I loved Starfish by Lisa Fipps and found it to be a powerful look at fatphobia and body image issues. I was happy to talk to Lisa about her debut verse novel, misconceptions about fat people, and how we can better support our fat friends and family in a world that doesn’t see past the size of their bodies.
Hi Lisa! It’s wonderful to be chatting with you about your debut verse novel, Starfish, which I ADORED. Body image and bullying are central themes in your book. Why did you decide to write this story?
I was bullied for being a fat kid, and that caused me to struggle with my body image and self-worth and value. I needed Starfish when I was a kid, but it didn’t exist. So I wrote it for today’s kids. I want to try to spare as many kids as possible from experiencing the pain I went through.
Ellie’s mom is intent on getting her to lose weight. She has “good intentions,” but her methods and underlying motives/biases are problematic. Why was it important for you to show the role well-meaning loved ones can play in triggering body image issues?
Parents are a microcosm of society. Society believes that if you fat-shame someone – make them feel bad about their fat body – that you’ll motivate them to lose weight. Scientific study after study proves that’s just not true.
In fact, science shows that fat-shaming causes people to gain weight. Fat-shaming not only harms fat people psychologically (depression and low self-esteem being common among those who are fat), but also physically. Fat people often develop disordered eating and eating disorders, both of which take a toll physically. In addition, fat people are stared at and harassed when exercising, so they avoid physical activity. Can you see the snowball effect here? Parents need to see it. Parents need to realize how harmful it is, how harmful they can be.
Every fat person I’ve talked to has stories about hurtful things their parents have said about their bodies. That’s why I included Ellie’s mom fat-shaming her in Starfish.
I loved Ellie’s relationship with water (and THAT COVER!), and interestingly, swimming requires fitness. I think a common misconception is that fat people are unfit/unhealthy. What other common misconceptions about being fat did you want to dispel in this book?
The cover is amazing, thanks to illustrator Tara O’Brien. I love to swim. It was my favorite physical activity as a kid because I felt weightless. (I also loved riding my bike because of the freedom it gave me to explore the world, badminton because I was really good at it, and basketball. I could make a three-pointer like nobody’s business.)
There are so many misconceptions about fat people. Two are very common. One is that we’re disorganized slobs. That always makes me laugh. I’m a total organized neatnik. I admit that when I’m super busy, I don’t dust as often as I should, but there’s a place for everything and everything’s in its place. My pantry is alphabetized. When I had a bigger closet, the clothes in my closet were alphabetized.
Number two is that people think fat people are dumb. I got straight As – with an occasional B in math. I was in the National Honor Society. So in Starfish, I addressed the misconception of fat people being slobs and stupid.
Ellie’s friendship with Catalina is refreshing. I loved seeing her be accepted for who she is. How would you suggest we be better allies to our fat friends and families?
I love, love, love this question! Treat fat people like you’d want to be treated, like you’d treat someone you truly and dearly loved and cared about. If someone said or did something mean to you or a loved one, you wouldn’t just sit there. You wouldn’t tolerate that. You’d speak up, right? Then do that for a fat person. That’s what Catalina does.
Also, think about their size and what it might mean and then make allowances. Let’s use an elderly grandmother, just as an example. Grandma might not be able to climb steps. A fat person might not fit in a restaurant booth. So, just as you would make the accommodation of avoiding the steps and walking with grandma up the ramp into a restaurant, when you’re with a fat person, ask for a table, not a booth. (Booths can be a nightmare for fat people.) If you’re not sure if a fat person can fit in a space, ask them – before you get to the restaurant – which restaurant they’d like to go to and if they prefer a table or a booth.
Be tactful, like you would with Grandma. You wouldn’t say to the restaurant host holding the door open for you, “Sorry it’s taking us so long. Grandma’s old. She can’t hardly get around. We can’t even take the steps anymore. We have to go the long way around and use the ramp.” You’d simply take the ramp. So don’t say to the host, “My friend’s fat, so we need a table, not a booth.” Just say, “We need a table, not a booth, please.”
When in doubt, make sure you talk with the fat person, in private. Say something like, “I love being your friend and spending time with you. I want us to have a great time tonight. I know that some things aren’t as easy for you because of your size. What do you need me to do to make sure you’re comfortable?”
Your writing is punchy and powerful! Did you always want to be a writer? And why did you choose the verse format?
I’ve always been into the arts: art, writing, and music. Growing up, I thought I’d be an artist. But I loved reading. So then I thought I’d write and illustrate books. I didn’t like my high school art teacher, so I dropped out of art and enrolled in Creative Writing. My friends talked me into that. They knew something I didn’t: The guy I had a major crush on was taking that class. He ended up sitting catty-corner in front of me. Our first assignment was to write a poem to enter into a contest. Mine was one of the winners.
The teacher had us circle up and read the winning poems. After she read mine, he asked who wrote it. She told him I had. He looked me right in the eyes – for the first time he really saw me – and said, “This is good.” I nodded because I couldn’t speak. He said, “No, really. This is really good. You’re a great writer.” And that changed everything. Silly, huh? But, it turns out, I do like writing. It’s not what I do. It’s who I am.
I write in free verse because that’s how books come to me. I was a journalist for years and had to use the fewest amount of words as possible. Free verse allows you to do that, compared to prose. I like it because it allows me to hit on a point and move on. That’s the punchy part. Thanks for calling it powerful.
I love that we are seeing more representation for fat kids and teens in kid lit. What are your favorite books with excellent fat rep?
When I was working on Starfish, I read kid lit, as I always do for research, but I avoided any books with fat protagonists. I wanted Starfish to be Ellie’s story and not influenced by what was or wasn’t out there.
Whereas, historically, there haven’t been a lot of fat-positive books for kids, that’s starting to change some. That’s a great thing. After I was done with Starfish, I read All of Me by Chris Baron. That book’s needed because it shows that boys struggle with their weight, too. I appreciate and applaud Julie Murphy for centering books on fat characters.
I have several fat-positive books in my TBR pile: Fat Chance, Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado, I’ll Be the One by Lyla Lee, and Love is a Revolution by Renée Watson. I’ve read good things about each, but between working full-time, launching Starfish, doing events, and writing more books, I haven’t had a chance to read them yet.
What do you love to do when you’re not writing?
I still love art. Always will. I dabble in watercolor. I enjoy music. I have a very eclectic taste in music. My playlist includes classical, jazz, hip hop, rock, pop, country, Latin, Hindi, and … well, you get the idea. I choose songs based on the lyrics or beat. And my mood. When I’m writing, I also listen to songs I think the characters in my books would listen to. I love to travel but haven’t lately because of COVID.
Thank you so much for your time, Lisa!
Thank you for thinking of me and giving me this opportunity!
P.S. I also loved Lisa’s essay on NBC about fat-shaming.
Meet Lisa Fipps
Lisa Fipps is a graduate of Ball State University, an award-winning former journalist, current director of marketing for a public library (where she won the Sara Laughlin marketing award), and an author of middle-grade books. Starfish is her debut novel. She’s working on her next novel and several others. She currently lives in Indiana and lived in Texas. You can visit her website or instagram, facebook and twitter.