I picked up the graphic adaptation of Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath because I remembered loving her voice in the novel. Gabby’s voice. Juliet’s voice. The mix of humor and fearlessness and, at the same time, vulnerability.
But it is artist Celia Moscote‘s treatment of bodies in this graphic novel that takes my breath away. Because, from the very beginning — from the broadness of Juliet’s arms to the thickness of her thighs to the way her curves come together to form little dimples and folds — I see myself.
I was a slim child. I thought my mother was slim, too. But she always had a complex about her weight. And so, our refrigerator was filled with low-fat and low-sugar everything and we were only allowed to drink our caffeine-free soda on the weekend and we had the natural peanut butter with the oil floating on top, the kind you had to stir before you could spread it on your sandwich. I hated it.
My mom referred to her thighs as “thunder thighs” and, as I grew older, she told me I had those lineal thunder thighs, too. When I sit up in bed now, decades later, my legs lengthened before me, it’s all I see.
My dad didn’t help. When he saw someone who was a little bit larger and whose clothes were a little bit tighter, he’d make some comment about “10 pounds of poo in a 5-pound bag.” Today, if I struggle to pull on an article of clothing, if it pulls at the curve of my belly or across the expanse of my thighs, I’ll mutter it aloud.
“God. I feel like 10 pounds of poo in a 5-pound bag.”
So when I saw Moscote’s depiction of Juliet Milagros Pilante — when I saw her depiction of all the women throughout this graphic novel, just living in their bodies — it struck me. Because it is so rare to see a woman in comics who is not all hourglass curves and dainty features. And it is even rarer to see a curvy woman whose weight is not the centerpiece of the narrative.
Moscote, meanwhile, doesn’t shy away from showing us Juliet in all of her solidity and expansiveness, from an indulgent bath she takes because she’s experiencing heavy menstruation to a post-bath masturbation session that feels like a nod to her overall self-love to the first time she has sex with a new lover. In this latter scene, Moscote shows Juliet stepping into the shower, all gluteus maximus and muscular calves and broad back. And then her new girlfriend follows her in there, grasps her real woman breasts and her real woman belly and I can’t help but admire the way she is not at all self-conscious. The way she is so purely open to receiving pleasure. God, how I wish I could be that free.
Seeing Juliet like that on the page touched me in a way no other body positivity book or Instagram feed ever has. Yes, I love Caroline Dooner’s The F*ck It Diet and I love Lindy West’s Shrill and I ate up Virgie Tovar’s You Have the Right to Remain Fat in one quick gulp. But to see a larger woman on the page outside the context of a larger conversation about being a large woman — to have that body on the page and not feel the need to acknowledge it or talk about it, to have it just be — flipped a switch in my brain. How would it feel to not expend so much energy hating my body — or even to not expend energy just trying to love it? How would it feel to just exist?
With more women reading comics these days, and more women writing and drawing them, I’ve been seeing greater body diversity on the page, much to my absolute delight.
One of the first comics I read — Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet — features a woman named Penelope who has so embraced her largeness that she has a “Born Big” tattoo on her left bicep.
Penelope is a “noncompliant” woman who has been sent to a prison planet. In a single issue from the series, one that focuses on her backstory, Penelope stands before a panel of men who force her to undergo an experiment in which she is hooked up to wires so they can see a vision of her ideal self — and then presumably help her attain that vision. At the end of the issue, we see that her “ideal vision” of herself is identical to the person she already is. The men are a mix of surprised and horrified and frustrated. They consider her a lost cause and send her off-world with the other noncompliant women.
Penelope, meanwhile, is satisfied. “If it ain’t broke,” she says, “don’t fix it. And you bastards ain’t never gonna break me.”
The next comic I picked up and proceeded to become obsessed with has a completely different tone. In The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, the superhero Doreen Green / Squirrel Girl is an average-sized woman who is forced to tuck her massive squirrel tail into the back of her pants in order to maintain her secret identity. Early on in the very first issue, as Doreen packs her bags for college, she explains to her squirrel BFF Tippy-Toe that Doreen Green is a “completely regular college student.”
“Who just happens to have a tail?” asks Tippy-Toe.
“Nope!” replies Doreen. “Who knows how to tuck her tail into her pants… and who just happens to appear to have a conspicuously large and conspicuously awesome butt.”
You gotta love the self-confidence. And I do. Throughout the series, Squirrel Girl remains bubbly and friendly and empathetic and confident as hell. When I later meet the artist, Erica Henderson, at New York Comic Con and gush over how curvy and muscular Squirrel Girl is, she tells me that she modeled her after gymnast-turned-weight lifter Samantha Wright.
And I continue to love these curvy ladies of comics: Hazel of Bingo Love (she’s the lead protagonist in a love story that brings me to tears). Bess Marvin of Nancy Drew: The Palace of Wisdom (she’s so self-assured and down with her bad self that she wins the heart of Joe Hardy without even trying). Karma and Dot of Misfit City (two teens who — along with their two other besties — go on a Goonies-esque adventure).
No matter what these ladies are doing, the one thing that’s not part of the plot is their weight.
Here’s hoping that this is just the beginning of a larger trend.
Meanwhile, I’m just sitting here waiting with bated breath for whomever Celia Moscote draws next.