Size Matters: Why I think it’s okay to get specific about pounds and inches in YA

Recently, I’ve seen some posts on social media about how YA writers shouldn’t talk hard numbers when dealing with overweight characters. The rationale here is that if you have a character who is a size twelve who happens to feel fat, you might inadvertently fat shame a real teenager who is a size twelve but comfortable with her body.

Fat should be this term with no specific definition.

I’m a person society would call fat. Very fat, in fact. As someone, who’s had weight management issues for most of my life, I’ve struggled with whether or not to respond to this discussion. I think people making these comments mean well. I’m not as sure they have genuinely had to deal with what it means, emotionally and physically, to be an overweight teenager.

My daughter is thirteen and is a size twelve, which is an average-sized woman in the U.S. She is beautiful and not generally perceived as overweight. Last week, she came home and said, “I need to go on a diet. I’ve got the highest BMI in my class.” I had a long conversation with my daughter wherein I emphasized healthy eating, the importance of not comparing yourself to others, and that, while she looks wonderful, her self-esteem should be based on her achievements.

But the point is this: Teens are talking numbers

In this country, teens are weighed on a regular basis as part of physical education programs. They are talking about it. They know each other’s weights and BMI’s and uniform sizes. They are talking about why those XXL t-shirts from Hot Topic seem to fit almost nobody. They know Jennifer Lawrence is a size six and called a “fat actress.” They are getting specific.

Failure to acknowledge this, failure to deal with the world in which teens live and the real pressures they face is, in my opinion, letting young readers down. The flat out fact of the matter is, if a teen is bigger than a size six or eight (what fashion might call Medium), she will probably face criticism or some level of body shaming.

Have you ever been in the P.E. locker room, waiting to be weighed, standing there, hoping desperately that the thin person behind you doesn’t see your number on the scale? Have you ever been the one person in a group of friends that can’t share clothes or can’t shop at Forever 21? I guarantee if you have, you know the thin girl behind you in line weighs 120 pounds. You know your friend is a size two. You know the numbers.

These kinds of experiences can be deflating and emotionally damaging. But I can tell you that the way you get your power back, the way you stop being a marginalized individual, is to face up to society’s perception of weight and size and determine that those perceptions won’t interfere with your enjoyment of life. But this position would not be possible without honesty. I had to stare some very ugly behavior in the face before I could move on and rise above it. And what got me through was real, truthful dialogue, through books, friends, support groups and rare celebrities, like Jennifer Lawrence, willing to talk openly about the real pressures facing teens and women.

My mandate as a writer is not to tell my teen readers that size twelve or fourteen or sixteen equals fat. It’s to tell them that there’s something really wrong with the idea that people should be able to judge and mock and shame each other. That in the U.S., the attitude toward “overweight” people is the last truly acceptable form of bigotry and things need to change. I want every teen to understand their self-worth should be based on their accomplishments and hopes and dreams and friendships and relationships. What you are inside matters. Not how you look outside.

We can’t fix these problems while refusing to acknowledge them. In YA, I believe that matters of size and weight need to be handled with sensitivity and empathy. But also true to reality. Sadly, this is a world where a size two girl is often treated much differently than a size twelve girl or a size 22 girl. I don’t really see who genuinely benefits from pretending this isn’t the case. Let’s empower girls to deal with this reality and to help change it. Teens are talking about pounds, inches and size, and, as YA writers, I believe we should, too.