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The Cover Story: body image and ya lit book covers

So these past few weeks Christie G and I have been talking about body image and teen fiction. Which got me thinking: What about the book covers themselves?

We know from research that the images that teens see in the media affect the way they perceive their own bodies. 3 out of 4 girls feel worse about their bodies after reading fashion magazines (Love whose body? Spark, a movement thank you Cheryl Rainfield for the link). It has happened to us all (although apparently not to white men near as often): you’re flipping through the pages of a magazine and slowly, you come to a realization: your hips are too big, your stomach isn’t flat and those clothes they are wearing – I could never pull that off. Take a moment to watch this video on Cause and Effect: How the Media You Consume Can Change Your Life (Thank you RobinReads for the link):

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hv5Z2Xv8iJU]

Alliance for Women in Media

Now let’s talk about all of this in the context of teen fiction book covers. We already know that teen book covers are whitewashed (check out the Book Smugglers article on Cover Matters: On Whitewashing). But how is weight depicted on teen fiction book covers?

Without a doubt the current trend is to show pretty girls in flowing dresses on the cover (sometimes even when it has little to do with the inside content of the book):

FANTASTIC book, but the cover totally misrepresents the book.

Sometimes the big dress covers even make sense, but still send a message.

Look at that collar bone!

Big flowy dress emphasizes a teeny tiny waist!

But what about some of the other book covers? Thinking about book covers first started percolating in my brain when I was at the Sourcebooks booth at ALA in Anaheim. I was visiting the booth asking for a copy of the ARC of Entice, the sequel to Embrace, and learned an interesting fact. Here is the cover for Embrace (which is a good paranormal read).

As the rep handed me the ARC of Entice, I said I liked the cover and she told me an interesting story about how “they” (whoever they were) were unhappy with the Embrace cover because the model rear was “too big” so they shot the Entice cover from a different angle.

This is the Entice cover. I actually really like both covers. I think that the purple hues are beautiful. And the Embrace cover actually inspired a teen programming idea I had for making 3D paranormal themed book covers. And I like the Entice cover, the way the wings go from a smoky outline in Embrace to more of a more fully realized glowy wings on the Entice cover. Like the Hourglass books, these covers progressively tell a story. The only thing I don’t like about the cover of Entice is the way it highlights the models tiny waist and gives that peek a boo of flesh. And that bosom – it is magnificent in its cleavage baring ways. It looks like a magazine picture. The same type of magazine pictures that cause 3 out of 4 girls to walk away from our magazine collections feeling bad about themselves. (And let me pause here to reiterate, I really like this series.)

Like the Embrace series, the Hourglass covers represent the progression of the story inside the book through design elements. However, although these girls are wearing dresses, they don’t draw attention to the body and the emotion of being sucked into something pulls your attention away from the girl herself IMHO. This girl is still probably a little thin little, but she’s not sexualized or overly idealized.

So then I thought, what about the very books that we talked about when discussing the stories of overweight teens. In truth, none of them show a full bodied teen or really depict the size of the teen that the story is about. The one that comes closest is The Earth, My Butt and Other Round Things by Carolyn Mackler.

To be honest, this butt isn’t even as big as Beyonce’s or J-Lo’s – which by the way are both considered incredibly sexy – and is really small if you were to look at a good 70% of the butts walking down the street in front of you. This is not a big butt. It is, thankfully, a pretty average butt which is probably a step in the right direction given other ya covers. But the message is also that this pretty average butt is, in fact, a problem – it’s too big.

But seriously, go take a moment and look at our Top 10 list of books that deal with obesity and body image well:
Only one of them – Fat Kid Rules the World by K . L. Going seems to be even hinting at showing an overweight kid. And honestly, this is a very unattractive cover. But not because of the body being shown, but because of the color scheme.
You’ll also note that newer covers show no hint of an actual body:
It is also interesting to note that of all the books being turned into lucrative movie deals these days – and let’s face it, there are a lot! – Fat Kid Rules the World has been turned into a movie and is trying hard to find distribution through a Kickstarter campaign. Here you have a movie based on a book that librarian after librarian say is the best representation of weight issues in ya lit, and it already filmed and can’t find distribution. What does that say to our teens and our culture about what we value when these types of movies can’t get support?
What does it say to our teens and about our culture when we can’t put realistic looking teens on the covers of the very books that we say represent them? I am sure that publishers do research and have reams of research about what sells, but do they have reams of research about how it influences teens self-perception? Because me, I can’t help but think book covers would have the same type of influence as any other type of media that our teens see. Which is why I am a HUGE fan of stylized or graphically designed covers that don’t focus on people at all. Or at least the ones that only have brief or abstract images of people that relate to the story.
This book cover really just evokes an emotion in me. The book is good, too.
This is hands down one of my favorite book covers of the year. It represents a person, but vaguely, and it is very graphic and eye catching. The color scheme is amazing as well.
Now it’s your turn: What do you think about ya book covers – do you think they influence the way teen readers perceive themselves like other types of media do? Do you think they represent teens well and are realistic? Which ones are your least and most favorite? Do you prefer people on your covers or more abstract designs?
Edited to add: There are petitions out to Seventeen Magazine and Teen Vogue asking them to use images of real girls instead of models in their magazines.  The petition to Seventeen Magazine was successful and they have agreed to show “real girls” in their magazine.  The petition to Teen Vogue is still ongoing.
Read the rest of our discussion on body image and ya lit:
Body Image and Eating Disorders

Top 10 teen titles dealing with body image and eating disorders
The Girl in the Fiberglass Corset; a story about scoliosis and eating disorders

Teen Obesity and Body Image:
Every Day by David Levithan, a book review
Butter by Erin Jade Lange, a book review
The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, a book review
Skinny by Donna Conner, a review
A Second Opinion: Every Day by David Levithan
10 Titles that deal with Obesity and Body Image (with links to some good articles)

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