Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy
From Goodreads: Self-proclaimed fat girl Willowdean Dickson (dubbed “Dumplin’” by her former beauty queen mom) has always been at home in her own skin. Her thoughts on having the ultimate bikini body? Put a bikini on your body. With her all-American beauty best friend, Ellen, by her side, things have always worked…until Will takes a job at Harpy’s, the local fast-food joint. There she meets Private School Bo, a hot former jock. Will isn’t surprised to find herself attracted to Bo. But she is surprised when he seems to like her back.
Instead of finding new heights of self-assurance in her relationship with Bo, Will starts to doubt herself. So she sets out to take back her confidence by doing the most horrifying thing she can imagine: entering the Miss Clover City beauty pageant—along with several other unlikely candidates—to show the world that she deserves to be up there as much as any twiggy girl does. Along the way, she’ll shock the hell out of Clover City—and maybe herself most of all.
With starry Texas nights, red candy suckers, Dolly Parton songs, and a wildly unforgettable heroine—Dumplin’ is guaranteed to steal your heart.
Wow, this book.
I’ve read it a few times before, but I recently got sent an ARC of the upcoming companion novel, Puddin’ and I thought it would be a good time to finally buy myself a copy of the book, instead of borrowing it from the library. It’s actually one of those books that you really love, but you find really difficult to talk about because there’s too much to discuss. But hey, I guess I’ll try.
Dumplin’ raises so many interesting and thought-provoking questions about body confidence, self-esteem and how we look at other people in this context. Some of the most poignant moments in the novel are when Willowdean AKA Will AKA Dumplin’ is questioning her own confidence based on her body type. I was a bit concerned, the first time I picked up the novel, that it was going to spoil the message by going down a ‘girl is confident, then girl meets attractive boy and suddenly wants to lose weight and look better’ route, but fortunately Murphy handled the plot with a lot more deft than that. The issue of Willowdean’s body confidence comes up when she’s kissing ex-jock Bo outside of work. Although she likes him, and enjoys kissing him, she’s very aware of his hands on her back and her backfat, and that pulls away some of the enjoyment of kissing him. This bothers her somewhat, but is ultimately exacerbated by him keeping their relationship secret. This is quite possibly a stroke of genius on Murphy’s part– Bo has a lot of issues of his own, and wants time and space to work through them. At the time he’s making out with Willowdean at work, he’s aware that he wouldn’t make a good boyfriend, so he does the selfish thing of keeping kissing her while refusing to define their relationship. He does want more, eventually, but at that moment they’re basically not quite friends with benefits. So when she bumps into him at the mall with his step-mom, he calls her a ‘friend’ and she freaks out, deciding that he’s keeping her a secret because he’s ashamed of her. Obviously, she’s wrong, but I think it’s interesting that Dumplin’ plays with some of the subconscious issues, as well as the clear ones– Willowdean might appear confident about her weight and body-shape, but she’s not confident with other people. She doesn’t like the thought of being teased about her weight, and later on she’s afraid of being seen with Bo, since he’s handsome and she worries everyone will wonder what he sees in her if they’re spotted together. Clearly, she has some hidden issues with her body which come to the surface when Bo treats her as a secret, and I think it’s interesting that it reveals a lot about her character when she jumps to the conclusion that he’s ashamed of liking her because she’s plus-sized. The pageant, as Willowdean notes, is more about simply being confident. It is also about believing that you deserve to compete. So choosing to enter it isn’t so much of a trying to regain confidence thing, as an acceptance of her own looks and figure.
There are other interesting elements at work here, to do with body-confidence. Willowdean’s mother is in charge of the beauty pageant, and her rather rigid ideas of beauty form a key part of the plot too. Willowdean’s aunt Lucy was morbidly obese, and died early of a heart attack, so it’s clear Willowdean’s mother’s desire for her daughter to lose weight comes from a kind place, but it still says a lot about society’s ideas of what is beautiful. Case and point, her mother suggests Willowdean’s best friend, El, enters the beauty pageant, because she’s lithe and blonde and leggy, but she initially avoids signing Willowdean’s papers allowing her to compete because she’s afraid that Willowdean sees the whole thing as a joke, and she’s afraid her daughter will be made fun of because of her size. Willowdean replies that this is unfair, arguing that if her mom doesn’t sign the papers, she’s suggesting her daughter isn’t as beautiful or capable as the girls who are allowed to compete. It’s things like this that really drive the point home. Her mom also makes a rather alarming point of watching weight-loss programmes with her daughter, perhaps to hammer home her not-so secret wish for Willowdean to lose weight and look more ‘conventionally’ pretty. There’s a little backstory offered here to keep her mom from looking like a total demon though– alongside her sister’s untimely death, there’s also the fact that she herself used to be fat but went on a diet, lost a lot of weight and ended up being a beauty pageant winner. Although I don’t agree with her mom, and I think her treatment of Willowdean is horrific, I can understand her a little bit. What she does is wrong, but it comes from a place of love.
Eventually, Willowdean is allowed to compete, and she does so alongside a bunch of unlikely misfits. Millie is an even bigger girl than Willowdean, Amanda has special clunky shoes because her legs are different sizes, and Hannah is a half-Dominican girl with teeth that make boys call her ‘a horse.’ Millie and Amanda seem to be pretty confident, although they look to Willowdean to lead them, but Hannah is clearly angry at the thought of people demanding she wears braces to ‘correct’ her image, and she enters the pageant in the hopes of ruining it. She, out of the group, seems the most aware of her image, and the most cynical of society as a result. She gets it when Willowdean explains her confidence issues, and there’s a really moving conversation where they talk this out.
‘As I’m walking into my next class, I hear things like ‘so horrible,’ or ‘I’m sorry, but she’s hideous,’ or ‘Why doesn’t she get braces?’ That last one is a sentiment that stays with me all day because Hannah shouldn’t have to get braces. Maybe she can’t afford them or maybe she’s scared to get them. Either way, she shouldn’t have to fill her mouth with metal so some shitheads will leave her alone.’
As a result, it’s interesting to look at Dumplin’ as more than a book about plus-size people being confident in themselves, it’s really a novel about coming to terms with your own appearance and self, and learning to embrace your ‘flaws.’ Perhaps one of the reasons this book has stuck with me so much is that, although I am fairly confident in my own skin, I’m still aware of my big ‘child-bearing hips’ [which my mother is quick to blame my paternal grandmother for] and my wobbly stomach and thighs. When I sleep next to my boyfriend, I usually wrap my arms around my stomach as though I can somehow hold it in, and we’ve had countless conversations where he tells me he loves my hips, and I just feel a little awkward and embarrassed because I don’t. I can’t see myself that way. And so it was wonderful to see Dumplin’ complaining about her own large hips, and struggling to find clothes to fit over them. It was heart-wrenching to learn that she didn’t get a summer job with her best friend because she worked in a clothing store which didn’t even stock Willowdean’s size. How very American. It was also gutting to see her eavesdrop on El’s new friend at the store, listening to her complain about how Willowdean was a hanger-on who followed El around like a lost puppy and how she was essentially a ‘charity case’ friend.
Dumplin’ tries to teach how words can hurt even the most confident of people, how sly little jokes and comments can worm their way into a person’s mind and make them see themselves in a negative light. The novel tries to explain how things like fat-shaming can really harm a person’s confidence, and why it is such an appalling thing to do. When someone fat-shames, or thin-shames or shames another person for the way they look, they’re choosing to either ignore or not even consider reasons behind it– maybe that person wants to look this way, maybe their metabolism is different, maybe they have a different appetite to some people, maybe they’re comfort or stress eating or stress-dieting or over-exercising because of a mental health issue. Maybe they’ve got a health problem that makes them look that way. I always remember how people in my high school bullied a girl for putting on a lot of weight in a short time. She tried to protest that she was on steroids, but that didn’t stop people making fun of her. Why should that be acceptable in our society?
The same thing happens with cat-calling. I’ve been told to cover up because I’ve shown too much leg on a really hot day, because apparently my legs aren’t perfect enough for public viewing. I should stress that I don’t consider myself overweight. I’m curvy in places, but I’m actually a healthy weight for my height. Other girls I know have been shamed for exactly the same thing– called sluts for daring to show a little leg or chest on a night out. On the flip side, I’ve also known other people who have been asked why they’re covering up in long sleeves and things on a very hot day, by some lewd old man disappointed that he can’t salivate over a pretty girl half his age. Society pushes conventional ideas of beauty on us, and Dumplin’ is a glorious novel about learning how to fight against that, and how to accept yourself.
Willowdean doesn’t get it completely right. There’s the fact that she falls out with El for entering the pageant, because she thinks she has the right to stop El entering. She’s afraid that her conventionally beautiful friend will ruin their ‘revolution’ by helping out the other team, but she’s essentially shaming her friend and telling her she’s supposed to accept being an outsider in their new group because she’s pretty. There’s also the weird not-quite romance with Mitch, who is also considered ‘large.’ Willowdean allows him to think they’re more than friends, leading him on because she can’t have Bo and because she wants the satisfaction of someone finding her attractive. It’s cruel, and she does get into drama for it, but it is a reminder that this is another dark part of society– part of her mom’s complaint is Willowdean’s weight is preventing her from doing teenage things like dating. Essentially, this hammers home the idea that she should slim down for a man, which Willowdean thankfully disagrees with. Still, society is keen to teach us that we should watch our figure, not just for health reasons, but because that is what will attract members of the opposite sex. Willowdean not only eventually dates Bo, but she also enters the pageant with her friends having not gone on a diet or tried one of the pageant booty camps some of the other girls enter. I think that’s a really important message– it’s not bad to decide to lose weight or if you decide to change something about your own appearance such as getting braces or glasses or whatever, if you’re doing it for your own health, your own fitness, your own confidence. But having it pushed on you by someone else is wrong.
Because of the brilliant message in this book, I’m giving Dumplin’ a 9.5/10. And I urge anyone who has ever looked at themselves in a mirror and frowned, even if it was only once, to pick up this book. It really will change how you see yourself.