By now you’ve probably heard about the incident where YA author Meg Rosoff proclaimed “There are not too few books for marginalised young people. There are hundreds of them, thousands of them.” Her comments were sparked in reaction to a crowdfunded picture book called Large Fears by Myles E. Johnson. She doubled down by saying that books shouldn’t provide a mirror for kids. (She’s since insisted that everyone is misinterpreting her, but I’m pretty sure we heard her loud and clear the first time.)
Understandably, people are pissed. (Rightfully so–to say that kids don’t need mirrors can only come from someone who is constantly, effortlessly surrounded by them.)
It got me started thinking about the mirrors I did and did not see in books, movies, and TV as I was growing up. I’m white, relatively middle-class, and didn’t realize I was bisexual until I was an adult (prior to that, the religion I was raised in didn’t even admit the possibility of such a thing). So admittedly, I have one hell of a lot of privilege.
But the other thing I am is fat. I have always been fat. I started getting chubby when I was four years old.
I was a voracious reader as a child, loved movies. I learned one thing very early on: girls like me were never, ever the heroine. In fact, if we showed up at all, we were probably the ugly bully. As I graduated to reading Stephen King and romance novels, it got worse.
I am a lifelong Stephen King fan, but let me tell you, the man has issues about fat women. And he also–like most people–has no clue what the numbers on a scale actually look like on a human. His fat women are almost always described as enormous, terrifying, gluttonous, slobbish people, with loving descriptions of the equally enormous piles of food they consume on a daily basis.
That’s the other thing I learned about fat people from reading: every one of us consumes an irrationally large amount of food. Constantly. It’s amazing we have time to have jobs and go to school and sleep for all of the eating we do.
Reading romance? I learned quickly I wasn’t worthy of love–a message, I’m sorry to say, that was repeated by my family in attempt to “fix” me. If, by some miracle, I did find a book with a heroine who was fat or who had been fat, the message of the book was inevitably about how she changed her body to become worthy of love.
Even though things are a little better now, I still have yet to see anyone my size depicted anywhere with any sense of dignity or humanity that didn’t involve a weight loss narrative. “Plus size” is great–but only to a certain point, a point I left behind about two decades ago.
I had no accurate mirrors. The mirrors I did have were distorted funhouse mirrors that told me I was a monster, the bully, the villain. Maybe, if I were very very good, I might get to be the heroine’s best friend. Today I am the object lesson. The “before” picture. The headless fat person image that accompanies every news story about the “obesity epidemic.” If I am very very good, a smaller version of me might still get to be the heroine’s best friend. Still never the heroine–that’s reserved for (even) smaller fat girls.
The thing was, I didn’t think about it as a kid. It didn’t bother me because I just accepted it as the truth. Of course I could never be the heroine. Nobody likes fat girls, so who’d believe a romance with one? Of course I couldn’t play a lead role in a play, the heroine is described as “pretty”, and I wasn’t. Besides, who wanted to see a fat girl do anything but be funny? I accepted what I saw in those mirrors as the truth about who I was: ugly, unlovable, evil, bad, worthy only of laughter.
Sometimes it would almost be easier to go back to that acceptance. It’s easier than getting mad every time I see a writer lazily shorthand “fat” for “evil”. Every time I see another fat person’s humanity removed via the headless fatty picture. (Or my personal favorite: when the lead character on Bones went into a long explanation of why all fat people smell bad. The answer? We’re literally moldy. I couldn’t make this shit up.)
Sure, things are a little better–in some ways. But now thanks to wall-to-wall coverage of the “obesity epidemic”, total strangers feel free to randomly come up to me and give me diet advice or tell me about the surgery they or their aunt or their sister had. (Absolute truth: I once nearly missed the beginning of a movie because a random woman came over and sat next to me in the theater to tell me about her weight-loss surgery.) There is a hit television series based on torturing people who look like me with dangerous and irresponsible diet and exercise. It’s “inspirational”, you see.
And I can’t help but wonder: what might have happened if I’d had honest mirrors, true mirrors, mirrors that said “you are a person and you are lovely and lovable.” Would I still have developed depression and anxiety as an adult? Would I be more successful than I am? Even more, I wonder where we might be as a society if other people had seen those same depictions.
The thing is, as bad as things can be for fat people, it’s nothing compared to what people of color face. Nobody’s shooting me for driving while fat. What could the world be like if our entertainment reflected all of us accurately, humanly?
So yeah, maybe on that level, Rosoff is right: it’s not about seeing yourself in a mirror, at least, it’s not just about that. It’s about seeing the humanity in everyone around you, even the people who don’t look like you.