The Portrayal of Obese Adolescents
As an overweight adolescent, I went through a very hard time in life. My classmates and other peers constantly made fun of me in countless cruel ways. I quickly learned that as far as friends went I didn't have any. I often turned to books to get away from the world. My favorite books to read were fiction novels that applied to my own life. Unfortunately, trying to find adolescent literature that dealt with obesity was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Once I did find these books, I was very disappointed. Every adolescent in those books eventually lost weight, gained friends, popularity, and a family that would love them. This was far from the truth. Not every adolescent loses the weight and has that happy ending. I know because I am one of them.
Obesity among young people has become a "problem" in the United States. Much pressure is placed upon youth who may have a healthy weight but are still seen as fat compared to stick-thin models and men with washboard stomachs. Rather, would it not be better if children were healthy though a bigger size, instead of destroying their bodies by becoming anorexic or bulimic? On the other hand obesity has been on the rise in the United States because of inactivity and junk food. In November 1994, the Center for Health Statistics reported that, "21 percent of all youngsters 12 to 19 years old - one in every five teenagers - were overweight..." (p. 14). Although eating disorders are a problem, especially among youth and, therefore, adolescent literature focuses on anorexia or bulimia, I was disappointed to find that there is hardly any literature dealing with the other end of the spectrum.
If obesity is so common, why is there so little literature for adolescents that addresses this problem? Most of the books I found were geared towards grade-school-aged children rather than adolescents. However, I did eventually find and read a few books such as One Fat Summer by Robert Lipsyte, The Cat Ate My Gym Suit by Paula Danziger, Blubber by Judy Blume, Nothing's Fair in the Fifth Grade by Barbara DeClements, The Pig-Out Blues by Jan Greenberg, and Dinah and the Green Fat Kingdom by Isabelle Holland. These books do a good job of focusing on the problems faced by obese adolescents. The novels look at the pressure families place on their children to lose weight and even those who neglect their children because they are overweight. The books also look at the verbal and emotional abuse from peers and adults who make fun of the obese. Throughout these books the obese adolescent is faced with a great number of difficulties. Yet, by the end of each book, each child either loses the weight or starts to lose the weight. The child then gains popularity and friends and has loving families that are pleased that their child is finally becoming "normal" and fitting into their standards as a result of the weight loss. I have a problem with the endings of all of these books. Being overweight myself and growing up overweight, I know that the way these books end is not realistic, Life could never be that easy. More obese children grow up to be obese adults than the thin supermodel adults one sees on television and in advertisements.
Overweight adults have a hard time with their lives because of their childhood. They take on the negative self-image projected by others. It has taken me about four years to look at myself in the mirror and tell myself that I am beautiful just the way I am. Even then it is hard. Mary Pipher, Ph.D., and author of Reviving Ophelia , says, "It's virtually impossible in America to be heavy and feel good about yourself" (p. 179). The abuse an overweight person receives from others leaves a wound that never heals.
Even if an adolescent is able to lose the weight, he/she tends to gain it back plus some. Many overweight children are faced with the torment of being ridiculed and outcast every day by peers and family. This rejection is especially hard during adolescent years because appearance becomes so important. Also, when a person is obese and singled out, it is even harder for him/her to gain any popularity from friends. Pipher also says, "Being fat means being left out, scorned and vilified" (p. 184). I grew up dreading each day I went to school because I knew that someone would say something mean to me. I had nicknames like Big Belly Bertha, Rhino-key, Moose, Fatso, Fat Ugly Bitch, and so on. Words like these cut like a knife. Life was hard enough with these words that were said. However, it got even harder with all the things that were done to me. The boys at school used to dare each other to dance with me at school dances. Then they would laugh at the sight. They would purposely run into me in the hall and walk all over the papers that I dropped. Sometimes when I walked, they would act like I was creating an earthquake. Everyday something happened. Then I would walk home from school in tears. When I got home, I would usually eat in order to feel better. I came to the point where I believed everything that was said, and I wanted to kill myself. Life was awful. I never lost the weight and gained more friends and popularity. Rather, I stayed overweight and had to endure the torture everyday of my life.
These real life situations that an overweight adolescent often faces do not mean that every adolescent faces those problems. There are families who accept their child as they are and love them without pressuring them to be thin. There are also people (adolescents included) who accept an overweight person as he/she is and develop a meaningful relationship.
Not every adolescent who is overweight is going to have the happy ending of losing that weight and being accepted and loved by everyone as portrayed in much of young adult fiction. A more realistic picture would be that the obese adolescents are loved for who they are, not what they appear to be on the outside. The best thing that family and friends can do for overweight adolescents is to love them. They don't need people telling them what or when to eat or commenting every time they do eat. They need to know that there are more important things in life other than being the best looking and most popular kid in school. No adolescent should have to feel the pain of loneliness and abuse that an overweight adolescent often does.
Rachel Beineke has just finished a major in secondary English language arts at Conordia College in Seward, Nebraska.