Crystal Maldonado, 32, is a first-time author who grew up yearning to see a girl who looked like her in the mainstream: plus size and a woman of color. Now she’s made her own dream come true with her debut young adult novel, Fat Chance, Charlie Vega featuring a “fat brown girl” as the lead character. The coming-of-age story has Puerto Rican teen Charlotte “Charlie” Vega coping with a fatphobic mom and her own insecurities about her body as she experiences the highs and lows of young love. With all the typical struggles of a teenage girl – boys, school, bullying – Charlie is also grappling with self-love while exploring romantic love with one her classmates, Brian Park. The book brings to life the representation Maldonado wished for that undoubtedly other young girls dealing with similar struggles can related to.
“It has been a dream of mine to feature a fat, brown girl as the lead in a romcom YA novel for a while now. As a teen, I loved reading about first loves and first crushes, and I loved watching TV and movies that featured romance, but I never felt like I got to see someone that looked like me as a main character. I was lucky if there were fat characters featured at all,” Maldonado tells HipLatina. “I’d say this book has the five Fs, which I totally just made up: fat, fashion, feelings, friendship, and first love.”
We meet Charlie as a 16-year-old who loves writing, romance, and hanging out with her best friend, Amelia, who she feels is everything she wishes she could be: skinny, popular, and attractive. Early on, we’re introduced to her insecurities as a fat brown girl whose confidence is diminished in part because of her fatphobic mom (who is white) and bullying at school. Charlie states that early on she learned that being fat was “A Very Bad Thing, according to most.” We’re introduced to her hopes for romance as she enviously watches Amelia’s love life bloom but ultimately her story is about her evolution with self-love. Maldonado – who opened up about the bullying she experienced in a Buzzfeed essay – beautifully encapsulates the struggle of wanting to love your curves while also being constantly fed the notion that “skinny is better.”
“I’m fat, and I celebrate other fat people, but I don’t quite celebrate me. It makes me feel like a fraud,” Charlie laments.
In developing the character, Maldonado injected a lot of her own struggles and interests growing up. The initial synopsis in her head was simple, she says, “fat, brown girl falls in love” but then she set out to create a more nuanced character. The universal pain of heartbreak and desire for love plays a huge part in Charlie’s story as it’s a reflection of her internal struggle with self-love. As she navigates difficult interactions with her mom, Amelia, and Brian she’s forced to face how her own insecurities have affected those relationships.
“Her shift in the way she viewed and treated herself ultimately led her to her victories, and I really hope that’s the case for us all,” Maldonado says.
Leading up to this reframing in perspective, Charlie is forced to constantly think about who she wants to be as she confronts difficult situations at school and home. The book expertly weaves in realistic depictions of high school (where to sit for lunch?) to texting your crush (the dread of the three dots) to the hurt caused from bullying. Fatphobia emerges in various scenarios throughout the book but most prominently with her interactions with her mom and Charlie’s own internalized hate.
When we present [self-love] as this perfect thing that we ultimately reach and then our job is done, it’s a little bit unrealistic. Most people who are comfortable with themselves still have moments, days, or maybe even weeks where they don’t feel their best. I think this can be especially true for fat folks, who may do their best to love and embrace themselves, but still hear from the world that there is something wrong with them. It’s really exhausting to have to fight that often, if not daily, and that can certainly wear on a person.
Maldonando points out that rarely are fat people encouraged to love themselves and says she wants to challenge the idea that only thin bodies are worth appreciating. She says the intention was to pull the curtain back and expose the everyday struggles and conflicting beliefs surrounding their bodies that fat people face. “It took me a really long time to get where I am, to embrace the term fat, to start to openly confront things like diet culture.”
Charlie’s mom was formerly overweight and after the death of her husband, Charlie’s dad, she set out to lose the weight. It’s because of her own success, specifically with weight loss shakes, that she pushes this diet on Charlie. From shopping to navigating walking in a crowd, Charlie is hyperaware of her size and despite leaning on body positive figures on social media, she can’t help but absorb the negative while trying to embody the positive.
“I thought it would be interesting to try and juxtapose the idea of loving yourself, a message we are seeing more prominently from brands and media, with those same messages that fat people — and women in general — should always be striving to be smaller or change themselves. Those are competing ideologies. Should I love myself or is everything wrong with me?,” Maldonado says. “My motto is if it’s not your body, it’s not your business.”
And as much as the book is devoted to dismantling fatphobia, it’s also focused on the layers that make up her Latinidad. She’s part Puerto Rican but doesn’t speak Spanish and loves Beyoncé and Selena and has a complicated relationship with her extended Puerto Rican family (Maldonado is also half Puerto Rican/half white). At one point Charlie mentions the need to “Be smaller. Be whiter. Be quieter.” echoing the pressures women and especially women of color face in society. It seems she’s one of the few if not the only Latina at her predominately white school in Connecticut so navigating her identity and how she’s perceived by classmates is another hurdle she faces.
“These messages are persistent and in some cases pretty overt, so even when we may disagree, it’s often hard to forget them entirely. By the time we meet Charlie at 16, she has already picked up on these ideas, and it takes time and effort for her to push back on these narratives,” Maldonado explains. “We see her grapple with her size, her heritage, and her voice. But I think this is an important message about what we accept and what we don’t. We can fight back against these harmful ideas and we can make change together.”
Part of the catalysts for change is feeling empowered and through this book Maldonado is giving a voice to plus size brown girls who rarely get the spotlight on them in such a positive way. She recalls growing up during the height of paparazzi and tabloid coverage of celebrities and how often weight gain was equated with a fall from grace. Her hope is that Charlie’s stories and others like it give teens better representation, she says.
“I really hope that readers finish this book feeling seen and validated. To me, if this book helps even one person feel worthy and understood, then I’ll have done exactly what I set out to do. I’d also love for Charlie and her story to start conversations on things like fatphobia and Latinx identity, and how there is no one right way to be fat or Puerto Rican. There’s only your way, and that’s completely valid.”