Kill the Fatphobia: Fat Girls in YA
Kill the Boy Band by Goldy Moldavsky is a recent young adult novel about a group of fangirl friends who kidnap a member of their favorite boy band, The Ruperts. The first major description given of Apple, the fat girl in the group, is this: “Apple’s forehead crinkled, and having no food on hand to munch on … she did the next best thing: She chewed on a strip of her dyed auburn hair.”
Not long after, we learn the history of her name:
“…Apple’s parents were browsing the orphanage when they spotted the chubbiest baby they’d ever seen eating a piece of fruit out of the trash. I’ll give you one guess which fruit.”
Two chapters in, and here’s what we know about the fat girl:
- she stress-eats so compulsively she’ll chew on her hair without food around
- even as a baby she ate so much she’d eat right out of the trash.
Apple’s fatness is what enables the girls to kidnap their boy band member, Rupert P. Apple sees him in a hallway, turns into “a big blubbering mess of tear-streaked flesh and dry heaving”, and tackles him, knocking him out. The book makes it clear that it’s not hitting his head on the floor that incapacitates him. It’s that his assailant was a 267-pound teenager (her weight is repeated for emphasis). The narrator remarks, “This was actually kind of a best-case scenario, under the circumstances, because a tackle from Apple could’ve very well killed him.”
The fatphobia doesn’t stop there. We later learn that Apple likes the ugliest member of The Ruperts because, even in her fantasies, she doesn’t think she can hope for anything better. She also has an oversized suitcase stuffed with popcorn, because, I guess, reasons.
This is spectacularly bad fat representation.
But it’s not just the representation that hurts. What hurts more is the reception this book has received. In the months leading up to its release most of what I saw was praise. In Twitter searches for the title, those who read the ARC pushed it as edgy and hilarious, and others responded with excitement. In the time since its come out, a Twitter search continues to reveal a lot of love and not a lot of talk about the book’s problems. Goodreads reviews are similar—though some have been critical, many more ignore or dismiss the critiques and instead sing the book’s praises.
Because the talk has been so positive, many reacted with shock and confusion when I started tweeting about the fatphobia. Very few people knew about the offensive content. I kept getting the same question: How can so many people praise this book when it offers such awful representation?
At a time when so many in the YA community are passionate about diversity and positive representation, it should be surprising that something like this could slip through. But, the YA landscape is a sad one for fat girls, who have a very small number of positive representations—even fewer if you want fat girls of color, or queer fat girls, or fat girls along any intersections at all.
We mostly have Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy. Some might argue for Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. If you talk to the right people, you’ll get some more titles, like Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, and My Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught.
But you have to talk to the right people to find fat positive YA. Not all fat teenagers have that access. I’ve spent most of my life reading YA, and before I discovered fat activism I’d accepted that I was never going to see myself in a book. Fat girls don’t go on adventures or find true love. I read book after book about slim girls, and skinny girls, and tall girls with long gangly limbs, and girls who wished to be curvy but just couldn’t gain weight. It hurt in a way that I couldn’t explain. It told me, over and over again, that I wasn’t worthy.
As an adult, I can voice that pain and talk about the void that needs filling, but it’s exhausting. When Dumplin’ was met with rave reviews and a bestseller status in 2015, I got my hopes up. I thought, “They get it now. They get why this is so important. Maybe things won’t be perfect, there will still be bad books along with the good, but the community has our back.”
The response to Kill the Boy Band dashed those hopes. Why have I seen so many people praising it, and so few talking about its problems? You can love a book and still admit to its flaws, and the flaws in Kill the Boy Band don’t stop with the fatphobia (there are also issues of race, mental health, homophobia, and beyond, though I won’t delve into them here).
The response I’d like to see: “This book is engagingly written with an intriguing mystery, but it has significant problems.”
The response I’m seeing instead: “This book is dark, funny, and feminist.”
I guess fat girls don’t get feminism.
People are going to say, “You don’t understand. It’s satire. They’re all awful.”
While this may be true, satire does not grant license to blithely use fat stereotypes, and that’s most of Apple’s character. She’s a fat girl who’s constantly eating, desperate for love, and trying to lose weight (she tweets her descending weight at Rupert P. every day in the hopes he’ll notice her). This kind of representation hurts. [pullquote]Every representation matters, especially when we have so few to begin with.[/pullquote]
Maybe if we had more positive fat girl books this wouldn’t be so big of a deal, but we don’t. Every representation matters, especially when we have so few to begin with.
I love YA. The books. The community. It’s been my passion for much of my life.
But YA does not love me.
Or, it does not love my fatness.
It loves my fatness when it’s popular, ignores it when it’s not, and hates it if given the chance. It hurts me as an adult, as someone who’s spent years in both YA and fat activism. So what about the teenagers? The actual intended audience of this book? What about the fat girls who don’t yet know they deserve better than Kill the Boy Band? What about those that do, but are still learning how to express it?
What about the fat fangirl who reads this book, maybe after seeing it highly recommended by bloggers or authors she respects? What will it do to her? What message will it send about not only what this book thinks of her, but what the people praising it think of her?
If you care about YA, then you care about teenagers.
All I ask is that you care about the fat ones, too.