Saturday, February 11, 2012

Purple Gymsuits and the Inner Fat Girl: Returning to Paula Danzinger's The Cat Ate My Gymsuit

As part of my reading for my Critical Thesis (CT), I need to read some YA books from the  1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. I was actually looking forward to it, because it is an opportunity to revisit some of my favourite books from when I was in elementary and Junior High School.

Really, because of the complete dearth of YA when I became a teenager, once I finished most of the Sweet Valley High series in Grade Seven, the next logical step was Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel  - true story.
The book that has inspired this particular blog post is: Paula Danzinger's The Cat Ate My Gymsuit. I am sorry to say that I must have given away my copy of this book in one of the many clean outs of my youth, so I got it from my local library - will have to peruse my local used bookstore to find a classic cover copy. 
Originally published in 1974, I think that I had originally read The Cat Ate My Gymsuit in 1982 or 1983. I know that I read it more than once.

Thirteen years old, overweight, and insecure, Marcy Lewis, finds her voice when her new English teacher, Ms. Finney, teaches her to think for herself.  When the School Board suspends Ms. Finney for her unorthodox teaching methods, Marcy and her friends organize a protest to bring her back.

Although some of the dialogue might seem didactic now, the feminist and political overtones of the novel are really interesting. (Lizzie Skurnick  wrote this very interesting piece in 2008 on the novel.)While Ms. Finney is encouraging her students to think for herself and Marcy's mousey mother learns to speak up against her verbally abusive husband, Marcy struggles with socially perceived notions of beauty and weight, and her mother's encouragement to date the school smart boy (who reminded me of a soft version of Gilbert Blythe without the slate-over-the-head incident), Joel Anderson.

All of this new information struck me, because I remembered nothing of the political and feminist overtones of the novel, only how much I connected with Marcy as I  was going through my own version of pubescent hell.  Like Marcy, I took ballet and felt like a large uncoordinated elephant in a tutu. Like Marcy, I had been dieting since I was seven when I couldn't fit into a dress for my cousin's wedding. Like Marcy, I felt like, as she says, "a baby blimp with wire-frame glasses and mousy brown hair," most of my life and was pretty sure that is what I would be. But the moment when I knew that Marcy and I were kindred spirits was this:

"How could she [Ms. Finney] know what it feels like to be so fat and ugly that you're ashamed to get into a gymsuit or talk to skinny people? Who wants to say, 'This is my friend, the Blimp?'"





The cover Skurnick posted in her 2008 article totally hit home for me (see above), because I'm sure that was the edition that I had read in 1983. It was either that one, or this other one:




Interestingly, the newer covers, form the 1990s have this weird- and skinny - cartoonish version of Marcy. 



Marcy gets mixed messages from her mother. On one hand, her mother wishes her to look her best and be happy so she can meet a nice boy, and on the other hand, she dishes Marcy and her younger brother, Stuart, bowls of ice cream when they're upset.  Later, Marcy tries to avoid bowls of ice cream and gets an approving nod from her friend, Nancy, when she declines snacks.  This reminded me of being the plump kid dieting on tuna fish and crackers while other kids are eating the cafeteria pizza, or avoiding the snacks at every party I've attended since...well, ever.

I don't like to think about my life between 9 and 12. It is probably why I mostly skip the whole middle grade reading and go to the teen books. Reading Danzinger's book has inspired me to go back. Who knows if I'm ready to befriend that fat awkward kid who had to start wearing a bra at 10 and got her period at 11.

Connecting to Marcy helped me through that difficult year. I always think of it fondly and I'm glad that years later I can still see why.

This story isn't unusual. I'm not writing this to say, "Oh woe is me, the fat girl who felt shitty about herself." But, what I think is fascinating is how much this book helped me at 10 and how it seemed to help me get back to that girl now. Mostly, because I think she has a story to tell and I haven't been brave enough yet to let her tell it. 

Although I've spent years in therapy, reading feminist theory on the body politic, and reclaiming my rubenesque figure - that really comes from a line of women on my mother's side named Rubenstein - ten-year-old Mel is still there. Quietly pouting. 

Even though I know every woman sees something they don't like about themselves, I still look at some of the pretty little blond women I work with and I hear myself screaming: "Why? Why wasn't I born with a natural graceful thinness - and the desire to exercise daily?" 

I'm hoping that by reading some of the books that I read at ten, maybe I can nurture her into finally feeling good about who she is. Maybe one day, I'll feel good about getting into my own purple gymsuit. 

I guess the first step is putting a picture up for the world to see. 


I wish I could go back and tell her how cute she was... 


2 comments:

annawritedraw said...

She was SO cute-- but you are sophisticated, intelligent, and brave. There's a book in there when you are ready to write it.

Melanie Fishbane said...

Thanks, lady! I appreciate your encouragement. Hope things are going well.