YA Heroines and body size

I am now 18,000 words into my YA novel (not, by any stretch, a “winning” NaNoWriMo, but a HUGE accomplishment for me… and the reason I’ve not been blogging), and am simultaneously reading some recent YA titles, for tonal inspiration.

When I started writing my novel, I didn’t even know what my heroine looked like. I waffled on how she should look, because the default for me, personally, is to write female characters who echo my experience as an overweight giant who is OK looking but not OMG GORGEOUS and certainly not a manic pixie dream girl. But in YA, the norm is… not me.

I find it notable how most YA heroines are:

  • diminutive/short/petite
  • dainty
  • feminine
  • delicate
  • thin/of normative (ie: not fat) size
  • beautiful (like, to the point of every person in the book remarking on it, repeatedly)
  • unusual (but beautiful).

Even when they’re not explicitly described as any of the above, in cover illustrations and movie casting, they inevitably become any or all of these things, especially feminine, diminutive and thin. But usually we are told what our heroine looks like and she is usually: short/small in comparison to the male romantic lead and thin/not fat. In the last three weeks alone, I’ve read three books that have all been variations on this theme. It’s becoming frustrating.

I wonder about this, and have for sometime. Are the authors creating these heroines writing girls who resemble them, or are they writing the girls they wish they could be? Acceptably sized, feminine ideals? Because I’m pretty sure all YA authors AREN’T 5’3″ and weigh 120 pounds. In fact, I find it jarring when I see that an author looks like me, but writes a heroine who is the polar opposite. Still, I too feel the urge — it’s so tempting to give your heroine the face, hair and body that we’ve always wanted to have (and make all the boys fall for her). But as a reader, I find it hard to connect with the girl who has it all.

Exceptions I’ve in the last year: Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey and Liar by Justine Larbalestier (the latter set apart for being mixed AND being tall/muscular). And, of course, there are fabulous books that don’t make their heroines dainty or overly feminine, BUT in these cases, their girls are still, by and large, thin and (usually) short. In fact, usually with Girls Who Kick Ass, their being muscular and thin is a key physical descriptor. And that’s fine! But where are the six foot tall chicks who weigh 200 pounds, and are athletic and kick butt? Heck, I’d settle for a girl who is 5 foot 8, the same height as her beau, and not 135 pounds. I’M NOT PICKY.

Then again, are YA authors writing what one might call the “average” girl to appeal to the average girl reading? Possibly. But every girl (*ahem* full grown-ass women, more like) I know who reads YA voraciously does not fit contemporary ideal body standards. Surely, they too are not finding themselves represented in fiction.

As not-the-average girl, I find it frustrating. Where are the heroines who worry about being BIGGER than the boy they like? Who can’t be picked up and carried by him in a romantic/emergency situation? The girls who aren’t particularly feminine or dainty, and in that find strength? (and the tom boy who is sekritly gorgeous and also, of course, thin isn’t really subverting the trope)

I’ve ended up making my heroine a tall, bigger built, muscular girl with an average face. It fits my story well, actually, and feels organic, but I also hope she is a character that many girls can relate to. I’ve not made her overweight because I’ve done the insecure fat girl thing in other works, and her being athletic suits my narrative purposes… but the idea is that she weighs 180 lbs — MORE than the male MC. It makes me sad that this is so OMG DIFFERENT! when it’s actually something that is more common than we believe. (I can’t be the only girl who is taller and heavier than every guy she’s dated, right?)

What do you think?

(if anyone has a good example of recent YA with a non-normative female MC, let me know!)

9 thoughts on “YA Heroines and body size”

  1. Pretty much everything written by Tamora Pierce, ever. When it comes to…I don’t know what to call it, YA fiction that shows things as they really are – characters who are bi, straight, trans, on birth control, weigh more than 100 pounds, are female but stronger than many of the men around them – Pierce is always the first I think of. I think she does a lot of recommendations on her blog, so if you’re hunting for more YA books showing heroines of not-stick-thin-size, that might be a good place to go for ideas.

    1. I feel like such a bad reader, having never read Tamora Pierce! I will definitely check her out. Anyone who writes heroines outside the “norm” needs to be on my list :)

      1. If non-normative heroines are the focus, I strongly recommend her Protector of the Small series, where the main character is a decidedly tall/large-framed person. There are certainly other novels where the main character falls out outside of conventional beauty standards, but this was one (with a single main character) that struck me as the most obvious.

  2. As a bigger-than-average girl myself, I’ve thought about this also. I would have loved to be able to read and relate to a larger heroine as a teen. Also, one that doesn’t need to be rescued all the time, or that thinks boys are the most awesome thing on the planet. Can’t wait to read yours! (And I totally gave up on NaNoWriMo – way too much pressure)

    1. The trick is, personally, I want to see more heroines who are like me (or at least like me as a teen!), BUT not necessarily in a contemporary YA story where the crux of the story IS the character’s size. I mean, baby steps, and I know there are those out there (like The DUFF), but I primarily read supernatural and dystopic YA, where the beautiful/feminine/little/thing It Girl thing is quite prevalent. It’s why I enjoyed Guardian of the Dead so much — Ellie mentions her weight/size a few times and it feels really real… but then the rest of the story isn’t ABOUT that. I appreciated that it was there, and I was able to put myself in the character’s shoes. There’s not enough of that.

      NaNo was crazy. I’m still flabbergasted by a few people I know who wrote 50K in like two weeks. It’s bizarre. What I’ve taken from the month is writing when I don’t want to, and establishing a kind of routine. Also free-writing, which doesn’t come naturally to me — I’m usually anal about “this is what happens in this scene and I won’t start it until I know where it’s going!”… but then I don’t write anything. So I’m pleased to have used NaNo to get a good start, and get in the habit of writing almost every day. I average 800-1400 words a day, which is good enough for me, right now.

      I think you should totally work on a YA novel with a bigger heroine! It sounds callous, but you totally have a GREAT hook for getting an agent/publisher because you’re a role model to a lot of people and have such an active blog…

  3. Warriors of Alavna by N.M. Browne. It was published in 2000, so it’s a bit old, but one of my favorites. The main character deals with a lot of body issues (and family issues) while learning how to kick butt.

  4. it’s been a while since i read it, but garth nix’s old kingdom trilogy doesn’t, as far as i recall, focus on the female protagonists’ weight or appearance. i don’t think he really says much at all about sabriel’s looks in the first book, apart from a basic description (tall, pale, dark-haired). i could be wrong though, as i said, it’s been a while.

  5. Hey! I found this blog and then this post – spot-on! I am 5’11 and 200 pounds and I write characters that are not Kate Middleton thin. More like curvy and self-conscious. My current WIP has a tall girl with a guy who is 5’5 and she is ultra-aware of it all. Heroines should be real – and YA stories should be real as well. Enough of vampire girls with chicken bone thin arms!!


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