Self Image and YA

I’m going to be frank about it, I’m sick of how heroine’s portray themselves in YA.  This past weekend I’ve read two books that dealt with poor body image.  One was a little bit better than the other, but it still aggravates me.  Mainly because YA is really filled with poor body image.  I thought I’d try to figure out what sort of justifications authors might make for them.  And, well….give a little of my own opinion and then make some conclusion that hopefully doesn’t sound too much like a PSA.

1) People can identify with an insecure heroine.

That is true.  But do realize that when some people read they look up to those characters.  Case in point, one of my role models as a teen was Suze Simon from Meg Cabot’s The Mediator.  Yeah, I know she’s a fictional character but she was essentially how I wanted to be as a teen: confident, sassy, and kick box, oh and she’s a mediator. I’m only one, okay maybe two or three of those things.  And one of them believe it or not is that I’m a mediator.  Well, I can’t see ghosts, but I’m certified to mediate disputes between people in the state of Texas.  I know it seems that having a book character is a little weird, but it happens.  And most of the YA characters out there these days aren’t good role models.  Or just in general, good people.  Having a heroine that’s insecure about her appearance (when we’re told that she’s more beautiful than she gives herself credit for) makes those of us who aren’t super models in disguise (because let’s face it that’s what about 80% of YA heroines really are) feel even more insecure about ourselves.  And it sends the wrong message, why not be happy with the way you are regardless of how you look.  It’s just a stupid plot point.  And God it makes for so many annoying heroines.  Case in point, in the book Fairest by Gail Carson Levine, the main heroine is beyond annoying because she keeps telling us how ugly she is when she has a prince falling all over her before she gets beautified.  That my friends, is annoying.

2) Well, we have to give the heroine some sort of problem.

Yes, I get insecurity is a typical teenage problem.  And it’s better having a complete Sue, but couldn’t the MC have other problems.  In Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead, Rose Hathaway has plenty of problems but her appearance isn’t one of them.  Mead makes Rose satisfied with her appearance despite the fact she goes to school that’s filled with supermodel types.  The MC doesn’t even necessarily have to be satisfied with her appearance.  Take Mia Thermopolis from Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries, in the early books she’s constantly insecure about her chest size, but the book isn’t about that.  Honestly, it’s more or less a running gag. And honestly her chest size is the least of her problems and she realizes that.  However, we have other books in the genre where the physical imperfections are the only problem the MC has.  Like in the Magnolia League by Katie Crouch, Alex constantly complains that she’s fat (she’s a freaking size 6).  In fact, a lot of the poor decisions she makes is basically because of her appearance.  The whole book really revolves around her appearance-character reactions to her, her love interest, the magic.  It’s ridiculous.  And really a size six is fat….fuck you.  Fuck, fuckity, fuck you.

3) Well, if I make my heroine pretty beyond words than she’s a self assured young woman and just plain awesome.

No, PC and Kristin Cast, no.

I like a confident heroine.  But when you have Zoey Redbird, House of Night, who’s about as vain as Gaston from Beauty and the Beast fame.  It doesn’t work.  It sort of has the same affect as the I’m Prettier than I Think I am Heroine.  In other words, it makes you want to rip her throat out.  And having a heroine described like this isn’t so much unhealthy as annoying.  Sure, I think it’s unhealthy in the sense that these heroines make physical beauty to be some sort of virtue, but what’s worse is that it shows a lack of character development.

4) Teens change their appearance all the same, so what if my MC zaps herself a new butt.  She has superpowers.  If you had superpowers you’d zap yourself a Kardashian rear too.

There’s dyeing your hair and then there’s giving yourself radical plastic surgery via magic which is what occurs in Brittany Geragotelis’s What the Spell?.  The book itself spends three pages depicting the change a pretty but quasi mousy girl to looking like Barbie.  It’s disgusting.  It’s disturbing.  And yet, Brooklyn is a character that we’re supposed to identify with.  After all, all of us want to zap are problem areas a way too, right?  Well, maybe…but do we (well, there is plastic surgery), but to be honest this isn’t merely fixing one problem this is overhauling ones entire appearance.  And in many books this happens to a degree.  Maybe not all at once, but characters do undergo physcial transformations.  Bella, for instance, becomes a beautiful vampire in Breaking Dawn (the fact that she just gave birth seems overshadowed, since she’s given a supermodel body when in reality she should spend eternity with a postpartum body).  Showing that you can change yourself with the snap of your fingers and that it’s perfectly okay to scrub any semblance identity away isn’t a healthy message.


5)Its fiction.  And so what if I my character has the perfect butt.

Two words: Mary Sue.  Seriously, there are so many annoying YA characters with perfect butts and perky breasts that fail the Sue litmus test, it’s not difficult to see why they have said perfect assets (wish fulfillment).  Oh, and that fiction excuse it’s really flimsy just like Stephenie Meyer’s logic in Breaking Dawn  and we all know how purdy Bella looked after her transformation.



4 thoughts on “Self Image and YA

  1. I agree, I really don't like this sort of thing, it's degrading and distrubing; another thing that bothers me about the whole self-image is that, in some books I've read, it's always the bad character or the annoying character that has acne/acne scars(the MC always has clear skin, even if she describes herself as plain). As someone who has acne, I really don't like it when people do that.And that girl in Magnolia League thought a size 6 was fat? Seriously!? I checked one of the dresses I own and it was a size 5- and I'm a skinny person(always have been, though I have put on a little muscle since I started Taekwondo). That book is so full of crap :P.

  2. Exactly. I really wish I would've added that one. Most people do not have clear skin especially as a teen. Heck, my sister is thirty and still visits the dermatologist and saying that that equals a bad character is just so annoying.Yeah…that book stay far, far away. One of the authors actually discussed the issue with me and a few others and were like of course she's not fat she thinks she is-regardless, it's still insulting when the average size of an American woman is a 14.

  3. Great post MJI'm totally with you on the Zoe Redbird thing, she's so unlikable. Personally, I would like to read more about people who maybe are just pretty, or look good when they put effort into it but who aren't going to land any modeling contracts on the side. Same goes for cute guys, I like cute guys in books, I like swooning but I also think that not all leading men need to be super handsome or strong, specially in high school. I mean, I think of the guys I went to school with, and even the ones I had crushes on… they weren't really sporting a six pack or anything, though they were somewhat athletic.

  4. Thanks.I agree with you about the girls and also about the guys. I like mind candy, but I do wish they were a bit realistic. Usually guys who are totally ripped in high school don't age the best-sad but true-or are not a too hot to believe he's true nerd in disguise.

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