Expert Approved: Body Positive Books for Teens
We’re big believers in books as a really useful way for children and teens to connect with this topic. However we do need to be careful to ensure that young people are reading the books that align with their developmental level, and the books that they might relate to best.
We've read a few of the books that are tagged as 'body image' books by the publishers, to provide a guide as to the books that might be best for your young people. We've put this list together for parents and professionals who might be in the position to recommend books to young people- like teachers, librarians, psychologists- hopefully this is helpful for you.
We will add to this post over time, so please feel free to make recommendations for more titles to add to the list!
1) MY EYES ARE UP HERE By Laura Zimmerman
“My eyes are up here” follows 15-year-old Greer Walsh through a challenging time in her high school career as she learns to navigate the new additions in her life- Size 30H Maude and Mavis.
Much of this book is about how challenging her new breasts have made her life, and the ‘body image’ content stems mostly from this as Greer describes the discomfort and frustration in really real ways that I think girls who are also on the upper end of cup sizes will relate to, like this line: “I’m ashamed of being ashamed of being ashamed. And that is the part no one else understands”
Eventually, with some help from her new sports bra, encouragement from her peers, and the new guy/love interest Jackson, Greer tries out for, and gets into, the school volleyball team. Her entry into sport isn’t without its challenges- most of which revolved around getting into the uniform. With that sorted, Greer is unstoppable and finally experiences the joy of moving her body:
“The amazing part was right before that, when my body wasn’t only cooperating, it was leading the way. When every muscle and joint and skin cell came together under the same current and did what they were meant to do: Move. Touch. Fall. Feel. Fly. And I thought, this is what my body can do”
The modelling of body acceptance through appreciation of body functionality is a unique contribution of this book. We know that appreciating what our bodies can do over what they look like can help us develop more positive body image. Content is gentle, relatable, and there is nothing obviously triggering around weight and shape.
Girls aged 13-17 years. Ok for girls in all bodies, but those who have large breasts may benefit more than others. Girls who do or do not exhibit existing body dissatisfaction could read this book. Based in the USA
2) THE UPSIDE OF UNREQUITED, By Becky Albertalli
This is definitely proper young adult fiction. Full of crushes and boys and girls and confusion in the way only adolescents can experience it. Reading this definitely took me back to that time, and, as you would expect, everything works out well in the end.
Body image is a very subtle, background theme explored mostly through the main character Molly (17) being in a larger body, and mostly being fine about it. She talks about she feels in her body, and about feeling insecure sometimes, but not necessarily because of her body. There is some mild pressure to lose weight from her grandmother, and some distant references to teasing, but the focus seems to be around feeling wanted, included, and like she belongs rather than being about her body, weight or shape.
The author, Becky Albertalli’s former life as a clinical psychologist is evident here as there was a very careful inclusion of references towards weight.
Recommended for: Girls 14-18 Girls in all bodies, but particularly in larger bodies, and those who have begun to experience and talk about body dissatisfaction could read this book.
Be aware of: There are many references to taking anxiety medication that mention the actual drug name- Zoloft- which does seem strange, but may be a cultural difference between the US/Australia.
3) STARFISH by Lisa Fipps
Ellie is a poet, and in a larger body.
The whole book is written in poetic style.
And it has completely infiltrated my own way of thinking and writing.
Ok I’m not talented enough to write in poems like Ellie does!
As we meet her, Ellie writes and lives by the Fat Girl Rules. Her mum, a magazine editor, encourages weight loss directly, indirectly, discreetly, not-so- discreetly. Her older sister and brother, both in thinner bodies, tease her mercilessly, as do the kids at school. Her dad, and the school librarian are the only people who treat her with any sort of kindness.
In the end, a combination of a therapist, a new best friend and her accepting family encourage Ellie to break and eventually burn the Fat Girl Rules, to stand up to her mother and school bullies, and to accept and love herself.
As a body image researcher, I am a little conflicted in recommending this book. There is a LOT of body shaming. It sort of gets in your head a bit. The constant derogative comments made me a bit conscious about my own body, and I’ve had 15+ years of being a body image expert. Things like the comment from Ellie’s Mom on why she won’t buy Ellie clothes that fit her (as her brother and sister get new clothes):
“She gained more weight this summer.
I’m afraid if we keep buying her bigger clothes,
she’ll just let herself get bigger”
There is some evidence that reading about experiences of teasing, bullying, and body shaming can be harmful for body image (Furman & Thompson, 2002). The impact of hearing negative body-related commentary towards others can exacerbate the internalisation of the idea that ‘thin is best’. I definitely think there is the potential for vicarious experiences of body shaming through books, film, and TV characters, and that worries me a little in this novel.
But then some of the messages in the book are exactly what we would want to communicate to young people in larger bodies. Things like the lessons from the therapist:
“ No matter what you weigh,
You deserve for people to treat you
Like a human being with feelings”
I also reaaaaaallly like the cover- I’m a big lover of book covers in general, but this one really appealed to me.
Therefore, this book is Recommended only for:
Parents and teachers of people in larger bodies- this gives a great insight into the experience, and is a great read, even for grown ups usually outside of the 'Young Adult' age range.
Older teen girls (16+) who are in larger bodies and have been teased and want to experience getting back at all of the people who teased them, vicariously of course.
Body Confident young people who want to understand the experience and discrimination experienced by people in larger bodies (but are empathetic towards fat people- we wouldn’t want anyone learning any ideas for bullying here)
Potential for problems:
The main character makes reference to diets, and secreting and hiding food. The storyline here is very accurate- when young people are body shamed, and told they are ‘over ‘ weight and need to lose weight, they typically engage in secretive eating. However this has the potential to lead to disordered eating, so if your clients or daughters might already be engaging in these behaviours, this book is not a good idea.
Anyone already experiencing teasing or body shaming in milder forms might feel worse after reading this as the book will enhance their capacity to imagine what negative and nasty things the people around them might be thinking or saying about them.
More Fiction reviews to come... I'm working my way through this list:
- Beautiful Mess. By Claire Christian
- Big Bones. By Laura Dockrill
- What I Like About Me. By Jenna Guillaume
- The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl. By Melissa Keil
- It Sounded Better in My Head. By Nina Kenwood
- The Learning Curves of Vanessa Partridge. Melissa Keil
Non Fiction Books
1) The Body Image Book for Girls, By Dr Charlotte Markey
This book is pretty much everything that body image and eating disorder experts know, packaged up for teens. It's thorough!
Beautifully illustrated, and covering topics like puberty, menstruation, why you shouldn't diet, reasons you should love your body, fuelling with food, physical activity and self-care, this is an in-depth guide. Written by researcher and body image expert, Dr Charlotte Markey, this information is all drawn from evidence, and it is accurate.
The publishers site recommends this book for 12-14 year olds, but I disagree. In my opinion, this is not a book for a universal audience. We wouldn't teach all of these things to grade 7&8 students in schools, as some of them wouldn't have worried about these things yet, and this book could be suggestive, because of it's depth. This is a book that I would recommend for girls 14+ who are expressing some concerns about their body. This is the book that will talk them out of dieting, and pull them away from diet culture. This is the book that might fill in the gaps while waiting for, or in-between therapy sessions.
2) Girl Stuff, By Kaz Cooke
To me, Kaz Cooke is the original body image inspiration. Her book 'Real Gorgeous' inspired me, and I'm sure many others. It was my first exposure to counter diet-culture attitudes, and it changed my life.
Her funny, quirky take on all things bodies is now available in Girl Stuff 8-12, and Girl Stuff 13+. Two seperate books that go into different levels of detail in terms of puberty, food, and body image, but also - the much broader scope of teen concerns - looking after your skin and hair, what to eat, drugs and alcohol, earning money - quite the complete guide! I love that the division into these two books for different ages enables a developmentally appropriate entry point for pre-teens to get the information they need, without knowing too much, while the older teens can get the detail and depth they are craving on the issues that become more important to them.
These would be a really useful talking point for girls in the home, and I hope they are in every school library. Great for girls who want to know it all.
Dr Zali Yager is a Body Image Expert, Executive Director of the Body Confident Collective, and Honorary Associate Professor in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University.
Zali is an internationally recognised expert in the body image space, known for figuring out 'what works' to build positive body image in school and community settings. Zali has a Health and Physical Education background, and has conducted most of her research in the health psychology and health promotion fields.
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Some books gratefully received from Penguin Australia. Post not sponsored in any way.
Furman, K., & Thompson, J. K. (2002). Body image, teasing, and mood alterations: An experimental study of exposure to negative verbal commentary. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 32(4), 449-457.