5 Books to Help Teens Explore Body Image

Finding compelling stories for teens that don't reinforce body and gender stereotypes can be tough, but we found some great ones. By Regan McMahon
5 Books to Help Teens Explore Body Image

Today's teens are bombarded with images of idealized beauty, whether it's Photoshopped images on the supermarket magazine rack, perfect selfies in their social media feeds, or just pics and videos from friends. Young adult books can often reinforce the idea that girls need a makeover to be popular or boys need to prove themselves to be considered masculine. Fortunately, a new trend in teen reads counters these outdated notions with mature material that challenges teens to think about what really matters.

These books feature characters who are comfortable with their bodies, no matter what their size or shape. They're appreciated for their talent, skills, and integrity, and they don't trade on their looks to get ahead. Check out our list of books featuring characters who are at ease in their own skin -- or who learn that's the way to be truly cool: 

  • Dumplin', by Julie Murphy. In this thought-provoking novel, a smart, funny high school girl struggles not with her weight but with her ability to see herself as someone who's worthwhile and deserving of happiness. She's a great role model for self-empowerment, and there are lots of positive messages and lessons about not letting your appearance define who you are and what you do. 
  • Eleanor + Park, by Rainbow Rowell. Two high school misfits in the '80s meet and fall in love on the school bus in this coming-of-age romance. The central characters explore the challenges of being "different." They share a deep and abiding friendship that becomes an unforgettable first love.
  • Hold Me Closer: The Tiny Cooper Story, by David Levithan. A Broadway musical script is the format for this hilarious and campy young adult novel about a boy's journey of self-discovery as a "big-boned" gay teen. Numerous stage directions serve as Tiny's commentary. It's a heartwarming, clever, universal story about the growing pains of puberty and the endless search for love and meaning. 
  • Holding Up the Universe, by Jennifer Niven. This insightful, emotionally complex romance deals frankly with fat-shaming, bullying, depression, and peer pressure. Main character Libby is fierce, funny, and worn out from being mocked and targeted for her size. This is a terrific book for encouraging teens to be their own unique selves.
  • Only Ever Yours, by Louise O'Neill. In a near-future dystopia, women are valued only for their beauty and fertility, genetically engineered and trained from a young age either to produce male children as official wives or provide sexual companionship as concubines. The claustrophobic, competitive lives of 16-year-old girls will ring eerily true for today's teens who are bombarded with beauty messages, reality-show infighting, and queen-bee power plays.

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About Regan McMahon

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Regan has been reviewing children's books for more than a decade. A journalist and former book editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, she cites as one of her toughest assignments having to read and review the 784-page... Read more

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