Write Fat Kids

To the person who found my blog by searching “should you use the word fat when writing children’s books”:

Yes.

Use the word “fat”. Use it as a descriptor. Use it positively. Say that a kid in the book is fat, along with everything else they are.

ezimba12671253529100I grew up reading books with skinny, heroic kids, and fat, selfish, bratty bullies, fat villains, and fat, lazy kids clearly there to teach a lesson. These were books I loved – books I still love – but you don’t spend your entire life being told you’re the worthless sidekick or greedy villain without it taking its toll.

Write awesome fat characters. Tell fat kids that they’re awesome. Please, please, write books for fat kids, and help them grow up hating themselves a little less.

Write fat kids that are loyal and smart and funny and driven and kind. Write fat kids that love to read and that love to play sports. Write fat kids who go on adventures with their friends and save the day.

Write fat kids that are flawed and confused, not because they’re fat, but because being a kid is hard. Finding yourself is hard, and all kids get lost along the way.

Write fat kids that find their path again and come out the other side stronger, but not skinnier, than before.

Don’t tell fat kids that they’ll only be the sidekick or the villain or a teachable moment. Give them a fat hero to look up to. Teach them to be heroes.

ezimba12671265517700And yes, please, use the word “fat”. Don’t hide their weight. Don’t use euphemisms. Don’t teach shame. Teach them to love themselves, whatever their bodies look like. Teach them to love other people, whatever their bodies look like.

Don’t tell them they’re beautiful just on the inside, but on the outside, too.

Please. Write fat kids.

Sincerely,

A Fat Kid

Happy Birthday, Harry Potter. You Have Problems, and I Still Love You

I’ve spent the last several years working hard to learn about social justice and how to use that knowledge to think critically about media. On some levels, it really sucks, because it means I can’t just simply enjoy something. Even if I don’t see the feminist, racial, queerphobic, or other issues with something on my own, it gets pointed out to me eventually, and it sucks to have to battle with something you enjoy being problematic. But I also think it’s an important part of learning to be a better person and a better writer, because seeing what other writers and creators get wrong helps me figure out how to get it right.

One of the hardest parts of this, though, has been turning that critical framework on the things I love most (like Firefly’s incredible lack of Chinese people).

But the worst to confront is Harry Potter.

I started reading Harry Potter when I was nine. I fell in love instantly. Like many kids in my generation, I went to midnight book releases. I went to midnight movie showings. I dressed up. I read more fanfiction than I can quantify. I lived and breathed Harry Potter all the way through the release of the last movie.

Except – the past tense isn’t honest. It’s still true. I have four sets of the series. When my friends travel overseas and ask what they should bring me, I ask for the first Harry Potter book from that country. I will debate for hours about the attributes of Hogwarts Houses, why Gryffindors are far bigger bullies than Slytherins, and why Hufflepuffs are obviously the best.

When I’m sad, I open Sorcerer’s Stone, read that first line (“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much”) and feel instantly safe. When I think of J.K. Rowling saying “Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home”, I cry.

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I’m not crying YOU’RE crying

The only difference is that I’m almost 24 and now people are starting to look at me like I maybe shouldn’t parade this love around, and when I start debates about Harry Potter headcanons, inevitably the conversation turns towards the series’ more problematic aspects. And as much as I’d like to just close my eyes and pretend that these books I love so much are perfect, they aren’t – and I’m not just talking about Albus Severus Potter.

I think there are arguments to be made about why Dumbledore’s sexuality never would have shown up in the books, but he doesn’t count as representation just because JKR said so after the fact and because there’s a lot of subtext in the stories about him and Grindelwald.

There are people of color throughout the cast, but not in the leading characters, and although I love and fully accept the headcanons that Hermione and Harry are black, that doesn’t count as representation, either.

There are also gaps in the worldbuilding about the non-white, non-European world that the fandom questions and fills in.

I joked about Albus Severus, but that’s actually a pretty big problem, too, because while Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape were remarkable men, I wouldn’t call them the bravest people that Harry ever knew.

Dumbledore left a child in an abusive household and then manipulated that child for years. (I think Dumbledore is a complex character and I generally come down on the side of liking him, but those are still indisputably BAD THINGS.)

Snape may have been a war hero, but he was also a really creepy dude that was obsessed with Lily (obsessed with, not loved) and bullied children to the point that he was literally Neville’s greatest fear. He bullied Harry for daring to be born looking more like his dad than his mom. He was a selfish, creepy douchebag, and although JKR has said he’s not a hero, ultimately the narrative rewards him by having Harry name his kid after him.

Seriously, couldn’t he have named the kid Hagrid or Neville or Remus? Dobby would have been a better name.

There is a way more thorough and generally awesome post about being a fan of problematic things that you should 100000% read if this is something that concerns you at all. But here’s my condensed two cents.

You have to like problematic stuff, because that’s all there is. Every person has problems and weakness and privileges, and no one can create something that is perfectly representative of everything without ever using problematic words or ideas.

Our job as viewers and readers and listeners is to recognize and talk about these problems. We examine it against our own values and priorities, and make the choice about if we can continue to like it. If we decide it’s worth its flaws, we enjoy it anyway.

Our job as writers is to recognize our own flaws and privileges, to know that there’s a big chance we’ll mess up, to know that we won’t be perfect, and try anyway.

I love Harry Potter. It’s still a huge part of me. It’s made me a pacifist, it’s made me kind, and although it struggles with representation, it made me and other kids more open and accepting. Harry taught me the power of love. Ron showed me that it’s okay to make mistakes. Hermione let me know that I didn’t have to sacrifice any part of myself or my values for a guy.

So happy birthday, Harry. You have issues, and I still love you more than I can say.

Trigger Warnings in Art and Academia

Last week, on the Facebook group for the literary citizenship class I took with the amazing Cathy Day, a conversation started about trigger warnings in writing and in a college setting. It quickly became clear that while many students were familiar with trigger warnings and would appreciate them, professors had, in many cases, never heard of triggers, much less trigger warnings.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to come at this topic, because there’s so much to talk about. Ultimately I’ve decided to come at it the way I do most things – rooted in my personal experience.

A couple of current students in Cathy’s literary citizenship class, Haley Muench and Rianne Hall, have already posted about this topic, and you should go read what they have to say. I will not be responding to what they have said so much as expanding on it. Rianne doesn’t specify, but Haley at least is coming at this from the perspective of someone who has no triggers but is raising her awareness of them (which is awesome), and I would like to come from the perspective of someone who does have triggers.

First off: What is a trigger? First, let me tell you what it isn’t. It is not:

  • Something that causes someone to feel kinda uncomfortable
  • The results of weakness or immaturity
Actually not an exaggeration

Actually not an exaggeration

Triggers cause panic attacks, uncontrollable crying, hyperventilating. They cause full changes in mood and can make someone irritable or anxious for days. And not just kind-of-nervous anxious – the kind of anxiety with physical symptoms. Racing heart, sweaty palms, dizziness, nausea. Triggers can even cause vivid flashbacks, like the kind experienced by soldiers with PTSD.

People who are triggered are not weak. They are people who have experienced trauma and who are still in recovery. There is nothing weak or immature about people who have triggers.

Trigger warnings are here to help people prevent being triggered. Trigger warnings do not say, “Don’t write about this topic.” They are saying, “Give people a warning.” Give people a chance to make an informed choice. Give them a chance to consent to handling sensitive material.

I’ve seen people saying that this kind of “coddling” won’t help people with trauma, that they need to face it head on. So, here’s my question: Are you my therapist?

No, really. Are you? What gives you the authority to decide what anyone – much less strangers – needs to overcome their trauma? Where does your magical expertise come from? Are you a therapist who has spent hours and hours in sessions with all of these people? Did you use that information to carefully determine what they needed for a healthy recovery?

I’m gonna bet no. And even if you are a therapist, you’re not everyone’s therapist. You cannot make a broad, sweeping statement about what everyone who has experience trauma needs.

If you’re a trauma victim who doesn’t get triggered or need warnings, great! But there are plenty who do, and you can’t discount them just because you experience trauma differently. Everyone does. It was two years after being raped that I suddenly stopped being able to take the bus or go to class without severe anxiety (both involved confined environments with men that were difficult to escape). For many others, that sort of anxiety/paranoia sets in immediately or not at all.

“But wait!” some people say. “There are too many things that upset people! How can we possibly predict everything?”

Well, you can’t. But is that a reason not to try? I don’t think it is. If you’re not sure what to warn for, here are some good ones to start with: Sexual assault and rape, physical and emotional abuse, suicide and self harm, and graphic violence.

“Shouldn’t we be talking about things that make us uncomfortable?”

Absolutely! We should write and talk about the hard topics (though there are discussions to be had on like seriously do we need anymore graphic rape scenes?). We should be free to write about what we want, and people should be free to choose what they want to read or watch.

“The world comes without trigger warnings, so why should anything else?”

Precisely because the world comes without them. Out in the world, I have men yelling at me from cars telling me to join Weight Watchers. I have people calling me a slut, whore, bitch. I have strange men at bus stations touching my tattoos and harassing me. So what’s wrong with making classrooms safer spaces than the rest of the world?

There seems to be this attitude that people who ask for trigger warnings don’t understand that the world is a hard place. I’m pretty sure that the people who need those warnings actually understand that better than most. I understand that, statistically and in my personal experience, I can’t trust men to listen to me saying “no”. I can’t trust them to let me have control over what happens to my body. So what’s wrong with wanting control over what I read and watch? Of wanting to make informed decisions over whether or not I can handle the content in a class?

I don’t think it’s difficult to add a simple statement or warning to a book about what to expect. You can even just include it in the synopsis on the back. Haley Muench’s post uses the book Towelhead by Alicia Erian as an example. It doesn’t explicitly say “this contains rape” but you can tell from the synopsis that something bad is going to happen. And at a reading, you can just say the story you’re about to read contains suicide or extreme violence – then people can choose to walk away for a little bit.

When it comes to how to accommodate students with triggers, I have far, far fewer answers, so I talked to former and current students to ask about their experiences and opinions. Most students said that they’d never been warned for anything, and several described situations in which they were triggered in class and didn’t feel that they could escape the situation. They didn’t want to draw attention to how uncomfortable they were or to ‘out’ themselves as a victim to the entire class.

One MFA student said: “I don’t personally have triggers, but I am a huge supporter of warnings in an academic environment — to me it’s incredibly basic necessity, given that you’re there to learn, you’re in a situation that has no easy escape, and you can’t learn if you’re trapped in a triggered situation.”

Because that’s what it feels like: Being trapped. “Just leave the class” is easier said than done. It’s better to be pre-warned so that you can either prepare yourself for the material or so that you can talk to your professor about accommodation. Ultimately, the student consensus was that trigger warnings would be greatly appreciated.

Of course, it can easily become very complicated. Where do you draw the line on what to warn about? What happens if a student can’t handle most of the material in the class? How, as a teacher, do you balance giving warnings with giving accommodations? I don’t have a lot of answers, but I don’t think that complexity is a reason not to help people.

Trigger warnings in classes are not about censorship, being weak, or asking to be treated like a precious snowflake. They’re about providing a safe learning environment. What’s wrong with that?

Let’s Talk About Romanticized Abuse in Books

[Trigger warning for abusive relationships, both fictional and real]

I recently got into a conversation on Twitter about Twilight. Right now, you’re probably having the same reaction I did – “People still talk about Twilight?”

Apparently, yes, and I’m now convinced that at least part of the Twilight conversation is still important to have. That’s the part where we talk about how it romanticizes an abusive relationship.

Edward enters Bella’s room without her permission and watches her sleep (again, without her knowledge or permission) and hides that from her for some time. He takes away her ability to make decisions for herself. She is so incredibly dependent on him that when he disappears, she goes basically comatose for months, with no clue what to do with herself once he’s gone. At one point, he disagrees with her choice to go see Jacob, and he takes the engine out of her car.

HurrjOo

The person I talked to on Twitter argued that he was simply trying to protect her and anyway, he never hit her or yelled at her, and that’s what abuse is. (No, no, no no no no no, no.)

Thinking that abuse consists only of physical violence and yelling is extremely dangerous. Abuse can take on many forms and some of them are subtle. It could come the in form of neglect, coercion, or maybe continued patterns of insults and put downs. The type of extreme control that Edward exerts and the and removal of Bella’s agency is definitely abusive.

You might be thinking – okay, fine, but it’s just one aspect of one book. Why does it matter?

First off – it’s far from the only book. Let’s talk about Fifty Shades of Grey.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Fifty Shades follows Twilight in its romantic abuse, considering that it started out as Twilight fanfiction. Right from the beginning, Christian stalks Ana (even tracking her cell phone after she drunk dials him) and manipulates her. He buys her incredibly expensive gifts that she makes it clear she doesn’t want. He overwhelms her with information about a world she knows nothing about (the BDSM scene), makes her sign a non-disclosure agreement before they sleep together, and manipulates her into a total power exchange relationship – meaning that he’s her dominant not only in the bedroom, but in the rest of her life. Total power exchanges are a real thing, but they’re entered into by consenting adults who are in full understanding of what that kind of relationship means and who, more importantly, want it and get equal pleasure out of the arrangement. Ana never indicates that she understands any of it and doesn’t even seem to want it. He’s just hot and confuses her, and she signs the contract.

And it’s not just Twilight and Fifty Shades. These types of relationships run rampant in our romantic fiction – in books and movies, in paperback romances and YA. The super-hot, mysterious, brooding, controlling man is written to seem like he’s that way because he loves his partner more than usual.

That's creepy, dude.

That’s creepy, dude.

It’s all just passion, not abuse, even when the women end up with bruises they never asked for (considering that one of the books I’m talking about is Fifty Shades, I think it’s important to point out that you can consent to being bruised and hurt – but again, that comes from understanding and consent, which is rarely present).

So why does all this matter? It’s just books, right?

For the purposes of this post and to make my point, I’m going to talk about something kind of personal. I’m gonna tell you a story.

I spent most of high school in an emotionally abusive online relationship. He was incredibly controlling and unpredictable. I never really knew what would make him angry or happy. He hated most of my friends and didn’t want me talking to them. He also introduced me to the lifestyle side of BDSM, though he never actually educated me about it in anyway. I was just expected to do what he said. When I reached out online to find people who I could relate to and talk to about it – well, that made him angry, because I was going to someone else for my information instead of getting it all from him.

Around the same time, I discovered Twilight. Edward and Bella’s relationship reminded me a lot of my own, and Edward did all of those things to Bella because he loved her, right? He was so incredibly in love with her that he had to go to extreme measures to be near her and to protect her. It made my abusive relationship seem special. I became convinced that he did all of these things to me out of concern and incredibly passionate love – not out of, y’know, a likely sociopathic need for complete control of an underage girl.

This relationship was one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me. It’s five years later and in many, many ways I am still recovering. I can’t help but wonder if I could have gotten out just a little sooner if I hadn’t become obsessed with Twilight and become deluded into thinking that abuse equaled love and passion. And if Fifty Shades had been out then? Well, I’d rather not think about that.

I’m not saying that Twilight and Fifty Shades are the root of all evil. (Well. Fifty Shades might be. I really hate that book.) I’m not saying that every person who reads them will end up in a situation like mine. I’m definitely not saying they should be banned (seriously, I will never say that a book should be banned). What I am saying is that it’s dangerous to ignore the problematic aspects of these books. It’s dangerous to completely ignore the problematic aspects of anything, from your favorite books and movies to things said and done by influential celebrities (even when they’re otherwise awesome people).

You can acknowledge that something has its issues, participate in the conversation, and still enjoy the book or movie or celebrity in question. Twilight has some enjoyable aspects, if you ignore the bad writing. Fifty Shades has…a lot of really, really bad writing and quite frankly there are better sex scenes written by preteens on fanfiction.net, but I guess some people are into it.

If you just completely brush off the abuse, especially in conversations about these books and books like it, it makes it all the easier for people like sixteen-year-old Sarah to think that there’s nothing wrong with these relationships. It makes it easier and more tempting for them to seek out this sort of “love”.

This is probably a whole ‘nother post in itself, but other young adult books can be really guilty of this, especially the ones that have been released in the wake of Twilight’s success. Sometimes it’s not as clear, sometimes it’s subtle, but that doesn’t make it okay. If you have any titles that come to mind, post in the comments.

It’s important to talk about this stuff. So let’s talk about it.

On Beauty and Body Diversity in YA

Yesterday, writer Taylor Breslin made a great post on Tumblr about some of her big frustrations in young adult fiction. The big topic? Stupid beauty standards and female confidence. It’s a great post, and you should go read it. It got me thinking and I want to expand on this a little and also connect it to my continued desire to see more body diversity in YA.

…what I don’t see in a lot of young adult fiction is characters being physically attracted to each other in a normal way. It’s all “he/she was the most insanely gorgeous and perfect person I have ever laid eyes on.” So many female protagonists gain their love interests and even their male friends because the guys meet them and are instantly paralyzed by their beauty. Not by any aspects of their personality. It’s ridiculous, and it doesn’t give normal teenage girl readers much to identify with (nor is it a good example of how to build relationships with people).

Of course, it’s not only the girls who are insanely beautiful – the boys are, too. The boys are always superhuman gorgeous (even when they’re not superhuman). I get that there’s some wish fulfillment there, but it’s everywhere, and there’s a key difference between the beautiful female protagonists and their beautiful male counterparts. The boys are allowed confidence. That usually makes them sexier. Most of the super hot guys in YA novels are entirely aware of how gorgeous they are, of the affect they have on women, and often aren’t afraid to use it to to their advantage.

Our girls don’t get that. As Breslin points out, the girls talk about all of their physical traits in a negative light – they’re too tall, too skinny, with eyes that are too big. The attempt to make these teenage girls somehow relatable always ends up with them being skinny and awkward. Or they’re a clumsy heroine, which often seems to be used to bring too-strong-willed female protagonists down a peg. The girls who are confident in their appearance are often villains, whether it be that popular girl in school or the sexy lady vampire trying to kill the protagonist.

2a8kuoz

I understand that everyone has insecurities about his or her appearance, but it would be good every once in while to have a character have some self-confidence in that department. Better that it be a NORMAL LOOKING character who can be confident in herself instead of some kind of preternatural model goddess.

It’s incredibly difficult to be a teenage girl without insecurities, especially considering all of the shit that’s thrown at women every day. Be skinny, but not too skinny, because men don’t want a sack of bones. But don’t be too fat, either, god, they don’t want whales. Look like you’re not wearing makeup, but don’t look too natural. Who can get bombarded by that for most of their lives without breaking a little?

That’s even more of a reason to have some confident, normal-looking girls in YA. Give teenage girls someone who really looks like them and who is completely fine with – hell, who even LOVES – her appearance. And let those character discover their beauty on their own, or to already have it when the book begins. Don’t give them half a dozen guys to fawn over them and then have them still wringing their hands saying, “But I just don’t understand why!”

For me, even better would be a fat character with confidence. Not someone who’s euphemistically curvy or ‘a little plump’, but fat. An actual fat girl with casual confidence in herself and her own beauty, who doesn’t need a romantic interest to make her see it, and who doesn’t lose half her body weight and suddenly ‘match her inner beauty’. (Anything that involves fat people losing weight to match their inner beauty makes me want to put that bullshit gif on loop forever.)

We need some normal-looking characters. Check out Breslin’s post for a good list of authors who do that, but also as she points out, most of those are in contemporary YA. In fantasy or scifi YA, it’s almost impossible to find. We need diversity in YA bodies, and we need them to love themselves. Maybe then our teenagers could learn to love themselves a little sooner.