Oh, book. The relationship I have with you is brutal and damaging, while also being complexly appreciative. It’s been months since I actually finished this book, and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it. Although after all this time I’ve had to reflect, I’ve mostly decided that it was bad—bad taste and bad for my own mental health. That’s not something I can easily separate when I think about how I feel about a book, but I also really don’t think I was unique in my overall feelings.
When I started blogging, I never thought about how far my words would go. I also never thought about how personal reading can be, and how difficult it can be to talk about what makes you feel the way you do about a book. Reviews have to be personal to matter—they can’t be sterile and dehumanized. But, on the flipside, I don’t generally want my personal experiences and details of who I am broadcast for just anyone to read. I don’t want to be so personal as to be irrelevant and unrelatable to my readers—otherwise, my reviews are useless to you to use. Sometimes, though, your feelings and your experiences can’t really be separated. This is one of those cases. My readers have learned several personal things about me in my nearly four years of blogging. Hopefully if you’re still reading, you won’t mind learning a little bit more.
Please know first that Big Fat Disaster is an extremely triggering book. Suicide, rape, self-harm, body image, domestic abuse—the whole shebang. Multiple shebangs, actually. This book was difficult to read because it was very real in a lot of ways. Make no mistake; I did not, on any level, like this book. I didn’t like it. I didn’t enjoy it. Nothing about it made me happy and nothing about it felt redeeming. However, I simply couldn’t hate a book that I related to so easily. This was the first book I read about weight issues that showed the absolute brutality of how overweight teenagers can feel about themselves. On a personal level, I have to appreciate it—because maybe if someone who has never experienced that reads this, they will begin to understand how much hatred goes into even looking in a mirror. I have to appreciate that. It almost feels like I don’t have a choice.
However, that does not excuse everything that was wrong about this book. And that was a lot. It was graphic; it was triggering; it stereotyped half the American population in a terrible light; and none of the characters who did wrong (even on the vilest levels) had to face any kind of consequences for their actions. The main character, Colby, despite how badly you wanted to sympathize with her—she was insufferable and selfish and irritating on every level. This book had a great opportunity to show something to people that is real and terrible, but it squandered the chance by screwing up everything else.
What I Liked: Spoilers!
- Here is the truth about being an overweight teenager—and I know because I’ve struggled with it: It is humiliating, sometimes to the point where you can’t look in the mirror or leave the house because you’re so embarrassed about the way you look. Colby deals with things I never had to—bullying, binge eating, a brutal family life, etc. But I think most overweight teens (or children/adults) feel roughly the same way, regardless of the rest of it. You look in the mirror, and nothing about your body or the way you look feels beautiful. Society broadcasts an image of beauty and you feel awful because you don’t look that way. Because shopping is difficult and usually ends in tears. Because everyone else you know is skinny and you’re the black sheep. So I understood Colby, even in the darkest parts of her. And I think a lot of people who deal with this would also understand her. On that point, this novel was brilliant. All the weight issues books I’ve read so far try to deal with the issue in a lighthearted and funny manner. This book didn’t do that—for better or for worse, it was dark and gritty and awful when it came to Colby’s body image. Despite the effect it ended up having as a whole, I do appreciate the brutality of Colby’s narration when she looks at her body. More books that deal with weight issues need to show that side.
What I Didn’t Like:
- Unfortunately, pretty much everything else falls into this category. It handled serious subjects very indelicately. Colby has a cousin named Ryan, who she goes to school with now. Ryan is ostracized by his peers because he told the police about a football player who had raped a girl and took a video of it. Even Colby’s grandfather—an ex-attorney—tried to say the boy hadn’t raped her, just because if she hadn’t been drunk, she might have said yes. Another girl at Colby’s school lost weight through bulimia (simple research shows that bulimia doesn’t usually lead to weight loss anyway?), and nobody tries to get her help because apparently that’s totally healthy and okay. Colby’s aunt was abused, almost the point of death, by her ex-husband and the entire family isolates her because she left him. (Apparently he was a really great guy otherwise!) Colby’s dad has an affair and steals money from his campaign, but nobody really goes after him because “great men often stray.” What? Meanwhile, Ryan pushes Colby out from in front of a car and dies for her, and she lets everyone believe that she tried to save him from his own suicide attempt. And none of the characters who do terrible things get any sort of consequences or repercussions for their actions. None of them have to face the wrong they did. I guess Ryan was the only one who paid for the bad things he did. He took a video of Colby trying to get into a pair of jeans and posted it online—though it is harsh (and wrong) to say his death was his penance, he was the only one with anything like remorse for what he did and he showed that by trying to save Colby’s life. Everyone else was despicable. And this book taught that you should get away with bad things because life is just like that. It was awful.
- As far as talking about body image is concerned, this novel was far from empowering. It was exactly the opposite, actually. As I mentioned earlier, I have struggled with my weight. I have never been skinny; I have never been small. Growing up like that was and is painful and humiliating, and that kind of hatred for your own skin has the power to destroy you if you let it. Colby got to that point. I’m sure that many, many people have been there right with her. I knew Colby, even though I wished I didn’t. Even though I hated her most of the time. But you know what? This book didn’t help me realize I wasn’t alone. It didn’t help me see that I could be not only accepted, but loved for who I am, no matter how much I weigh. It didn’t leave me with the hopeful idea that I am beautiful, regardless of my size. In fact, it did the opposite. It is not often that a book has the power to change my mindset for the worst, but that’s exactly what Big Fat Disaster Colby’s self-hatred reaffirmed every terrible thing I’ve ever thought about myself because of my weight. But instead of finding power and strength and beauty in herself, Colby crumbled under her own life, and even after two suicide attempts, she was still disliked by her family and barely had any friends. We don’t see any positive affirmations of who she is, despite her imperfect body. We’re left hanging in the void that overweight is ugly and even after all the awful things you could do to yourself and think of yourself because of it, there is no way out of that miserable pit. What a terrible message to send to your readers. I don’t even consider myself impressionable when it comes to books because I’ve read so many, but this one brought me back down a path that was destructive and negative and horrible. I can’t imagine what a book like this would do to someone who is just like Colby—it would teach her that she is worthless, that she will not find a way out, that maybe one or two people in all this world would love her and she will never find more. It almost had me believing it myself, and I am nothing like Colby. Not to mention the other girl, the one who loses weight because of her bulimia and is only then accepted by her peers. If you want to teach the world something about overweight teenage girls and how they feel, by all means, teach the truth. The truth is ugly and disgusting and horrifying. It is lonely and miserable and crippling. But teach them also that the overweight teenage girl deserves to be loved, that she is more than the number on the scale. Don’t teach that your peers will only accept you after your purge your way out in a bathroom stall, don’t teach that you shouldn’t receive medical treatment after you try to take your own life twice, don’t teach that your family will still hate you no matter what. Give us growth. Give us understanding. Give us peace. Because this book left me with no peace—instead, it brought back all the awful things I thought I’d taught myself to ignore. Don’t use your words to try and destroy your readers; use it to give them strength and hope that it will get better.
- I feel most strongly about my last point. However, I would like to point out something else that was upsetting to me. Colby’s family is conservative—they consist of mainly Republican politicians. And as is per usual in media these days, it seems, they are portrayed in a poor and inhuman light. The people you were supposed to “like” were against the family members, and of course the family was evil. I agree that their mindset was terrible. And I don’t deny that there are certainly individuals who feel the way Colby’s family does about certain issues. But to send the message that all conservatives, all Republicans, think that rape is okay because the boy is a football star, to say that they all think men should be excused of their abuse and despicable ways, that they think any of that is okay is a lie. It’s insulting. The underlying political agenda of this novel turned me off. People do and think awful things. Don’t blame their political party for it and demonize everyone who identifies with a certain label.
Overall: I don’t recommend this book. I wish I could, because it was the only novel about weight issues I’ve read that tries to show how awful it can be, but I can’t because of the depressing and hopeless nature of the themes. It’s too damaging to be recommended, and I certainly wouldn’t tell a young, overweight girl whose been bullied to pick this up—I would warn her far away, because there is no light in this book. I’m sorry I couldn’t like it more, but after the way it left me feeling—not for a day, or a week, but for months—I just can’t suggest you read it. I sincerely hope there are more books about weight for young adults; and I hope they try and show the brutality of it as much as Big Fat Disaster did—but they need to give some hope at the end. They need to tell us that it’ll be okay. Because it’s all too easy to believe that it won’t. And that’s not the message that needs to be heard.