I’m 7 years old, my cousin is getting married and we need to find a dress. I’m not sure if it is because we have waited so long, or because I am in a mood but I when we finally find a dress that we can agree on, it is too small–tight around the stomach. There isn’t another size. Instead of us deciding that I should find another dress (or hire someone to let out the dress) we think that the best thing is to buy the dress and for me to lose a few pounds so that I can fit into it.
I’m 9 years old and have started puberty. Hips are expanding, boobs are beginning to show. I won’t have to wear a bra for another year, but things are shifting and there is nothing I can do. According to the weight/height chart in my doctor’s office I should be 90 pounds and I’m 100. He suggests that I should get the weight under control. This is the year of cottage cheese and yogurt and tuna fish in plastic orange tupperware containers.
Weight watchers. Skipping meals. Slim Fast. My teen and (let’s face it) adult years has been characterized by my relationship to food and my body. I’ve spoken about this before when I revisited Paula Danzinger’s novels.
As much as I had wanted to read K.A. Barson’s 45 Pounds (more or less), I also avoided it for about a year because while I knew she would do something amazing with the “fat girl who wants to lose weight” trope, I also knew that it would trigger some old stuff for me, as the premise of the book — a young woman who decides to drop 45 pounds to fit into her dream dress for her aunt’s wedding–felt too familiar.
Here’s the thing. I’m sorry that I waited so long. This book made me laugh and cry and really feel the FEELINGS. Barson’s Ann (without an ‘e’ as she says–see even an ANNE joke!!!) is so unbelievably wonderful, she has certainly done the gamete of diets, read all of the required literature and has tried and failed so many times but nothing works. The cycle of dieting and shame, control issues with food is handled so sensitively and with such compassion, that it was like Ann was in my head. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but what I will say is that Barson considers the factors that affect how our relationship with food can be formed and that it is only when we become aware of this that great change can come. This book isn’t just about Ann losing weight, it is about her finding her community and where she fits in.
K.A. and I got to know one another a bit better this past June at a writing retreat in Northern Michigan. Listening to her talk about writing, I knew that I wanted her on the blog and with the paperback edition now available, it seemed like the perfect time. We are also sisters in faculty advisors at VCFA as I had the pleasure of working with Sarah Ellis and Rita Williams Garcia, too! Honestly, I read this book and it made me want to write better.
K.A. Barson has been published in Highlights for Children magazine and her debut young adult novel, 45 Pounds, was published by Viking Children’s Books in July 2013. It’s also available in paperback. Her next book is due out around fall 2015. She earned an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches writing classes at Spring Arbor University. Kelly lives in Jackson, Michigan with her husband and a pack of wild designer dogs.
Mel: How did this novel, 45 Pounds (more or less) evolve for you? Did you know what kind of story you were telling when you started it?
K.A.: The heart of the story–about a girl who is overweight, but saw herself as bigger than she really is (and is very self-conscious about it)–has always been there. The plot, however, has changed several times. I know my main character Ann would have friction with her seemingly perfect mother, but the original story involved Ann taking care of her Gram after a stroke. But the Gram storyline was too dark and sad. I needed something lighter (no pun intended).
Mel: What were some of the ways you tried to embody Ann’s character? Did you find any moments particularly challenging? And how did you deal with it?
K.A.: No, I didn’t find getting into Ann’s head difficult. Unfortunately, much of Ann’s inner dialogue is also mine. The hard part was separating her from me. I am not her and vice versa. But I was definitely able to pull from my own experiences and feelings well.
Mel: When talk about separating Ann from you to hear her more clearly. Do you remember anything specifically you did?
K.A.: I tried getting in her head, which is younger and different from mine. Her family situation is VERY different from mine, so I put myself in that different space, reminding myself constantly of her backstory and how that affects how she feels about herself and how she relates to her world. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but I had to remind myself that I am NOT Ann and only draw from my emotional well when it was pertinent, but not to pull from the plot of my life.
Mel: There is much discussion about fat shaming, eating disorders, and societal constructions of a healthy body. How do you feel that this books fits into this conversation?
K.A.: I hope that it fits in to help people of all sizes see that overweight people are not lazy, and they don’t lack willpower. I’d like people to realize that many people have unhealthy relationships with food, but it doesn’t necessarily show. And not to judge what you think you might know about anyone because everyone’s story is unique and often surprising.
Mel: I thought it was really intelligent to shift the discussion the way you had. Why do you think we have such a focus on food control—even healthy food—in North America?
K.A.: North American food control? Oh, man! That’s complex. I think it’s this crazy dichotomy of instant gratification and a desire to look a certain way. We’re pulled in both directions all the time. I want what tastes good and I want it now, but I don’t want to suffer the consequences of it. We also have tendencies to follow the pendulum to extremes. For example, we deprive ourselves of junk in lieu of only healthy foods, only to snap and wind up binging on them and creating the yo-yo diet effect. Or maybe that’s just me? I only see middle ground as the pendulum swings across it.
Mel: This is more a comment than a question, but maybe you can respond to it. That scene in the shoe store is fairly erotic and sensual. Oh here is my question. How did that scene evolve?
K.A.: Actually, Rita Williams-Garcia, my fourth semester advisor at VCFA asked questions that helped develop that scene. She noticed that Ann loved shoes and that she wasn’t embarrassed about her shoe size, which is a 7. So I created the scene where he helped her try on shoes. But since Ann is so self-conscious, she’s not used to anyone, let alone a cute guy, touching her feet. An awkward, strangely sensual moment naturally happened.
Mel: Honestly, there is so much in this book. Friendships. Family dynamics. Family drama. Friendship drama. How did you approach balancing all of these threads while keeping true to Ann’s experience?
K.A.: I don’t know that it was that intentional. My focus was on her desperation. She wants so much to fit in–with her family, especially her dad and brother, and a group of friends. So much of the drama was born from that desperation.
Mel: The whole thing about “fitting in” It is like we are always looking within but spend too much time focusing on what is on the outside that we don’t always see what we have, either.
K.A.: I agree with the fitting in thing. We can also get pretty “me-centered”, especially when it comes to health and eating and fitness. If we’re focused on what we’re eating or not eating, we aren’t focused on each other and seeing through all the surface crap and just living naturally, being ourselves. across it.
Mel: What was the most fun you had trying on clothes? What is your favourite outfit and why?
K.A.: The most fun I’ve had trying on clothes did not involve ME trying on clothes. My best friend is a size 2. (We pretty much opposites in every area. Total yin/yang friendship.) Anyway, we were shopping because she was going on a trip. To expedite things because she doesn’t do well cooped up inside too long, I sent her back to the dressing room and I brought her clothes to try on. We were in one of those nothing-over-size-6 stores where the salespeople judge you the second you walk in the door. She tried on a size 2 skirt, and it was too big. But I didn’t see a smaller size. I went to a salesperson and asked confidently, “This 2 is too big. Do you have a 0 in the back?” She scanned me up and down and said, “Um…I don’t know. Let me check.” Some people may have been offended, but I still laugh about it.
My favorite outfit is my writing uniform: yoga pants and a t-shirt. (You’ve seen that outfit.) But I also have leaving-the-house clothes. Of those, I have a pair of black pants that I love because they’re stretchy and comfy, but they don’t look like it. I pair it with my favorite-of-the-season brightly colored top, which usually matches my hair color. Often that’s purple, but today it’s blue.
Mel: Yes, I have seen it. Actually that is my favourite outfit, too! (Actually what I’m wearing right now!) My “leaving-the-house” clothes seems to involve long skirts. In other words, whatever is comfortable.
I encourage teens (or anyone really) struggling with body image to read this book, because we all need to change the paradigm and see body image, food, and weight in a more constructive way. If I had this book as a teen, I might have rethought a few things.