On the power of stories

I was a great reader as a child. But before this starts sounding really brag-y, let me clarify that while I read a lot, I had terrible tastes in reading material. In primary school I devoured The Babysitter’s Club books (including the horrendous spin-offs, the Baby Sitter’s Little Sister series. Ugh.) and the Goosebumps series. In early high school I graduated to the kind of mass-produced fantasy that would dominate my bookshelves for years to come, and that I still love to indulge in.

A side note: Reading copious amounts of fantasy taught me a lot about storytelling tropes, cliches, how to create really poorly-executed narrative arcs, and how to overuse similes. Most of the terrible writing techniques I’ve picked up are probably from reading too much fantasy. Or too much fan fiction. Hard to tell. Either way, reading fantasy is a great way to learn to write well, too. Once you start being able to tell which writers are the great ones, and stick to reading them (hint: often the best fantasy writers are not the best-selling fantasy writers).

Some of these stories I’ve forgotten, but a lot of them have stuck with me. One that I find myself thinking of at some really odd moments is a random young adult fiction book: Fat Chance, by Margaret Clark.

As far as I can remember (and I’ve avoided reading the Wikipedia entry while writing this), Fat Chance is about a teenage girl who is a bit obsessed with her weight. She yo-yo diets, references anorexia and bulimia a lot, but doesn’t appear to have an eating disorder. I still remember this one line that went something like “I’ll never have anorexia or bulimia because I love food and I hate throwing up.” That might give you some idea of the emotional maturity and nuance that the book affords these issues (or not).

I can’t remember the main character’s name, but basically during all the woes and anxiety of teenager hood  her parents buy a fast food van near the beach and enlist her to work in it. Cue lots of embarrassing scenes involving her teenage crush and his friends at the beach. Essentially what these long, hot hours in the food van cause is an utter disinterest in food: I distinctly remember scenes where she would get home after working in the van and, utterly disinterested in anything resembling normal food, request dry toast for dinner.

Of course, predictably, the culmination of these weird eating habits, plus a genuinely tragic but very strange disaster that causes her to be hospitalised for while, is that she loses a stack of weight. Then gets to be on a TV show or something, and gets a hot date with her high school crush. Clearly my memory is patchy here, but you get the idea.

But here’s my issue with this book, and why I still think about it. As a slightly overweight 14 year old that hadn’t yet discovered the joy of exercise or running, this book was always going to resonate with me. In fact, I highly suspect that Margaret Clark constructed the character and narrative with a reader just like me in mind, although I have absolutely no proof that’s the case. And yet I know that if this book were to be published today, instead of in 1996, Mrs. Clark would probably be crucified for it.

Why? Young girl, overweight, obsessed with her body image, turns off food completely, has traumatic experience, gets really skinny, gets to date hot guy, life is awesome.

Right.

I get it. I haven’t read this book in a long time, my memories of it are probably skewed and I’m sure there were stacks of really important and worthwhile messages in it that I’ve simply forgotten. But isn’t that also kind of the point?

Stories had a huge impact on me as a child and teenager; I think they impact us all. And this story stuck with me – I purposely didn’t read anything about the book before writing this post to demonstrate just how much it has stuck with me. Whenever I think of Fat Chance, I always think of this poor teenager who couldn’t face eating a normal, healthy meal and was rewarded for it. My 14 year old mind strangely, perversely wished that I could have a similar experience: Oh, if only my parents would buy a dodgy fast food joint then I could work there, earn all this money and turn off food completely. Then I’d be skinny and all my problems would go away.

Little did I know what would actually happen: I’d battle with weight and body-image until I’d go to university, where I’d live in the same dorm as Malaysia’s number one Sports Aerobics athlete, who would slowly, painfully introduce me to the joys of exercise. A few years later, I would enter a few fun-runs, catch the running bug, and become absolutely obsessed with how far, how fast I could go. At age 23, my weight stabilised at a comfortable, healthy size 10; just 12 months after a nutritionist at the gym said a size 10 would probably never be possible for someone of my build.

And of course, I wouldn’t trade that story for anything. But sometimes, when I’ve made a few poor food decisions or am having a bad week, the girl in Fat Chance pops into my head. Not because I still want my parents to open a fast food van, but because I’m still fascinated by this idea that being turned off food entirely would mean I would never have to watch my weight, or grasp for self-control in the face of a second helping of ice-cream.

Perhaps this fascination would have lurked within me no matter what paperback novels I was reading. But certainly this is one story that has held onto me, whether or not I wished it.

As I’ve thought about Fat Chance’s impact on me, in a very formative time, on a very sensitive topic, I wonder to what degree we should be shielding ourselves in the stories we read. Can stories be dangerous? What responsibility do authors have in writing stories? In our post-modern culture and the apparent ‘death of the author’, I wonder if writers are perhaps less conscious of the power they wield than they should be.

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