This book has gone through more incarnations than any other book I’ve ever written. The idea for it came after watching a few episodes of Dr. Phil – yes, a secret guilty pleasure that I must here confess. In one, he featured a number of teenaged girls who were so attracted to celebrity culture, they had tried to completely transform themselves into their favourite stars. One of those stars was Paris Hilton. One girl had even had plastic surgery to resemble her. In another show, a young girl so wanted to be Miley Cyrus she had begged her mom to allow her to have plastic surgery. The mother had agreed. The girl was only 12! I cannot tell you how sad and scary I found this.
Of course, this was not the first time I had thought about the whole issue of body image and how it is affected by celebrity culture and star worship. I am a feminist at heart, and I have often been troubled by what our culture tells young women about how they should look and what they should strive to be. In my university days I took several Women’s Studies courses that
forced me to think about these issues in depth. I read Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and watched Jean Kilbourne’s wonderful Killing Us Softly film series. Years later, as a teacher, I try to include material in my own courses that forces young people to think about the media and how it shapes identity. As a writer, the issue has surfaced in all my books; however, this book is most directly about body image and media influence.
In its first form, the book was a series of letters, written by the three girls directly to Paris Hilton as part of a school assignment. Each girl displayed a different attitude toward the reality star. Tessa was detached, perhaps mildly annoyed that Hilton had so much when she and her family were struggling to get by; Krista, battling obesity, both envied her body but was aware that Hilton had contributed to society’s false notion of what a girl should look like; Chelsea straight up admired and wanted to be like her, much like the guest on the Dr. Phil show. The letters were written to Paris and each girl talked about her life, making Paris a sort of confidante or sounding-board. In the end, it was difficult to make the book work in this epistolary form. The inter-weaving of the plot became awkward. It also seemed somewhat artificial that the girls would tell Paris so much, especially Krista as she sinks further into ill health, or Tessa, who didn’t particularly like her.
Plus, my daughter, a young feminist herself, hated that I was giving Paris Hilton so much attention. In the end, she was right. So, I changed the form. Each girl would now just be telling her story. I chose straight up narration for the main character, Tessa. Krista’s story transformed into verse and Chelsea continued to write to her idol, Paris. I thought I was done, but after
circulating the book a bit, it became clear that this form was not working either.
Back to the drawing board: this time, Tessa’s narrative expanded; Krista wrote in her journal and Chelsea in her diary. Paris Hilton, that superficial attention-seeker, receded into the background (where she belongs) and is now only mentioned a few times. My daughter breathed a sigh of relief and Carrie Gleason, editor at James Lorimer, loved the book.
The lesson to be learned in all this is that the content of a book has to suit its form and vice versa. Playing with form has become one of my greatest pleasures in writing. Yellow Mini was told in a series of poems from various voices; this book is told in 3 voices, which was fun to do. Each one needed to be different; each one needed to sound authentic to the character and
their issues. However, since there is a plot in the book that involves all three girls, that needed to be clear as well. I couldn’t just be repeating the same event in 3 different ways. So I had to decide what to reveal and where. I decided Tessa would always take the narrative lead, with the other girls giving their take on events.
Writing in different voices is challenging but I love it. I feel I have to sink into the skin of each character to speak as her; I can be a chameleon or actress, as well as a writer. I know young readers will want to know which character is most “me” – which one I can most relate to – so I will say here and now, no lying, that I can relate in different ways to all three. People are complex. No one is all good or all bad; no one is 100% happy with who they are; no one can be easily defined or categorized. So there are bits and pieces of me in all 3 girls, yet none of the girls was modeled on me. Each one contains aspects of many different influences, but at the same time each character is just herself, the way any good character should be.
I think of this book as one about friendship, about what friends share and don’t share. Krista and Tessa have been friends since kindergarten, yet Tessa is barely aware of what her friend suffers on a daily basis because of her weight. Tessa’s father died in the war and the story of how his soldier-friend tried to rescue him becomes a model of friendship for her in her relationship with Krista. Chelsea is the bad girl: I worry that she may be somewhat stereotypical, but girls like her do exist. What I tried to do was give Chelsea a story and inner life that might explain why fame and beauty are so crucial to her sense of self-worth. I hope readers will think about what Chelsea is lacking in her life that may have made her so focused on celebrities and their privileges.
As with all my books, symbolism is important. In this case, the symbol of the picture became a guiding force for me as I wrote it. There are many pictures and each one is important to a character and to the plot. I invite readers to look for these pictures and to think about how each one contributes to the story. As Tessa concludes, some pictures can hurt but others can help. Pictures are images. They are what we see of the world and of ourselves. There are also pictures that each of us carry of who we are and who we want to be. There are the pictures that the media sell us. And there are family and personal pictures that place us in space and time. All of
these pictures are in my book.
I hope readers enjoy Picture Me.
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