Unfun

my response to the 2011 Quick Picks Committee

I always knew I was going to end up making this post, but I really didn’t think it was going to be within my first 10 entries.  Good to get it out of the way, I suppose.

Mainly, this post is a response to some comments from the 2011 Quick Picks committee that were made in my post about This is Why You’re Fat. I already gave a cursory response there, and I recommend that you read that and their original comments, because I made several points there which I won’t bring up again here, but there were some points that I felt deserved a rebuttal post of their own.  I will be quoting from the first comment left on behalf of the 2011 Quick Picks Committee, you may view the complete comment and our dialogue in the comment section.  I want to say I really do appreciate the Quick Picks Committee reading my post and responding and that I was especially glad for the expanded context of the purpose of Quick Picks for my readers who might not be as familiar with the list.

First: no where in my post did I make the ridiculous and specious comment that This is Why You’re Fat will “turn” teenagers anorexic or make them “become” anorexic.  This is a simplistic distortion of my argument.  What I did do was point out that the book deals with problematic imagery and messaging regarding food and body images and these problems overlap with a thriving subculture that harms teenagers. Moreover, the book doesn’t deal with these problems, it pretends they don’t exist, it pretends that this is just funny-ha-ha and not wrapped up in humiliation, not sending the not so subtle message that “food” is why you’re fat. (on the “This is Why You’re Fat” website there are actually several pictures of junk food in a single serving.  How, again, is a single serving of any “unhealthy” food why anyone, anywhere, ever is fat?)

I wanted to start a dialogue of what this book might mean for teenagers who struggled with disordered eating, I wanted to genuinely ask who the “extremes” in this book are speaking to.  Not, maybe, the 80% but the 20% instead.  They’re reluctant readers too, they’re our patron base too.  I asked you, as a committee, to consider if this book meets the selection criteria of “objectivity” and “accuracy.”   I wasn’t trying to sway your opinion, I wasn’t trying to dismiss what you work so hard to do.  All I was trying to get across was something I have tried to stress, repeatedly: none of these things happen in a vacuum.

As to some other points in the comments:

Again, I would like to point out that the book is subtitled, Where Dreams Become Heart Attacks. It does, in fact, address the blocked arteries of which you speak.

No, it doesn’t.  Including that in the title is not “addressing” anything.  The book (which I have seen) includes recipes and photos, there’s nothing addressing blocked arteries or eating healthy.  At ALA, I talked with Liz Burns about my post and she mentioned the Eat This, Not That series (a 2009 Quick Pick) actually does offer more healthy alternatives to food that is “bad” for you.  This book doesn’t, because it doesn’t care about your “heart attacks” and “blocked arteries” or about you, the reader, being healthy.  It just wants to gross you out.   And please bear in mind that “Ew, that’s so gross!” isn’t so very far away from “Ew, you’re so gross!”   Here’s where we start seeing overlap, again, between the pro-ana and pro-mia movements.  Why is the word “gross” even in the discussion?

Frankly, I liken the whole thing to “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.” Yes, America, this IS why WE’RE fat. As a nation, we eat crap like this, and as a nation, we are obese. This is fact.

This is the moment where this comment begins derailing.  This is not “a fact.”  No, eating sandwiches with eighty slices of bacon and forty slices of cheese isn’t why I’m fat, but thanks for assuming as “fact” that all I do all day is sit around and stuff my face with food.  Right before this, the comment stated that the whole point of the book was that the items featured are “not foods that are intended to be eaten as part of a healthy diet.” But now this “crap” IS why we’re fat.  (and fat = obese and obese = death, naturally.) Here, the commenter is caught up in the inherent problem I tried to point out: either the book is all in good fun “we’d never really eat this every day, haha!” OR a legitimate commentary “you eat so much of this, this is why you’re obese and about to die!!!111”   So, which is it?  If it’s “just in good fun” we can’t criticize it, now can we?  But if it’s legitimate?  Then it better be able to stand up to an in-depth critical analysis.

(also, commenter, I am assuming that you are not familiar with the numerous studies that show “the obesity epidemic” is essentially exaggerated fear-mongering.  I recommend you read Rethinking Thin by Gina Kolata and these FAQ at Kate Harding’s Shapely Prose.)

As for Jamie Oliver?  He is a fat-hating-fat-shaming-self-promoting jerk.  I think he fits right in with the hateful message in This is Why You’re Fat. Please, take a moment to read Melissa McEwan’s thoughtful and incisive take-downs of  his mean-spirited show. (or to just see him in a fat suit because, lol, fat people!)

And this is where the comment gets personal and, in my opinion, insulting.

“Unfun” is a word that my best friend Elliot and I mostly made-up.  We use it for the moments when we feel like we’re “ruining” someone else’s fun by pointing out the problems within a text, a movie, or a commonly-held belief.  We use it for that feeling we get when we raise a legitimate objection to something problematic and are met with “why do you have to take everything so seriously/analyze everything to death/see the worst in everything/ruin everyone’s fun?!”  Unfun is the feeling for when you have to ask a friend to not say “bitch, please” or “that’s so lame.”  Unfun is the feeling that you’re just being a pedantic killjoy, hung up on semantics and nitpicking.  Unfun is going against the conventional wisdom that, gosh, all this is really harmless, all this is just a joke, just for a good time, why’s everything gotta mean something?  Unfun is also the embarrassment that goes along with this, when you know you should speak up, but part of you dreads doing so, because you don’t want to be that “unfun” spoilsport.

For instance, at Annual there was this super-cool event: the ALA 2010 Dance Party.  Everyone was invited!  There was a playlist and tweets and a hashtag and 100s of librarians showed up and hung out and danced and had a great time.  And there I was, being “unfun” about it, because of all the clubs they could have chosen to have it at, they chose a gay club.  I am super-uncomfortable with large groups of almost entirely straight people coming into gay spaces for their own “fun and leisure.”  Straight people, even allies like me, have the whole entire world.  What’s so wrong with the queer community having some spaces of their own where we straight people don’t come to get down and boogie for our own lolz?   There was no reason this event had to be held at a gay club and no organizers ever bothered to address my concerns about why it was.  (and why would they?  I’m a nobody.)   I wanted to go to the Dance Party.  I wanted to have fun and meet people and network and be all ironic about librarians being funky and stuff.  But my objections, the problematic location, it was all too much for me.  See, I’m unfun.

So, at this point the response written on behalf of the 2011 Quick Picks committee stops trying to engage me as a peer, as a fellow librarian, as a person with genuine, legitimate concerns.  At this point, the commenter just tries to tell me I’m unfun.

“I think you’re just reading too much into this!  …  Just be frivolous and stop trying to make everything AN ISSUE. Enjoy life…”

First, let me assure you: I enjoy life plenty.  In fact, being critical and analytical gives me a lot of enjoyment.  But this is a not so thinly veiled version of a common derailing technique: “Don’t You Have More Important Issues To Think About?” Why worry about this when there are real things I could be concerned about, when this is a nothing issue that I am reading too much into?  Heck, why make everything an issue at all?  This is also related to the derailing technique “don’t take this personally!”  But it is personal for me.  It’s personal to me as a librarian who doesn’t think my duty to teenagers is “frivolous” and it’s personal to me as a fat person.

You see, 2011 Quick Picks Committee, you are not breaking any news to me,  I already know I am unfun.  But I like to think that I am unfun for a reason.  I am unfun for all the times someone else has been unfun for me, for the moment when someone else has spoken up and said “Hey, this is problematic!” and made me feel less awkward and less alone.  As my friend Angelo said once about advocating and speaking up, “there are moments when others do this, and you feel like someone has just…rescued you in a way.”  Other people have rescued me.  I am unfun for the moments when I hope I might be able to rescue someone else.

It’s how I enjoy life.

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An Open Letter to the 2011 Quick Picks Committee

First, thanks to all the amazing responses on my last blog, being linked from Courtney Summers own blog definitely made my week!  Using random.org the winner of my copy of Some Girls Are is Claire, hooorah, who I have contacted via e-mail.  If I don’t hear back from her, I’ll try again.  Definitely keep reading for more reviews and giveaways.

I loved Some Girls Are SO MUCH I wanted to *make sure* it was nominated for both the 2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults list and the 2011 Quick Picks list, so I headed over to YALSA’s site to check out the current nominations list.

That’s where I saw one of the books nominated for a Quick Picks was the offensive and super problematic This is Why You’re Fat.  I really felt like I needed to write this open letter to the Quick Picks committee, trying to address some of the issues I think are worth discussing about this book and its possible inclusion on the final 2011 list.  I hope this gives people, both on the committee and in general, something to really think about and discuss!

Dear 2011 Quick Picks Committee:

First. let me thank all of you for your work on this committee.  Right now, I’m in the middle of my first term on a YALSA selection committee and I KNOW what hard and exciting work it is; how you start to think, for a few seconds, staring at a huge pile of books you have to read that maybe, just maybe, you might be getting sick of books right before a wave of euphoria at how many damn good books there are being published washes over you.  I know, too, the weight of the responsibility you feel: knowing these lists will be used by literally thousands of librarians and teachers across the entire country.

Because, of course, these selection lists mean something, it’s an honor to be on them, it helps sales, it gives authors traction, it’s something librarians can use when they are justifying purchases, it counts to be included.  That’s why I’d like all of you committee members to seriously think about what it means to include a book like This Is Why You’re Fat.

For those of you who don’t know This is Why You’re Fat is the book form of a blog.  Well, it was a tumblr, actually, and basically it was nothing more than pictures of “disgusting” food posted.  There was no witty commentary like there is at say, Cake Wrecks or Regretsy.  There was just pictures, thrown up on a tumblr dashboard, all under the moniker This is Why You’re Fat. You can’t see the blog/tumblr anymore because it’s been removed (by the creators)  but the pictures ranged from the infamous Krispee Kreme Hamburger to “giant” Oreos.

What this really was, though, was more of the continued fucked up messaging our culture gives about food, eating, and health.  See, we fatties get constantly told about how people are just trying to shame us because they care so much about our health. But if that’s the case, why wasn’t the tumblr called “This Is Why You’re Unhealthy” or, even, say, “This Is Why You Have Blocked Arteries!!!” Oh, right, because it wasn’t about that, it was about TEH FATZ!  The dreaded, disgusting, worst thing you could ever be: this, America, THIS IS WHY YOU’RE FAT!

I’d like to ask all of you who work with teens to take a moment to consider where a book like This Is Why You’re Fat fits in with teens who are suffering from disordered eating and looking for some thinspiration. If you’re not familiar with that term, it’s a word used within the pro-anorexia movement to describe tips, slogans, and, most especially, pictures that encourage continued weight loss and starvation.  And, yes, I just said pro-anorexia, otherwise known as the movement to promote anorexia as a “lifestyle choice” and not a disease.

You can Google thinspiration or thinspo or pro-ana, if you’d like.  Here’s some of what you’ll find: pictures of girls showing off their rib cages, posters sharing tips about how to go for long periods of time without eating, posts of “before and after” pictures of celebrities where you can see wrist bones and clavicles sticking out, and posters positively encouraging each other as they become sicker and sicker.  There’s even many YouTube videos to go with the pictures.  It’s not hard to find, it’s not inaccessible, the most you might ever have to do is register for a free forum or click a button PROMISING you are 18.  You can literally find dozens of examples in one Google search.  Just this week the American Journal of Public Health posted a comprehensive analysis of pro-ana and pro-mia websites, finding that 91% of these sites had public access.

And who is doing all that Googling?  Statistics show it’s mostly teenage girls.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Eating Disorders Association, and the Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, one in five women has an eating disorder or disordered eating, and 90% of these women are aged 12 to 25. Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents.

And while it’s not pictures of models with their shoulder blades poking through their skin, a book like This Is Why You’re Fat is MADE for thinspiration.  It acts as motivation, inspiration, and a driving force to adolescents who are desperate for justification about their “lifestyle” choices and on the hunt for visual proof to keep them vigilant about not eating.  This is re-enforcement of the worst, most harmful kind of thinking: don’t eat cookies, donuts, bacon, ice cream, hamburgers, cheese, meat, bread: don’t  eat it because  this is why you’re fat! FOOD IS WHY YOU’RE FAT. This has real-life consequences.  (I know, I must have said that phrase about 20 million times on this blog, but it’s a really important context to put these things in, a frame, and it needs to be said and repeated.)

Am I taking this to the extreme?  Probably.  But that’s the entire premise of the book, isn’t it?  The thought process behind the pro-ana and pro-mia movements?  Dealing with extreme ends of the spectrum, thought taken to its most grotesque and overwhelming ends?  That’s how they end up being so perfectly, nightmarishly suited for each other, this book and thinspiration within the pro-ana and pro-mia world. Maybe only one in five teenagers might see this book and get “food is why you’re fat!” from it (although I would argue this is the not so thinly disguised premise from the start) but the point is: we know there’s that one in five teenager out there.  And that the one in five figure is probably a  modest estimate.   What are we saying to them?

Thousands of libraries across the country will purchase This Is Why You’re Fat if it is selected as a 2011 Quick Pick.  That means even more teenagers will have access to it, will see it on library shelves.  What messages will they be getting from it?  That they should try to live “more healthy lives” or that eating a burger is what has made them so disgustingly fat? Is that none of our concern as librarians?  Does that have nothing to do with the books we chose, from the thousands published every year, as worthy of this distinction and honor?

I see that selection criteria for Quick Picks informational titles includes “Accuracy” and “Objectivity.”  I know that you, as a committee, will be sitting down to discuss all these nominations during Annual.  As a fellow librarian who works with teens, a YALSA member, and a librarian who uses YALSA’s lists for collection development, I’d like to ask you to really consider and discuss if This IS Why You’re Fat is either accurate OR objective.

What we do matters, don’t you think?  I do, it’s why I do it, after all.  I don’t think that this book shouldn’t exist, that it should be pulled from all library shelves and bookstores.  But I think it’s worth questioning what purpose it serves, what audiences it is geared for, and what purpose we, as a librarians, would serve by selecting it as a 2011 Quick Pick.

Thanks for your time and hard work on the committee.  Like so many other librarians, I appreciate all your work and I do know, first hand, what a significant commitment it is.  I know you don’t take that commitment lightly and I thank you for taking the time to read and really consider my thoughts and point of view.

I hope to see you at Annual,

-Angie Manfredi

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