It’s no secret to those who know me that I’m a voracious reader. I’m the child who got told off for trying to read at the dinner table, who was teased mercilessly in grade five for spending my lunch time reading, who carries a book with her everywhere she goes. I buy handbags based on whether or not they’re big enough to fit a book in or not.
Specifically, though, I adore Young Adult fiction â€“ always have. And I have very fond memories of Australian teen writer Margaret Clark, so when I wandered into my local second-hand bookstore and spotted a copy of â€śNo Fat Chicksâ€ť for $10AUD (this is cheap, fyi â€“ books in Australia are very expensive), I thought it would be the perfect subject for a review.
No Fat Chicks (cover)
This is the blurb on the back:
â€śNo fat chicks? When Mandy Miratoosi sees that bumper sticker on her brother Mark’s car, she’s ready to pluck his cocksure tail feathers once and for all. Mandy’s a big girl, and Mark’s mates need to know that lean is not always dream material. Featherweights and bantamweights beware. Mandy is out to show that big chicks can be winners!”
Clark’s writing style is simple, fresh and engaging, and while this book isn’t perfect, it’s about as close as I’ve read to a pro-fat acceptance message in Young Adult Australian fiction.
The premise is straightforward: Mandy Miratoosi is fifteen, an ace at maths, and a big girl. Her mother died when she was three, and her father remarried, his new wife bringing three kids from her previous marriage into the family. Bennet is quiet, friendly and sweet, studying second year Arts/Law at university. Markerton, Mark for short, is seventeen, conventionally very attractive and, frankly, a fuckwit of the highest order who makes Mandy’s life hell. Then there’s seven-year Babeth, a gorgeous child model and pageant attendee, seemingly at the behest of their mother. The story revolves around Mandy coming to grips with her intelligence and her size with charm and humour.
Mandy refers to her stepmother as ‘mum’ and her stepbrothers and stepsister as brothers and sisters, and clearly has a lot of affection and love for Pandora (mum), Bennet and Babeth, and even Mark, despite the way he constantly torments her.
In chapter one, Mandy wakes up to find her brother Mark has plastered a â€śNo Fat Chicksâ€ť bumper sticker to her mirror, and shortly afterwards discovers she’s topped the state in the Maths Competition, and the action snowballs from there.
Let’s talk about the positives. This book shows real depth and nuance in articulating fat acceptance for teens, particularly in the way it intersects with feminism, and Mandy is remarkably self-aware. When Mark insults her for eating a croissant, Mandy knows it’s pointless to argue with him (p6). And on page 7, she thinks:
I was over it with all the references to my shape. It wouldn’t matter how little I ate. I’d still be big large with big bones. Maybe covered with a bit less fat, but still big.
Mandy tries to rip the sticker from her mirror, but only manages to tear of the ‘N’ of ‘No’. So she grabs a texta and scrawls a ‘G’ next to, creating the slogan ‘Go Fat Chicks!’.
I’ll resist the urge to go through the plot chapter by chapter, so here’s some choice quotes:
We had netball practice at the civic centre which is in a large park only a short walk from Newberry [High School]. Both Krys [Mandy's friend] and I play for the Dodgers, nicknamed the Podgers by Mark because there’s five fairly hefty girls on the team including our friend Lexie. But we’re running second on the summer premiership ladder, so maybe strength and stamina count.
I love this â€“ it’s so matter-of-fact: of course these girls play sport, they’re active! For those who haven’t heard of netball, there’s a summary here. I played it for about eight years, and let me tell you, it’s not for the faint-hearted. Mandy’s friend Lexie, who’s mentioned here, is also a fantastic amateur car mechanic, and this is used to great comic effect later in the book.
When the girls at Newberry High discover that the NFCC (No Fat Chicks Club) have plastered No Fat Chicks stickers all over their lockers, Mandy steps in amidst the bickering:
â€śThere’s only one to deal with this,â€ť I said. â€śWe have to form our own vigilante group and get our own stickers to plaster over theirs. This is war.â€ť
â€śIt’s action time. Pass this message,â€ť said Roxy. â€śAll females a size 14 and over are to meet in the Girl’s Common Room at lunch time.â€ť (p76)
We get a little dose of how fat is a feminist issue, too, when the girls discuss how their English teacher and one of their male classmates are fat and don’t have the same campaign against them. In fact, scrawled beneath the sticker on Mandy’s locker are the words â€śIf you can’t root ‘em, shoot ‘emâ€ť. (‘Root’ is Aussie slang for ‘fuck’ in the sexual sense). This is incredibly frightening. Advocating murdering fat women simply for the heinous crime of not being fuckable. So, so disturbing.
This meeting is one of the greatest things I’ve read depicting fat acceptance, or even any form of social justice.
At lunchtime Lexie, Krys and I hurried over to the Girl’s Common Room. It was crowded. I hadn’t realised there were so many size fourteens and over in our school. And of course a whole lot of them hadn’t come: either too embarrassed to say that they were size fourteen, or not into attending radical meetings. There were also a few thin girls in the crowd. That was okay if they wanted to listen in. (p80)
Straight away, Clark makes it clear that this is about the fat girls, but that they’re inclusive as well. It’s like holding up a little mirror for what I hope thin women see in FA â€“ a movement that includes them, but asks them to check their privilege at the door.
There’s discussion about how ‘No Small Dicks’ would be a good comeback, and here Clark surprises me again:
â€śWe know it’s sexist and rude and thoughtless for guys to have a No Fat Chicks club and stick labels all over the place. It’s a put-down. Now, we could do the same: say we don’t want small dicks, or thick ones, or whatever. But then we’re stooping to their level of mentality.â€ť (p81)
I’m thrilled to see the sexism connection, and we get a great moment where the meeting disintegrates into shouting, but Mandy takes charge. Much discussion occurs over whether men should be allowed to join their club, or thin women, what sort of slogans to have, how they’ll pursue their agenda, but the main thrust is that it’s collaborative, and that these high school girls have serious agency. I approve.
This may be my favourite quote of the novel (sorry about the length, it works better in context):
â€śWhat’s all this crap I hear about you starting an all girls’ fat club?â€ť asked Mark at the dinner table that night.
â€śThat’s a good idea,â€ť said Mum. â€śHealthy eating and exercise. I’m proud of you, Mandy. I can get some of my modelling friends to come along and give your club some tips on how to minimise your size by wearing the correct colour combinations and give you some make-up lessons if you like.â€ť
â€śMum, it’s not that kind of club,â€ť I said. â€śWe’re promoting the right of women to be large.â€ť (p86)
This is AMAZING. No ifs, no buts â€“ the right of women to be large. Not only does Mandy stand up to her mother, but is incredibly matter-of-fact about it. Love love love.
In the middle, Mandy has a discussion with her horrid brother Mark about why he does these things, and it’s a fantastically, frighteningly accurate portrayal of the way increasing numbers of men view women – as hilarious playthings for their amusement:
“It’s just a bit of harmless fun. You girls get all wound up. That’s why we do it.”
“Why do you want to wind us up?”
“I told you. It’s fun watching you all spin out. It was fun watching Krys try to impress me. [...] It’s fun driving down the road with ‘No Fat Chicks’ written on a bumper sticker. Nothing bad or evil. F-U-N.”
“So you’re causing all this aggro and grief to people because it’s fun,” I said. “You’re stucking offensive signs on lockers at school because it’s fun [..].”
Terrifyingly on point. Clark illustrates perfectly how thoughtless these tormentors can be.
The book isn’t perfect â€“ there’s talk about how Mandy wears a black dress because it’s ‘slimming’, references to women as ‘females’ and a couple of other things that set my radar off, but these are minor issues in the scheme of the overall themes of the book.
There’s so much more to this novel than I can give justice to in a blog post, so I really encourage you to seek a copy out if you can. It’s an easy 200-page read, and given its shortness, deals with the issues of being smart, the beauty culture and being fat in a remarkably nuanced way. It may be difficult to procure for international readers, but Australians will have a good chance of finding it in a library or second-hand bookstore.
One last quote to end with, after Mandy wins a waterslide competition at Wet’N'Wild:
â€śOn behalf of all large females I will use this victory in my campaign to fight against the ‘No Fat Chicks’ mentality,â€ť I shouted into the microphone.
If that isn’t activism, I don’t know what is. Love ya, Mandy.
No Fat Chicks by Margaret Clark
Published by Random House Australia, 1998