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While many fictional texts marketed for young adults address sexuality, few acknowledge the intersection of sexuality and body image. In fact, many Young Adult narratives that are liberating in terms of sexuality are regressive in terms of body image. (1) The texts that I examine in this article reflect the changing social mores of the 1970s-1990s, years in which women questioned cultural standards of beauty along with repressive sexual stereotypes. These fictions reflect an increasing awareness of body image issues. While in early texts, like Judy Blume's Forever (1975), weight issues are deeply imbedded and barely acknowledged, in later texts, body image becomes an acknowledged and often crucial aspect of the characters' development.
A touchstone for many contemporary debates on teenage sexuality, Young Adult fictions frequently depict female sexuality as a threatening force. For young females in a patriarchal society, sexuality (particularly sexual desire) is often represented by educators, parents, and authors as a primitive, taboo drive that must be regulated. As documented by Peggy Orenstein in Schoolgirls (1994) and in Joan Jacobs Brumberg's The Body Project (1997), coming to terms with sexuality "in a society that treats women's bodies in a sexually brutal and commercially rapacious way" is a prevalent and pervasive struggle for young women (Brumberg 1997, 210). (2) This struggle may be one of the reasons so many girls turn to Young Adult fiction, a genre that provides multitudinous representations of young girls as sexual beings. More subtly, these texts reveal that young female bodies are important sites of cultural contestation.
Because Young Adult fiction reflects social anxiety about female bodies, texts that are popular among young adults are often censored or challenged by librarians, teachers, and parents. (3) Many of the books considered controversial contain frank and graphic portrayals of sexuality, and some of the works most often challenged continue to be vastly popular. While Judy Blume has now attained renowned critical status, in the early years of her career she was frequently criticized and vilified for her controversial and explicit texts. Indeed, whether a Young Adult text is labeled critically acclaimed or "popular" often depends upon who is reading the book and whether it contains controversial subject matter. In From Romance to Realism: Fifty Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature, Michael Cart argues that many texts "receiving scorn and disapproval from adult reviewers" are often the most popular with young adult readers (1996, 67). For example, David Rees labels Forever "amazingly trivial" and "second rate," and dismisses the novel as being without literary merit (1980, 173). But in his 1985 article "Reconsidering Judy Blume's Forever," John Gough explains that Forever remains a very popular text, in part because teens can "find themselves truthfully presented, undistorted, not in extremis--just ordinary life and its awful emotions" (35). Much like Forever, each of the texts I examine in this article can be considered a "popular," i.e., widely read Young Adult fiction, though many were written by award-winning, critically acclaimed authors. Young Adult fiction reflects girls' lives back to them, and this literature contains many representations of young women that reinforce negative body-image stereotypes. In this article, I examine several of these portrayals, especially ones that are linked to sexuality, to demonstrate how they valorize the contemporary ultra-thin standard of beauty.
Subtitled "A moving story of the end of innocence," Judy Blume's Forever focuses on the protagonist's loss of her virginity and her subsequent discovery of sexual power and pleasure. Yet imbedded in this otherwise empowering text is an underlying theme of obsession with weight and body image. Similarly, two texts by Norma Klein, It's OK lf You Don't Love Me (1977) and Breaking Up (1980), depict sexuality openly, featuring female characters who use birth control, achieve orgasm, and ask for what they want from their partners. However, these protagonists derive their power from their looks: they are in control, powerful, responsible, and ultra thin. Susan Terris's 1987 novel, Nell's Quilt, portrays a young woman who gains control of her life only after she starves herself into near anorexia, while Judith Ortiz Cofer's 1995 An Island Like You, portrays young girls struggling with ethnicity as they grow into their bodies and awareness of their sexuality. Life in the Fat Lane (1998) by Cherie Bennett graphically shows one beauty queen's battle with her weight and her sense of self as a sexual being. In Connie Porter's 1999 Imani All Mine, protagonist Tasha has a baby at age fifteen, combats poverty, and struggles to accept herself even though the images of thin girls she sees in Seventeen make her feel huge. In Name Me Nobody (1999) by Lois-Ann Yamanaka, protagonist Emi-Lou diets secretly and tries to come to terms with her sexuality and her body image.
Although these narratives portray an ethnically diverse group of young girls and women, they also reveal the difficulty many Young Adult …