Lisa Phipps. By
by Yiddish Mercado
Alison Gerber. By
When I was a middle school student in the 1980s, a girl in my class submitted a book report on Judy Bloom’s “blubber.” Being the only fat kid in my class, I don’t get caught dead reading a book of that title. Yet that day I had to sit down with my classmate discussing the suffering of poor Linda, the chubby girl who was terrorized by the rest of her fifth graders. Not surprisingly, Linda begins dieting in a desperate bid to stop the bullying.
There’s no good reason I should remember a classmate’s book report from more than 30 years ago, but I can remember parts of it quite clearly. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a book that dealt with body shape in any explicit way, and the message I got that day was that the bullies were right about Linda — she was disgusting and wanted to change. was needed. Of course, I was afraid the same thing would happen to me.
The stories we tell about weight and body image have improved since I was in middle school, but not nearly enough. While “Blubber” attempts to make the larger point that bullying can affect anyone, the novel is rooted in the pain of the older girl.
Nearly 50 years after the novel was originally published, it is still the most common type of story about an obese character: one of pain and trauma.
Still, the three new middle-class books reflect some of the positive changes that have happened over the past decade. While writers are still writing about traumatic experiences related to weight and body image today, these new stories are influenced by the work done by fat activists, and they show us a glimmer of hope and liberation.
In her debut novel, “Starfish,” Lisa Phipps confronts diet culture and fat fears. Ellie, the 11-year-old Texan narrator of this novel in free verse, has no problem with her plus-size figure—but everyone else does. Although Ellie comes from a relaxed middle-class family, and enjoys a swimming pool and many material comforts, her life can still be described as hellish. He is bullied at school; At home, his two older siblings tease him badly, and his mother behaves like a warden in a prison for obese children.
Of the three books under review, none of the moms come out particularly well, but the mom in “Starfish” is a villain. Ellie described him as “my worst bully”. In an act of outright abuse, he threatens Ellie with bariatric surgery, the same procedure that nearly killed an aunt.
It can make it difficult to read, but it is never unbearably sad, given Ellie’s humor (there are some laughable moments), as well as the power of her voice, which expresses many different emotions manages to do, often all at once: mother-in-law and anger, innocence and cynicism, and, above all, heartbreak. The book reads as if Ellie herself is writing these poems, which are accessible and engaging.
Ellie loves to swim, which makes her feel weightless, and in the water she becomes a starfish – she can spread her arms and legs and take up space. Ellie becomes comfortable with the help of a therapist Starfish outside the pool. She learns how to talk to bullies and resist absorbing their taunts, and she eventually confronts her mother. There are limits to what a child can do in these circumstances, but what makes Ellie so adorable is how she fights for herself, even when she thinks no one else will.
In “Chunky,” writer-artist-animator and former Disney art director Yehudi Mercado turns to graphic memoirs, and like Phipps he writes in a witty and cute way about being a fat kid in Texas. The story is brought to life with examples that are vivid and often poignant.
Haiding from a working-class Mexican-Jewish family, Hudi faces many challenges in life, including asthma and living with only one lung. He is also cranky and clumsy unlike his father, who is fond and great at sports. An aspiring comedian who dreams of being on “Saturday Night Live,” Hoodie tends to laugh at the outrage caused by his size and awkwardness.
When Hoodie’s doctor wants him to lose weight, his parents push him into sports. Even though Hoody would love to try out for theatre, he goes ahead with the plan. Each chapter focuses on a different activity he is involved in, from his first choice of baseball (“Babe Ruth was too fat”) to football, swimming, and tennis. It is no surprise that he is picked up, injured and humiliated during these activities.
To help her along the way, Hoodie dreams up an imaginary friend, her own mascot who will cheer her off the edge. The cute, bright pink chunky provides her the moral support she needs. Though Hoody eases the trauma he endures with humour, his creation to make Chunky his mascot and friend shows how desperately he needs a friend for him.
“Chunky” also explores how Hoodie’s parents, while pushing their son to be skinny, inadvertently lead him to imbibe in other, unexpected ways. The sweet, artistic hood begins to change. Their large size makes them ideal for football; Under pressure from his macho coach and new friends, he begins to adopt his nickname: Monster Mercado for them. His parents, horrified at how their son is changing, feel that Hoodie should be allowed to embrace who she really is.
Unlike Hoodie, the protagonist of Alison Gerber’s third novel, “Taking Up Space,” is average-sized and sporty. Twelve-year-old Sarah Weber is the star player of her school’s basketball team. She is athletic and strong and seems confident in herself. When she is in court, she knows what the rules are and is comfortable.
Sarah has a healthy appetite, eating Doritos and pizza with her friends, neither of whom thinks about the calories. However, at home her mother remains obsessed with food. Sarah is dismayed at how her mother’s eating issues affect her; Meanwhile, her father, busy with work, is not helping much.
Basketball means everything to Sarah, but during practice and playing she begins to notice that her body feels different. Her clothes are a bit tight, she often stops breathing and she walks differently. Although her coach assures her that the body changes during puberty and it takes time to adjust, Sarah is terrified that her hopes for college basketball and the WNBA are slipping. In a desperate attempt to heal and take control of her body, she changes her eating habits.
In a thoughtful and powerful way, Gerber discovers how quickly Sarah falls into disordered eating patterns. The gentle packet of nutrition plans Sarah receives in health class starts an obsession with which foods are good and which are bad – a passion her mother encourages. Fortunately for Sarah, once it becomes clear that she is in trouble, a support network of friends and school staff kicks into gear, including her school counselor, to help her learn about diet culture. Teaches and how to cope with it.
I can only hope that Judy Bloom’s Linda, now nearing 60, has received these enlightening messages. I like to imagine that she’s out somewhere, driving with a Riots Not Diets bumper sticker on her car.