Revisiting Fatphobia in Books

Very early in my time as a blogger, I made a discussion post about Fatphobia. This post was largely inspired by my review of From BonBons to Yoga Pants by Katie Cross, and as a result of reading the third book in Cross’s Health and Happiness Society series, You’ll Never Know, I feel that it’s a good time to return to the topic.

CW: Fatphobia, eating disorders and disordered eating, mental health discussions, excessive weight loss, unhealthy dieting, dieting in general

In my original post, I barely touched on the issues that were prevalent in the first Health and Happiness Society book as I reviewed that book on GoodReads prior to my time as a book blogger. But with the bookend of You’ll Never Know available to me, I’d like to talk about fatphobia specifically within the framework of these two books (for reasons I will make clear hopefully through this post).

Synopsis: From BonBons to Yoga Pants

This novel focuses on Lexie, a pretty but overweight young woman who lives with her mother and sister, goes to college with her childhood friend Rachelle, and works in an Irish bar. She aspires to be a writer, and also to be the girlfriend of her Internet crush Bradley. After her father’s death and her sister’s engagement, Lexie heavily drew back from her family as her mother and sister were thin and conventionally attractive, whereas Lexie shared with her father a love of comfort food.

Throughout the novel–which was originally a Wattpad serial, evident in the jumps the plot sometimes takes–Lexie joins the Health and Happiness Society with her friend Mira in order to lose weight for her sister’s wedding, as she will be a bridesmaid and finds herself inviting Bradley as her date. At first, Lexie only desires weight loss and to become thin and attractive. She engages in new disordered eating (that is unfortunately not thoroughly addressed), begins a reasonable workout regimen, and rejoices in her weight loss while struggling to realign her disordered eating from before she began trying to lose weight. She learns that her desire to comfort herself with food has certain triggers, and through unexplained action she begins to replace these behaviors with healthier ones, eventually coming to the conclusion that she wants to be healthy for herself and not just for Bradley.

Synopsis: You’ll Never Know

A few years after the events of the first and second books in the series, You’ll Never Know focuses on Rachelle. Whereas in From BonBons to Yoga Pants Rachelle was loud, proud of her fatness, and refused to diet, now Rachelle is 110 pounds lighter and obsessed with exercise. She dropped out of college when she was unable to find a major she liked, quit her job, and dedicated her life to running a marathon. But all of that changes when she falls on the treadmill and sprains her ankle.

Rachelle is not happy. She thought she’d be happy if she lost weight, got in shape, and started eating better but she still isn’t there. This book grapples the “what’s next” of building a healthy lifestyle, and similarly Rachelle must grapple with why she sought comfort in food, in cosplay, in boys that weren’t good enough for her. This book almost addresses the disordered eating and exercise patterns that Lexie had and Rachelle clearly picked up, but never quite gets there. However, the book does tackle the ongoing journey of mental health and therapy.

Issues with the books

I think it would be best to lay out the actual issues I found with these two books. The second book in the series does not involve a narrative with a fat person, and thus is left out of this discussion.

In the first book, Lexie’s journey to weight loss begins with the wrong motivation. While in the course of the story she comes to realize that she should be healthy for herself and not a man, she does begin her weight loss journey in order to impress a guy. What’s more, there are multiple instances of improper diet and exercise habits. Lexie doesn’t begin gradually, she throws herself into a daily exercise regimen and a strict diet. Her descriptions of what she does eat in the early days of her diet indicate an extreme calorie deficit. She even skips eating anything before her morning workouts so she “burns more.”

There is a single chapter in the first book in which Lexie goes to the grocery store with others and begins to learn how to find foods that are rich in nutrients and will supply her with the energy to keep up with life and exercise. However, much of the story still concerns the idea of “bad” calories and cutting back drastically on caloric intake for the sake of weight loss. Lexie went from eating larger than average serving sizes to minuscule servings in a matter of days, but at no point does the narrative address that this pendulum swing is equally unhealthy on both ends.

Additionally, it becomes clear through the first book that Lexie had an eating disorder before she became healthy. She notices that she is triggered to comfort eat when faced with certain conversations between herself, her mother, and her sister. Her mother and sister don’t have a totally healthy relationship with food and exercise either, at least from the descriptions in the book. But even as Lexie recognizes that her disordered eating is triggered by her family, she never addresses these triggers.

Rachelle’s weight loss journey is barely described in her book. It becomes clear, though, that it was an equally unhealthy journey in which her calorie counting and over exercising began to concern her friends. Her doctor even warns her that the way she was losing weight impacted her weak ankle leading to the severe sprain she gets in the beginning of the book. I’d say if it weren’t for the accidental sprain, her friends and the HHS were on the verge of staging an intervention for the over exercising.

When Rachelle deals with her cravings and begins her therapy journey to unravel why weight loss didn’t make her happy, she still espouses some negative beliefs about food, fatness, and attractiveness. Her unhealthy attitude is cracked a bit by her improved mental health over the course of the novel, but it still reveals a lot about her and Lexie’s attitudes towards junk food and exercise. Despite the supposed values of the Health and Happiness Society and the disapproval that various members express over Lexie and Rachelle’s attitudes towards weight loss, it seems no long lasting lessons were ever given to either girl to support her in having a healthy relationship with food and exercise.

Additionally, though this book clearly involved better prior research, there is still an underlying narrative of fatness caused by comfort eating, which I found rubbed me the wrong way. In the first book, Lexie is described as pretty despite her fatness, as is Rachelle. Additionally, Lexie is described as fat due to stress related eating despite the fact that her father was also fat (who was also described as eating himself to death). What we know today is that fatness tends to be genetic, and can be based on a lot of different health needs. Sometimes someone’s healthiest weight is not a thin one. But just like with Lexie’s narrative where health and happiness are pitted against food, eating, and fatness, Rachelle’s narrative manages to drive home the point that people are fat because of their own actions. Rachelle’s mother is fat because she ate her grief away, and Rachelle is fat because her mother didn’t teach her portion control and allowed her to also revel in being fat.

This is once again a problematic way of looking at fatness vs health. While the second book in the series does cover healthy eating and talks about the joy healthy food can bring you, this courtesy is not extended to Rachelle. She likes healthy food but resents it just as she resents junk food for having made her fat for so long. She comes around to the idea of moderation in sugary treats, but at the same time never acknowledges that she understands it’s okay to have a treat once in a while during a healthy lifestyle. It was disheartening to see Rachelle make so much progress with her mental health and still represent fatphobic stereotypes and disordered eating.

Because yes, once again, this book irresponsibly portrays disordered eating and writes it off. I would like to break down in detail how the disordered eating in these books is dangerous, and this content will likely be triggering for those who have struggled with disordered eating like I have. Please prioritize yourself and care for yourself, and do not continue reading if you are concerned you may be triggered.

In the first book, Lexie is described as having an eating disorder. She is triggered by stress and anxiety about her body, which leads to her binge eating unhealthy food. Her primary triggers come from her mother and sister discussing her body, her health, and her habits with her. They are not trained healthcare professionals, and do appear to have body issues of their own, so they do not approach the conversations they have with Lexie with tact or knowledge. As a result, the things they say are unintentionally harmful to Lexie, who is struggling with grief and confidence. Lexie finds temporary relief in eating food she likes, and so eats larger quantities than she needs.

When Lexie begins her healthy journey, as I said already, she does a pendulum swing to the other side of disordered eating. She skips breakfast before her early morning workouts on misguided advice, she deprives herself of a lot of caloric intake (also on another’s advice) and beats herself up about her eating disorder being triggered still. While it’s not necessarily wrong to advise lower caloric intake, and the amount she is told to consume falls within healthy guidelines, Lexie is given no initial advice on how to make the transition from binge eating to healthy portion control. She begins by restricting herself to a diet of salads and fruits, which ultimately does not provide the full caloric need of someone who is also exercising regularly. It’s no wonder that when she starts losing weight she also finds herself hungry all the time when it takes half the book for someone to explain to her that an omelette can still be healthy! By the end of the book, she’s eating healthy portions once again and indulging in the occasional treat without the prompting of her triggers, but the journey there is ill represented and triggering to someone with an eating disorder. I found myself wondering at times, while also critiquing the portrayal of health, if I’d be better off if I restricted my food the exact way Lexie does when she first starts losing weight.

With Rachelle, the disordered eating is a lot less obvious but still insidiously present. There is a single passing mention from another character who wants to confirm that with the amount of exercise Rachelle does, she’s not counting calories. This is the one mention in these two books of someone needing a high caloric intake in order to keep up with a strict exercise regimen, and it’s never mentioned again. Additionally, Rachelle’s response to this question is disheartening because it implies that counting calories or not, she has a new form of eating disorder. It appears that before losing weight, Rachelle ate poorly but did not necessarily have an eating disorder. Instead, it appears her mother has the same sort of eating disorder Lexie did, in that she indulges in high amounts of unhealthy comfort food in order to cope with a variety of triggers and traumas. Rachelle learned bad eating habits this way, but was able to guide herself to healthier eating easily once she had the motivation.

And part of this motivation, as it turns out, is her disgust for her mother’s eating disorder. I won’t go too deep into this topic, since it is handled to a certain extent in the book, but it’s definitely present. She explicitly says that she doesn’t like to eat at all when at home because of the contrast in her new eating habits and the old ones she had growing up. This is to the point that when she becomes housebound and her friends bring her groceries, there was no food Rachelle would eat in the home at the start of the book. Which absolutely implies that Rachelle was neglecting her caloric needs by refusing to eat at home, and undoubtedly missing out on key nutrients and calories. Rachelle’s eating in the novel is arguably healthy all around, but her mentality about that eating is pervasive in the story and triggering just as Lexie’s mentality and disordered eating were.

What could be better?

I do think that the author came from a well meaning place with this series. All three of the books address a journey for a young woman that is reflective of real struggles. I was pleasantly surprised by the second novel in the series following my criticism of the first book, which is why I even gave the third a shot at all. However, after reading Rachelle’s story, I’m starting to see a disturbing pattern. The first book is a narrative about a fat woman that treats fatness poorly and attempts to espouse the message that if you want to try and become healthy you should do it for yourself. This message gets lost easily in the poor portrayal of fatness, disordered eating, and the effect these have on mental health. The second book is a narrative about a thin woman, and though food is a prominent theme (the main character is constantly cooking as a job) it’s more food-porn health foods edition. Because of the thinness and established healthy behavior of the main character, the book doesn’t need to dip into disordered eating and fatness at all and it benefits from this lack of poorly handled topics. But with Rachelle, once again we are down to an attempt at a fat woman’s perspective that is not well written and could potentially be dangerous.

I’m nervous that this series continues to alternate between the thin women and the fat women in the Health and Happiness Society. I’m worried that the narratives of the thin women will continue to be better written and more enjoyable, that these narratives will not feel the need to espouse life lessons on health, and that they will be more dynamic and complex. I’m worried that the fat women will continue to be treated as just extensions of their disordered eating, and portrayed as obsessed with their weight. While Rachelle’s narrative is equally about mental health and unraveling her childhood trauma, so much of that is explicitly tied up in her weight and weight loss. Once again, I see where the author was coming from, but the topics involved were simply not handled well in my opinion and still could be triggering for those with disordered eating struggles.

I don’t know exactly how to wrap up this post in all honesty. This is a pervasive problem in the book world, where any number of experiences are written about and portrayed by people with good intentions but poor execution. And poor execution in certain cases such as these can be dangerous. I was able to read these books critically enough that even in moments where I wondered if I’d be able to follow Lexie’s diet or Rachelle’s exercise regimen, I also was able to step back and remind myself that those lifestyles weren’t healthy either. If I had read these books when I was younger, I wouldn’t have been able to understand that and these books could have contributed to my disordered eating and confidence issues.

This is a long and rough post, I know. But I do think it’s important that we start critically looking at the effects books like these could have on readers. I hope that those that would be triggered by this series’ contents could realize that from the description of the first book, but it’s also possible the content appears benign to someone who could be harmed by it. Fatphobia kills, and fatphobic content is so often brushed aside because of how pervasive it is in a lot of cultures and societies. We need to call it out when we see it, and talk about how harmful it can be.

By Catherine

I'm a lover of books, coffee, wine, and bees. Happy to join the ranks of book bloggers everywhere!

5 replies on “Revisiting Fatphobia in Books”

I’m glad that you appreciated this post! I feel that it’s important we talk about the way books can unknowingly cause greater harm for readers, especially on topics such as this that are so closely tied to physical and mental health.

Liked by 1 person

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