12-15: The “Right Age” for Body Image

Ever been annoyed by a teen drama?

brandon

Remember this guy? All that confidence, while he was in public school!

That is a safe question: if you are over the age of twenty, and have ever read or watched any fiction, then of course so-called “realistic” teen drama has annoyed you. There is something about the perfection of these high-schoolers—their polished, acne-free skin, their toned abs, their assured confidence—that distracts an audience from the angst they are supposed to be experiencing. Somehow, their popularity with their peers just makes an older viewer yawn over their battles with addiction and their quests for the perfect convertible. Remembering our own adolescence might make us want to ask why: why can’t more novels and films depict teen insecurity as it is?

Perhaps the reason is that it just hits too close to home.

After reading my very short story, Stronger than Tissue, comments on that post seem to agree that the content, focusing on body image, suits an audience of around twelve through fifteen. This is about where I had placed it (although, perhaps, I had considered fourteen the maximum age.) While this may raise issues of language usage, I hope to discuss those in a future post; for now, I’d like to examine the appropriateness of exposing developing teenagers to these issues. What seems like the “right age” to raise what is already on their minds may instead be, for exactly that reason, just the “wrong age.”

wiseman.jpg

Carl Matt battled a weighty issue.

When I was teaching High School English, one of my biggest challenges was navigating the labyrinths of teen novels, to find one that is “suitable.” A contender was often James Maloney’s A Bridge to Wiseman’s Cove. Appropriately literate and occasionally touching, Maloney’s story of Carl Matt, an abandoned teenager tasked with the welfare of his trouble-making brother, Harley, seemed the perfect blend of realistic characters with situational fiction. Add, as a bonus, Carl’s journey to accept his weight problem, and surely we had a story that sensitive boys Carl’s age could use as hopeful inspiration.

To my surprise, though, fourteen-year-old David did not see it that way at all. It hadn’t occurred to David (though not his real name, of course) that his weight even was a problem, until he and his class read that book. Somehow, my efforts to reveal to him the hopeful ending of the novel backfired along the way; while Carl was being excluded and tormented over his appearance, David became conscious of his. This triggered, in his peers, the adolescent super-power of sensing weakness, and they began to snigger at him about his similarity to Carl. Reading Wiseman’s Cove actually created a self-fulfilling prophecy for David.

I don’t blame James Maloney for this in the slightest, and I don’t necessarily think it was a mistake to study his novel. I have met David once or twice as an adult and, though still overweight, he seems happy and well adjusted; perhaps Maloney’s lessons sunk in a bit later. It gives me pause, though, when I write about Brooke stuffing her bra, or about Jessica’s hips stopping her from chasing a suspicious girl through the air ducts in my novel, Labels. Am I writing characters to whom readers that age can relate, or am I just writing characters who draw attention to possible flaws?

Maybe that’s the issue with body image: whether pointing out flaws can be done sensitively enough to avoid more harm than good. We all have flaws, of course, but maybe writing about them is as impolite as talking about them would be.

Maybe that’s why Brandon and Dylan didn’t seem to have any.

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