On every website that I visit, there are ads on how I can and SHOULD magically crunch my tummy to death (AND ONLY IN SEVEN DAYS!!!). We are constantly bombarded with posters, magazines and fashion shows telling us that if we’re larger than a size zero, we shouldn’t even waste their time by being in the vicinity. The Oscars and Emmys are one, big skeleton parade and if another pharmacist tries to sell me sliming cream I’m going to freak! Marketing campaigns brainwash us into buying facial creams that are supposed to change our lives into flower-scented fairytales where we will be riding off into the sunset with our princes as soon as that dang blemish is gone. And this is the world that I’ve voluntarily brought my son into.
Young adult writers need to be in touch with their readers and most young adults do obsess about their looks in one way or another. When I was a teenager, there wasn’t a day where I did not wake up and jump on the scale first. I did everything to fit into those clothes which designers insist on mixing up with children’s sizes, even if I knew that it was unhealthy (my sisters actually nagged me to death till I knew). Girls who didn’t risk poking someone’s eye out with their collarbones at school were handed out withering stares. Movies like Shallow Hal and half the stuff made for teenagers tell us that we shouldn’t make our impressions based on someone’s appearance but subtly inform us that the chubby ones only get to find love if they get a total makeover or if someone has been hypnotised. Oookaaay! I’m not saying that I despise our obsession with looking good (I shed happy tears for the winning candidates on The Swan and Biggest Loser) but I wonder everyday how to tell my son that people are worth more than how shiny their hair is if he is only surrounded by this conspiracy of skin and bones.
Why do we do it? Putting looks aside for a moment, being overweight is clearly unhealthy and the media has pounced on this basic need to live longer, morphing the image of a healthy body over the decades into the coat hangers that we see today. Think Marilyn Monroe in comparison to Kate Moss….I rest my case.
What kind of examples are we setting for kids if our whole society has decided to sell their souls to the company with the fastest results? Body dysmorphic disorder has joined the ranks of bulimia and anorexia. Great…yet another thing teenagers and their parents have to worry about just because the media says so. People look at celebrities and decide that that’s how they want to look (and feel) forgetting that those people have cooks who can whip up a cracker that tastes like a Big Mac anytime of the day. They have personal trainers who make Malaysian school teachers look like the Easter Bunny in comparison. Just so that we’re clear, these are the people who spend most of their time at rehab or scouring Asia for enlightenment. So nobody’s perfect. Yay!
As a writer for young adult fiction, I think about teenagers and their obsession with appearances all the time (I used to be at the head of that queue for thigh and ab trainers, so I’m not judging). I wonder how to approach it in a book or whether I should at all. I want my writing to be real, but not so real that people might as well turn on the news instead of reading my stuff. On the other hand, I don’t want my readers thinking that only the skeletal, fully-made-up-circus-horses get the guy at the end of my novels. Readers don’t want the gruesome details, only beautifully written work that’s shocking yet palatable. So how do we find a balance between reality and fantasy? I don’t know but I’m hoping that I’ll learn more as my journey through the land of storytelling brings me to new horizons where teenagers can simply say, “This is me.”