Nayana Chakrabarti, Parenting and Education Editor
The conversation about body positivity never gets old. No, let me rephrase. We must now allow it to ever get old. At its heart, body positivity is a movement which seeks to empower all bodies and advocates for the acceptance of all bodies irrespective of shape, ability, size, gender, skin colour and appearance. It is a movement which seeks to normalise rather than marginalise.
Critics of body positivity often comment that the body positivity movement promotes obesity as well as encouraging unhealthy lifestyles.
However, we live in a world where we are constantly and continuously reminded that we aren’t good enough – usually so that someone or some company can profit from our pain. Around about this time each year, almost as soon as spring fever hits the air, it’s time for companies to launch their adverts promoting products which promise you ‘bikini-ready beach body’. Images like that coupled with text like that can be very triggering and upsetting for anyone whose body does not look like Body positivity isn’t just about feeling vulnerable on days when one’s self-esteem is at a low, it is a social movement which tries to tackle the fatphobic, sexist, racist and ableist messaging that we are constantly bombarded by.
There are multiple ways in which one might choose to tackle this conversation at home. For example, in our capacity as caregivers, we can choose to be positive about our own bodies and model acceptance. The often disparaging and self-deprecating language that we use to put our own bodies down can affect the body image of the young people around us. We could celebrate our bodies for what they can do, how strong they are, how resilient they are, rather than shame them for what we perceive to be their limitations. It is, for sure, a long and protracted conversation. It is truly one of those conversations which never ends.
Reading encourages empathy, inference and deduction. Reading books about body positivity is a way to keep the conversation moving.
As a tween and as a teenager, two of the books which had a phenomenal impact on making me feel safe and encouraged me to believe that it might just be possible to love the skin that I’m in were Meera Syal’s ‘Anita and Me’ and Judy Blume’s ‘Are you there God? It’s me Margaret’. Meera Syal left me feeling that British Asian girls like me existed and that girls of South Asian descent didn’t have to look like Princess Jasmine. And as for Judy Blume, well isn’t she the doyenne of YA literature? She shaped so many adolescences and while her work might not have aged well in all respects, I do think that she continues to add value in so many respects for a young adult’s reading repertoire. Both books were welcome reliefs after reading stories about teenage girls who would return to school after the summer holidays having shed all their ‘puppy fat’ in order to catch the eye of the handsome jock who had hitherto bullied them along with the prom perfect Queen Bee or girls who would have to only take off their glasses and wear contact lenses in order to be deemed classically beautiful by the-boy-next-door who had been trying to give them a makeover. So far so Pygmalion!
Now, this got me thinking about the books that we have at home which encourage body positivity as well as the books that are on my wishlist.
A word of caution before we proceed: these books are, by no means, exhaustive. It’s an exciting time to be a bookworms, new, more considered titles are being added to our global bookshelf everyday. One of the trends which I really hope will stay and become the norm is ‘#ownvoices’ which creates awareness about books written by authors from marginal side and under-represented groups writing about their own experiences and sharing their own perspectives. When you try to create your own body positive bookshelf, please do have a look at ‘#ownvoices’ books. As ever, we are all works in progress and in understanding.
1. Wonder by R.J Palacio
My eldest loved ‘Wonder’ and as a family we also enjoyed the cinematic adaptation. Auggie Pullman is a role model for body and facial acceptance. It is often a little tricky to find books regarding body acceptance where the protagonist is a boy (for some reason, body positivity tends to be a female conversation…hmnn) but this book challenges existing YA tropes and does it really well.
2. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth by Jeff Kinney
Surprised to see this title here? Well, so am I. Kind of. This article was written with the help of my 9-nearly-10-year-old-boy and he recommended this (known to him and many other Swiss, German and Austrian tweens as Greg’s Tagesbuch) because he feels that in between its pages, he found solidarity. Greg doesn’t feel good about himself and never really attains self-acceptance but the fact that he feels this way helps young readers to feel less alone.
3. Jemima Small Versus The Universe by Tamsin Winter
Jemima Small is bullied because of her weight but before her bullies – and her school – began to target her, she had hope and she valued herself. The book is filled with empowering messages about resilience and with a strong feminist message at its core. If you were a Judy Blume fan yourself, you must get this book for the young people in your life, irrespective of gender. My son loved it. If you enjoyed ‘Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy or ‘The Sisterhood of Traveling Pants’ by Anne Brashares (an oldie but a goodie!) then you’ll like this too.
4. Usborne’s Growing Up books
These compendiums are handy reference books for boys and girls alike. They deal with a wide-range of both physical and psychological questions and address questions that parents and caregivers might not always have ready answers to or – and we must acknowledge that this happens – might not be comfortable voicing.
3. It’s so amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies and Families by Robbie H.Harris
This book has been on my wishlist for quite some time. In my last article, I wrote about getting my period at the age of 9 and being utterly unprepared. The thing is girls are getting their periods earlier than before so it is a good idea to talk about periods, body changes and general sexuality much sooner than you would expect to do so. Girls also do not exist in isolation, their peers will include boys who also need to be taught that menstruation is natural. The book also addresses boys and talks about the changes in their body that they might expect.
4. What I like about Me! By Allia Zobel Nolan
This book has been on my wishlist for a long time as well. It is written with younger readers in mind and celebrates each child’s individual and unique traits. It normalises braces and glasses, addresses colour, hair type and so on and so forth. From the reviews that I’ve read, it strikes me as a book that will introduce the body positivity conversation early. I believe that we need to introduce children to the idea that joy can be found in difference rather than suspicion.
5. My Hair by Hannah Lee
This is one of the most popular books in our family. It is about the main character’s quest for a perfect hair-do and along the way it becomes a real celebration of Black hair and community. This is another great book for younger readers.
6. I am Brown by Ashok Banker
Another book which exists on my bookshelf of dreams! The reviews promise me that that this book celebrates the ordinary, everyday and uniqueness of being brown all over the world. The message, once again, is one of normalcy and shows promise and possibility rather than limitation.
7. I am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
Co-written with trans activist, Jazz Jennings, this is an autobiographical picture book about Jazz Jennings coming to terms with her true self and her life as a transgender woman. This is also on my wishlist. My children have read about trans rights and trans issues in compendiums and anthologies such as Rebel Girls and Stories of Kids Who Dare To Be Different but they haven’t read a narrative which focuses on a trans protagonist. It’s 2021. They really should.
8. Lovely by Jess Hong
This is such a fun picture book and the fact that one of my most over-used words is its title makes it perfect for my family! It’s all about a diverse cast of characters who all look quite different and finds the beauty and loveliness in each one.
9. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
This is quite possibly one of my most favourite YA novels and I can’t wait until my children are old enough to read it. It’s quite angsty, rather nerdy and it’s all about the heart-wringing nature of first love with a good dose of body positivity thrown in for good measure. However, a word of caution: I’ve been told my teens who have more recent experience of reading the book that it hasn’t aged well. I’ll invite you to be the judge.
10. Eyes that Kiss In the Corners by Joanna Ho
This is an absolutely exquisite book which I’ve been coveting for awhile now (ever since I followed the author on Instagram). It is, as the title implies, a book about a little girl noticing that her eyes are shaped differently to those of her peers’. She draws on the collective wisdom and beauty of the women in her own family to inspire hope for the future.
But do you know what also exists on my wishlist? It’s a book that hasn’t been written yet. I’d love to read a body positive book about a boy from a marginalised community who overcomes body shaming and comes to appreciate his own body shape. For some reason, the conversation about body positivity is centered on women and girls alone, thus making it a ‘women’s issue’ rather than a people issue. By missing out boys from the conversation, I can’t help but feel that publishing is feeding into toxic masculine tropes. While compiling my wishlist, I found hundreds of recommendations for body-positive books targeted at young girls but only two (mentioned above) for boys.
What are your thoughts? Do you have body positive book for boys to recommend?
Are you enjoying our content? We would love to hear your opinions in the comments sections. Stay tuned for our February posts, cuz “self-love” is in the air. Stay tuned to read about body positivity, turning 40 or 50, encouraging children to eat healthier, and many other useful resources.
To read posts from January, click here