Friday, 13 September 2013

Cover girls - Are YA girls too skinny?

Edge author Katie Dale asks whether there enough "real" size girls in teen fiction.

So this week the Equalities Minister, Jo Swinson, has stated that high street stores should use more plus-size and petite mannequins to promote healthier body image among women. She claims that the lean mannequins currently widely used do not reflect "real" women, and as the average dress size has grown from a size 12 to a size 16 - when most mannequins are size 10 - it seems she's right. 

Fashion, it seems, has always been this way, from the waif-like catwalk models to airbrushed cover-girls on magazines (if you haven't seen the brilliant Dove time-lapse video, here it is). 

But Debenhams are about to unveil size-16 mannequins in their Oxford Street store, and Jo Swinson told the Sunday Times: 'I would really like to see more retailers doing the same. Many customers want to see more realistic images in magazines, TV and on the high street, and having mannequins that reflect and celebrate our diverse society is a really positive way of helping to achieve this.
The images we see in the world of fashion are all pretty much the same - it's as if there's only one way of being beautiful'.

Other magazines are, after all, always full of celebrities without their make-up, to try to make us feel better about ourselves - proving that no "real" women actually look the way they do on fashion magazine covers.

So what about fiction? Has this epidemic of skinniness infected books as well? Several authors were also discussing this very issue on Facebook this week: Are there enough "real" size girls in teen fiction, or do slim pretty white girls dominate here as well? 

Browsing through book covers in the YA section, it certainly seems so, as they overwhelmingly feature stunning slim models (often in ball-gowns, for some reason) or stick-thin cartoon-style characters - but why?

One editor told a writer friend of mine that readers don't want to read about overweight or unattractive girls - is this true? Would you be put off reading a book if it had a size 12 or size 16 girl on the cover? Would you just rather read about pretty, slim girls? 

Or is it that the book covers don't accurately represent the characters within? Edge author Bryony Pearce commented on the white-washing of book covers, some of the early ideas for covers for my books didn't even have the right hair colour, and I've read other books where the cover scene/character never occurs within the story (often more ballgown-syndrome) so why is there a disconnect between the story and the book's marketing team? Is trying to make a book cover beautiful and attractive to readers more important than accurately reflecting the characters inside?  

Surely in books - the least-visual storytelling medium - it shouldn't matter as much what the characters look like? 
Personally, I try to only give physical descriptions of my characters when absolutely necessary, and even then it's usually only about hair or eye colour - I hardly ever comment on a character's size. Also, as I usually write in first-person narrative, everyone is seen through my protagonist's eyes, so it's a matter of subjective perception as well. 

This is especially effective in Sophia Bennett's YOU DON'T KNOW ME, in which the narrator describes her friend as totally fab and gorgeous - and it's only later that we learn that she is deemed overweight and therefore unattractive by others.

Indeed, more often than not, for the larger girls that do make it into books their weight, and the problems it causes them, is consequently one of the key issues in the book. Rarely do we find a heroine who is curvy and proud, and I think that's a real shame, especially as there are lots of really inspiring real-sized, women out there.

Surely as writers and sellers of childrens/YA fiction we don't want to endorse the damaging message (that already abounds in movies, TV and fashion magazines) that heroines can only be pretty and skinny?

You shouldn't judge a book - or a person - by their cover, after all.


  1. Great post, Katie! I absolutely agree that we need more curvy girls in YA.Check out Meg Cabot's US Heather Wells Mystery series with titles like -- Size 12 is Not Fat, Size 14 is Not Fat Either and Big Boned.

  2. A really interesting seems the "culprits" here are not writers, but the publishers and their tendency to put a slim and pretty white girl on the cover, regardless of how the writer may have imagined or presented the female main character.Is this something we should be making more noise about?

  3. Hear, hear, Katie- I'm so pleased to be in a collective of writers (The Edge) whose novels do not 'endorse the damaging message that heroines can only be pretty and skinny'. It was once suggested to me(not by Usborne) that I needed to make my heroine, Celia Frost, more physically attractive! Needless to say I didn't work with these people.

  4. Wouldn't it be great if covers, YA particularly, didn't have anyone on the front? Ok I can see how beautiful people can sell books but do they sell more? Has any one researched this? Incidentally the cover of 'You Don't Know Me' does not suggest an 'overweight' or 'unattractive' heroine.
    Thanks for highlighting this, Katie!