Take a minute to look at the image above. It’ll be useful for how I’m about to talk about Future Perfect by Jen Larsen. My body falls somewhere right between the first two women — I’m about 5’3 and somewhere between a 14 or 16, depending on the way the moon is that particular day. You would be right to call me fat because I am, but I am also muscular and toned. Because bodies are awesome and allow you to be both of those things simultaneously.
What’s worth thinking about isn’t where you fit into the picture or where I do. What’s worth thinking about is how, when you look at these women’s bodies, they are all “average.” Some carry more fat, but not one of these women are particularly obese as we consider it socially. Medically, their BMIs may categorize them as obese or extremely obese, but anyone who knows anything understands that BMIs mean absolutely nothing about your health nor about the shape your body makes. My body is “extremely obese” according to BMI, despite the fact I am healthy, active, and have no medical concerns relating to diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, or other “fat people” concerns.
Likewise, only one size separates the woman on the far left with the woman who is second from the right. But they have 8 inches of height difference and their body proportions are very different.
With me here? Now let’s talk about why you need to skip Jen Larsen’s disappointing and disingenuous take on the empowered fat girl story with her novel Future Perfect.
Ashley Perkins is a senior in high school. She lives in a small town in California, not too far from San Francisco, with her two brothers, her father, and her grandmother. She is, it seems, poor, but that’s never made quite clear enough in the story. And neither does telling the reader a town is a small town does a small town make.
Those two criticisms are the start of the flaws with Future Perfect. There’s not a clear delineation of how economics work in this town, nor is there any sort of world-building to suggest this is a small town, other than a few people in the town seem to be busybodies who “know a lot of things.” It’s interesting what those folks do and don’t know and what secrets can and do end up making a big splash through the story. Why, for example, does the principal of the school Ashley attends know about and encourage her to follow through with her grandmother’s offer (I’m getting there!) but no one in town seems to know the true story of her mother’s disappearance or history?
But like I said, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The entire premise of the book is this: Ashley’s controlling, apparently rich, grandmother has been offering her something every year on her birthday in exchange for her losing weight. A shopping trip for dropping x-number of pounds. A car on her sixteenth birthday if she lost x-amount of weight.
This year’s offer, though, is the thing making Ashley most nervous: what will her grandmother offer this year, knowing that this is the last year she could be living at home? That this year is one of the most important toward her future? Surely grandma’s going to make this one the big one. And she does.
Grandmother is willing to pay for four years of Harvard tuition for Ashley — Harvard being her dream school — in exchange for Ashley getting “weight loss surgery” so that her future is bright, she’s fit for it, and she finally meets socially approved body standards.
At this point, I’ve not yet mentioned Ashley’s size. Clearly, she must be huge if grandma is so fixated on her losing weight. Perhaps her weight has been keeping her back. Though, we can guess, if someone has a shot at getting into Harvard when she’s poor and from a small town, she’s probably not being held back achievement-wise.
Ashley is described as “tall.” She is described as part Latina — a fact that gets completely forgotten and overlooked through the book. And she’s described as “size 18, sometimes 20.”
Is she overweight? Maybe. Is she fat? Maybe.
We never know.
Larsen allows readers to draw conclusions about the size of her main character, but she offers up a numeric size to correspond to her. The problem being that, when Ashley is described as “tall,” we don’t know what that means. When she’s described as “size 18, sometimes 20,” we don’t know what that means, either. Ashley offers very little insight into her own relationship with her body until near the end of the book, but by then, it’s too little, too late. Ashley is confident, and she’s driven, but we don’t ever get to see this through the text. We’re told these things.
There is little to no internal life to this character, and she reads flat through and through. This is, of course, because her entire story is hinged upon her grandmother. Grandmother’s offer renders her as the evil, controlling force in Ashley’s life.
Let’s go back a second. The offer grandma offers Ashley is about “weight loss surgery.” I put that in quotes because that’s what the offer is. We’re never told what kind of weight loss surgery and the details of it, again shoved into the narrative far too late, are left to the reader to imagine. And let me tell you — there’s no need to actually imagine what this means because nearly immediately, readers know this entire set-up is for naught. We know Ashley’s going to walk out on the other side not having had the surgery and overcoming grandma’s insistence.
But more importantly, we know that because we know nothing about Ashley other than a vague description of her height and size and the fact she’s 17-years-old, no doctor in their right mind would consider giving Ashley “weight loss surgery.” (And this makes me wonder, since I cannot recall, if we ever learned how this surgery was going to be paid for — was grandma footing the entire bill, too?).
What could have made me buy this element of the story would be any work on the part of grandma or Ashley in any sort of pre-operative consultation. Things like dieting, meeting with a nutritionist, meeting with any type of medical processional or psych specialist, are completely not in this book. We don’t know anything at all about Ashley’s body composition, and we also don’t know at all what her eating or health habits might be, aside from the fact she’s active.
Anyone with any experience losing weight or, really, having a body, knows that there’s not a straight line from choosing to have “weight loss surgery” to having it done. There are steps to be taken, and you have to meet certain, specific criteria to qualify. Many of those criteria involve making efforts to lose weight on one’s own first — you have to prove that you’re willing to do this. Most medical professionals worth their mettle wouldn’t consider doing something like this on such a young patient, and that goes even more so when the patient is, for all intents and purposes, living a healthy life. Who is only slightly larger than the average American woman in the worse case scenario and perfectly appropriate size-wise in the best case.
The fact nothing is addressed in the interim, that there are no moments when Ashley meets with any sort of professional about her body and “weight loss surgery” is not only problematic, it’s exceptionally dangerous. This is not an okay message for a book to have, even if the outcome of the story is that Ashley chooses not to have the surgery.
I bold this because once grandma’s voice is in Ashley’s head about this, suddenly, everyone has an opinion and is an expert. This is not unrealistic. What IS unrealistic is that Ashley’s principal would tell her this was a good idea. That she would meet someone on the streets of San Francisco who calls her a “land cow.” That she would fact real, true vitriol day in and day out for being “size 18, sometimes 20.”
The fact there’s no discussion of what “weight loss surgery” means is damaging.
This goes back to the danger in no discussion about what happens in the time between choosing to do something about one’s weight surgically and having it happen immediately. There is no such thing as “weight loss surgery.” There are different types of medical procedures to remove fat from one’s body, and they are all different, they all have risks, and they are all exceptionally tough decisions for any individual to make. “Weight loss surgery,” defined that way for the bulk of the book, sends the false message that there is a surgery to remove fat from an individual’s body. There are procedures, but there are multiple procedures and they all have very different methods.
Aside from how disturbingly poor this entire thread of the book is — and it is the bulk of the book and what the entire story hinges upon — this is not the only problem with Future Perfect. It’s not well-written, and some of the situations that emerge outside of the big issue make little to no sense at all, and this is because there is no character development or realistic world-building. The inconsistencies in the story, as well as the telling-not-showing, hinder any sort of reader connection with these characters.
There’s a scene in the book that stood out as really disturbing to me on so many levels: Ashley, as well as her friends Laura and Jolene (who is a transgender girl), skip school one day to meet with Laura’s boyfriend who has an “art show” in San Francisco. We learn the show is in the Tenderloin, and the girls find themselves mingling with a lot of transients, as well as those who appear to have some real substance addiction problems. But rather than have any empathy for the people here, the girls choose to make light of it, and this is, unfortunately, one of the only parts of the books where the girls get to show the readers who they are outside of school/outside of the bounds of Ashley’s grandma’s offer. For characters who live in a “small town” where there are “poor people,” there was zero recognition that these individuals may be struggling.
I also found it bizarre one of those transient individuals would call tall, “size 18, sometimes 20” Ashley a “land cow.” This would be weird in any situation, but it’s weirder given her description and the fact this happens in one of the most liberal areas of one of the most liberal cities in America. It doesn’t make sense.
The scene only gets more outlandish when the girls fall asleep on the BART and are accosted and handled roughly by the police. It was completely unrealistic and ridiculous and made me uncomfortable given that we know these girls are (mostly) not white, upper middle class, straight, and cisgendered. There’s no commentary, no depth. It’s superficial and problematic.
One more thing worth pointing out as a big question mark to this book is in the character and story of Jolene. As mentioned, she’s transgender. We understand that causes some issues at home, but again, Larsen renders is very superficially throughout, until there’s a sudden need for Jolene to leave her home. She’s going to live with Ashley for the time being, and Jolene is welcomed and accepted warmly — including by Ashley’s grandmother. This is surprising not because Jolene is transgender and welcome in the home, but it’s surprising because it tells us a lot about how inconsistent and poorly developed Ashley’s grandmother is. She is merely the evil force in Ashley’s life and she’s absolutely nothing more. It’s convenient how frequently grandma is out of the house when Ashley needs time to think about anything.
Future Perfect tries to do a lot but it ultimately fails to do anything. It feels like a checklist: an “empowered” fat girl, a best friend who is transgender, a romance (I haven’t even touched on how superficial the romance here is — both the one that lasts and the one that buds later on), an evil family member, a deep family secret, a “small town” setting, a part-Latina main character. Not one of these things transcends beyond being a checkmark in a box, and indeed, it makes this book one problem after another, stuffed with underwhelming characters, scenes, and writing. It’s really surprising to me this book got through the editing and fact-checking stage at all.
Though I don’t think this reflects upon the story as told, it was impossible for me not to think about the fact this author wrote a memoir before this book about her own “weight loss surgery.” I don’t have anything to elaborate upon that except to say that it makes me wonder about how message comes out here, rather than story. And I can’t help wonder how much her own experience did or didn’t shade the way this shakes out.
I’m not going to spend words talking about how no other alternatives for paying Harvard tuition were offered, nor the fact that Harvard is free to attend for students coming from families earning under $65,000 a year (a very easily researched fact). We’d have to know anything more about Ashley than her grandma’s offer to understand anything about her financial situation, her real passion for attending the school (and to be fair, we get a LITTLE of this), or, like, any initiative to find a way to pay for education like other students do. There’s a clear lack of research or understanding of how the college admissions and financial aid system works.
Bypass this book. There are so many better ones out there, even in a field where there are virtually no good stories featuring fat main characters in YA. This book may cause damage to young readers — and I don’t say that lightly.
If anything, I hope this review sheds light into why talking about numbers does matter in YA. And I hope it’s clear that choosing sizes, over numbers, in choosing vague descriptions over solid ones, causes more problems than it solves. As someone who was Ashley’s size in high school and as someone who grew much larger in college — up to a size 24 or so — I cannot imagine this book offering me any comfort. It would have further screwed with my ideas of what normal was, of what acceptable was, and about how people view my body. Thinking about how today’s teens, already warped by social norms of body size (the push for “ending obesity” today is much different than when I was younger), would react to this book makes my heart heavy.
We can offer much better.
We can offer actual education.