That moment when you realize your childhood books were fat-shaming...

... and you're at work and you're on a public service desk and it's very possible that you might cry.  It's not a good moment to feel, but it is an important one to note.

Despite a lot of the poopy stuff that goes down there, Twitter is a place that I enjoy being, if a social network existing on some servers in the middle of New Jersey (or wherever) can be a place.  Although I see a lot of ignorant, offensive, and downright vile comments on there, I've learned so much.  In combination with blogging, talking to fellow librarians, writers, and bloggers has honed my reading skills in meaningful ways.  A few years ago, for example, I didn't even notice the cultural appropriation of Native peoples in Weetzie Bat.  I knew that wearing a headdress/war bonnet wasn't cool to do in real life, but I rationalized that Weetzie Bat was just being dumb and exploring her identity.  No.  She had no right to take another person's heritage and wear it as a fashion statement.  I get that now.  I see it.  If anything, Twitter has taught me to listen to various points of view and then see how I can improve the way I talk about the world and the way I read about it.

Today, I was following a fascinating conversation about female characters and size in books, and my fellow librarian R. brought up Bess in the Nancy Drew series.  So I started thinking.

It's a profoundly bizarre feeling to realize that something you thought you loved also caused a lot of internalized pain as a child.

Here's the thing.  If you haven't read any of the Nancy Drew books, there are three main female protagonists (which, admittedly, is pretty cool): the titular Nancy and her BFFs George and Bess.  George and Bess are cousins.  As we all know, the easiest laziest way to characterize someone is by focusing on one of their characteristics and then repeating it a million times in the book(s) so we know who you're talking about.  For George, it's that her parents wanted a boy, but she was born, but they still named her George.  She is slim and athletic and boyish.  Bess is the opposite: she is pretty but "plump," forever just five pounds overweight.  George often shames her cousin for enjoying food that evidently the other two girls can eat with impunity, because they are "slim."

So here I am, like eight years old.  I read the Nancy Drew books all the way into fifth and sixth grade--they were like a comfort toy or blankie, book-style.  I started having to wear a bra at nine (fourth grade was mortifying), and I gained weight.  I didn't eat very healthily, although my parents always cooked really nutritious meals, and I always had to eat my veggies!  I liked snacking.  Specifically on sour, sugary things.  I didn't drink pop (and still don't), so my sugar intake was from things like Sour Patch Kids.  Plus, I was never a team sports kind of kid.  I would ride my bike endlessly, pretending it was a horse, but no soccer or swim team for me, thanks.  But as homework got more intense, and as the neighborhood where I grew up deteriorated, I spent less time outside.  I always felt "thick" next to my classmates and friends, although I probably had just gained the usual puberty weight, plus some extra due to love of snack cakes.

But I was eight or nine years old.  I shouldn't have cared about my weight!  I was a kid!  Even as I got older, yeah, I was heavy.  I had pudge around the middle.  But I looked at pictures of myself and you know what?  This was also a primo time for supremely unflattering clothing.  At the time, I told myself I didn't care what I looked like.  But inside, I completely, utterly, and totally couldn't stop hating my body.  Everyone else was thin!  They ate whatever they wanted and got away with being thin!  (This is, obviously, a ridiculous assumption on my part, but again: I was super immature)

When I read the Nancy Drew books, I wanted to be Nancy.  She was the glamorous, smart, pretty, gracious girl who drove a roadster!  But I knew that I was Bess.  Actually, I was less than Bess.  Bess' redeeming quality was that she was "pretty."  I didn't think of myself as pretty, nor do I still.  I think I look interesting and singular, but not conventionally "pretty."  So, as a pre-teen, I seemed to have precisely zero options for success.  I was "plump" like Bess.  I had pudge around the middle and cellulite on my thighs.  But could I redeem myself by having gorgeous blonde hair and sparkly blue eyes like Bess?  No way!  I thus reasoned that the only way to be acceptably fat was to be conventionally pretty, and since I couldn't be pretty, I was a loser.  As I got older, this kind of reversed itself in a really scary, potentially deadly way.  I reasoned that if I couldn't be pretty, then I could at least be thin.  Hi, eating disorder!

I don't think many readers think about Bess' weight and the books' treatment of it as part of her character when they think about Nancy Drew.  For most people, it probably went by unnoticed.  And to be sure, Nancy was a really groundbreaking character for her time.  She was the one who solved the mystery, not her lawyer daddy or her bland-as-gruel boyfriend Ned.  She took risks.  She showed a lot of girls that you could grow up to be someone other than "Tom's wife" or "the homemaker."  You could solve mysteries!  Barring that, you could write them!  But does that absolve Nancy and George from teasing Bess about eating cookies or not fitting into her dress?  Absolutely not.

I'd like to think that Nancy, if she were born today, wouldn't care a fig about whether Bess needed to lose five pounds or not.  They'd just roll off in her hybrid car and solve mysteries together and eat a metric crapton of chocolate cake when they were done.  And then they'd binge-watch Sherlock and be awesome feminists.


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