I have never felt beautiful, and while there are so many reasons for that in my mind (frizzy hair, nose I don’t like, eyebrows too thick, bad posture), there’s always been one that stuck out the most: I’ve been fat for so long.
To be fair, for most of my high school and even part of college life, I wasn’t fat, I was just not-as-thin-as the girls, both around me and in magazines, who were held up as icons of beauty. My stomach had rolls and if I angled my face down just right, welp, there was my double chin.
I’m fat now. I carry my weight in specific areas on my body and I don’t have a big frame, but I look at myself in the mirror, in pictures taken of me, and it’s clear: I am fat.
So I hated myself for that. Granted, it wasn’t the only thing I hated myself for, but it was a big one. It was especially bad because I’ve always been this huge believer in romance, someone who once believed if I wasn’t married by 19 (why 19? I was reading a lot of historical fiction, okay, it’s fine) my life would have no meaning. And in the books I read, the heroines didn’t look like me. Oh, for sure, they were still white, which is a big issue of representation, and sometimes they even had frizzy hair or noses they didn’t like; but they weren’t fat.
They were never fat.
And so, I bought into the belief that nobody would love a fat girl.
When I was 23, I read DUMPLIN’, a YA novel by Julie Murphy, and it meant everything to me. So much so, I even wrote about it for Bustle. A fat heroine, whose journey isn’t about losing weight, and a love interest who thinks she’s beautiful just the way she is?
That’s how I feel about THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT SWEETIE (Simon Pulse, May 14), written by Sandhya Menon, whose previous two YA romcoms are both deliciously sweet, and whom I interviewed two years ago.
From the book’s blurb: “Sweetie Nair is many things: a formidable track athlete who can outrun most people in California, a loyal friend, a shower-singing champion. Oh, and she’s also fat.”
That description hits me because it’s so...multi-dimensional. Sweetie isn’t just a fat character who has no other qualities or personality traits. Her reason for existing as a protagonist isn’t merely to check off a box: yes, the fat character is there, carry on then.
Sweetie is as real a person as she can be while remaining … fictional. In addition to the traits listed above, readers learn within mere pages of the book that Sweetie is a girl with a fraught relationship with her mother; a big factor in what makes their relationship tense is her clothing size.
In a preface to the book, Menon shares that she, while thin at the moment, has in the past been fat. She explained her desire to write, specifically, conversations between Sweetie and her mother in which the teen daughter received this pervasive message that fat is bad, thin is good. No matter how many times Sweetie tries to remind her mother that my body is healthy, my body is strong, I am an athlete and I am good at it and I am not ashamed, her mother cannot or will not hear her.
I asked Menon about this in an interview I sent her, you know — what was it like to write these conversations so many young girls have with their mothers, and to have Sweetie put her foot down and say there’s nothing wrong with being fat?
“I wanted it to be there in very clear terms, in black and white, with no ambiguity, that even mothers have no right to say fat-shaming things to their children,” she answered. “Even if it’s coming from a place of love or fear or desperation, it has everything to do with the messages the parents themselves have internalized and very little to do with reality.”
Although Menon specifically chose to write Sweetie as a South Asian, fat athlete, both to reflect experiences she had and to show South Asian teenagers having the same experiences what it might look like to accept themselves as they are, she acknowledged that communities all around the world struggle to fully accept fat bodies.
“I want to start having these conversations about what it means to be fat and happy in your own skin, and how thin people can be more supportive of their fat loved ones,” she said.
Honestly…these are exactly the kind of conversations I want to start having with my loved ones…and with myself. There were so many moments in the book where I just had to close it (metaphorically…I read it in Kindle format on my phone, so there’s really no “closing,” but you get the picture), close my eyes, and just breathe.
I don’t think there’s a person living in a fat body who hasn’t lived through having someone, be they stranger at the Farmer’s Market or grandparent or close friend or stranger on the Internet, think they had a right to discuss our body: with us, behind our back, as a call-out or an intervention or cloaked with a sheen of concern.
It begins to seem as though everywhere fat people turn there’s a voice telling us we’re disgusting, unworthy, lazy, somehow less-than everyone around.
Every voice which counteracts these negative ones — every fat actor who scores roles that don’t mock fatness; every comedian who’s able to make it through a set without even one fatphobic joke; every fashion brand making plus sizes that don’t cost additional arms and legs; and every author writing about badass fat characters who don’t need to lose the weight to learn they are beautiful, smart, lovable…each of these voices is precious.
I think one thing that makes THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT SWEETIE ring so true to me is because it comes from a place of authenticity for the author. Menon has been there. She has been fat. She has had the conversations Sweetie has to have. She has felt the sting of someone judging her in the street, and the shame that brings, even while questioning why we’re letting someone else’s poor judgement bring us shame.
“All of my fiction thus far has had hints of autobiography,” she said, explaining that each of her characters’ main obstacle are things she herself has worked through. “All of these are deeply personal struggles from my own life, and I wouldn’t know what it feels like to write without pulling from that pool…that level of honesty makes the story feel so much richer and, I think, leads to a more fulfilling storytelling experience for both writer and reader.”
She’s right: there’s something comforting about knowing that the character you’re reading, the one who looks like you and is being hurt like you have been, was written by someone who understands. Someone who, having been through it, won’t be careless in her handling of that hurt, won’t make you hurt again.
At the end of the day, as much as THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT SWEETIE is a powerful book about self-acceptance and body positivity, it’s also a young adult rom-com. And knowing that the author herself had experienced the same things the character goes through makes it easier to read the book with almost a sigh of relief, a knowledge that you’re not going to get your heart broken this time.
And you won’t. The cover doesn’t lie. First of all, it’s a nod to a super adorable scene; but secondly, that joy that sparkles through Sweetie (and her cover model)’s eyes? It’s sprinkled throughout the whole book. It’s uplifting and cute and, simply, adorable.
If you need something to read this summer that is both pure sweetness as well as uplifting and empowering, THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT SWEETIE is, really, the perfect choice.