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Big Girl


Big Girl

When readers meet Malaya Clondon, she’s a young girl who loves drawing, painting and attending African dance classes. Although she wasn’t thrilled about moving from her family’s downtown apartment to a big brownstone in Harlem (especially since the growing drug and crime problems in her neighborhood means she can’t play freely outdoors like she used to), she does enjoy having her own room on her own floor. She likes school, loves her parents, and is overall a bright and mostly happy eight-year-old.

Malaya also happens to weigh more than 160 pounds, and if there’s one thing that’s dragging her down, it’s being constantly reminded of that fact. And she is reminded of it all the time, whether it’s her mom dragging her to weekly Weight Watchers meetings or frequent checkups at the pediatrician, the cutting remarks from her always-on-a-diet mom and grandma, or the cruel comments of classmates or absolute strangers. Is it any wonder that Malaya turns to food --- often sneaked from the kitchen late at night or purchased from the bodega with cash stolen from her mom --- as the most reliable source of comfort in her life?

"BIG GIRL doesn’t offer Malaya any sort of fairy tale ending, nor does it preach a gospel of self-acceptance at any cost."

Fast forward to Malaya’s teenage years. The good news is that, thanks to test-based admissions, there’s been an influx of Black and Brown students to her private school. She’s no longer as isolated by virtue of her race as she once was in elementary school, and she appreciates the mutual support of LaFamille, as the students of color call themselves. She still enjoys art and is doing well at school, but her weight has continued to spiral out of control, so much so that she’s maxed out the dreaded scale at the doctor’s office. And much to her dismay, just as she’s landed on a personal fashion style influenced by rappers such as Biggie Smalls, she’s grown too big to fit into even the largest denim jeans at the men’s big and tall store.

Malaya is constantly surrounded by contradictory messages --- from boys who ask for sexual favors from her but clearly idolize slim women like Aaliyah, and from the women in her life who pile on the guilt and engage in restrictive diets but secretly have their own conflicted relationships with weight and food. To make matters worse, Malaya’s once loving parents seem to fight all the time, and she fears that their unhappiness is fueled by their concerns about her size. It would be one thing if anyone seemed to actually care about Malaya’s health and well-being, but too often, everyone’s comments --- not only about her but also about other women --- seem to suggest that her real problem is daring to take up too much space in the world.

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan’s debut novel is set in the early to mid-1990s. As such, it is infused with the pop culture of those years, complete with Richard Simmons workouts, rap music, hip-hop fashions, and the dawning promise of a surgical miracle cure for morbid obesity. In addition to being Malaya’s coming-of-age story, it’s about the changing nature of Harlem and the related phenomena of cultural appropriation and gentrification. This plays out all around Malaya, as her growing understanding of herself goes hand-in-hand with her understanding of her community.

BIG GIRL doesn’t offer Malaya any sort of fairy tale ending, nor does it preach a gospel of self-acceptance at any cost. In contrast, Sullivan constructs a more complicated narrative. In the wake of a personal loss, Malaya comes to see how much she has to gain and recognizes that no matter what anyone looks like, they have the right to live fully in the world and experience it free of shame. Only when Malaya adopts this viewpoint does she start to emerge from the cocoon she’s built around herself and into a bigger, more beautiful life.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 15, 2022

Big Girl
by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan

  • Publication Date: June 13, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Liveright
  • ISBN-10: 1324093595
  • ISBN-13: 9781324093596