Breaking the Mold: Rainbow Rowell on YA and Body Image

Rainbow Rowell, photo by Augusten BurroughsThe heroine of Eleanor & Park isn’t your typical YA heroine. She isn’t skinny. She has crazy red hair. She’s unsure of herself, yet she’s unwilling to be pushed around. She’s tough and guarded and when she falls for Park, her life isn’t magically changed—but she is.

We were totally engrossed in Eleanor and Park’s rich, unputdownable story—just like John Green, who raves in the New York Times, “Eleanor & Park reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book.”

Today, author Rainbow Rowell stops by to tell us why she decided to write two unconventional-looking characters, and how, “if the right person finds you beautiful, you win. You win forever.”

I don’t know exactly what Eleanor looks like.

Maybe that sounds strange; I wrote Eleanor & Park—I created Eleanor.

But my characters never quite physically step out of the haze for me when I’m writing. (Maybe I want readers to be able to fill in some of the details themselves . . .)

Here’s all I can tell you for certain about Eleanor’s appearance:

She has curly red hair, a thousand freckles, and a smile that can be scary. She’s pale. She’s fat. And Park thinks she’s beautiful—so she is.

I think, when I was younger, I believed in—and yearned for—conventional beauty. I thought there was a spectrum from ugly to beautiful, and that you could objectively plot everyone you saw along it.

I thought that some features were universally attractive, and others were universally repulsive. And that fat was the worst of the worst. Fat was what canceled out everything good. Fat was what made you unlovable. (Sucks to be me, FML, etc.)

I’m not sure when I figured out what a big (fat) lie that is; some days, I’m still sorting through it. But I knew, when I started writing a book about a 16-year-old girl, that I didn’t want to write about the 16-year-old girl who’s already on the cover of every book. (Though not necessarily in their pages.) The one with the long dark hair and the giant eyes, and the arms and legs that barely taper. That girl’s fine—she’s beautiful. But she doesn’t have the corner on beautiful.

If you were an alien who came to our bookstores—or browsed our teen magazines—you’d think that only Earth girls who look like Mila Kunis ever got any action.

But real girls who are that kind of beautiful—the kind of beautiful that everyone can agree on—are few and far between.

And that’s okay; it doesn’t really matter in life or love. You don’t have to be the kind of beautiful that everyone can agree on. If the right person finds you beautiful, you win. You win forever.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow RowellIn my book, both Eleanor and Park struggle with their appearance. Eleanor feels too big, Park feels too small. And sometimes they wonder whether they’re allowed to be together—or with anyone. Whether they’re attractive enough to be loved.

In my own high school, there were maybe four guys who were on the approved crush list. All the other boys were considered too weird or too nerdy, too skinny or too short . . . I used to keep my crushes secret from my friends, so that they wouldn’t think there was something wrong with me for liking these dorks.

And I also remember guys who seemed embarrassed to like me as much as they did. Guys who would play with my hair and walk me home from school—then ask some other girl to Homecoming.

Getting out of high school makes all of this easier—just getting away from the politics and groupthink. It gets easier to see with your own eyes.

When you actually fall in love, no one sees that other person the way that you do. And what you see is so much more than the sum of that person’s physical parts. Attraction is what happens between you. It’s not universal. And it’s not conventional. And thank God for that.

I hope that big/thick/fat/chubby/curvy/not-so-thin girls see themselves in Eleanor. And believe they’re as lovable as she is.

But what I really hope is that the book is another voice out there telling anyone who reads it that there are no rules in love and attraction—except for the ones you make with the person you choose and who chooses you.

Can you relate? Let us know in the comments! And start reading Eleanor & Park on Figment!


Photo of Rainbow Rowell by Augusten Burroughs.

18 thoughts on “Breaking the Mold: Rainbow Rowell on YA and Body Image

  1. “When you actually fall in love, no one sees that other person the way that you do. And what you see is so much more than the sum of that person’s physical parts.”

    I love this whole thing! It’s so true.

  2. this is really beautiful. And so true. I’m on the big side and don’t find myself pretty very much at all. But my family and boyfriend say I’m soooo beautiful. I guess I win huh? 😀

    I so want to read this book, its inspiring.

  3. Adding this book to my list! As a teen with a disability, I always felt I was so far down on the “ugly” side of the spectrum that no one would ever fall in love with me. It wasn’t until I got to college that I really started paying attention to adults, and realized that all kinds of people–even people whose bodies are supposedly broken (I mean, forget fat, you can’t even walk, or say ten words without stopping and stuttering! You can’t hold things with your hands!) fall in love and get married. And it wasn’t, as I’d often assumed, only other “ugly” or “broken” people who fell for people like me. It was normal people, able-bodied people.

    So far, I still haven’t got a boyfriend. But I’m not discouraged anymore! I realize that if I focus on other things, love will come when it does.

  4. Thanks so much for writing this, Rainbow. Admittedly, I’m considered conventionally attractive–tall, skinny, pale but with rosy cheeks, blonde hair, and blue eyes.

    I’ve had people ask me what diet I’m on or say they wish they could look like me. The irony of it all? The reasons why I’m so tall, thin, and light-coloured are a collection of genetic conditions. Marfan’s, hypoglycemia, and dysautonomia, with the last’s related medication leeching the color right out of me.

    People think if they look like me, they get life good. That’s not true, not really. Yes, you can look ‘beautiful’–but at what cost? It’s why I’m so horrified by the promotion of ill views on body image. Being skinny doesn’t mean being healthy. Being husky or a bit overweight isn’t being unhealthy.

    I suppose I have a different perspective on it all and I’m glad for it.

    I just hate the rigid black-and-white mental states people carry. I don’t get it. I’m a woman who is more interested in women than men as well, so I suppose that also changes my view even more so. As t is, I don’t understand how some people can just cross off POC, people who dress a certain way, or people who aren’t built like matchsticks from their mental lists. It makes no sense to me. All it takes is for me to notice a person’s eyes, or for them to say something brilliant, etc., and I want to know them. Even as just a friend.

  5. I want to read this book so bad. I’ve wondered countless times why there aren’t any “fat” heroines–there’ve been ones with physical flaws, but never anything serious, maybe their hair is dark, or their noses are too small, or they’re flimsy. I want to read this book!

  6. I myself am a little chubbier than the usual standard of “beautiful”, and it makes me feel nice to see a character in a book I can relate to. I can’t wait to read this! Thank you for writing this, Rainbow. I’ve been worrying a lot about my weight effecting the way I am loved lately, and this really helped show me that if someone loves me, they love me no matter what.

  7. I cannot help being a bit sceptical about the prospects of large individuals. Having been large since I was ten , I can say without a doubt that image is everything . I have friends with similar character traits as mine have relationships Etc . In comparison I have a ladie crying in embarrassment when I asked her out-college mind you , others stand me up and so on. Eventually one gets the message that large is not cool. Sad but that’s how the love market is.

  8. Here’s the skinny on skinny. It doesn’t matter. Not if you’re big, small, or in between. The important thing is that you’re healthy.

    As a young woman with a naturally small frame, I have been subject to negative comments. Girls who are bigger than me make comments like, “Gosh! Why don’t you eat more? Are you starving yourself? That’s terrible!” When I was younger, I used to change into my dance clothes in a bathroom so the other girls wouldn’t make fun of me because my ribs protruded. It hurt me so much that I ended up quitting all exercise because I wanted to GAIN weight and be normal.

    Since then, I’ve learned to love my body. Yes, I weigh less than 100 pounds but I’m HEALTHY. I eat food like a trucker and I work out.

    “Skinny hate” is just as real as “fat hate.” Girls who struggle with their weight should remember that thin girls have doubts about their body, too.

    Everyone has beauty–you just have to decide to see it.

    • Thank you so much for mentioning that Emily. I, also, am generally small, balancing between 90lbs and 110lbs, never quite to either weight. I’m 5’1″, African American, but I live in Minnesota and my family has been here in America a long time – so I’m definitely brown, not tan, but I’m not THAT dark either. I have dark acne marks across my face I hide with make-up, and I refuse to wear a lot of things, sadly, to cover the ones on my back and chest. I even feel self-conscious going swimming as that’s an open back. I don’t fit into a lot of things in stores because I’m so thin and have few curves, definitely no hips or butt at least, so dresses and pants are hard to find. Buying 0’s and 1’s make me feel nonexistent. Pathetic. I see past it, but there are still so many sources in my life and voices in my head telling me African American women aren’t pretty without curves, or really even pretty at all unless they’re light. You don’t see REAL dark girls in magazines or on TV. I have short, nappy, black hair, and sometimes it falls out, and my eyes are such a dark brown I’ve had people ask if I have black eyes, if there’s pupils in there at all or if my iris IS part of my pupil or something. I’ve been called tiny, thin, asked if I’m anorexic.

      It’s hard when you don’t feel beautiful, I don’t care what size or color you are. It hurts, and it’s not fair. hate comes from everywhere. Plenty of people hate me for eating when I’m thin, or not eating junk; for being thin, or being darker/lighter than them; for being taller or shorter than they are; for having bigger boobs or no butt or for fitting into one size or another or being as dark as I am or not fitting into a size or having what they describe as nice legs, but then hate me for them. I’m not pretty, or that’s not how I feel. I think any book that describes a girl as beautiful, no matter how she looks, is helping. Just call me, my friend, my family, beautiful. Because girls need to hear it so they can feel it, and maybe they’ll stop tearing each other down.

      I’ve grown up in Minnesota, surrounded by blondes with blue eyes mostly. I thought I was ugly because i couldn’t curl my hair like them or wear their blush or have freckles. I’m getting over it. Some days I’m pretty; others not so much. But I think books like this, books with strong women, books that are different, help. Books that make women and girls feel beautiful. And especially books that empower us, and remind us it’s not all about the outside first, inside later – it’s both.

  9. That is what love should be. That is what the standard of beauty everywhere should be…but it’s not. It’s taken me a long time to realize that I’ll never be a size 2 and I’m glad that I won’t because I don’t like being that small, although it’s the fad these days. I’m okay at being a size 10. But I’ll be in love with myself when I’m a size 8. Because that’s MY perfect weight not the one that society would have for me. And I’m happy Ms. Rainbow Rowell wrote a book with a big girl as the main character, because that’s something we as readers don’t see in literature a look, but we see it in our own lives every day. Simply put, thank you for caring.

  10. I thought no one would ever love me because of how over weight I am. Thank to aigbedion for helping me,i will always be gratefull to you,….angel

  11. Beautifully said. We all need reminders that beauty is more than a specific look and has more to do with how someone makes us feel than how they look; a value we need to teach our children. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. We should all be so blessed tI find love as Park & Eleanor love each other.

  12. Rainbow,
    I just want to let you know that even just this reminds me of myself. I’m a curly redhead, who has curves (dammit!), and freckles, and yes I do wear sunscreen to school thank you very much. I, too, used to wonder whether I was attractive enough to be loved. It got so bad that I began to research the symptoms of depression; I knew something was wrong, but I wasn’t sure if I should have been medicated for it.
    This book sounds like it’s a much needed reality check for the literary world. Thank you so much for writing it!

  13. i had to read Eleanor and Park for my summative novel, which i regretted. but when i started reading the book, i couldn’t put it down. i can totally relate to it! i should be thanking my teacher and rainbow rowell!

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