1. Chinese Cinderella: The Secret Story of an Unwanted Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah
This memoir describes what it was like coming of age in China during World War II. It’s a simple yet beautifully narrated book in which Adeline Yen Mah reveals how she grew up as an unwanted child in a cruel and wealthy family. This story will resonate with anyone who has ever felt like an outcast. Through Adeline’s voice you learn to accept yourself and never give up hope.
2. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Eleanor is constantly put down for her size, her curly red hair, and her clothes; even at home she can’t escape mean comments. During her lonely bus rides to school Eleanor befriends Park, a “weird Asian kid”, and the two bond over comic books and music. Both characters struggle with their appearance. Eleanor feels too big, Park feels too small. This book is perfect for anyone who’s ever worried if they’re attractive enough to be loved.
3. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Harriet the Spy is a classic children’s novel first published in 1964. Harriet is an aspiring writer who loves tomato sandwiches and spying on her classmates, her friends, and people who live in her neighbourhood. Harriet isn’t stereotypically feminine; she wears baggy jeans and spy gear. She’s smart and a little badass, and constantly challenges the world around her.
4. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston
Maxine Hong Kingston combines autobiography with old Chinese folktales in this portrayal of Chinese-American women living in the US. This book sheds light on what it means to go through life with what some would consider a marked or imperfect body. Characters are united by their desire to assert femininity and individuality within a patriarchal Chinese society.
5. Reasons to Be Pretty by Neil LaBute
Reasons to Be Pretty is a play by Neil LaBute that examines our obsession with beauty through young friends and lovers who are deeply dissatisfied with their lives. It’s the final installment in a trilogy of plays that focus on our obsession with the superficial.
7. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sarra Manning
Sarra Manning has created a lovable heroine in the smart and compassionate Neve Slater. Neve has lost half her bodyweight in the hopes of finally wooing the handsome William. To help her in her plight and to gain some relationship experience she embarks on a “pancake relationship” with the overly confident Max. The two end up surprising each other and themselves. ;)
8. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins
This novel’s protagonist is Sissy Hankshaw, a woman born with enormous thumbs. She doesn’t view this as a hindrance; in fact she sees her thumbs as a gift and uses them to hitchhike. Sissy eventually gets scouted for modelling work by the Countess, a male homosexual feminine-hygiene tycoon. This story is essentially about celebrating beauty in all its wonderful and unexpected forms rather than forcing conformity.
9. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
Cassie and Lia are best friends but also fierce competitors: They both share a desire to be skinny. Cassie blames Lia for her bulimia and the two refuse to speak to each other. Then Lia discovers that Cassie has been found dead in a motel room and Lia’s eating disorder spirals out of control once again. Laurie Halse Anderson takes us on a painful journey into the hell that is eating disorders, along with the troubled and painful path toward recovery.
10. Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
Gabi is a Mexican-American high school senior dealing with a whole host of problems, from a pregnant best friend to a mother who constantly puts her down for her weight. Gabi also creates her own zine, which appears near the end of the book, in which she highlights all of the female body parts that have been objectified or labelled “dirty”.
11. The DUFF: Designated Ugly Fat Friend by Kody Keplinger
Bianca Piper is 17. She loves her friends but sees herself as the ugly one of her friend group. Her suspicion is only confirmed when high school playboy Wesley Rush tells her she’s the Duff, the group’s “designated ugly fat friend”, and proceeds to flirt with her in the hopes he’ll get closer to her pals. Yet somehow Bianca finds herself drawn to him and they develop a complex, push-and-pull kind of relationship.
12. Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Auggie Pullman was born with a rare facial deformity. His appearance means he’s been home-schooled for years until his parents decide to enrol him in a local private school. This starts a painful journey, with classmates avoiding him and refusing to be partnered with him. One classmate’s mother goes so far as to photoshop him out of a class photo. Thankfully Auggie learns to accept himself, partially thanks to his tight-knit family, who you’ll grow to love in this novel.
13. North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley
Justina Chen Headley’s novel tells the story of 16-year-old Terra Cooper, who feels stifled by her small town and fractured family. Terra also goes to great lengths to distract everyone from the birthmark that covers one side of her face. She keeps her body in perfect condition with an exhaustive exercise routine and applies makeup in generous layers to hide her right cheek. Things begin to change when Terra encounters Jacob, a goth boy who confronts her with the true meaning of beauty.
14. No Mirrors in My Nana’s House by Ysaye M. Barnwell
Ysaye M. Barnwell has written a wonderful book about a little girl living in her grandmother’s house, where there are no mirrors. The little girl has no idea if her clothes fit her or what her face looks like. All she knows is that she’s beautiful in her nana’s eyes.
15. Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill
Only Ever Yours is set in a nightmarish dystopia that reflects our obsession with women’s looks and their roles. The Eves are created at a sinister place called The School, where we encounter Freida and Isabel, both 16, who have spent 12 years being prepared for The Ceremony. As the final year leads up to this big event Isabel does the unthinkable and starts to put on weight, and everything breaks down.
16. Deenie by Judy Blume
Our protagonist, the 13-year-old Deenie, has to wear a back brace thanks to her scoliosis, which seems like the absolute worst thing in the world to her. Her hopes of becoming a model are dashed and Deenie has to learn to accept herself and figure out a new path for her life.
17. Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy
Maeve Binchy takes readers to a village in Ireland where total opposites Benny, overweight, generous, and loved by doting parents, and Eve, a delicate orphan raised by nuns, are two very unlikely best friends. Their friendship continues when they move to Dublin after school and fight to gain self-acceptance and independence.
18. 32 Candles by Ernessa T. Carter
Davie Jones grows up with an abusive mother and has to deal with bullying from her classmates (who call her “Monkey Night”) and unrequited love. She feels ugly and insecure. When a school prank goes too far she abandons the life that has let her down and reinvents herself in the world of Hollywood, chasing a Molly Ringwald-esque happy ending for herself.
19. Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah
Amal Abdel-Hakim is a 17-year-old Australian-Palestinian Muslim who decides to start wearing the hijab full-time. This decision doesn’t come easily: She is scared it will change the way people look at her. Through Amal’s voice, stereotypes and misconceptions about beauty and religion are confronted and questioned.