Eleanor and Park are officially a committed couple. They’ve kissed on the bus. Eleanor has a rapport with Park’s mom. They’ve spent time alone in Park’s room. Even Eleanor’s siblings know it. Their relationship, here, is happy and hopeful, and a relationship like that can make you brave. It lets you take risks, when you might otherwise have felt insecure, emboldened by your partner’s affections, not caring about what anyone else might think. In the glow of their relationship, Park begins wearing eyeliner to school, asserting his own identity. When questioned by his mom, Park says that the eyeliner makes him feel like himself, and he tells Eleanor that his dad is mad that Park doesn’t want to be more like him. Park feels accepted, wholly and completely, by Eleanor and that makes him bold, bold enough to appear more like himself, even if that means he’s not like everyone else.
But part of being in a relationship is letting the other person see your non-favorite parts of you. For Eleanor, many of her non-favorite parts are parts of her body. The closer that she and Park are, the harder it is to separate her feelings for Park from her feelings about herself. She worries that “there was no safe place on [her] torso” (234). She doesn’t like the parts of her body that fall between her neck and her knees. Eleanor is fat and Eleanor doesn’t like that she’s fat. She can only assume that Park hated what he saw of her in her gym suit, that he thought the reason his cassettes broke was because he was making out with her, specifically. Luckily, we have other viewpoints on her weight, including Rowell’s, and Rowell doesn’t let it become more than it should be. Yes, she’s fat. But, also, she’s beautiful and smart and sensitive and moody. Her weight doesn’t define her, and it also isn’t an obstacle for her to overcome. It’s simply a part of her person, like her curly hair or love of comic books. This treatment of her weight shouldn’t be rare, but it is.
We don’t have a clear picture of how fat Eleanor is, and we don’t need to. But many readers want to know, as if quantifying her weight is important to understanding her character. Rainbow Rowell has written an excellent piece on her blog that addresses this. I immediately knew what Eleanor looked like, though – she looked like me, or, specifically, what I looked like in high school. Like Eleanor, I defined myself by my weight. I was constantly afraid of what others thought of me, constantly comparing myself to other girls. Eleanor cannot grasp how Park dated Tina before her because, as she thinks, “there aren’t even roads between Tina and [her]” (236). Now, twelve years older than I was in high school, I can only wince in painful recognition at this type of thinking. I wish that I had had this novel when I was in high school. I wish I had read about a fat girl who fell in love with boy who liked the Smiths, a boy who thought she was beautiful, not because he could look past her looks, but precisely because of her looks. I wish I had read about a fat girl who wasn’t magically given self-esteem the first time a boy showed interest in him, who could both be nervous about her body and still want his hands on it. I wish I had read about a fat girl who was allowed to be other things, who didn’t lose weight when she was happy because it would be so unfair to let a character be both happy and fat. I wish that I had had Eleanor then, but I’m still pretty happy to have her now.
It’s so hard to find a story about an overweight girl that allows her to be more than her weight or doesn’t require her to go on a weight-loss journey. If you know of any, please list them in the comments! Until then, watch Ugly Betty, a show that deserves to be revisited. You won’t regret it, I promise.