Almost everywhere I have gone and talked about ALL OF ME, someone has asked me if Ari and his adventures are based on my life. The answer is yes. The story is fictional, but so much of it is my heart and soul and a collage of adventures and experiences from my own middle-grade years. Most of all, my personal story is embedded deeply in the spirit of the book where Ari, who is put on a diet after a dangerous incident, starts to question whether this diet is really a good thing after all.
Fat-shaming is often different than what we think. In ALL OF ME, Ari faces real bullies who represent the physical danger of being bullied, but the book also explores the more dangerous landscape of subtle comments, quiet words, and indirect actions, even from the ones closest to home, that can bring a compounding shame, impacting lives over the long term. This is why I felt so inspired to write a middle-grade novel that has the time and space to explore the story of an overweight, outcast boy who learns what it means to love who he is—as he is.
It is not always easy. I am tall, and I am big. So the other night, after playing hoops with a bunch of other Dads from my kid's school—all of us exhausted, basking in the post-game glow—when one of the men sips his drink, looks over at me and says, "Dang, you move pretty well for a big guy," I am not surprised. It isn't the first time I have heard this. It’s been like this for as long as I remember. Moving my body has always been something that people comment on.
And shortly after, the guy begins talking about his no-carb diet. I smile. He means well. People usually do once you’re an adult. I will never forget all the times the people closest to me brought up my weight in the most surprising ways, like when my football coach in High school grabbed my belly in the locker room and told me, laughingly, “You better lose this.” Hearing this “feedback” is one thing as an adult. It’s not so easy when you are a kid. Those moments stay.
I remember taking the subway from Manhattan to Brooklyn to see my grandparents. My grandmother, my safest person, met me at the station on Avenue P and took me to get a lemon Italian Ice. She told me how in the summer, we were going to Montauk with our cousins. I beamed with the fullest joy a nine year old boy could feel.
When we reached her street, we saw some of her friends. I was used to this. They gathered around me, squeezing my cheeks.
"He's looking healthy, Mae," one said.
Then out of nowhere, I suddenly heard my grandmother for the first time in my life say something I didn't expect. "Well, he's going to get on a diet, and he's going to be so skinny this summer." Then she squeezed my shoulder, and slid her hand around my waist where my love handle gently spilled over the elastic of my sweatpants.
Over time, I realized everyone around me was constantly unsatisfied with how they looked.
I didn't like how it felt. I didn't like how she sounded. That day, it was like she opened a window into a world I didn't recognize existed. Who I was wasn't good enough. There was an expectation for me to change. Over time, I realized everyone around me was constantly unsatisfied with how they looked. My mom, my grandmother, everyone was always on some sort of diet, always on some sort of journey to change their bodies. How could this not impact me? Of course, I don't blame my grandmother, or anyone else. They were just trying to love me the best way they knew how.
In a recent study from Common Sense Media, they reported that 33-35% of 6-8 year olds asked felt that their ideal body is thinner than their current body. Concerns about one's body, if left unchecked, can lead to serious physical health and mental health issues—eating disorders, body dysmorphia, even suicide. But even if these more serious and diagnosable issues don't occur, the idea of being told you aren't good enough, from a young age, can lead to serious mental health concerns.
While not everyone dealing with body image issues may suffer from such severe consequences, there are still dangers. And, body image issues for boys may often be overlooked. Fat-shaming and its effects don't always come from the mouths of cruel bullies. So often, the shame is woven into the language and actions of our culture. And this might be especially true for many boys who are expected to just "suck it up" and change.
Fat-shaming and its effects don't always come from the mouths of cruel bullies. So often, the shame is woven into the language and actions of our culture.
A few years ago, when I discussed this issue and my personal struggles with a friend who is a psychologist, she told me I was dealing with a "cognitive distortion" and "distorted thinking about my body." It seemed to make sense. I recently found this picture of me, at age 21, in the prime of my career as a Division One collegiate rower with 7% body fat. Even then, I still looked in the mirror and saw a kid who didn't look “fit” at all. I still changed my clothes twice a day to look more slim, avoided horizontal stripes, and always worked to make sure I wasn't eating too much bread or dessert. The kid in this picture, despite who he actually was, still saw in his reflection the overweight boy who needed to be on a diet. I wish I could go back to that college kid and tell him he doesn't have anything else he needs to prove, to take a deep breath, to be himself.
I think this is why I was so astonished recently when I first heard a certain talk show host say the words, “we should bring back fat-shaming.”
I felt a series of reactions.
I wondered why we need to bring it back? Was it gone?
I was angry. I wanted to demonstrate just how much Krav Maga training I’ve had.
I started thinking about all the parents who heard this and how it might impact their kids.
I couldn’t believe that someone was actually bold enough to try and bully a whole group of people with a simple comment like that.
And I was so happy when I found that someone had stood up to him: James Corden. I realize, too, that Corden was a bit apologetic at times, but what stood out is that he took the time and valuable space to speak out and to stand up to a bully and against fat-shaming.
There are so many times in my life where I wish I had the courage to do that.
With ALL OF ME, I wrote a book for young me, and for any kid who has felt like an outcast for wanting to just accept who they are. I wanted to focus the story not on “bettering yourself” through weight loss, but on accepting who you are all the way—health included—whatever that means for you. The best place to start is with empathy, inclusion, and compassion, and to make sure that kids know that they are included. It’s been inspiring to meet so many parents and educators who are learning to model what it means to be healthy and whole in the best possible way they know how.
And of course, empathy...
Recently, I met a kid who struggles with weight, and has been whispered to about diet and exercise for as long as he can remember. He has trouble fitting in the small desks at school. But his eyes lit up when he told me how his teacher and classmates make sure he gets the bigger desk every time he comes. “There’s a place for me.” He smiles.
This kind of empathy and courage, to make sure our classmates have a place where they fit? This seems like one of the best places to start taking a stand.
Chris Baron’s Middle Grade debut, ALL OF ME, is a novel in verse from Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan. His next book, MADE OF CLAY, also a Middle Grade novel in verse is forthcoming from Macmillan in 2021. He is a Professor of English at San Diego City College and the director of the Writing Center.