Jen Larsen’s critically acclaimed memoir Stranger Here detailed her own choice to have weight-loss surgery and the unexpected highs and lows that followed losing 180 pounds. In her teen fiction debut, Larsen tackles weight-loss surgery again in Future Perfect.
Ashley Perkins is the type of kid that any parent or grandparent would be shouting about from the rooftops: class valedictorian, AP student, on the volleyball team and now she’s set her sights on getting into Harvard. All of her friends and family know she is a shoo-in for admission. In her grandmother’s eyes, though, the main thing setting Ashley back is her looks: she’s fat.
Every year since her 13th birthday, Ashley’s grandmother presents her with a card: 50 pounds lost equals a trip to Disneyland, 80 pounds lost equals a shopping trip to Paris, 100 pounds lost equals a brand new car. Every year, Ashley has turned down her grandmother’s offer, but when this year’s card offers her Harvard tuition for the cost of having weight-loss surgery, Ashley struggles with the decision more than she ever has. Should she give in to her grandmother’s demands for how her body “should” look to get everything she’s ever dreamed?
Between the Covers recently caught up with Jen to talk about her novel.
Between the Covers: (No spoilers, please!) While you were writing this novel, did you know what choice Ashley was going to make? Did it change for you while developing her character?
Jen Larsen: I did know! Because her final choice is completely central to why I wrote this book. I wanted to write a character who was everything I wanted to be, and as brave as I wish I were, when I was her age. I wanted to write a book that was the book I needed when I was struggling with my own body issue demons, fear, doubt and isolation.
BTC: You documented your own weight loss surgery and its impact on your life in your memoir Stranger Here; what influence did your own weight loss have on this novel?
JL: When I chose to get surgery, I thought it was my only option—that I had no other choice, because it would be impossible for me to be fat and happy and lovable. That idea is dangerous and so incredibly wrong and yet so prevalent. Future Perfect is a counter to it, an argument for the fact that the body image standards that get pushed on us by the media and even by our own well-meaning family are limited, bigoted and cruel. There's no loving yourself "despite" your flaws, because your body isn't flawed. Not looking like a Victoria's Secret model is not some kind of defect.
BTC: Unlike other teen heroines "of size," Ashley never hides behind her body as a suit of "fat armor." She's not separate from her body, she just is. That is so refreshing! In developing Ashley's character, what pitfalls did you want to avoid? How did you reconcile those pitfalls with having to write a teenage character?
JL: It was really, really important that Ashley's voice be authentic. She rejects the idea that fat is a dirty word. She is fiercely, defiantly happy in her body, almost defensively so — because I think when you're a teenager you are very much still in a role where your beliefs and feelings feel challenged by your adults and your peer group. You feel as if you always need to be on guard, fighting back.
But Ashley also has ordinary doubts and fears and worries that nag at her. She compares herself to other girls, she has fleeting moments of self-doubt when she wonders why her boyfriend thinks she's beautiful, she struggles with her family's nagging and comments. When you're a teenager, your family's opinion is both the most important and the opinion you feel like you need to reject or rebel against. And that's part of what fuels her need to push back as hard as she can.
BTC: This novel could've easily translated to an adult trying to decide if this surgery was for her, so why teen? Teen voice can be very hard to capture, and these kids were very realistic. How did you transition your writing style to suit teen, if at all?
JL: Because I believe teen fiction is so, so important. There's this huge number of brilliant, hungry kids out there looking for themselves in the books they read, wanting their worries, interests, hopes, needs understood and validated. I choose teen because I thought this story and idea and message is so important for teens to hear when they're in the throes of their own struggles with the expectations of the adults around them.
BTC: Ashley's group of friends could each have a wonderful novel in and of themselves! In writing these characters, why was it important for you to stress how, in a lot of ways, these friends were her family perhaps more than her family was?
JL: Thank you! I love her friends very much. I wanted to talk about what happens when the family you have isn't the family you need. It's so important to surround yourself with people who give you strength, who love you and support you. It's okay to push back against your family's expectations if they don't understand you, or care for you the way you need, and create your own community to help give you the strength you need and support your sense of identity and self-worth.
BTC: I've seen a lot of people comment that "No loving grandmother would ever do this to a child!" Do you agree? Why is Grandmother so hard on Ashley when she gives others such love and attention (her dad, Jolene, etc.)?
JL: That kind of direct criticism and pressure on kids about their weight and size is incredibly common, from the really subtle stuff I used to get as a kid ("Why don't you just butter one piece of toast and then press it against the other piece?") to flat-out disapproval and condemnation. Parents and caregivers are roped into The War on Obesity by doctors, and forget that study after study shows that shaming and coercion is useless and, in fact, incredibly harmful. It can cause life-long eating issues, disorders, depression and even more weight gain. It is real and it is common and it is horrific.
Ashley's grandmother genuinely believes she's doing right and good—that she is taking care of her granddaughter in the best way she knows how, and actually helping her to achieve her identity. She thinks if Ashley wants to be successful, she can't be fat. That she'll be denied opportunities and struggle in her career. She thinks she's helping Ashley fight back. And in that sense, she's helping Jolene fight back against the people who reject Jolene's sense of self, unaware of the irony in celebrating Jolene's body autonomy while dismissing Ashley's.
BTC: What's next for you and your writing? (Please, please tell me there's a Jolene book somewhere.)
JL: I love Jolene and would love to write a book about her! But currently I'm working on a couple of new teen books—my first fantasy novel ever, a retelling of the "Princess and the Pea" and a book that's incredibly important to me, about two girls in love and San Francisco and social justice.
Thank you so much for such awesome questions!