I recently received the most interesting reader review of my book so far. (As you may know, I wrote a YA thriller set in a girls’ school, called Gemini Rising…)
This review was thoughtful, insightful and beautifully written; it pointed out a lot of correct influences that nobody else seems to have picked up on so far, praised many aspects of the book and made some interesting criticisms that I totally took on board. (You can see the full review on Good Reads – as the reviewer points out, it does contain spoilers so is best read only after you have read the book itself.)
However, there was one point that really got me thinking. It was this:
‘I am tired of main characters who are supposed to be plain or unattractive, and the main selling point of this is that they have brown hair and are TOO skinny. Look... I hate to say it, but to teen girls who take the western beauty standard extremely seriously as a way of validating their identity, there is not such a thing as too skinny. Not having huge tits is a minor flaw at best. Being tall and very slender as opposed to having a fuller, curvier figure with bigger tits being perceived as something that makes you seen as unattractive and ugly is not something I or any other woman I know can relate to. Maybe you can! … Making your main character "too skinny" as a way to make her physically flawed is disingenuous. You, the author, are perfectly aware that skinniness is considered attractive to us.’
Harsh but fair? Good point well made?
I can only speak for myself, and I do think it’s an interesting and valid point, but I disagree. However, this may come from a mixture of personal experience and now being 32 years old.
First of all, actually, I don’t see my main character as being particularly good-looking – she’s certainly not a Bambi-like ‘oh-my-god-she-looks-like-a-model-but-she-just-doesn’t-realise-it’ type. Her best friend is overweight, which is not a big part of the story but is alluded to several times throughout, and she has way more confidence in herself and her appearance. (And she’s definitely not just the fat/funny best friend.)
My main character isn’t exactly the same as me, but I suppose there were elements of that old saying ‘write what you know’. When I was in my teens, I was skinny. Personally, I don’t think it much matters – most girls, for a bit, at that age, are either a bit too skinny or a bit too chubby, for no good reason, and then it all evens out. However, I didn’t love being as skinny as I was and it seemed very depressing to me at the time – I already ate like a small horse so there was nothing that I could do about it. I should point out that I wasn’t some kind of teen model, gazelle-like skinny: I was small and shrimpy, with a hair situation that led to girls in my class temporarily nicknaming me ‘Greaseball’. My greasy hair bothered me as much as my skinniness did; maybe girls who had frizzy hair had a worse time than I did, but I guess I’ll never know.
I regularly got accused of having an eating disorder (which I didn’t but, weirdly, I believe this contributed to some eating issues I did develop later on). A boy dumped me because I didn’t want to sleep with him, and he told everyone that ‘it would have been like feeling up a 10-year-old boy, anyway’. I once bought a ‘one-size-fits-all’ belly chain thing from Miss Selfridge (it was the 90s, OK?!), and it slithered down over my hips into a puddle on the floor – its design meant it was impossible to adjust, so that was £2.99 I would never get back plus I was clearly abnormal, so I cried. Other girls openly sneered at my equally skinny friend and me about our figures – then again, we were pretty annoying and fond of the Annie soundtrack, and physical insults are simply the easiest target, so this would probably have been the same with different adjectives had we both been chubby. Fortunately for us, ‘loser’ is and always has been a universal term.
Pretty tragic, maybe, but the main thing I wanted at that age was to be attractive to boys. As far as I could tell, teenage boys were interested in one thing: tits. I’m sorry but it’s true – skinny schoolgirls might be novel to old pervs, but breasts are novel to teenage boys and they pretty much unanimously love them. The girls in my class who were popular with boys all seemed to be slightly chubby, because that meant they had tits. End of. (On a related side note, is it coincidence that my first boyfriend grew up to be a practising homosexual? We bonded over our love of Madonna and, um, Fox Mulder; I had no idea.)
In those long-ago days of the late-90s, there was no Alexa Chung looking willowy and beautiful all over the place. There was also no size 4 or 6 on the high street, so I was stuck in Tammy Girl long after most of my peers moved on to Topshop. I don’t remember us particularly aspiring to look like Kate Moss back then. The boys all seemed to be obsessed with some combination of the following: Britney Spears, All Saints, Lara Croft, Holly Valance, Felicity Shagwell out of Austin Powers, Denise van Outen in her Big Breakfast days and all those other busty, shouty women who looked like her… The girls at school all agreed: the ideal figure meant being a size 10 with a 34C bra. We were very specific. Unfortunately my experiment of pinning two Wonderbras together was not a great success. Fortunately, in the end, Gwen Stefani came along and taught me to play to my strengths.
I’m sure it was tricky for fat girls, too. Maybe trickier. It was tricky for most of us, I know that. Surely the point is that lots of us feel shit about ourselves for some reason at that age. Probably those girls I envied had more confidence than tits, and that’s what made them so in-demand. The thing that I find baffling in retrospect, that just goes to show how we will use anything to beat ourselves up at that age, is that between me and the girls considered ‘fat’ in my class, there were probably only two or three dress sizes in it. The girls bang smack in the middle seemed to come off best, but maybe they would disagree as well.
So maybe I’m biased; maybe I’m just a bit out of date. I’m now an adult and a relatively small but normal size, practically curvaceous by comparison to my former teen gawk, and I don’t give such things a massive amount of thought. Most of the things that worried me greatly at that age don’t matter any more, which is as it should be. Actually, if I really wanted to harp on about this, I could tell you honestly that, earlier this year, after a particularly traumatic time during which I lost about 10 pounds from my already not-fat frame, I made a concerted effort to put them back on because I didn’t want my body to be seen as a cry for help. There is such a thing as ‘too skinny’, or maybe it’s just ‘the wrong skinny’. Whether there is such a thing as ‘too rich’, unfortunately, I wouldn’t know.
Yeah, OK, if I really wanted to now I could probably be fatter and consequently have bigger boobs. Now that those pesky teenage hormones have died down, I thankfully get more of a say in what size I am. I’ll admit that I like being skinny(ish) now a lot more than I did back then. Maybe the times have just changed, but I think it’s more that I have (and hopefully most people have if you compare them at 16 and 32). There’s Alexa Chung now, but there are also a whole load of other people for you to choose from. I’m glad that Gwen Stefani’s still around, peddling the perfect abs I still aspire to. If I was 16 now, I can pretty much guarantee that I would be sitting around feeling jealous of Daisy Lowe – turns out I wasn’t just skinny but really, tediously whiney. What about you?
I’m really not trying to start an argument in the nasty sense, or to divide people based on their body shape – or, worst of all, to be hitting back at a critical comment for the arbitrary sake of it. I am genuinely interested and I think this is a fascinating topic. I would love to know how you all feel about it, particularly if you had the opposite experience to me. Please do let me know.