I wanted to run lengthier reviews of each of these books, but because their themes are overlapping and tackled in such different ways, I thought it was more worthwhile to talk about them together. Both Skinny and My Big Fat Manifesto delve into gastric bypass surgery for teens — Cooner’s title exploring it from the first-hand experience and Vaught’s exploring it at a distance.
Fifteen year old Ever is fat. Over 300 pounds fat. Everyone knows it. And the reason she is fat is because of losing her mother, combined with the new family acquired through her father’s relationship with a new woman (who brought children to the mix). She took up eating for comfort and as a way to grieve the losses and changes in her life.
It’s more than that, though. Ever’s struggling with an internal voice named Skinny which constantly reminds her she’s fat. That she’s not good enough. That she’ll never be good enough. It finally reaches a point where Ever can’t take it any longer, and she makes the decision to seek out gastric bypass as a means of combating her weight issue. Her dad and step mother are more than supportive of the decision, even if all three of them are worried about what the surgery and future consequences of that surgery may be.
Post-operation, Ever begins dropping weight immediately. It’s not necessarily easy adapting to the new lifestyle, but she’s doing what she has to in order to attain the body she’s hoped for. And bonus! Now that she’s losing weight, she’s catching the attention of not only a boy she’s always been interested in, but she’s also fitting in with the popular kids. They want to make her over, too, and help her become the gorgeous girl she’s always wanted to be.
This is a Cinderella story.
Skinny did not work for me on many levels. First, there is a problem when as readers, we’re asked to simply accept things as they are when those things are the crux of the problem. Ever is fat. She eats because she’s grieving. That’s just how it is. Except, we never actually see this happen in the story. We’re told that she’s a chronic over eater and she does so to comfort herself, but we never see it happen. Ever never tells us why she’s seeking food for comfort. She never gives us a reason to emotionally invest in her challenge and as readers, we’re so far removed from the struggle that there’s no reason to buy into it at all. It is what it is and nothing more.
More troubling, though, was there was no attempt at seeking alternate options for weight loss before the gastric bypass option occurred. There was discussion about things Ever had tried in the past — dieting, exercising — but never do readers see this happen. When Ever goes in for a consultation about bypass, there’s no discussion about seeing a nutritionist, about getting on a regiment of diet and exercise, of making true lifestyle changes. For all that her family pushed for her to change, there was no action on their part to support a change in lifestyle so that she could change. Instead, it’s immediately to surgery. Let’s remember that Ever is 15. That’s a hell of a solution for someone so young, particularly when the long-term effects of surgery like this aren’t clear. And Ever is still in the midst of puberty, too, so her body isn’t even fully developed. That the physician and surgeons don’t worry about this and neither does anyone else (save Ever’s friend who is pretty much a cardboard character throughout anyway) rubs me so wrong as a reader. It suggests this is the solution, rather than a final solution to turn to.
Cooner’s book is full of the stereotypes of fat people that bother me as a reader. Ever is defined as angry — by other people who see her as that way — and she’s given contradictory messages by friends and family. Her father loves her and wants her to lose weight, but he doesn’t actually help her. Her stepsister wants nothing to do with her until she loses weight and post-operation, they’re suddenly close. It’s when she loses that weight — when she’s almost regaled as a hero for having surgery to rid herself of her fat — that she becomes human to anyone else around her. When she becomes the hero of the story. When people open up about the horrible stereotypes they had about her fat body defining her. It comes too late for the reader, though, because Ever is nothing but the fat stereotype throughout the story. There’s not a payoff in the end when she’s thin and well-liked. And even Skinny, that voice in her head, agrees. Skinny reminds her that she’s still the same person she was when she was fat. Except now she’s not fat.
Unfortunately, that same person at 185 pounds is just as uninteresting, flat, and frustrating as she was at 300+ pounds. She’s still a fat stereotype, albeit dressed better because of her popular friends. And of course — spoiler — she “earns” the boyfriend reward.
Skinny was the most realistic aspect of the story, and I think readers will relate to that voice in their heads. However, the rest of the book fails to deliver. Ever is only ever in this to please everyone else, and the solution is far too easy. There’s not depth of character nor is there much story arc. Skinny doesn’t get across what it intended too because it relied too hard on social beliefs, rather than on true character motivations and beliefs. It’s too easy to accept things here simply because it’s what we’re told to accept in the world around us. As such, we lose sight of the character and connection readers should make to that character, whatever size she may be.
While reading Skinny, I was dying to read a book where the fat girl doesn’t hate herself. Where she’s okay with who she is and how she looks and forget what others think of her. That’s when I was directed to Susan Vaught’s My Big Fat Manifesto. I’m so glad this book landed in my hands because it was a breath of fresh air.
Jamie is a fat girl. She’s completely fine being that way. So fine, in fact, she chooses to write about her body and her life as a fat girl for the school’s newspaper. It’s sort of her way of working through her own feelings and a way for other people to understand that the way she looks isn’t a reflection of what she is at the core. Jamie is a girl after my own heart.
However, her life is far from perfect. Jamie is an insecure person, and it’s nothing to do with her weight. She’s insecure about her future, about what she was to pursue after high school (she wants to get into a tough university which is part of why she’s writing the column in the first place), and she’s insecure about her relationship with Burke.
Burke is himself obese, and as a means of trying to combat this in his life, he’s choosing to pursue gastric bypass surgery. This, of course, is not something Jamie would want to happen. Jamie is herself secure in her body and she’s secure with Burke and his body, too. Except — this isn’t Jamie’s choice. It’s Burke’s alone. And while he pursues this option, she’d finding herself questioning much about what this means for him, what it means for her, and what it means for their relationship in general. Burke’s not going to have a Cinderella transformation. He’s not doing this to gain popularity or status. He’s doing it so he can have a better shot at a healthy future when other means of weight loss have failed him.
Vaught handles the topic with sensitivity but she doesn’t shy away from graphic detail. Bypass surgery is far from pretty, and the consequences of the surgery include a lot of unsavory things. Burke experiences them, and through Jamie, we do, too. It’s through these moments where — despite feeling like she’s an expert on body image and body acceptance — Jamie really does learn what a body means and what the implications of being fat truly are. It’s here where she realizes that everyone accepts and rejects certain aspects of what their bodies are personally and that’s just what it is: personal. In other words, she can’t judge Burke for his decision to pursue surgery. What he chooses to do with his body and how he chooses to lose weight is something that impacts him, and it impacts him on the superficial, exterior level only. The same goes for her body and what she chooses to believe about it. In other words, as much as Jamie is wise in her columns about accepting and loving herself as a fat person, and as much as she preaches tolerance toward those of different shapes, it’s not until she’s faced with someone close to her not feeling the way she does that she realizes her words carry a hell of a lot more meaning to them.
My Big Fat Manifesto is empowering. Jamie is a fantastic character who starts the book strong, but ends it even stronger. This is a book about choices and about growth, about understanding and acceptance and tolerance. It’s also about love on a very personal level. Jamie is open about how having a fat body doesn’t limit her from doing anything, despite what other people think. She talks about things like sex pretty openly — just because a person is fat doesn’t mean they don’t have the same physical needs and or experience physical enjoyment the way anyone else may. She pushes back against the stereotypes that books like Skinny too readily embrace. There’s an entire passage where Jamie is confronted about being an angry girl because of her column. Jamie’s response is that she’s not at all angry. That she’s simply putting into words truths of her life. She’s fat. That’s all it is.
Even though we don’t experience gastric bypass first hand in this book through Burke, we do experience it through Jamie and that’s enough to give an idea of how huge an issue it is. It’s not an easy or light choice. The consequences are far reaching, and it’s not simply consequences of how much a person can or cannot eat anymore. Consequences revolve around body acceptance, tolerance, and appropriateness, too. I appreciate how this book doesn’t fall into a trap where Burke’s decision comes down to how other people view him; he doesn’t choose surgery to fit in. Rather, it’s about his health and his future. About how he needs to take charge of his life and decisions now, rather than put them off and suffer consequences other people in his life have. It’s about Burke’s needs and choice. Just like Jamie’s body tolerance and her embracing of her fatness are hers.
Vaught’s book and Simmone Howell’s Everything Beautiful are two stand outs when it comes to fat acceptance and tolerance. Both books feature girls who are overweight but don’t hate themselves because of it. They feature girls who are overweight but don’t let other people’s judgments change their perceptions of who they are at the heart. Do all books featuring fat people need to have this message? Absolutely not — it’s unrealistic. But there needs to be a balance between offering up stereotypes and conveniences, of showing an easy out and an easy way to be accepted socially, of playing into what society tells us is wrong and gross about one’s body with true portrayals of whole, thoughtful, and feeling characters. There needs to be arc to a story and an arc to a character. Not just an arc to a body.
Skinny was received from the publisher and will be available October 1. My Big Fat Manifesto was picked up from the library and is available now.