Big Boned (2021) by Jo Watson was a random library pick based on its title, cover, and jacket copy, which begins “Can she be herself in a one-size-fits-all world?” I knew that I had to read this young adult romance, which promised to be fat positive.
Lori is a high school senior, an artist who has just moved from Johannesburg, South Africa, to Cape Town so her neurodivergent 9-year-old brother can go to a better school. Her parents are divorced, and her mother is trying to re-create herself as a seller of luxury real estate through plastic surgery and well-placed infomercials. Lori has anxiety due to serious bullying as a child, but is willing to make the most of the move because she loves her brother, Zac.
The first few pages put me off because Lori does not like what she sees in the mirror–her flabby thighs, muffin top, and flappy arms. She thinks that “carbs are the devil” and mirrors were invented by stick thin people “for the sole purpose of tormenting girls like me.” She describes feeling like she embarrasses her mother, who she overheard calling her “big boned” and thought she would grow out of her “puppy fat.”
At the school assembly, the author has Lori think about the difference between using “big” as a euphemism but then just going with “fat,” but still doesn’t use it in a positive way. After school, Lori consumes ice cream on the floor of the kitchen. I really didn’t appreciate the way the author (and the character) perpetuated these anti-fat stereotypes. So I was ready to be very disappointed and was not even sure I’d finish the book. But I kept reading.
Lori picks up her brother from his school, and sees the gorgeous, star water polo player from her school, Jake, volunteering there. Jake happens to have a sister with ADHD who goes to the same school. They become friends with their older siblings coordinating.
I began to feel better about the beginning’s anti-fat bias when Lori met her new therapist, Dr Stride, who wears bright colors, has Lori help her replant her succulent garden, and is also fat. Lori’s first assignment is to make a list of what she likes about herself, and it is very difficult for her to do. During one breakthrough session, Dr. Stride gets Lori to admit that her inner bully calls herself fat and ugly because of the bullying from middle school, and that means that the bullying is still going on.
Lori is not sure whether Jake likes her as more than friends, but they keep hanging out and texting. One day, in protest of perfect Cape Town’s outrage over a pothole, Lori turns it into a street art flower. And Thembi, the most gorgeous girl in school, offers to make a dress for her because she needs a “fuller-figured” dress for her portfolio. Lori does more street art, and gets called “Cape Town’s Banksy” but only a select few know that it’s her.
I thought the therapy sessions were the best part of the book–Dr. Stride challenges her and doesn’t let her get away with anything, like the best therapists do. And since it’s a romance, there is a happily-ever-after, as much as there can be for teens who are off to different colleges.
I understand that the author was portraying Lori’s transformation from self-hating to beginning self-acceptance, but the start of the book was very hard to read when you are attuned to anti-fat messages. I wish there could have been some way for the anti-fat messages to be avoided, but I really liked how Lori grew and changed through finding her voice as an artist and realizing that the fat girl can get the super-hot guy. I do recommend it for the interesting locale–I haven’t read many books set in South Africa–and the YA romance/ self-acceptance journey with discussions of neurodiversity and mental health challenges.