Themes in Young Adult Literature: Body Image

Start Free Trial

Summary

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2828

Titles Discussed

Deenie by Judy Blume

Life in the Fat Lane by Cherie Bennett

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

Thematic Overview

“Body image” refers to the values, particularly the sexual and aesthetic values, a person attaches to his or her body, as well the values that are perceived to be...

(The entire section contains 2828 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Themes in Young Adult Literature: Body Image study guide. You'll get access to all of the Themes in Young Adult Literature: Body Image content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Summary
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Titles Discussed

Deenie by Judy Blume

Life in the Fat Lane by Cherie Bennett

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

Thematic Overview

“Body image” refers to the values, particularly the sexual and aesthetic values, a person attaches to his or her body, as well the values that are perceived to be attached to that person's body by his or her peers and by society in general. For young adults, body image is often a particularly fraught issue. As their bodies rapidly change, sexuality and the importance of looking sexually attractive become dramatically more important, and peer groups apply heightened pressure on individuals, leading at times to social ostracism and bullying. While body image is a recurrent theme across all genres of literature, it is an especially urgent theme in young adult novels.

Body-image issues affect young adults of all genders, but they are particularly pertinent to teenage girls, whose concerns about weight often manifest in diseases such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Since the 1930s, the rate of anorexia among teenage girls has increased every decade, with the occurrence of eating disorders roughly equal across racial categories. In part this is due to societal pressures around sexuality, as teenage girls receive the message that they should be ashamed of and hide their sexualities at the same time that society in general begins to sexualize them in extreme and sometimes violent ways. This prevalence also reflects issues of control in general; young girls and women have historically been given less agency than their male peers, and it is not uncommon for them to attempt to reclaim control of their lives by enacting it on their bodies instead.

Young adult literature has the potential to either uphold these norms and trends or challenge them. During the second half of the twentieth century, a good number of novels that addressed body image largely reinforced dominant ideas around weight and sexuality. The 1972 young adult classic Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack, by M. E. Kerr, features an intelligent and confident teenage girl who nonetheless is coerced into dieting and extreme weight-loss measures against her will, with no clear indication to readers that her body is acceptable or attractive as it is. Although the authors of such books might have good intentions, their novels tend to echo the damaging messages sent by television, movies, and popular music that extremely thin bodies are the only socially acceptable bodies and weight loss and painful dieting are necessary for young women to find happiness. Many young adult novels that explore body image even come with conflicting messages, as the covers of these novels, which serve as marketing tools, are likely to feature girls who weigh much less than the protagonists described in the text.

At the same time, a small number of young adult novels operate against these trends. Judy Blume's 1973 novel Deenie, for instance, features a girl who learns to accept her scoliosis and the back brace she must wear, while Cherie Bennett's Life in the Fat Lane (1998) follows a young girl who learns to find happiness regardless of her weight. Other novels, such as Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls (2009), focus on the damaging and often deadly realities of anorexia and bulimia and their effects on the lives of the protagonists. Because negative messages about body image are so prevalent in young adult popular culture, novels that celebrate acceptance rather than change can be particularly powerful for young readers.

Works

Judy Blume's works were among the most widely read and critically praised young adult novels of the later twentieth century, due in large part to Blume's willingness to present honest and progressive depictions of teenage sexuality and other topics that were viewed as particularly controversial at the time. This honest engagement with teenagers' lives made Blume's novels frequent targets of censorship, with classics such as Forever … (1975), which deals frankly with teenage sex, facing regular bans in schools and libraries. Deenie likewise includes frank discussions of sexuality, although the focus of the book is instead on the protagonist's diagnosis of scoliosis and the back brace she must wear as a result. Thirteen-year-old Deenie is a beautiful girl, and her mother tells her constantly that her beauty gives her worth in the world, even encouraging her to become a model. The brace and Deenie's new insecurities about her appearance affect her in several ways. She finds herself newly jealous of her attractive best friend Janet, who is chosen to be a cheerleader, and she struggles to enjoy kissing a boy when her insecurity overwhelms her.

Deenie's body image is directly affected by her newly revealed medical condition, which allows her character to go through a somewhat dramatic change. Rather than someone who has always felt dissatisfied with her body, she is a character who transitions from self-confident to suddenly insecure. While the novel's most obvious theme is Deenie's eventual acceptance of her body, it is equally as concerned with the ways in which her body image influences other aspects of her life. As a result, the novel largely explores Deenie's own perception of herself rather than the perceptions of her by others. There is increased social tension and competition among her group of friends, for instance, yet this is largely because Deenie herself feels sudden jealousy over the easy confidence the others exhibit; her friends themselves seem to want to support her through her troubles. Deenie also gains a new empathy for others, as is evidenced by her gradual acceptance of an ostracized new student who suffers from eczema and by her role in welcoming this student into her social world.

Similarly, the revelation of Deenie's scoliosis coincides with her burgeoning sexuality, and the two events deeply influence one another. While Deenie's body suddenly feels foreign and stressful to her, she discovers that masturbation, and by extension sexuality, is a tool that allows her to enjoy and celebrate that body. This tension becomes most heightened in the evenings, when the stress over her scoliosis prevents her from falling asleep, while masturbation releases that stress. She also finds herself unable to enjoy her first romantic relationship until she accepts her body. When a boy named Buddy kisses her and begins to feel her body, she at first finds herself unable to kiss him back, despite wanting to, which upsets Buddy. After she has worked to accept herself, she is finally able to both kiss Buddy and enjoy the experience, feeling hopeful about the possibility of future sexual pleasure. These overlapping experiences provide a complicated portrait of Deenie's body image. She is not defined by how she views her body, nor by how others understand it. Instead, her body image is one aspect of her rapidly changing personality and interests, and she can only learn to accept and celebrate herself by accepting her entire self, body and mind. As sexual pleasure has been linked to self-acceptance and stress relief throughout the novel, the implication is that her future romantic relationship with Buddy might lead to even greater happiness and greater release from the stress of the back brace.

Cherie Bennett's Life in the Fat Lane is similarly a story of transformation, with the thin and popular protagonist, Lara, developing a medical condition that results in sudden, drastic weight gain. Compared to Deenie, Lara's transformation is radically dramatic. The homecoming queen of her high school, Lara views herself as loved by everyone, including her idealized parents. She also understands her conventional attractiveness to be a result of her healthy habits, as she exercises every day and pays careful attention to what she eats. When she begins to gain weight, however, her mother and father stop supporting her, instead pressuring her into unhealthy eating habits, and her popularity at school quickly drops. The pressure from this change causes her parents to begin arguing frequently, and the family even relocates to a new state, hoping to give Lara a fresh start. Lara is ostracized in her new school, but she makes friends with some unpopular students and begins to date a blind boy. She also comes to realize that her home life was never perfect, she had just viewed it that way. She finally begins to lose some weight, which makes her happy, although she also appreciates what she learned by gaining weight.

This novel falls into a somewhat nebulous middle ground—while it attempts to challenge dominant ideas about body image and weight, and in some respects succeeds, it also reinforces many societal norms. The narrative splices excerpts from television shows and similar media into the main storyline, demonstrating the overwhelmingly destructive ideas about weight that young women hear on a daily basis and emphasizing that Lara, her family, and her friends did not organically develop their prejudices but rather learned them from a broader culture. Similarly, as Lara gains weight and finds her perspective on the world changing along with her body, she comes to realize both her family's deep-seated unhappiness and the importance of developing relationships based on emotional and intellectual connections, as well as the pleasure that can be gained when someone values her personality rather than her body. At the same time, however, the characters in the book who value Lara are those who are themselves socially outcast, and her new romantic interest after moving to Michigan is a blind a boy who does not “see” her weight. While the novel does present a protagonist who matures in relation to her body image, she exists in a world that is extremely hostile toward young women with larger bodies; her weight gain even seems to destroy her parents' marriage (although this is later revealed to not be the whole story). For young readers with normatively attractive bodies, Lara's story might provide some insight. For readers who themselves struggle with body-image issues, however, it has the potential to simply reinforce the negative messages.

While Life in the Fat Lane is focused on societal ideas about weight and the ways that peers and family affect Lara's body image, Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson, is more concerned with the protagonist's interior world. Eighteen-year-old Lia lives with the mental disorder anorexia nervosa. As the novel opens, Lia's former best friend Cassie is found dead in a motel room, having succumbed to her own battle with bulimia. Cassie attempted to call Lia for a reconciliation during her final moments, but Lia ignored the calls, and her guilt and her grief trigger an escalation of her disorder. Over the course of the novel, Lia continues to starve herself while arguing with her distant parents, who are unable or unwilling to provide the love and understanding that she needs. Due in part to her starvation, she regularly hallucinates Cassie, who encourages her to end her life. As her condition worsens, so does her tendency for self-mutilation, and when her beloved younger stepsister walks in on her slicing her chest open, she is finally hospitalized. Fearing she will be institutionalized, Lia attempts to run away from home, but she realizes that she is about to die herself and finally reaches out for help, ending the novel on a note of hope and survival.

For Lia, her body image is shaped by the interior world of mental illness as well as the exterior world of family stress, cultural misogyny, and other, similarly destructive forces. Lia's first-person narration hints that Cassie's bulimia was triggered by being sexualized at a young age; it is implied that a neighbor boy molested her, for instance, and when she was the first girl in fifth grade to develop breasts, boys regularly snapped her bra while girls mocked and ostracized her. The first-person perspective also emphasizes the conflict between Lia's own mind and the world itself. Her thoughts are regularly crossed out on the page, especially thoughts about desiring food or fighting back against her uncaring family, demonstrating the self-negation that informs every moment of her life. The narrative is filled with details about food, including descriptions of the eating habits of everyone Lia meets and her obsessive tally of her own caloric intake. As is the case for anorexia sufferers in real life, it becomes impossible to separate the cultural reality in which Lia lives from the mental disorder from which she suffers; in the space of the novel, one could not exist without the other, as even Lia's visual hallucinations echo negative cultural ideas about weight, physical attractiveness, and misogyny. In this way, while Wintergirls is concerned primarily with Lia's personal experience of body image, it also explores the nuanced ways in which body image exists not as a singular topic but rather as a suite reflecting psychological, cultural, and familial forces.

Conclusions

Young adult novels in the early twenty-first century are typically more willing to address sexuality and sexual development than they were decades prior. While body image is not exclusively concerned with sexuality, the two influence one another in complex and profound ways, and the increasing acceptance of sexuality has led to greater opportunities for forthright and complex portrayals of body image. In particular, while twentieth-century novels might present body image as a preoccupation of the protagonist, novels from the twenty-first century are more likely to examine the personal and cultural complexities that shape it.

From the 1990s onward, scholars have also started writing more about body image in young adult literature. Much of this is influenced by contemporary feminist theory, including Beth Younger's comprehensive and valuable Learning Curves: Body Image and Female Sexuality in Young Adult Literature (2009). These works have helped nuance the critical discussion around body image, challenging texts that advertently or inadvertently uphold cultural norms while also celebrating the uniquely powerful role that young adult literature plays in the lives of many young girls and women. This critical attention has further pushed the genre toward complex, candid portrayals of young adult bodies, continuing the legacy that began with Judy Blume's groundbreaking discussions of menstruation, sexuality, and masturbation.

On a broader cultural level, it is clear that the topic of body image is becoming more relevant to young readers with every passing year. Rates of anorexia and bulimia continue to rise, and popular culture finds new ways to sexualize young women and girls; a 1997 study showed, for instance, that advertisements sexualizing children featured girls rather than boys 85 percent of the time. Other recent studies have revealed that disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, and body-image issues in general, are not exclusive to young women but rather influence male adolescents as well. According to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2001, the gender ratio for full anorexia nervosa is estimated to be 4.2:1, meaning that nearly 20 percent of anorexia sufferers are male. While body image was once considered a “girl's issue” by many, writers and scholars are working to shift that understanding, illuminating the insecurities and control issues adolescent boys feel about their own changing bodies.

Writers responding to these urgent realities are influenced by the possibilities opened up by feminist and literary studies. Since the early 2000s, a number of award-winning novels have been published that celebrate protagonists who identify as fat, embracing the term and their bodies rather than seeking change. Just as importantly, young adult readers can find novels that feature insecure or struggling protagonists, including those with mental disorders rooted in body image, who have the same complexities as other young adult characters, rather than being entirely defined by their body image. While the challenges associated with developing a positive body image as a young adult are unlikely to change, young adult literature increasingly offers readers a chance to understand themselves not as damaged but as full human beings, capable of navigating these challenges and emerging with a healthy perception of their bodies and sexualities.

Further Reading

  • Glessner, Marci M., John H. Hoover, and Lisa A. Hazlett. “The Portrayal of Overweight in Adolescent Fiction.” Reclaiming Children and Youth 15.2 (2006): 116–23. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 May 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=22065693&site=ehost-live>.
  • Younger, Beth. Learning Curves: Body Image and Female Sexuality in Young Adult Literature. Lanham: Scarecrow, 2009. Print.

Bibliography

  • “Eating Disorders Statistics.” National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. ANAD, 2015. Web. 13 May 2015. <http://www.anad.org/get-information/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/>.
  • Mahood, Ramona Madson. “Deenie.” Masterplots II: Juvenile and Young Adult Literature Series Supplement. Ed. Tracy Irons-Georges. Pasadena: Salem, 1997. Literary Reference Center. Web. 13 May 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=103331JYS10849720000147&site=lrc-live>.
  • Woodside, D. Blake, et al. “Comparisons of Men with Full or Partial Eating Disorders, Men without Eating Disorders, and Women with Eating Disorders in the Community.” American Journal of Psychiatry 158.4 (2001): 570–74. Web. 29 May 2015. <http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/abs/10.1176/appi.ajp.158. 4.570>.
  • Younger, Beth. “Pleasure, Pain, and the Power of Being Thin: Female Sexuality in Young Adult Literature.” NWSA Journal 15.2 (2003): 45–56. Literary Reference Center. Web. 13 May 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=10252518&site=lrc-live>.
Illustration of PDF document

Download Themes in Young Adult Literature: Body Image Study Guide

Subscribe Now