Thursday, January 17, 2013

Jennifer's Book Review: Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught


Jamie Carcaterra is fat. Not chunky, curvy, obese or fluffy. She’s fat. At least, that’s what she tells you in her weekly Fat Girl column, published in The Wire, her school newspaper. The feature, designed (she hopes) to help her win a scholarship contest, begins with some myth debunking:

“Myth Number One: Speak gently to poor Fat Girl. She can’t help her terrible disability.

“Myth Number Two: Poor Fat Girl needs to be educated about her problem.

“Myth Number Three: Poor Fat Girl laughs to hide her tears.

“Myth Number Four: Poor lonely Fat Girl can’t get a date.

“Myth Number Five: All poor Fat Girl wants to do is lose weight.”

But Fat Girl’s column spins Jamie’s life in directions she couldn’t expect, especially when she begins chronicling the gastric bypass surgery of her boyfriend, Burke. In addition to gaining nationwide recognition and being accused of “disregarding a national public health crisis,” Jamie must navigate the waters of high school, friendships and relationships.

Despite her claims that life doesn’t revolve around her size, Jamie, who wears a size 5X, is very aware about how it impacts every aspect of her existence, from concern about whether she’s sweaty-stinky to stress over the thought that one day her boyfriend will be smaller than she is. Not being able to shop in the same stores with friends, having people judge you for eating lunch, and other slights and mistreatments are obstacles that Jamie has to handle. She points out that fat discrimination is the last socially acceptable form of discrimination because it’s always assumed that anyone who is overweight is willfully unhealthy and unwilling to do anything to fix it.

“I’m not eating. I haven’t eaten in front of people since fifth grade, when I got tired of the staring, even from the teachers. When I was younger, I used to throw fits and scream, or cry and try to explain that even though I was fat, I still had to eat a meal here and there. Then, slowly, I got to where I just didn’t feel hungry if other people were around to watch.” (p.14)

Author Susan Vaught manages to realistically portray concerns and issues that many overweight people deal with every day. She throws in some amazing (horrifying) facts about gastric bypass surgery – how it’s performed, the high mortality rate (one in 200 die on the table or right after, one in twenty after the first year), and details about dumping and frothing (some very gross things that patients often go through after surgery). [Side note regarding the mortality rates:  I looked it up and the numbers vary depending upon what source you’re looking at. No matter where you’re looking, however, the number of deaths caused by complications is high.]

Many readers who have struggled with their weight and/or weight-loss will be able to identify with Fat Girl, although her in-your-face attitude might turn some off initially. Jamie is unapologetic, funny and, on the surface, happy in her skin. Once you dig a little deeper – into the book and into Jamie’s mind – Jamie’s outlook makes more sense, as she struggles to shrug off hurtful, unthinking words from friends, family and even her doctors. Big Fat Manifesto is not just about Jamie’s weight and Burke’s surgery. It’s about the bonds of friendship and the struggle to speak up for what’s right, with a bit of unexpected romance sprinkled in. Big Fat Manifesto might not be a great novel, but it’s a good novel, and it can be an eye opener to the discrimination that continues to be acceptable in today’s world toward the overweight.

[Fun note: Big Fat Manifesto was a 2010 South Carolina Young Adult Book Award nominee.]



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