Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Body Image and Every Day by David Levithan, a discussion by Christie Gibrich

Recently, I had one of those moments where I am talking about a book that I really loved and the person I am talking to, in this case fellow blogger Christie Gibrich, says "yes, but . . ."  So I asked her to write about her "Yes, But" because it is an issue that I myself even referenced last week in my review of Butter by Erin Jade Lange.  I'll let her tell you all about it.

A little background: Every Day is the story of a person known only as A who wakes up every day in a different body.  For 24 hours A lives the life of this person.




My co-blogger, Karen, wrote a review of Every Day by David Levithan in June (find it here).  I fully admit that I am a rabid fan of David Levithan- I had the pleasure of meeting him at a conference after his Boy Meets Boy came out, and I went into full fangirl worship mode and we talked for a good thirty minutes about his work and how much I loved it, and how much my teens loved that he was writing such realistic characters for teens- and for GLBT teens.  So when I got ahold of an e-ARC of Every Day, I stayed up through the night to read it.  And I was loving it.

Until I hit Day 6025.


Day 6025 is approximately 7/8ths of the way through the book.  “A” has already been a variety of teens:  twin linebackers, girls, gays, drug addicts, alcoholics, etc., and has handled those with a grace and understanding that others have pointed out could be more than a teen voice.  Then he becomes Finn, and that understanding goes out the window.  Finn is an obese teen, by Levithan’s own description “at least 300 pounds” wearing “an XXXL buttondown and some size 46 jeans” and when “A” wakes up in Finn’s body, the prejudice and loathing for his host starts from the moment he opens his eyes, and never goes away. 

“Finn Taylor has retreated from most of the world; his size comes from negligence and laziness, a carelessness that would be pathological if it had any meticulousness to it.  While I’m sure if I access deep enough I will find some well of humanity, all I can see on the surface is the emotional equivalent of a burp.”

“A” never bothers to see what’s beneath- most obese teens are not like this by choice.  Unlike society’s belief that if you just walk it off or eat less, or that it’s because schools are cutting physical education, or that it’s just a choice, there’s usually deep psychological issues going on- depression, emotional abuse, suicidal impulses being turned inward.  Or medical issues that are not being treated properly, because of lack of health care or parents not being advocates for their “fat/lazy” child.  If it was as simple as just eating right, a teen could turn it around.

“The chairs are wobbly underneath me at the bookstore’s café.  I decide to walk the aisles instead, but they’re too narrow, and I keep knocking things off the shelves.”*


Really?  REALLY?!?!  We need to have an image of this teen as GODZILLA or THE THING going through a public bookstore destroying things because he’s 300 pounds?!?!?  There’s a difference between hyperbole for a point and encouraging the stereotypical mental image that society has for those who are overweight.  Unless the chairs were antique wicker chairs, or the aisles didn’t meet minimum ADA requirements, this wouldn’t happen to a person of Finn’s description, and the twin linebackers would have had similar problems.  Even then, if “A” bothered to access Finn’s memories like he did with other hosts to work in their worlds, he would have figured out how to work within his body instead of joining the chorus of disgust.

“If I were in a different body, this would be the time I would lean down and kiss her.  If I were in a different body, that kiss could transform the night from off to on.  If I were in a different body, she would see me inside.  She would see what she wanted to see.”


“A” doesn’t bother to relate to Finn.  He can’t get through the day fast enough; Rhiannon can’t be bothered to look beyond the surface to see “A” within Finn’s body.  If he was only someone else, then things would be different and he could change everything … but because he can’t be bothered to work with what he was dealt, or be bothered to work around his own personal prejudice, the date and the time with Rhiannon was a waste.  This furthermore enforces the belief that if you are overweight or obese or fat, you’re unworthy of love- because no one will ever be able to see the “real” you.

I was so let down by this chapter in Every Day.  Up to that point I was loving the book, and how “A” was flipping from character to character.  The fact that Levithan, who writes so well for teens, wrote this whole chapter, left me in compete disbelief.  I know other YA librarians/readers who are split- some didn’t catch it, while others reacted the same way I did.  It’s bad enough that we have the media shoving preconceived notions of how we’re supposed to look, how we’re supposed to act, and how we’re supposed to dress down our throats every day.  Being told that having a certain amount of body mass makes us unworthy of love is unacceptable.

Have you read Every Day - what do you think?  What ya titles do you think handle the issue of body image well?

*Editor's note: I (Karen) recently read Skinny - which I will review soon - about another morbidly obese teenager, in this case a female, and she undergoes weight loss surgery after the chair she is sitting on stage breaks beneath her. And in Butter, reviewed last week, our main character has specially made school furniture to accomodate his size. In both of these titles, I thought the issue of weight and the emotions that go with it were handled well.

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post... I am one of those librarians who didn't catch this when I was reading it (although now I am wondering how in the world I could have missed it) and it's great that people are talking about it.

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  2. I think so too. Sometimes I feel that those who are overweight are singled out because it's one of the LAST socially acceptable areas to make fun of- we're (men and women) constantly bombarded with the ideal images of what we're supposed to look like and no one can measure up. If you look at what was considered attractive even 50-60 years ago to today, it's a *huge* difference.

    I read so many stories where it's always a choice that the person is overweight, that it seems to be a simple equation of eat less and exercise more, and while that works for some, it doesn't work for all, or for most. If it did, then there wouldn't be a problem. As someone who has struggled with weight for all my life, trust me, it's not that simple.

    I think the book as a whole is beautiful, and certainly will buy it for my collection as soon as my fall money shows up (love those September publishing dates when my money ends in August for encumbrances :-D ) , but it's something to think about and talk about.

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  3. I am now a reader of this blog because I had to see if anyone else was as horrified by the treatment of Finn. Luckily, Google led me here.

    I had such a hard time with this chapter. All the horrors that were described(the copious sweating, the wheezing, the fragile furniture, and the knocking things off shelves) NONE of these things were a problem with the football players. For the first time in the entire book, Rhiannon can't find A inside. He has been every type of person, but as soon as he is big, she can't see him. Then he is the catalyst for her admitting that this relationship can't work.

    I kept waiting for A to gain some empathy in the eleventh hour. I kept waiting for him to find some humanity in Finn. I guess Finn and his extra weight were irredeemable.

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  4. Dudes! I am so glad that I did exactly what Ashley did and found this post! I am going to be a reader of this great blog from now on. Man, the whole Finn thing was so harsh and it was so unlike what I think of when I think of Levithan. I am so glad that others have thought this way as well. Thank you for the great post!

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  5. Found your review when I was about to post mine -- http://librarina.wordpress.com/2013/05/13/every-day-by-david-levithan/... So glad to see I am not alone!

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  6. I was thinking the same thing when I read this book a few months ago! I was loving the book and the premise, than boom this chapter comes on in and knocks my review from 5 to 4 stars on Goodreads (not that dramatic of a drop, but I rarely give out 5 stars). After all of the different types of people A inherits throughout the book, the only one who is irredeemable or reprehensible is Finn. Because he's fat.

    That being said, maybe this was David Levithan's point. As a high school junior, I weighed 305 pounds and at my heaviest, I was 390 pounds as a college sophomore. Even though I was never wheezing or knocking things over in stores or being a dirty filthy unshowered mess (though I did break my fair share of chairs, including my desk/chair in the middle of an Econ final), I definitely felt the things that A was experiencing as an overweight guy. Everybody does look and act differently around you. You could sense it, you didn't even have to see them to know. You could hear people laugh nearby and always assume is was directed at you. I have since lost 185 pounds over the course of the past six years, still not thin, but I've been able to see what it's like on both sides of the issue. The whole time I was losing weight, I was busting my butt. Six years straight of dieting and three years of intense exercise. What I really wanted was a shirt that would tell everybody "I was working on it, I've lost X amount of weight", so they'd stop judging me. Regardless, A's thoughts as Finn were very similar to my own. I hated myself, called myself lazy, never even thought of pursuing a romantic relationship. So in this aspect, David Levithan was dead on in his account with Finn.

    However, it did bug me that he blamed Finn for his obesity. While Finn's actions almost certainly led to his state, as a teen, a younger teen especially, parents play a massive role in this. I didn't seriously begin to lose weight until I got to college, away from my parents who made all of the food purchasing decisions and my mom, who is probably the best cook in the world. My parents always had chips, desserts, candy, pop, etc. They never pushed me to play sports and certainly weren't examples of living a healthy lifestyle themselves. Why could this be any different for Finn? Why was it that "his size comes from negligence and laziness, a carelessness that would be pathological if it had any meticulousness to it." Trust me, Finn cares. It's probably not carelessness, but rather helplessness that drove him to his obesity, which is why to me, his situation is the most dire in the whole book.

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  8. I’ve seen several protests against the obesity chapter, but I actually read it a little differently.

    I felt like prejudice against obesity is presented not as being justified, but as being a prejudice which even A has fallen prey to. He knows it; he fights it; it still affects him. But it’s not RIGHT.

    Some examples from the text:

    “And there are the looks I get – such undisguised disgust. (…) The judgement flows freely. It’s possible that they’re reacting to the thing that Finn has allowed himself to become. But there’s also something more primal, something more defensive in their disgust.” That’s not approval of the prejudice by a longshot.

    And then, there are the two best friends: “They make fun of Finn’s size, but it’s clear they don’t really care. If he were thin, they’d make fun of him for that, too. I feel I can relax around them.” These two random teenagers are capable of doing what even A cannot: treat Finn like a normal guy. Which, in the context of this book, makes them awesome.

    Finally, when he considers trying to intervene in Finn’s life, “shock him” to “stop eating so much,” A’s immediately horrified: “I’m horrified at myself for even thinking such a thing. I remind myself that it’s not my business to tell Finn what to do.”

    In other words, yes, A is being judgmental – but the novel calls him out for it, takes him to task. Equally, in a romance requiring Rhiannon to accept A in all shapes and forms, this is the one she can’t stomach – that’s not approval, that’s a failure. A common one, perhaps one the reader can sympathize with, but it’s also a fall from grace.

    I can see why people are upset at this part, and I don’t consider “Every Day” flawless by any means. But I do think Levithan wrote with surprising subtlety and nuance; I thought I saw that here, and if it makes anybody else feel better about this segment, then I’m happy to share :)

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