Friday, October 16, 2015

Body Positivity: Interview with Nicole Winters

Today I am very excited to bring you all an interview with Nicole Winters. Nicole's book THE JOCK AND THE FAT CHICK came out October 13th. She's here today to talk about body positivity, both in her book and in her own experiences. I've invited several readers to ask her questions on the topic, and you'll find those questions and Nicole's answers below. She has also asked Kari-Lynn Winters, an expert on body positivity, to join us for a part 2 of this series. I'll be posting Kari-Lynn's responses sometime next week.

First, here's a bit about the book:


No one ever said high school was easy. In this hilarious and heartwarming debut, one high school senior has to ask himself how much he's willing to give up in order to fit in.

Kevin seems to have it all: he's popular, good looking, and on his way to scoring a college hockey scholarship. However, he's keeping two big secrets. The first is that he failed an assignment and is now forced to take the most embarrassing course ever--domestic tech. The second is that he is falling for his domestic tech classmate, Claire.

As far as Kevin is concerned, Claire does have it all: she's funny, smart, beautiful, and confident. But she's off-limits. Because Kevin knows what happens when someone in his group dares to date a girl who isn't a cheerleader, and there's no way he is going to put himself—or Claire—through that.

But steering clear of the girl of his dreams is a lot harder than Kevin thought…especially when a cooking project they are paired together for provides the perfect opportunity for things to heat up between them outside the classroom….

And now on to the interview!

1. Have you ever changed your opinion (from hate to love) on a physical feature of yours? (An example: When I realized my daughter had the same hair as me, it became an object of sentiment, rather than an object of annoyance.)

I noticed my first grey hair when I was sixteen and was teased. In my twenties, I’d be centered out at parties where people would stare, looking at my greys as if I represented doomsday (turning 30) which was soon coming for them. Then I decided to wear my hair in a pixie style and dyed it a lot (raven black, burgundy, ice blond, etc.) but didn’t like the grey regrowth or all those chemicals, so I grew it out. During those two long years, women would stop me on the street or when I was riding the subway, to pay me a compliment on its colour, surprising me, making me think they must be crazy. Now I’m pretty much 95% grey, no, silver is how I've come to see it and because it’s the latest fad to have silver hair, young people on the street now ask me where I get mine done. Now, I love it, it's what makes me me, and wouldn’t dye it for all the world.

2. Is Claire actually fat (overweight or obese), and if not, why not? If she is actually fat, how did you decide to go that direction? 

Here’s how the story originated: a friend of mine said growing up, whenever his mom cooked, dinners consisted of two steps, a can opener and a microwave. That hit me pretty viscerally. Days later, I thought, what if I had a character who was an athlete and his mom cooked meals like that? What if he thought that he could do better, but in reality he did much worse? I know, I’ll have him eat nothing but energy bars, shakes and gels. So now I had a character who means well, but is misdirected. I knew I wanted to write about him, tell the journey from the male perspective. At the same time, I’d been reading books with plus size teen girls in them and they all seemed to be similar: depressed, bullied, or abused. It left me feeling down and got me thinking, how can I put my food challenged hero (Kevin), and a non-depressed/bullied/abused/ plus sized character (Claire), together? The story just unfolded from there.

When I was researching Claire’s character, watching cooking shows — she's a budding chef — and also imagining her physical appearance, I looked at a lot of photographs online, including many “real women” campaigns and plus size fashion sites. I would love to say, or show you who inspired me, but I won’t. I don’t know her personally; I want to respect her privacy.

3. Did you do a lot of research on body positivity, eating disorders, fat acceptance, etc. for the book, and if so, where did you look? What did you learn that surprised you?

I visited tons of websites, so many that I kept a spreadsheet over the years with links so I could reread them. For articles, I drew from YA diversity sites, romance readers/writers sites as well as individual bloggers, book reviewers, chatting with friends, and watching people on YouTube. This is just a drop in the bucket:

No One In Romance Novels Is Ever Fat by Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby
I’m also a fan of Virgie Tovar: http://www.virgietovar.com/blog

I learned my instinct was right; just like Hollywood, there appears to be repetition when creating plus sized characters: depressed/bullied/abused/the clown/the comedian/the best friend, etc.  What surprised me the most was the vile cesspool of hate on YouTube.

4. How do we teach kids that fat shaming is just as terrible as other types of shaming?
5. How do we teach kids to love the bodies that they’re in, even if they are fat, in spite of being fat, while striving to be healthy?
6. How can we change the mindset of passively fat shaming (ie doing things like commenting ‘oh you’d be beautiful if you’d lost a few pounds,” “you have such a pretty face,” and those “helpful” people that try to suggest that everything could be easily fixed through proper diet and exercise)?

Other than to say, show by example, I’m not a parent, teacher or an expert in the field. So while I did enough research to tell Kevin and Claire’s story, I lack hands-on experience to answer these questions with any authority. However, my friend and fellow author, Kari-Lynn Winters, (no relation) who has a PhD in Education, just presented a fascinating research paper on media and body image and its effects on students. She gathered stories from people about body image and turned them into a play that her university students presented for young kids. This was followed-up with hands-on workshops with kids in classrooms and the results were fascinating.

Kari-Lynn Winters will be joining us for Part 2 of this series. She will be answering these questions and sharing her expertise with us.

7. Do you feel a personal connection to this story: If so, what is your experience with that social teen dynamic?

Mentally, Kevin represents who I was in high school, not an athletic teenage boy, but an awkward introvert who hung out with a social crowd. I distinctly remember alpha-members making snide, cruel remarks about other students (plus size or not). Half the group would jump in with comebacks and the other half, myself included, would exchange silent looks, knowing what was said was mean, but also lacking the courage to stand up and say something for fear of backlash. What an awful insecure, shame-filled, terrible feeling. I’m certainly not like that person now. If I hear something cruel, I'll speak up.

Mentally, Claire represents who I am today. I was a lanky, gawky, awkward, insecure, braces-wearing, flat as a board teen, and now, the older I get and the more curves, scars, freckles, laugh lines, and grey hair I amass, the more I like it. It represents a life well lived. It’s like, here I am world, and if you don’t like it, f*** off. Too bad I wasn't more like that in high school.

8. How do you feel personal mindset affects the average American teenager? Is this something that should be included in the public school system curriculum and/or taught at home?

I think Hollywood, corporations, books, music, fashion, etc., play a massive part in shaping the mindsets of teenagers. It’s a constant barrage of messages that try to tell young people what to think, act and feel. Corporations send them the message that they won’t be cool unless they use a particular product or wear particular piece of clothing (sold in certain stores with limited sizes), or look a certain way. And Hollywood? Where do I start? I often wonder what would have happened in the romantic teen comedy SHE’S ALL THAT if the geeky “unattractive” artist Laney remained who she was and didn’t get the clich√© makeover and it was Zach who had to change, and it ended with them as a couple, but Laney was exactly how she appeared in Act I.

There are also teachers (e.g., social studies) who touch upon this topic, using “truth in advertising” as a start, and I’m all for more education on loving and accepting ourselves and other people both at home and in school. There’s a great website http://www.fatso.com/dont-buy-the-lie.html that addresses this issue. More awareness, open dialogue is a great start. I also think there should be more books with diverse characters that include people with various backgrounds, cultures, body types, disabilities and more. Check out http://www.diversityinya.com/about/ and http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com.

9. If a child displays their guardian's ideas and judgments on body positivism, how, then, do we educate the adults of America to create a safe place for their kids to be themselves in the midst of social pressure to fit into specific body sizes/shapes?

I’m a writer who grew tired of seeing a certain stereotype and had the opportunity to do something about it. I understand my characters, Kevin and Claire, and how they feel; I also know that any story is only a partial reflection of reality and we all need to work together to make the real world a better place for everyone.

***

Thank you so much, Nicole, for joining us today! I really appreciate your answers to these questions; it's clear that you've spent a lot of time thinking about the issues involved. I'm looking forward to reading THE JOCK AND THE FAT CHICK!

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