Dumplin', Julie Murphy

Thursday, March 08, 2018

When I look back at pictures of my teenage self, I wish that I could somehow send her a message
telling her she's not as fat as she thinks she is. I've always been a curvy girl, and as I moved into adulthood and parenthood I went from curvy to firmly plus-size, but when I was in high school, the way I looked didn't match the way I felt. American society has done such a disservice to women and girls. We are constantly bombarded with images of ultra-thin, perfectly made-up women, presented as the ideal. In reality, even the women in those images don't look the way we see them on billboards, music videos, and the pages of fashion magazines.

If only the teenage me had been able to meet Willowdeen Dixon, the main character of Julie Murphy's Dumplin'. Willowdeen lives in a small Texas town, with an aging beauty queen for a mother and a high school full of people who just don't get her. This last fact never really bothered her before, because she had her best friend Ellen, who had never seemed to mind that Will was different than the other girls. She's also dealing with the death of her beloved aunt, who was the only person in Will's life who seemed to see her for who she was. Willowdeen is full of contempt for the pageant culture that interests most of the other girls in town; of course, when you're overweight and have unconventional looks, contempt is a safer feeling than envy. Will's worldview is shaken, though, when she meets Bo, a handsome, brooding private school boy, who actually seems to be interested in her romantically, an experience that is unheard of in her life so far. She might have been able to deal with the feelings this arouses in her if she could have had Ellen to talk to, but Ellen has done something unexpected; she's signed up for the Miss Clover City beauty pageant. Suddenly, it's like Will doesn't even know her anymore. Struggling to deal with her mother's constant harping, Bo's unexpected interest, and Ellen's betrayal, Will decides to do something no one expects. She's going to join the pageant herself.

Murphy has created a character in Willowdeen that reminded me so much of my younger self. She's smart and funny, but also deeply insecure. That insecurity is something that I suspect almost all female-identified people in our society feel. I like to think it's getting better, as body positivity and more diversity in representation change the national conversation on what is beautiful, but for women of my generation and older, I bet there's not a day that goes by that we don't listen, just for a moment, to that voice in our head that says we should be skinnier, or have bigger breasts, or perfectly toned abs. If we're lucky, we can tell that voice to shut up, but I can't think of one day of my life since puberty when I haven't had negative thoughts about some aspect of my body and appearance. Ultimately, Will gets some self-acceptance through her relationship with Bo and her participation in the pageant, but that struggle is one that resonated strongly with me.

Some of the most emotional parts of the novel are the sections where Will is remembering her aunt. Lucy. Lucy was her rock, the adult in her life who accepted her exactly as she was. They shared a love of Dolly Parton, and of good southern cooking. Lucy was, in fact morbidly obese, unable to leave the house. Will's mother, who ran the Miss Clover City pageant, lived in constant fear that Will's connection to Lucy was going to take her down the same path to obesity and early death, which explained the nagging about what Will ate and how much (or little) she exercised. Will's relationship with her mother continues to be rocky when she signs up for the pageant. Her mother, rightly so, thinks that Will and the other unusual contestants that join with her are mocking something that is very important to her, and while I think pageant culture is creepy and weird, I do understand where her mother would be hurt by her actions. It is this family dynamic that makes this more than just a novel about a fat girl who finds love. Though the fact of Lucy's death, explained as a result of her weight, sort-of undermines the point that size doesn't matter. In the end, though, that is a small criticism. The book is full of humor and heart, and would be a great read for teen girls and female-identified folks.

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