When I was a teenager, I had acne. The kind of acne that meant my face was never clear except in rare and random instances, I considered bangs for their ability to hide my forehead, and I got to know the skincare aisle of my local drugstore really, really well. Worrying about my breakouts and angsting over how my face would look ahead of big events or even just the next day was a regular occurrence for me from approximately ages 12-20, and I also played the comparison game with my friends — who had clearer skin, whose breakouts weren’t as bad as mine, and who was really good with concealer. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties and making adult money that I finally figured out what products could get my breakouts under control (spoiler alert, answers could not be found in the drugstore!), but I lived my teen years with the misguided belief that my blemishes would vanish the minute I graduated from high school. Considering the mental energy and actual money I spent worrying about this, it is rather baffling to me that more YA books don’t spend time focusing on fun body stuff like acne and body hair!
Most YA books tend not to hyper focus on whether or not the protagonist wakes up with a painful zit on their chin, or the rate at which hair seems to grow out of places you definitely don’t want hair, and that is okay by me. After growing up in the late ‘90s and early 2000s where it seemed like a lot of teen media was unhealthily obsessed with “ideal” appearances, there’s a part of me that is grateful…but also, for real, where are the teens in YA that deal with this stuff in a non-toxic manner? Where are the books normalizing that you might have acne or forget to shave your legs, and it’s okay?
When I think about YA books I’ve read in the last year or so, only two books that have protagonists learning to reconcile with the realities of their bodies immediately spring to mind: Perfectly Parvin by Olivia Abtahi and TJ Power Has Something to Prove by Jesmeen Kaur Deo.
Perfectly Parvin stars fourteen-year-old Parvin, who is just starting high school when her first boyfriend dumps her. She immediately sets out to find a Homecoming date to show him she can be girlfriend material. I liked that her preoccupation in appearances has layers to it — Parvin is biracial, Iranian American, and she struggles to figure out how to shave, wax, and handle her hair. Her white mom is little help, and her misadventures in waxing lead to some interesting results. Without spoiling anything, I like how Abtahi shows readers it’s okay for Parvin to want to figure out how she wants to look — there’s nothing innately wrong with her body hair, but there’s nothing wrong with wanting to wax, either. She just needs to find the right tools and the right allies to help her on her journey. This is just a small subplot in the book, but it is important to the wider arc, which is about self-acceptance and owning who you are.
TJ Powar Has Something to Prove is about TJ, a popular Indian Canadian high school student and star debater who takes lots of time and care with her appearances, ensuring that she doesn’t have any visible unwanted body hair. She’s someone who can destroy an opponent in a debate match, but when a stray hair on her neck is noticed, she finds her focus thrown until she can deal with it. She also stalls getting intimate with her boyfriend until she can prepare for the moment by waxing and shaving extensively. When a cruel meme is circulated comparing TJ and her cousin, who opts to not participate in TJ’s vigorous hair removal routine, TJ gets angry…and decides to protest by letting her hair grow to prove she can be hairy and beautiful, even if others might not agree. Internal and external conflict and angst ensure!
It’s not lost on me that both books are about girls who aren’t white trying to fit into a very white and Western ideal of beauty. I loved both of these books for their journeys and what they had to say about beauty, bodies, and how society perceives and judges women. I also really like that the cover of TJ Powar features TJ with a visible mustache, unibrow, and hair on her knuckles! YA book covers don’t tend to show these realities on book covers because, well…publishers want to sell books, and they want their covers to be “attractive.” Even in their marketing, they are buying into an ideal that is rarely achieved by most teens, especially teens who might come from disadvantaged backgrounds where the money might not be available for these kinds of beauty and personal care routines.
I would love to see more YA books that feature all sorts of body angst, and characters who learn to feel comfortable in their own skins, whatever new weirdness we might be facing. Body Talk: 27 Voices Explore Our Radical Anatomy edited by Book Riot’s own Kelly Jensen is a great YA nonfiction starting point as it explores body hair, disability, sexuality, and more. But I’d also like to see more YA protagonists dealing with the sometimes frustrating and very relatable issues that arise with just existing in imperfect human bodies. Because we all have body hair, and we all get blemishes, and it’s all normal. So let’s see that reflected in YA fiction!