Invisible by Jeanne Bannon

Jeanne Bannon’s young adult novel Invisible opens with Lola, a teen working at a summer camp. Because she’s self-conscious at 5’10” and just under 200lbs, she’s always watched the campers who don’t want to swim. However, this year there are no such campers, and Lola is forced into a bathing suit and the pool. She laments her hairy legs and untamed bikini area, in addition to her fat body. When Lola hears the other teen camp counselors begin to make fun of her, Lola dips herself under water in shame, hoping to disappear. And then, she does.

In a sense, Invisible is a paranormal novel because it has this extra “magic” element, but no one who wants to read paranormal fiction or fantasy would reach for Bannon’s book, because it’s not really about that. Lola has one good friend and a quartet of dedicated bullies at school. She has a crush on one of them, Jon, who, inexplicably, decides he likes her, too, about a third of the way into the story.

Most young adult novels cover either crushes or saving the world, and Invisible is a crushes book. Not my jam, and I’m starting to rethink if I should keep reading YA in my quest to find books starring fat women and girls who don’t diet or date their way to happiness. In general, I’m bored by the lack of complexity in the character’s lives simply because YA books were not written with me in mind as the audience. Then again, I know crushes and a bestie weren’t my whole world when I was a teen so, I’m not sure if I’ve lowered my standards for what a teen protagonist can be.

The huge issue with Invisible is the way it reinforces heteronormative behaviors. Once the bully-turned-Romeo shows interest in Lola, she shaves her legs, has her sister in beauty school do full face makeup on her, buys dresses, and starts “improving” herself by losing weight for Jon.

“You’re the smartest girl I know, and I wish you could see what I see.” A smile wanted to blossom on my lips, but I would have been happier if [Jon had] said I was the most beautiful girl he knew.

It’s like reading a teen girl performing straight, cis, able-bodied femininity based on what men and society have taught her, and it feels gross. Lola is celebrated for her “improvements” and never fails to comment “I was more of a girl than I’d thought” while getting the warm and fuzzies over how loose her jeans are.

Although Lola’s height and weight are mentioned only once, it was hard for me to understand all the fatphobic comments she receives. Look up images of women who are 5’10” and just under 200lbs and you’ll find photos of very average-sized people. In this way Bannon, not a fat person, tattles on herself. Like many straight-size individuals, Bannon suggests 5-10 pounds larger than an “ideal” dieting weight calls for mooing and cries of “lard ass” because getting fat is unforgivable. In Bannon’s attempt to write a fat character with dignity, her book shines a white-hot light on how lightly women and girls can tread outside of “acceptable” before they are ostracized and physically beaten then rewarded with attention from crushes, friends, and family after compliance is met.

27 comments

  1. This sounds disappointing. On a hunch, based on that cover, I looked up this book and was not surprised to see that it was published ten years ago- it sounds insensitive in the way a lot of the YA I was reading in middle and high school was toward anyone who wasn’t the “normal” or “ideal” white person. Personally I think YA has improved a lot since then and you might have better luck with more recent work. I’m definitely not as deep into the YA world as I used to be so I don’t have much to recommend, but Fat Chance Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado is one I keep seeing lately with a fat protagonist and great reviews. I think it also falls on the crush side of the crushes/world-saving spectrum but as a 2021 publication perhaps handles its characters with more complexity?

    I’m actually curious about where you came across this one, because it raises an interesting question for me- do YA readers today still pick up books from 2011? I wonder about this when I consider reviewing YA rereads. Aside from really popular series or award winners I don’t see it happening much- YA tends to have a short lifespan in my experience, and it seems like maybe that’s a good thing in cases like this!

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    • I think I found it on a Goodreads list of fat protagonists, but those kinds of lists can vary wildly. Some folks love the met a guy/lost weight narrative and find that inspiring.

      I actually have a lot of fat YA on my TBR because it seems like writers are trying to be more accepting: https://grabthelapels.com/young-adult-novels/

      Fat girls have been left out of the story for so long, and yet fat teens exist. What made me sad as a fat teen was more that people felt free to say judgmental things — never to my face, but lots of mean comments about other things, such as the girl who wasn’t perfectly thin who got her belly button pierced, and ew, who could see it with all that FAT?? Stupid shit like that.

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      • That’s true, losing weight for any reason can be an inspiring narrative, although it seems perhaps like a different brand of inspiration than body acceptance storylines.

        That’s great to hear! I do feel that modern YA handles its characters in a more thoughtful and considerate way that would be a shame to miss out on due to the faults of older, less sensitive books. And actually, I had a look at your list a spotted a few popular titles I’ve been curious about for other reasons that I didn’t even realize included fat characters! Like Undead Girl Gang. I love finding a second reason to pick up a book I already had interest in. 🙂

        Unfortunately, speaking as someone with a sibling still in high school, I can confirm people still feel free to say some pretty awful things about how other teens look. It’s definitely important for fat teens (all teens, really) to be able to see themselves represented in art and media and get some positive messaging from one source, at least.

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          • Just the one is that young, a late addition to the family, haha. He’s considerably younger than me. It really does seem like a whole different experience now that everyone’s connected online. If my mom asks what time sports practice is the next afternoon, for example, he likely doesn’t know and just checks the team group chat, which is in snapchat, lol. In my day we got a printed schedule we couldn’t lose! Now when they have zoom school days my brother is logged into his class on his school-issued laptop on one side and his gaming chat on the PS4 on his other side, where he can talk to his classmates in real time. It’s a whole different world.

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              • I was the same! Later in high school more of my classmates had cell phones so I briefly had the experience of typing texts on the number keys by feel under a desk, but even then a lot of my friends had a limited number of texts per month on their cell plans so even then we kept passing notes on paper most of the time. We even started writing a novel that way, passing it back and forth on individual pages of loose-leaf paper, lol. I imagine that would be hard to do digitally, but maybe I’m just not fluent enough in tech!

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  2. My hope is that each and every generation, girls care less and less about society’s idea of the perfect woman, or hell, an “acceptable” woman. I don’t know if that’s even close, I don’t know any teenage girls. My niece is 3, I’ll get back to her in 10 years and see what she says.

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  3. That cover seems really…dramatic. My first thought when reading the characters height and weight was also wondering how that could be seen as fat. Sorry this was a bust and I hope teen girls are not actually reading this.

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    • Invisible is old enough that I’m not sure it’s on anyone’s radar anymore. I found it, I think, in a Goodreads list of recommended reads if you want a book starring a fat women or girl. People have different ideas on what “empowering” means, though. I see it as reaching self-actualization, whereas other folks see it as conforming to “normal.”

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  4. When I was a young teenager I went through a bit of a phase of reading YA books about girls with disordered eating. I remember Jacqueline Wilson’s “Girls” trilogy, for example, which has a fat main character (or, at least, a character who perceives herself as fat). In one of the books she develops an eating disorder, but she’s helped back to a place of relatively good mental health by a supportive teacher, and then gets a boyfriend in the next book. So she doesn’t diet to get a boyfriend and she’s already started accepting herself before she enters a relationship, which seems like a better way of doing it than you describe here. The Girls trilogy is the one I remember most clearly, but there was a whole crop of books about girls with dysfunctional relationships with food published when I was around that age.

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    • I never read any books about disordered eating when I was a teen. In fact, the episode of Full House in which DJ Tanner decides she’s fat and stops eating and exercises constantly and then almost passes out was the only thing I’d really experienced with girls my age. Were these Wilson books published in the U.K. only?

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      • Jacqueline Wilson is kind of the Judy Blume of the UK, so I’d be surprised to hear that her publishers never tried to popularise her in the US, but I don’t know about the Girls books specifically. She’s most famous for The Story of Tracy Beaker, about a young girl living in care, so if any of her books crossed the pond I would expect it was that one.

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  5. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a YA book, but I think you’re right in that topics of crushes, friends etc. tend to be the main focus for so many YA protagonists. Still, your hope in finding fat-positive role models in YA is hopefully not in vain, because I think there are YA books out there that do portray healthy fat characters, they are out there!!!

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    • I’ve been encouraged by you all to keep looking. I know it’s in the future a ways, but do you wonder how you will keep your kids interested in reading when they are young adults? It was the period in my life when I read the least. Maybe something like family reading time, or even “assigning” them books to discuss with you.

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      • It’s somethign I think of a lot, becuase it was the same for you, I didn’t read as much. I’m hoping we can still do read-alouds at night, or I’ll do my very best to take them to book stores, let them pick out what they want. I won’t take them clothes shopping, but I’ll definitely take them book shopping! My kids get most of their clothes from consignment stores or as gifts LOL

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