Please note the lack of symmetry in the face, the bulbous noses,
the dilated pores over the forehead and chin. Undesigned, natural women.
(Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill)
Body image is an issue which plays a prominent role in the lives of people of all ages, but which is of particular concern to teenage girls. 70% of teenage girls have reported being dissatisfied with their body , and body image was listed as the third highest area of concern for females in Mission Australia’s 2015 youth survey, with 37.4% citing it as a major concern (compared with 13.1% of males).
There is a lot of pressure from society to look a certain way. This is particularly targeted at girls and women, who are bombarded with images by the media to make themselves into the ‘perfect body’. Girls receive these messages from a young age and they contribute towards the pressure to fit in and conform.
Young adult fiction provides a space to explore these issues. It also provides a space to present female characters with different body types, including characters who may have a perfectly healthy relationship with their body, in spite of not fitting society’s mould of what a ‘perfect’ girl should look like.
Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours paints a disturbing picture of a dystopian future where girls all are designed and raised to be future companions or courtesans. Women are terminated before they start to show the effects of aging. This is a world where women are of no value in and of themselves – their value is to either pleasure men or give them sons – or, if rejected, be left to indoctrinate the girls of the future. The only thing which matters (aside from being obedient and pliable) is looking ‘pretty’, with a strong emphasis on being skinny and having a hatred of fat. Messages are pumped throughout the girls’ rooms during the night to reinforce these priorities. ‘I am a good girl. I am pretty. I am always happy-go-lucky.’ The novel examines what happens when girls’ entire sense of self-worth and future prospects are tied up in the way they look. The girls take pills to stop them gaining weight and are subject to regular weigh-ins. The protagonist, freida (girls are so unimportant that even their names aren’t worthy of capitalisation) reflects, ‘Fat women are ugly. Old women are ugly.’
Freida has significant body image issues due to the way she has been ‘raised’ – and in particular the competitive nature of her environment. Each day she looks at her face in the mirrored walls of her room. ‘I do this every morning, a part of me hoping that I’ll have been magically transplanted into a different body during the night…That I’ll wake up and be paler, thinner, different. Better.’ When the Personal Stylist Program asks freida how she would like to improve herself, freida’s first response is, ‘A complete re-design would be nice’.
Another example of an environment where there is a strong emphasis and value placed on physical appearance is Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton. Tiny Pretty Things is a novel which centres on the lives of three female ballet school students. It shows the pressure of the ballet world and the narrow image of the ideal body for a dancer. Unsurprisingly there is a large focus on appearance and the pressure to have the perfect ballerina body. This leads to a competitive aspect that’s not related just to dancing or technical skill but to image, and this ties into issues of weight and of race.
Two of the main characters, Gigi and June both feel the effects of the struggle to reach the top because they don’t fit into the ‘ideal ballerina’ mould as persons of colour. Gigi says, ‘After one month here at school, the first major casting makes me feel my skin colour like a fresh sunburn. I’m the only black ballerina aside from a little one…’ Comments and assumptions are made about Gigi and June’s place in the school based on their race. From June’s point-of-view, she thinks, ‘Try being the only half-Asian ballerina. Not quite right anywhere…And Mr.K’s just predictable enough to put minorities in ethnic roles…But my face isn’t Asian enough to join them. And I wouldn’t want to. I want to be as far away from them as possible.’ However, in spite of the pressures from teachers and other students both Gigi and June are determined to stay, to claim their place in the ballet world.
Both of these novels Tiny Pretty Things and Only Ever Yours illustrate the impact of being raised in an environment where teenage girls are taught to regard one another as competitors. When they are taught to constantly compare themselves to one another they often find themselves lacking. This competitive atmosphere takes away the opportunity for them to support one another and see each other as allies rather than enemies.
Another novel which explores body image and physical appearance is Justina Chen Headley’s North of Beautiful. Terra was born with a prominent facial birthmark and the novel shows how she copes with people’s comments and reactions to her appearance. Terra describes herself, saying, ‘Not to brag or anything, but if you saw me from behind, you’d probably think I was perfect. I’m tall, but not too tall, with a ballerina’s long legs and longish neck… Trust me, this mixture of curiosity and revulsion is nothing Helen of Troy would ever have encountered.’ She spends her time working to keep her body ‘perfect’ and her facial birthmark hidden. It isn’t until she meets Jacob who is also subject to stares due to the scarring left from an operation on his cleft palate that she starts to relax her constant attempts to hide her birthmark. Although he acts like her birthmark is not a big deal, it still takes her awhile to let her guard down. Talking to her friend about Jacob, Terra tells her, ‘He [Jacob] doesn’t care about my face.’ ‘Well, yeah, because he’s got that…thing there.’ ‘It’s a scar.’ Terra’s dad also constantly puts down his family, including her mum for being overweight, and Terra also suffers from his bullying. To a certain extent Terra has internalised these negative messages and it feeds in to her obsession to keep her body in perfect shape.
While these novels focus on characters with issues of low self-esteem and poor body image there are young adult novels with female characters who have more positive relationships with their body, even though they might not fit in to the stereotype of the ‘ideal’ body. For example, in Melissa Keil’s The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl, Alba says ‘I am okay with this [her body]. I’ve never glued my face on a supermodel’s body while weeping into a tub of ice-cream. I have curves, and boobs, and no-one I know has a problem with either.’ She is happy in her skin and finds her friend Grady’s suggestion that comments from another old friend about her weight may have affected her as ridiculous. ‘I’m fine. You really thought I was going to freak out and, like, develop an eating disorder or something?’
The protagonist of Kirsty Eagar’s Summer Skin also has high self-esteem and a fairly positive body image. ‘Jess laughed, embarrassed, looking from Sylvie’s reflection to her own, and just for a second she saw what Sylvie meant. Somehow, [Jess’s] humour and light in her hazel eyes, the kindness in her face, her vibrancy, rendered Sylvie’s perfect symmetry irrelevant.’ But even this self-esteem can suffer under pressure from others. When upset and confused about why her love interest refuses to kiss her, she feels that she doesn’t meet his ideals of what a girl should be like. ‘Because I’m not hot enough, or slutty enough, or whatever it is that you want…And I hate the fact that you’ve reduced me to worrying about shit like that.’
Young adult fiction plays an important role in holding up a mirror to the love/hate relationship that many teen girls have with their bodies. The stories give the space to explore this subject from a variety of viewpoints and present different body types from those that might generally be seen on the covers of magazines. While the range of diverse body types may still be far from perfect, these examples of both negative and positive body image and the impact they can have on a girl’s life provide an important counterpoint to what is presented in other media.
Jessica Sheather-Neumann is the organiser of a writers group in Canberra with over 50 members. She reads and writes young adult novels and has been published in First, the University of Canberra’s creative writing magazine. She has a Graduate Certificate in Editing and Publishing. You can find her on Twitter @ReadingJessica.