A  Book Review of  Her Body Can

Her body is beautiful-strong, kind and wise. All bodies are lovely no matter their size.”

– from Her Body Can byKatie Crenshaw & Ady Meschke

It’s been about a year since I watched the movie “Dumplin” and I’m ready to share that, despite enjoying it quite a bit, a few things didn’t sit well with me. I’ll briefly focus on one particular scene. The love interest, a straight-sized, conventionally attractive guy, pronounces to Dumplin, a plus-sized teenager: “I think you’re beautiful.” Cue the Awwwwss. 

He is made out to be quite a prince. How brave of him to see her beauty. So deep. And to say it out loud! Courageous!

Well, I have a question. How come he didn’t just say, “You’re beautiful” ? Why the “I think” footnote? Maybe because he’s saying that the world finds Dumplin to be a complete failure and disgrace, and he accepts such fatphobic prejudice as fact with no plan to challenge it, yet he wants Dumplin’ to know that HE sees her beauty, while nobody else has the capacity to do so? Because he’s…different. He is doing her a favor and complimenting her appearance. He is the hero. What a prince. What an …ally? 

One of the most challenging aspects of advocacy is pointing out that well-intended actions and messages aren’t always as progressive or inclusive as they appear. The common responses to critique are, “Um, at least it’s SOMETHING! It’s progress! Sounds like you’re unhappy! Be thankful, not negative.”

Well. It’s not my job to be thankful for efforts that are misguided and ill-informed. And as for negative? You can’t do the work that I do, daily, if you’re negative. You have to be able to find beauty and encouragement in a mess of abuse, bigotry and cruelty. 

Allies are essential. I have straight-sized friends who have taken the time to truly understand my work.  They send me articles, or ask my opinion about things in the news. They’re discreetly aware of my comfort in certain settings. They don’t laugh at fat jokes, and they don’t engage in Diet/Weight Loss Chatter. They are a source of strength.  And when they compliment me, they don’t preface it with “I think.” They view their respect for me as fact, not charity.

It’s hard for me to criticize efforts that are devoted to furthering the causes of Fat Acceptance, Size Representation and Body Positivity. There’s been a lot of coverage of Her Body Can, a new children’s story touted as “the first body positive children’s book.” That’s a pretty big statement that can be refuted with minimal research that I’ll leave you to do on your own. But the book is a significant step in representation- the illustrations are diverse in terms of ethnicity, race, religion and of course, body size. And it’s sure popular. By that, I mean a lot of people are sharing posts about it. I wonder how many have actually read it.

The book is described on its website as: “The very first book of its kind, written for girls ages newborn to 8, this book intends to teach all young girls that their bodies CAN DO ANYTHING and that what they look like is irrelevant—we are all beautiful exactly the way we are.” The rhyming, colorful pages of the story depict a young girl of “plus” size engaging in life and enjoying the world, as a celebration of her body. Or, perhaps more accurately, “despite” her body. 

I’ll reiterate the quote noted earlier, which appears in the book alongside an illustration of the main character doing yoga:  “All bodies are lovely, no matter their size.” The sentence says a lot. It’s reminiscent of the Dumplin’ compliment. Rather than push back on the logic behind why it’s acceptable to say that large bodies are unattractive, it’s easier to just say, “Everybody is good.”

“Good”, in this book, seems strictly synonymous with movement. Of the 13 pages chronicling what “her body can” do, over half of those pages depict the child engaged in exercise or sports. Yoga gets a lot of page time. We all acknowledge that movement of any type can be valuable, healing, joyous and empowering in a lot of ways. But is the ability to perform movement  – or more specifically THESE types of movement (running, soccer, yoga, swimming, more yoga) a prerequisite for a body to be considered capable or worthy? What is the message we’re sending about bodies that can’t perform these particular activities? There is a tone of ableism here that just doesn’t deserve accolades. 

Can this kid’s body read a book? Can it defend a classmate who is being bullied? Can it vote? (I’m just joining the book’s reality where the child managed to qualify for the NYC marathon despite being, yknow…a CHILD.) Can her body have a phone date with an elderly family member?  Can it pet and calm an animal? Can it say “I love you”, through whatever method of communication the body prefers and requires?

At what point do we realize that focusing on bodies in motion is non-inclusive, oversupportive of Fitness Culture, and enabling of the concept of “The Good Fatty”- the fat person we shouldn’t be mean to because they work out and eat right and are…”healthy.”

There is a hopeful tone to the book that’s quite lovely. However, there is also content that is frustratingly off-key..

There’s the rhyme about how, “Her body can choose kale or cake-yummy yummy!/ Food is her fuel and feels good in her tummy!” This page could be a great rejection of food morality. Instead, it is the epitome of a damaging mindset. The child is shown eating a cupcake from a huge dessert display, while wearing a t-shirt that says “KALE.” Yeah, that’s all it says. KALE. If the authors  were going for an anti- food morality message, you lost me while I was wondering who the hell bought this kid a shirt that says “KALE”? Who even makes a shirt that says “KALE”? And do you have to wear one while you eat cupcakes? Damn, I missed that memo. 

At another point, the child’s body is celebrated while shopping. The text reads:  “Her Body Can shop at the stores she likes best/ she gets to choose how she wants to dress.” Oh, does she? That’s nice.  I can round up a lot of people (children and adults) who will tell you that they absolutely cannot shop at the stores they like best. And that’s a problem. It’s a huge problem. And it’s a perfect summation of everything that this book CANT understand, communicate or teach.

Rather than focusing on a large body as an assumed obstacle, why not  push for representation? Wouldn’t it be more effective to simply make the plus kid the protagonist not because of her size but because she just…is? 

I’ve lost count of how many people ask me if I love the show “This Is Us.” I do not. I watched one episode and upon realizing  that Crissy Metz’s character’s story immediately starts out with crying on a scale, I turned it off. Why can’t there just be a story? Why is her weight the story?

I’m aware that my message here, much like my exploration of the terrifying Peloton ad, will be distorted into a condemnation of physical activity and movement. That’s just what happens in advocacy, and that’s too bad. My goal is actually to remind us all that it’s okay to ask questions.

I am grateful that this book exists. I recognize that it’s a huge step and was motivated by a desire to make things better. But part of advocacy is the ability to examine who our efforts are serving and who they’re excluding. This book falls short on inclusivity and awareness of systemic discrimination and weight-based mistreatment.

But hey. That fictional plus kid sure can do yoga. Here’s to hoping she earns herself an “Arugula” sweatshirt some day.

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