Two of our favorite authors, Chris Baron and Kelly deVos, are taking part in a new anthology about body image, EVERY BODY SHINES, due out in Spring 2021. Here they are in conversation, discussing body-image, fat-shaming, and mental health in their stories and lives. Their thoughts are fascinating and heartfelt, and we hope you enjoy their conversation as much as we do.
Chris, how does it feel to be a kid, struggling with negative feelings about their body? How can stories help? And are there enough stories out there today for these kids? Is there enough positive, honest representation? CHRIS: I can’t remember any stories about body image from when I was a kid. Usually, the overweight boy character would be the comic relief or the pathetic sidekick. Also, when I was a kid, we didn’t have social media and so much “self” all the time. I honestly can’t imagine. There just seems to be such a constant struggle between feeling good and being influenced one way or another to believe that you aren’t who you are supposed to be.
This seems heightened now more than ever. I know for me, I felt pressure all the time from family, friends, and even bullies, to be “skinny,” even though nothing about me has ever been skinny. Even as a college athlete, at a time when I had seven percent body fat -- I wasn’t skinny. I am big, and it’s been a constant struggle to accept myself. I think that’s one of the reasons I wrote ALL OF ME, and the story, “FOOD IS LOVE,” which will be in EVERY BODY SHINES, to hopefully give an honest look inside a mind that is dealing with this kind of unrelenting body-image pressure. I think more than ever, stories are needed that fight for those kids who are feeling that false pressure to be something other than who they are, and to encourage empathy instead of a “you can change” attitude that comes -- even from loved ones. I think recently I’ve seen more stories taking a stand for empathy, inclusion, and facing tough issues -- including body image. What I think is even more exciting is that we are starting to see stories that feature characters who might traditionally struggle with feelings about their bodies, but that issue is secondary to just being the main character. I hope this trend continues. Maybe I am too hopeful?
What do you think, Kelly? KELLY: First of all, Chris, I loved ALL OF ME and am so grateful that you wrote it. There aren’t a ton of books written from the perspective of fat kids, and I would estimate that the majority are centered on female protagonists, so I am thrilled that there is more rep of fat boys being put out there. I remember a couple of things from growing up. One is the book, BLUBBER by Judy Blume and the second is the Trixie Belden mystery series. As a writer, I love and admire Judy Blume and the massive contributions she has made to kidlit, but as a child reader and fat kid, BLUBBER troubled me. It obviously carried a very strong anti-bullying message, and was ahead of its time in many respects, but it ends with the fat character, Linda, still really being ostracized by her fatness. As a kid, what I got out of the book was the feeling that, yeah, you should expect people not to like you because you are fat. And you better develop a lot of talents or personality attributes that people will find attractive.
Then I fell in love with TRIXIE BELDEN, a series of middle grade mysteries. Trixie is a girl detective, like Nancy Drew, and she isn’t specifically called “fat” but she is definitely coded in that direction. She’s routinely referred to as “round” and “plump.” She had experiences I could relate to, like having a sleepover at her friend, Honey’s, house and having trouble borrowing clothes that fit. It’s clearly reinforced in the book that Trixie isn’t the most conventionally “pretty” one in her friend group, but she solves mysteries and rides horses and has a boyfriend (who finds her physically attractive). That was the first time where I felt, as a reader, that you could be fat and expect people to treat you normally. But, growing up, I felt like I had missed a step somewhere. How did you go from feeling like a Linda to being like a Trixie Belden? That’s why, as a writer, I started out with an analysis of body image issues and my feelings of what it was like to come of age in a fat body. That’s why I wrote FAT GIRL ON A PLANE.
Honestly, I think to be truly helpful to kids and teens we have to paint a full picture of the world that they are facing. We need to both empower them to create a different version of the world – one where fat people aren’t deprived of agency and basic human dignity because of their size. But also help them deal with the world we actually have, a place that can sometimes be quite cruel to fat people. But, Chris, like you, I am super excited to tell stories that move beyond the discussion of negative feelings about body image. I’m so jazzed that we are both a part of the anthology EVERY BODY SHINES, coming in May 2021, which is a bunch of short stories entirely about fat people just living life and having adventures and so forth. I’m also really hopeful that increased fat representation in kidlit will lead to increased fat representation elsewhere in popular culture. Right now, fat people are about 40% of people in America but we’re about 6% of people on screen in TV and film. I’d love to see some of these amazing books coming out get adapted and put more diverse body types up on the screen. So Chris, in your work, how are you balancing a desire to show positive fat role models with a realistic awareness of negative, anti-fat messages we know that kids are bombarded with? CHRIS: Kelly, I am a big fan of FAT GIRL ON A PLANE. I read it when I was in the middle of revising ALL OF ME, and I felt so bold and inspired by it. In ALL OF ME, because of the verse, I relied a lot on imagery, so your question is really powerful for me. I am always seeing the characters in my mind. This puts me squarely into , I think, what you are asking -- it’s hard to balance. For someone who is big, it is always an issue, and because of general societal pressure it can’t ever be ignored. This seems to center issues of bigness around characters whether we want it to or not. So it is tough to balance my desire to show positive, fat role models but also grapple with the negative narrative that undoubtedly will be with that character.
One way I am dealing with it is to ignore it -- that is to say, give the negativity less of a voice for now. In ALL OF ME, the guttural and realistic nature of the negative was central to the journey. I think on my current projects I am quieting the negative voices down enough so they are not motivators---they are more like pin pricks, reminders, etc, but the journey of a character who just so happens to be fat is at the center. Another way to say this is that in ALL OF ME the very internal struggle (and the external of course) is at the heart of the story, but going forward I also want to make sure I model characters who are good at ignoring the negativity and pressing forward into their own hero journeys just like heroes in other stories overcome or ignore certain obstacles.
Maybe I am an optimist, but I do see this happening in lots of stories -- especially comics, cartoons, movies, and of course in books. But there is something else. I think as body positivity rises and becomes more real, another question keeps coming up, and I know it’s one that I deal with myself. What about health? People have asked me this a few times. As more big and fat characters are represented in literature for kids and young adults, what about modeling good health? I’ve been asked this by some readers in the most innocent of ways. “Isn’t being fat unhealthy?” I know there are many complex answers to this, So before you explode in a rage, or perhaps apply some sage wisdom, I can tell you that this question is difficult for me. It seems like the common assumption is that people who are fat are not healthy. While there can be challenges--and certainly more than ever in a more digital age, this is a very difficult, misleading, and potentially damaging part of the narrative to contend with. I want people to know that characters who are fat can also be fit, strong athletes, health gurus. It’s a crucial part of the narrative that I hope to see explored even more in kidlit in the future. I know this is a tough question, but have you ever had to grapple with this sort of question about positive fat role models and the health issues? KELLY: This is really tough because, yeah, whenever you put a fat character on the page and that character is happy to a substantive degree or has generally positive self-esteem, you get accused of “glorifying obesity.” My own literary agent reposted an announcement for the EVERY BODY SHINES anthology and had someone slide into her DM’s with exactly that unsolicited accusation. And of course we know, from many studies, that fat shaming doesn’t produce any helpful results and is actually harmful to health. If you really wanted to help a fat person with their health, the last thing you would want to do is to hurt or shame them because we know this behavior contributes to health problems typically linked to obesity. Fat people can be downright terrified to go to the doctor because they are often not given appropriate treatment. I recall reading a story of a woman who’d gone to the doctor with back pain and was told to lose weight. Later on, they determined that she had a spinal tumor. We also know that, in the US, there is very little collective concern for public health. We’ve seen this play out in a serious way recently with the Federal response to COVID-19, but more generally, we can see it in the lack of concern many citizens have about others’ access to health care and in agriculture policies that make some of the healthiest food the most expensive. To see our culture’s real attitude toward health and weight, look at the handling of Michelle Obama’s attempt to overhaul the school lunch programs. The Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010 does what critics of fat people say they want. It removed school vending machines full of unhealthy foods. It increased fruits and vegetables that would be served with school lunches. It also tried to address the link between poverty and obesity which is a really under-discussed issue. It wasn’t at all political. It was a program that tried to teach kids about food and nutrition. If the country actually cared about fat people and their well being, that program would have been universally popular. Instead, it was mocked by the very same people who always seem to be so concerned about us fatties and our health. And, as I mentioned before, fat people are between 30%-40% of the population in the U.S. but we are only around 6% of characters seen on screen and maybe even a lower percentage of representation as main characters in Big 5 published novels. If refusing to show fat people in a positive light caused weight loss, there would be no fat people in America because we are so very rarely seen on screen or in print. My doctor once told me that 40% of his patients who were being treated for heart disease are overweight. But that also means that 60% are NOT fat and no one is running around slapping the butter dish out of their hands or taking pictures of them when they eat a cheeseburger in a restaurant. So when people start criticizing fat people and insisting that their concern is grounded in health issues, I always roll my eyes a bit because the real issue that these individuals have is that they don’t like the way fat people look. Period. But I’m also a person that suffered from a very serious health problem that was linked to my weight and I was forced to drop some pounds to remediate the situation. So the question for me has always been the same. How can I handle this topic with nuance? With my writing, I want to empower young people to make their own informed decisions and do what is in their own best interest.
I don’t think I’ve always totally gotten it right but that’s always my goal. How about you? CHRIS: Wow, Kelly. This is so powerful because you paint such a clear picture of these challenges. It’s not easy, and we need to be sensitive to a wide variety of situations. I completely agree with your notion, and I hope that my writing will empower readers towards empathy that will lead to good judgement, kindness, and like you said, informed decisions. Like you mentioned, sometimes there are serious medical concerns or choices that must be made. My wife has a chronic illness that required her to become vegan for a few years. I did it with her, and the changes we felt were incredible and immediate -- including weight loss. In some ways we felt like heroes in our own story. We walked every day, went to the gym, made kale chips (which I may never eat again), and spent a lot of time learning about health and wholeness in new ways, but after a while, I started to gain weight again. I confess that when I started to gain weight back despite my cautious diet, I felt disappointed. The false ideal I had of myself was so powerful that I quickly disregarded all the good. But through a lot of work, and a lot of love from my wife and community, I was able to see that the real change wasn’t about the weight loss, but the health benefits, the way I felt, and of course my wife’s healing. I still find it surprising that perception is such a big challenge. It almost feels like there is no “right way” to normalize perceptions because we are confronted with the “ideal” from such an early age. I know that in ALL OF ME, Ari deals with this idea of what he should become. That somewhere out there is a “real him” that needs to be discovered or sculpted out of the him that he is. This is true I think, for all of us as we grow and change, we hopefully become more of who we are, but the assumption about Ari, is that naturally his “change” will be the loss of weight and being normalized in some way toward the “ideal body.” Of course, in the story it’s much more than that. This reminds me of what was actually one of the absolute best parts of last year when ALL OF ME came out. So many wonderful young readers would raise their hands or pull me aside after a visit and ask me if there was going to be a sequel. They wanted to know what happened next for Ari and his friends. What is so encouraging about these conversations is that what they were interested in is not necessarily Ari’s journey of weight loss. They seem to see that as part of the story. They just wanted to know what happened next for characters they like! What a bright spot. I feel strongly that books like EVERY BODY SHINES, filled with engaging stories, will go a long way in breaking these false perceptions and give readers a whole cast of characters that change imaginations. I am so excited to read all of these stories. What are you most excited about for this anthology?
KELLY: I am so super excited about the anthology. I, too, can’t wait to read the other stories because there are so many talented contributors. But what really excites me is that there are sixteen opportunities for fat readers, especially teens, to see themselves on the page and, hopefully, find something that speaks to them. Overall, I am just so excited that the anthology will be out in the world. Chris, any last words before we wrap up? CHRIS: Just that I agree with you. I am really excited about the anthology for all of those reasons, and also that I appreciate this chance to talk with you about some difficult topics like this. I really hope the anthology will be a part of a changing culture that will inspire even more honest conversations in the future!
Kelly deVos is from Gilbert, Arizona, where she lives with her high school sweetheart husband, amazing teen daughter and superhero dog, Cocoa. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. When not reading or writing, Kelly can typically be found with a mocha in hand, bingeing the latest TV shows and adding to her ever-growing sticker collection. Kelly’s work has been featured in the New York Times as well as on Vulture, Salon, Bustle and SheKnows. Her debut novel, Fat Girl on a Plane, was named one of the “50 Best Summer Reads of All Time” by Reader’s Digest magazine. Her second book, Day Zero, is available now from Inkyard Press/HarperCollins. Find her at www.kellydevos.us, Twitter @KdeVosAuthor, Instagram @kellydevos.
Chris Baron is the author of ALL OF ME, a middle-grade novel in verse, and THE MAGICAL IMPERFECT (2021) from Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan. He is a Professor of English at San Diego City College and the director of the Writing Center.