I am so glad to bring you this incredible by my dear friend, Kelly deVos. I read Kelly’s debut, FAT GIRL ON A PLANE, in one sitting and fell absolutely, utterly in love with Cookie and her journey. Kelly knows just how to pull on your heartstrings. So when Kelly sent me this essay, it is no great surprise that it spoke deeply to me.
About Kelly deVos
A third generation native Arizonan, Kelly deVos can tell you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about cactus, cattle and climate. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. Kelly is represented by Kathleen Rushall of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Her debut novel, FAT GIRL ON A PLANE, will be published on 6/5/18 by Harlequin Teen and her work has been featured in Normal Noise and 202 Magazine. Kelly is also a passionate advocate for body positivity and fat acceptance.
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For the majority of my life, I have been fat.
But for a long time, I have also been happy.
A year ago in March, I woke up with a small, bluish bruise on my upper thigh. I’d been at a Pilates class the day before and assumed I had injured myself somehow. It didn’t really hurt and I knew the mark would go away. A few days later, it was the size of a quarter and I applied some ice. A few days after that, the bruise had become a purplish black circle that covered most of my upper leg.
That afternoon, I went to my longtime doctor. He said I’d been bitten by a brown recluse spider and now had a Streptococcus infection. Twenty-four hours later, I’d failed outpatient antibiotic treatment and was in the hospital where I would stay, spending the next week having two surgeries to remove the infected tissue.
I’ve always had a pretty good relationship with my doctor. He’s droll but has generally treated me fairly and compassionately. As I sat there connected to Vancomycin drip, I said, “This is freaky right? How many people get flesh-eating bacterial infections?”
He checked his clipboard and shrugged. “Obese people with Type II Diabetes are at an increased risk for these kinds of infections.”
I could feel my blood pressure starting to rise. Here we go, I thought. Here is my doctor displaying the kind of fatphobia that often keeps fat people from receiving quality medical care. “I don’t have Type II Diabetes,” I snapped at him. “And I believe people can be healthy at any weight. I walk three times a week. I eat healthy food. I do Pilates. I’m one of the happiest people I know.”
He handed me a printout of my latest labwork and a booklet called Living With Diabetes. “You do have Type II Diabetes. You’re not healthy at your current weight and my honest opinion is that, as things stand right now, you have ten years to live.”
I was 41 years old.
I left the hospital with 8 daily medications, some of which made me sick to my stomach and others that left me feeling like I needed a nap each afternoon. I adjusted to the reality of monitoring my blood sugar and planning my life around the side effects of my meds. I attended classes with a hospital diabetes specialist.
At this same time, Advance Reader Copies of my book FAT GIRL ON A PLANE were making their way out into the world. This is a deeply personal book for me. I’d struggled a lot as a teenager with body issues. I wanted to be a writer but felt that I’d need to lose weight to do it. That I would get skinny and my life would begin. And I’d spent years working in the professional beauty and fashion industries, observing how beauty was commodified and objectified. And certainly where opportunities were very often disproportionately doled out to the thin and conventionally attractive.
I didn’t know how to go from being a teenager who let fatphobia dictate who I was and what I did to being an adult capable of advocating for myself. So I wrote FAT GIRL ON A PLANE,heavily influenced by my own experiences as a young adult. Because I wanted to examine the way that the world treats fat versus thin people, I wrote the book in two arcs, following the same character, Cookie Vonn, before and after a major weight loss. I felt there were dominant tropes emerging in Young Adult literature – the fat girl who learns to stop dieting and love herself unconditionally versus the Cinderella weight loss story.
For me, neither one of those kinds of stories fully aligns with the world as I have experienced it. I know fat people who are very happy and also losing weight for health reasons. I know fat people who have stopped trying to lose weight and are unhappy. I know thin people riddled with deep insecurities who have been victimized by fatphobia and fat shaming. I know thin people who are passionate advocates for body positivity and are our allies in this struggle.
I think many early readers have understood FAT GIRL and what’s it’s trying to do. But not everyone has. One day, I stupidly checked in on my reviews. This is exactly the wrong way to tell teenagers to love themselves, one person wrote. I feel really sorry for Kelly deVos, said another. I hate to say it, but part of me felt sort of betrayed. I’d experienced a lifetime of fatshaming. I’d always been the wrong kind girl in a society where thin is always in.
And now, all of the sudden, I’d become the wrong kind of fat girl.
My point of view – that society should value people for what’s on the inside and not what’s on the outside but that the decision of whether or not to lose weight is one that each person should be free to make for themselves – had fallen out of favor.
But here’s the thing, being fat isn’t only about self-esteem and personal happiness. And telling young people that the only thing they need to do is love what they see in the mirror, in my opinion, isn’t enough. It doesn’t tell them what they really need to know in order to live their best lives.
Because the world doesn’t exist in the mirror.
It’s well documented that fat people face discrimination in the workplace. That we are often not hired for positions where we are well qualified. That we are paid less and promoted more slowly. We very often receive substandard medical care. There’s substantial evidence that indicates many doctors dislike treating fat people and are overprone to blaming obesity for all of the patient’s symptoms.
There are personal, professional and social consequences for fatness.
So, what does help young people then?
In my opinion as a writer and a parent, it’s being honest as possible. Being as real as possible. Giving teenagers as much information as possible to help them make the best individual decisions possible.
Because things are complicated. Because you can learn to love what you see in the mirror and still be blocked from that opportunity at work. Because you can love what you see in the mirror and be told your back ache is caused by fatness instead of a spinal tumor. Because changing the world requires seeing the world and discussing the world and engaging with the world.
Most especially because there isn’t one right way to handle many of these issues that will work for everyone. It might be the right thing for one teenager to stop worrying about weight and live life free of those concerns. Another teenager might take that approach and end up in the hospital at the age of 41.
Personally, I am currently trying to lose weight. I am living my dream of being a published author. I’m happily married, have a wonderful teenage daughter and am surrounded by friends who make me feel valued and loved. I believe I am living a life that’s free of fatphobia. But I have questions. Where will I come up with $2000 per month for my meds if we lose our health insurance? Will I live beyond my daughter’s 25th birthday? And I want to have an answer to these questions.
I wrote FAT GIRL ON A PLANE for anyone out there, fat or thin, who wants to learn how to become their own best advocate and make the most of their own personal ambition and I certainly hope that’s how my book ends up being received. For everyone, I truly believe that we are the sum of our abilities and accomplishments and hopes and dreams and friendships and relationships.
It’s what we are inside that matters.