How Finding A Fat YA Heroine Changed My Life

I spent my entire life looking for a hero I could relate to. Sirius Black came closest, and then I read Eleanor and Park.

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Fat girls have fucking nothing.

I’ve been reading for, it feels like, as long as I have had sentience and consciousness, and it has taken me my entire life to meet someone in a book who looked like me and felt the same way I do and has struggled with some of the things I have struggled with, and is still loved.

Fat girls have nothing, and fat girls are told they are worth nothing. Fat girls have Aunt Marge Dursley, and Dolores Jane Umbridge, and eating disorders to beat and people to prove wrong by losing a lot of weight and letting out Their True Self, aka the Thin Girl Within. The Thin Girl Within is worthy; she is radiant and triumphant and beloved. She cannot be all those things and also be fat; at least, not in the young adult fiction I had at my perusal when I really, really needed someone to tell me it was possible to be radiant, and triumphant, and fat.

The Harry Potter series is not the first thing I remember reading; that was Go, Dog! Go!. It’s also not the first thing I remember reading that had a profound effect on me; that was The Phantom Tollbooth, and when I finished it, I cried because I didn’t want it to be over. But the Harry Potter series is the only thing that stuck with me from age 9 to age now. It is the only thing I never turned my back on, even when I was in college and decided that everything I had loved as a teenager wasn’t worth anything, thereby deciding that who I was as a teenager wasn’t worth anything.

I stuck with Harry Potter, and he stuck with me.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that the Harry Potter series, as a whole, has formed most of the bedrock of the person I am now. I did not have a happy or easy childhood; my parents loved me, but like all parents, they are human, and they had their own lives to deal with. They divorced when I was 4. They weren’t able to so much as speak to each other without all hell breaking loose until I was 18, and even then it was an uneasy cease-fire. It was the domestic equivalent of the Cold War, and at times I was a white flag, and at other times I was a nuclear warhead. I didn’t feel I had much choice.

School wasn’t easier. I was smart, and I used that intelligence like armor. I needed some — I was bullied early and often and constantly. Lifetime movie bullying: screws loosened in my chair, lipstick and pads on my locker, called a slut and a bitch and a cow and a hippo. I moved in what felt like an atmosphere of potential torture, under the weight of which I had to trudge without any real reassurance that it would ever end. I went to school with spitballs being lobbed at my head; I went home and had to tiptoe around my parents like one might tiptoe around a minefield.

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The only refuge I had were books, and I sheltered in them like a fox in a burrow. But I didn’t see any of myself in any of these characters until Sirius Black: loved, and lost, and tattooed in constellation form on my left shoulder as a reminder that everybody has light and dark inside of them.

Sirius Black, who was so tortured by the prison his life had become that he didn’t need anyone else to beat him up — he did an admirable job all on his own. As I was doing. As I still do, all the time. It becomes second nature, you see, when you’re told constantly that it’s what you should be doing.

Because, if Hogwarts was a refuge for me, it was only that way because the version of myself I had in my head was an eventual version. She was a future me who was older and thinner and less likely to be loathed. All character flaws were forgiven in Harry Potter’s world except the cardinal sin of being fat; Uncle Vernon, Aunt Marge, Dudley, Professor Umbridge were all described as obese, and every time it was used as a hammer to drive home their innate unpleasantness. Not only were they cruel and stupid, they were fat! How disgusting! Right, kids? And, when Dudley was finally less unpleasant in book seven and said his borderline-heartfelt good-bye to Harry, all his fat had become muscle. Fascinating.

It’s not new, and it’s not Rowling’s fault, but I think about how readily and completely I accepted that fat was innately and unquestionably horrible and I am terrified. Self-loathing in fat girls is condoned by everything around us. It’s in the shows we watch and the books we read, in every other advertisement about a miracle weight-loss pill that will help you be happy as long as you’re willing to also be malnourished and/or incontinent. It’s in the “no fat chicks” bumper stickers, and the “fat chicks need love too” jokes. It’s in reruns of Friends and Will and Grace, and it’s in every diabetes joke on Parks and Recreation. It’s behind the decision that cast a willowy nymph of a human being as Wonder Woman (an Amazon, for Christ’s sake) and behind every question every actress is ever asked about her body or her diet regimen for a role in which she was literally supposed to be dying. It’s in tabloid headlines and online anonymous messages. It’s in the implication that the Thin Girl Within is the one we really are, and we won’t be able to be happy until we become her — and that we don’t deserve to be happy, or loved, until we become her. It’s everywhere.

What I started to unconsciously understand as I worked my way through puberty, bombarded with TV shows and books and magazines and the opinions of other people that all collectively reminded me that beauty and I lived on separate planets — and, by the way, the planet I was on was my own expanding body — was that as I was, I was not worthy of love.

I was in high school. I finally had friends, and some confidence, and I wasn’t consciously thinking about the girls in my books; I wasn’t consciously thinking about much at all except how to get good enough grades that I could go to a college in a different state. I felt in no way attached to my body. My body was something that schlepped my brain through the mud. It was a stretch for me to imagine someone I liked wanting to kiss me. It was a god’s-honest effort. And I couldn’t do it at all unless I imagined myself as someone completely different — someone thinner, someone less loud and more secure, someone thinner, someone effortless and who did not take up as much space, someone thinner.

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All of these things, and so many others, contributed to my eating disorder. I dropped 70 pounds in six months (hint: a near-suicidal weight drop). I got a boyfriend. I also got very sick. Not many people noticed. Or rather, even if they did, the behavior I was exhibiting — which would rightfully have raised red flags in a thinner girl — was praised and encouraged. I was leaving pieces of myself in bathrooms, and I felt diminished. I still couldn’t find anyone who looked like me in the books I read and the shows I watched. The closest I got was in Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone, and it was not exactly helpful. It was tortured; to this day I remember nothing about the main character except her pain, as if she was a wound narrating how she came to be. I remember feeling like that: raw, aching, unable to stitch myself back together.

I got help. I got some weight back, then some more weight back. I still had a boyfriend, but I got his nasty side, the side of him that hurt. I got to absorb the full force of his pain, and no one had yet told me that I didn’t have to do that; that just because I loved someone and they said they loved me didn’t mean I had to catch myself on their jagged edges. Love still felt very rare and precious, like a fluke that would only happen to me once. I still read voraciously and constantly. I reread and reread Harry Potter, clinging to Sirius Black and his anxious bravado and all the layers of himself underneath it, feeling the mirror of myself in him.

I went to college. I got dumped, I got more and more therapy. I got Fat!So? by Marilynn Wann and What You Really Really Want by Jaclyn Friedman and then I got a blog, because like hell was all this shit going to happen to me and I wasn’t going to use it to try to help other people. The other people I helped were mostly teenage girls like I had been — girls who hurt and didn’t understand why, who felt that they were taking up too much space and invisible all at once. I saw it over and over. I saw myself in them, over and over.

I got an apartment in Brooklyn, I got a cat named Robot. I got a special edition of the Harry Potter series and an OkCupid account and Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed and worked on forgiving myself. And then, while embroiled in a travel nightmare, I got to meet Eleanor Douglas for the first time.

I was at the San Francisco airport waiting on a flight that was delayed first by one hour, then three, then four; around an hour in I finished the book I’d had on me and decided to go in search of something else. I stood in the front of this airport bookstore and read the first chapter of Eleanor and Park, which is only a couple of pages long, and then figured I should probably buy it before I read the entire thing. This makes me sound like I was calm. I was not calm. I felt like someone was gently squeezing my heart, the way you might squeeze the hand of somebody you’ve known and loved for a long time.

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The first chapter of Eleanor and Park is from Park’s point of view, and we get our first introduction to Eleanor from what he sees. The first thing we know about Eleanor, really know, is that she is in an embarrassing, socially awkward situation, and that she “just looked like exactly the sort of person this would happen to.”

Wait, I thought — I remember distinctly, that knife of recognition — is Eleanor fat?

Eleanor is fat. Eleanor is fat and dresses loudly and talks loudly and has loud opinions about everything. Eleanor is fat and smart and terrified. And Eleanor ends up OK, and loved, and still looks like me. She doesn’t change. She is entirely herself, and it’s enough. Eleanor is the first fat YA girl I’ve ever read about who didn’t have to change herself to have a happy ending. I met her when I was 23 years old.

I wonder how my life would have been different if I’d met Eleanor Douglas earlier. If Eleanor and Park had existed when I needed it most, would I have read it instead of She’s Come Undone? Would I have developed an eating disorder so violent that I still can’t think about it too hard without wanting to crawl under a bed and stay there in the dark and quiet for several hours? Would I have been able to forgive my parents sooner? Would I have been able to forgive myself?

I think maybe the answer to some of these things is yes.

Reading Eleanor and Park in front of a massive window in the San Francisco International Airport is the closest thing I have ever had to a religious experience. That is a dramatic framing; it was a dramatic time. An elderly, kindly woman gave me a tissue. I think that outwardly I just looked like I was flying home for a funeral; inwardly, it felt like someone was deliberately and quietly laying out the pieces of me that I had ignored or given up on and was labeling them for my later use, or putting them to rest, or sanding over their sharp edges.

Eleanor and Park is an upsetting book. When I say that it made me cry, people who have read it usually think I mean the ending. I don’t. I cried because I felt understood in a way that I had completely, utterly given up on ever feeling. I cried because to know that I was not alone — not only to suspect it, but to know — is a gift that defies explanation. I cried because I was so grateful for fat, smart, loud, terrified Eleanor Douglas, for her courage and honesty, for her turmoil, tenacity, and ferocity, and for her happy ending. For her understanding that she was worthy of love, and for mine.


Kaye Toal is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. She’s a lovable curmudgeon with a deadly secret, and enjoys blogging about fictional wizards in love. Currently, she writes increasingly nonsensical internet whimsy for BuzzFeed BFF.

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