Boys & Body Image & Young Adult Lit

I feel like this post will potentially be read the wrong way so I’m going to start off with some disclaimers (best offense is the best defense?)

Sometimes the way we approach discussions in the young adult literature community concerns me because we tend to frame things in absolutes. I want to be clear right off the bat that when I say I’m worried about how boys are portrayed in lit, that does not mean I cannot be simultaneously concerned about how girls are portrayed in lit. When I say I want more books with diverse male characters, that doesn’t mean I don’t think there should be more books with diverse female characters. There is not a finite amount of room in this world for characters.  

With that said, I’m becoming increasingly concerned about the way we portray boys and men physically in YA literature. There are a lot of amazing posts out there about weight and body image in girls in YA lit (Here at Stacked, Here at Novel as Mirror, Here at Teen Literature Toolbox, Here by Rae Carson) and I still think we’re falling far, far short of body diversity in YA lit. We’ve expanded to include curvy girls. We don’t have fat girls yet, not without falling into some of the concerns named on the Stacked blog post. 

We should be wiping gender out of the talk about body diversity in YA literature. We should be providing male characters, as main characters, as secondary characters, as narrators, and as love interests, body diversity as well.

Boys who are love interests in YA literature are often described as ‘swoony’. They are our Fours, our Perrys, our Jonahs, our Pos, and our Brigans (no, wait, he’s mine), our Days, our Crickets and our Adams, our Joshs, our Hectors, and our Joe Fontaines. 

And they have great bodies. They’re tall. They’re graceful and when they aren’t graceful, they’re adorable awkward. They’re handsome. They have gray eyes, silver eyes, eyes that light up when they see us. They’re strong and when they’re vulnerable, it’s in ways that female characters can often fix. They’re handsome and attractive. They draw the eye of the female character when they cross the room. Even our shy and traumatized boys in YA lit do this: Charlie in PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is seen despite his attempts not to be seen; Josh in THE SEA OF TRANQUILITY catches our MC’s eye. 

My concern here is that when we say that we’re not writing gendered boys, that boys can read ‘these books too’, then the books are as much a mirror for them as they are for girls. I’m concerned that we’re subtly body policing boys by reflecting only attractive, tall, handsome, adorkable guys in YA literature. 

Give me your Finny Boones from PAPER VALENTINE and your Jonahs from HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT. Give me your fat boys and your too skinny boys. Give me your lumpy unathletic boys. Give me your shorter than girls because that’s most of middle school and high school boys. Give me your boys who don’t do things right–I’m looking at you, Levi from FANGIRL. Give me your boys who are fat. Who walk funny. Who have weird habits. Give me the guy who can’t make a single layup but laughs about it. Give me the guy who picks up a hula hoop in gym class and turns out he’s a huge Shakira fan and his hips DON’T lie. 

I want love interests who can’t be played on the silver screen by guys in their mid twenties. I want main characters more like Evan in SEX & VIOLENCE, who are between athletic and not athletic, who do talk about their bodies, who examine their bodies and compare them. I want boys who are worried about their bodies. Because they tell us that it’s okay for boys to think about their bodies.

Boys don’t exist and live in a world devoid of body shaming and passive aggressive body politiking any more than girls do. It’s just a different type. Boys have eating disorders. Boys are concerned about their weight. Boys are worried about how girls look at them. Boys compare themselves to other boys.

I want to see that on the page. I want to see that in the love interests. I think that a character can look more like Jonah Hill than Max Irons and still be swoony worthy. I want to see diverse bodies on the page, for boys and girls and for everyone inbetween girls & boys.

I just want to see diverse bodies where the authorial hand of justice does not judge the character for his/her/their diverse body, because when we do that, we are by extension, judging our readers. And I want my readers of all sizes to love themselves, believe in themselves, and be the heroes of their own stories. 

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10 thoughts on “Boys & Body Image & Young Adult Lit

  1. Molly | wrapped up in books says:

    One example I can think of that includes a guy who has an atypical body type is Tiny Cooper from Will Grayson, Will Grayson. He is LARGE. But he is still presented as having some knowledge of his size, but it doesn’t define who he is or prevent him from being attractive.

    This is a great post. I’d like to see different kinds of guys as romantic interests in YA, too.

  2. Wendy Darling (@MissWendyD) says:

    I think diversity in body image is an important thing to be paying attention to as well. Sometimes I get annoyed with articles that go “oh WOE IS ME” about YA when they aren’t really well-researched–there was one recently from The Guardian in the UK, I think, that talked about how YA boys are setting a bad example, and I thought it was silly because the only books they referenced were super popular (and older) ones like TWILIGHT. It just seemed like a click-bait type article and I wrote a note saying that there while there definitely needs to be more diversity of all kinds for girls and boys in the way characters look, they needed to be looking beyond only the most popular books for their examples.

    I really liked WIDE AWAKE partly because the love interest is such an unusual choice, and of course, Rainbow Rowell writes unconventionally attractive people, too. Maybe part of the issue is that we’re just seeing too much emphasis on looks in general? I feel that’s true of girls too, though. And I don’t mind boys that are adorably awkward, since that speaks to a their personality as well. But discussion like this are great food for thought about trends in this age category, and I think it’s important to encourage awareness of the need for more diversity.

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

      • Katie L says:

        I agree with everything you said 🙂 I love WILD AWAKE. It’s a stunner of a novel, on a multitude of levels.

        I AM interested in the ‘popular’ books and the bestsellers now because they might be the most likely ones to be picked up by male readers breaking out of their standard genre. I want to know what the most popular books are reflecting back at their readers, and right now, some of those images are concerning.

        Just like finding diversity of other types (authentically portrayed mental illness, queerness, race, disability, etc), if you have to hunt for it far beyond the most buzzed about books, then we’re not there yet.

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