Writer of Color, White YA Protagonist: Where Weightism cuts deeper than Racism

I had the idea for this post a while ago, after reading a few articles about whether white writers have the “right” to write from the perspective of a black main character–see The Confessions of Nat Turner and The Help.  Both books have been both widely admired and scathingly criticized for their respective authors handling of the “white author/black protagonist” problem.   I have also read a number of blog posts and articles encouraging authors of YA fiction to diversify their books, including characters that reflect the mosaic of our nation. Justine Larbalestier, a white author and blogger, is so committed to this purpose that none of her main characters are white.

I agree that this is important, as long as it’s organic and feels natural.  (As opposed to every non-white character being beautiful and/or noble.)  And, I agree that the world American teens live in is not monochromatic; YA authors therefore need to show diversity in their work.  As a non-white writer, I have the advantage here; white is not my default, I experience the world through a non-white lens.  So, why is the protagonist of my first YA novel white?

I think when an author is black, we expect the protagonists to be black, the story line to deal with black themes.  As a biracial author, shouldn’t I deal with racial identity somehow?

The fact is, I do and I have—in this blog, in the adult books I’ve yet to complete, as well as the adult novel I spent six years writing and three years submitting.  Birch Wood Doll, which sits in my hard drive, awaiting a big revision, a WIP I refer to as The “Eddie” story, involving a guy with dissociative identity disorder, and Big, Black Woman Mad, the one I’m determined to finish a draft of by year’s end, all have protagonists who are mixed-race.  The characters cope in various ways with being non-white in mostly white ballet companies, universities or families.  What does it mean, for example, that your white birth mother chose to parent your white half-sibling, but placed you for adoption?  These adult characters wear their races like coats that don’t quite fit.

For Second Company, however, my focus—like that of this blog—is on body image and identity, just not racial identity.   Yes, there are non-white characters in Second Company.  For example: Lynette, whose story is coming in a sequel.  She gives a few hints that she’s struggled with difference as the only black girl in NYBT II, but Lynette is fortunate to have the ideal ballet body.  She has therefore escaped the mistreatment her best friend, the novel’s female protagonist, Livia, suffers because of her weight.

Second Company started with my wish to write about the experience of being a member of an elite society—the ballet world—who barely fits in because of some difference.  This was me back in 1989, when I joined Boston Ballet II, Boston Ballet’s own “second company.”  How was I different from the rest of BB II?

*I had graduated from a four year college (I was keeping it secret, because back then, college was considered the death knell for an aspiring ballerina; ballet companies wanted you at seventeen, so they could mold you, intellectually as well as physically.)

*I was over twenty-one and lying about it. (Really, twenty-one was way too old not to be in a first company.  I claimed I was nineteen and mostly pulled it off.)

*I was black (okay—biracial, with a fairly European body type, but still, the only woman of color in BB II.  The one Greek girl who’d had a tan when the contract started had lost it by Nutcracker season.)

*I had real boobs.  (In a world where a girl with a b-cup was considered top-heavy, I was a C-D.  This disqualified me from being considered thin.  I had a petite-enough frame; most costumes fit me with no problem, but people usually expressed uncensored surprise that I could get into small sizes. At 5’3” and 101 lbs., I was considered chunky.)  Oh, I have a photograph:

Me in the center. Lying about my age, weight and cup size.

Me in the center. Lying about my age, height, weight and cup size.

So—for review—I was “old,” over-educated, dark and curvaceous.  Which of these differences do I write about now?  Well, all of them, I think—just not all at once.

My adult novel, Birch Wood Doll was swamped with too much subject matter—biracial identity, eating disorders, the clash of socioeconomic classes, the collision of the dance and academic worlds.  In Second Company, which I intend to be part of a series, I’ll take the issues one or two at a time.  Livia may be white—Irish and Italian American–but she’s short and curvy-to-zaftig in a reed-thin ballet company.  (Her twin brother Oliver, also white, is gay, dealing with homophobic Dad’s efforts to stop him from dancing.)

The ballet world isn’t—let’s face it—especially diverse.  In a corps de ballet, the girls are supposed to look fairly interchangeable on stage.  Standing out isn’t encouraged, but skin color is less likely to be held against you than weight, which is supposedly in your control. You are not judged for having dark skin (ok—we were all cautioned not to get tan before Swan Lake, and I will write a post about that one day).  But gain weight and all bets are off.

There may be racism in the ballet world, but it’s quiet—an assumption here, a hushed comment there.  Weightism, on the other hand, buttism, boobism, shortism—that stuff is expressed loudly, welcomed and condoned by those in charge.  This is the difference I chose to tackle in my first YA book.

15 responses to “Writer of Color, White YA Protagonist: Where Weightism cuts deeper than Racism

  1. Oh my word, I had no idea that it would be that shockingly bad in the dance world.

  2. 5’3″ and 101 is tiny! Tiny-tiny. I am so glad you are better now. Love you!

  3. You were gorgeous (still are!).

    Ballet and gymnastics have always struck me as places it is very hard to be comfortable in your skin re: shape/size. Should be an interesting work. 🙂

    • I do believe there were plenty of girls for whom the body type came naturally, who didn’t have a stress-eater response, as I did, who had a lower estrogen/higher testosterone composition and didn’t struggle the same way. Like certain sports, ballet can be a self-selecting group.

  4. I love to see characters with different racial backgrounds. I’ve written a few myself. I think reading should reflect the real world.

  5. How well I remember, strapping my boobs down when they emerged starting at 11. Being hit with a quirt by my ballet teacher at 12 when the strapping came loose.

    Hips, tits, waist line…no amount of not eating was going to change what I was ‘blessed’ with even at 5’3″ and 97lbs.

  6. “You are not judged for having dark skin (ok—we were all cautioned not to get tan before Swan Lake, and I will write a post about that one day). ”

    Wow, gotta hear about the Swan Lake inside beauty story.
    I noticed that a niece of mine who is 11 yrs. old and enrolled in gymnastics for last 2 (or 3 yrs.?) in an advanced class, has become a bit more conscious about her body …and her diet. Meaning what she eats and says about it. To me, she seems pretty picky about her food in a way, I think by now, she should have outgrown it.

    I’m not sure if her body had begun to mature yet..

    She also plays ice hockey in the winter. She has 2 brothers, so she is an only girl.

    Now, at her age, I think I was only maybe 5 lbs. heavier but still pretty slim: I wasn’t even thinking about how much I was eating. I just ate..I think a lot (healthy food, thx to mother. Asian diet doesn’t include sugar, desserts. She did regulate our portions in a casual way, etc.) and was running around playing softball with other girls. My body had started ramping up in maturity then.

    In all bluntness, there probably is a lot of racism. How many world-class ballerinas nowadays are black? Or ice figure skaters? Yes, Gabby, the U.S. gold medal gymnast was a phenomena. But did the U.S. women’s gymnastic team ever include a lot of black women? Same for Canada. It also takes money to cultivate a champ, etc.

    • Jean, thanks for sharing this about your niece. It is not at all uncommon for gymnasts to be late bloomers in terms of puberty. Nadia Comeneci’s prepubescent body lasted through the 1976 Olympics, when she was 14. Four years later, she had matured into a taller, more womanly version of herself. Healthy, slim and beautiful, though not as aerodynamic in terms of the sport, less apt to win those medals. I read the story about her painful feuds with coaches who didn’t want her to eat and GROW!! People were not as aware of the (emotional and physical) health risks as they are now. I think as long as you are looking our for your niece, she’ll be okay.

  7. Lisa, well said. This is such an important issue to address, similar to super skinny models vs. normal appearing ones who are considered overweight. I’m glad you’re tackling the issue. Look forward to learning more about your YA book.

  8. Hi! I’m at work browsing your blog from my new iphone!
    Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and look
    forward to all your posts! Keep up the great work!

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