popular with all the girls.

    I think you're absolutely right in calling for actual fat bodies (even if they're only body parts) on the covers of books, especially if it were in place of images of gluttony (the implication of those food covers) and shame (the feet on that scale).

  7. Gwen says

    I do agree that there's a problem here, but I also have to protest Tiff's comment – Flavor of the Week is about food! It's about cooking and has recipes. I don't think its cover is inappropriate at all.

    Personally, I prefer book covers to not show the characters, as it interferes with the reader's imagination and ability to picture them. I remember reading interviews with kids after the first Harry Potter movie came out, and many of them were upset that the pictures in their heads of the characters were now ruined. The headless body/closeup of a body part trend is definitely kind of creepy, but at least it still allows some room for readers to imagine their own ideas of how characters look.

  8. M says

    I haven't read the other books, but I did read "Fat Chance" when I was in Middle School/early High School.
    It was about bulimia, and as far as I can recall the main character was not actually fat. (Maybe a bit chubby, bigger than the skinny ideal, but not actually fat.)

  9. says

    @Gwen, "Personally, I prefer book covers to not show the characters, as it interferes with the reader's imagination and ability to picture them."
    I have to agree with you here. As much as I strongly get the point of the post and see how publishers are missing the mark with only showing certain things (like only skinny people), I like having things left to my imagination as a reader.

    I do get tired though of an overwhelming amount of skinny people in pictures and movies. The set an unrealistic example of what the "average" body should look like and I think that is a problem.

    Anyways, just my two sense. Thanks.

    Jesse Jelley

  10. says

    The trend I see is that all of the books are about fat people. But their pictures are not on the cover. I think it is because maybe the authors or the publishers of these books believes that it will affect the sale of the books.

  11. says

    Thanks for gathering all these cover images! What I'd like to see in addition to heavier models on covers about heavier girls, is fuller figured cover models in general – regardless of whether or not weight is a central theme. I think the idea out there is that if a character in YA isn't labeled as fat or otherwise dealing with weight issues that they must be thin, which is a silly generalization to make. Like Gwen said, I prefer not to see models on covers anyways, but if the only other option that graphic designers can come up with is showing unhealthy snacks or people's butts? I'll take a model (just please don't cut off her head!).

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