Manga Monday

Manga Monday #12: Body Positivity in Comics

What’s so wrong about loving yourself exactly how you are?

In the 1960s, second-wave feminism gave rise to what we now know as body positivity, the idea that everyone has a right to feel comfortable in their body.  Things like weight, size, height, skin color, or any other physical attribute shouldn’t have the ability to determine how we feel about ourselves.  So why does it?  Why do we give abstract ideas of what’s “beautiful” the power to make us feel good or bad about ourselves?

Especially in comics, a lot of types of people are underrepresented.  So many races, sizes, and looks have never seen the light of day as anything more than a silly side character or villain.  To have a protagonist that reaches past the norm, one who relates to an entirely new demographic of readers–that’s the kind of stuff that’s hard to find.

Body Positivity in Comics

Big Jo
Julia Aroslegi (Jungle Julia)
48 episodes (ongoing)

Big Jo tells of Joan Rodrigez, who has been called “Big Jo”–referencing her larger size–ever since she can remember.  She didn’t necessarily ever like being called that, but she decided to accept the title to make a point:  Jo was fat, and she wasn’t going to let that or anyone else put her down.

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Tom, on the other hand, is the school sports star and king of the jocks.  His sports club is entering a national competition, a challenge to act as the personal trainer to a fellow student for six months.  The trainee with the most dramatic transformation will earn a scholarship for their trainer, and a chance to be on the popular TV show, Boo! You’re Fat.  Basically, the harder subject you pick, the highest chance you have at stardom.

After seeing Jo fight back against a bully and march away, Tom decides that she’s the perfect subject.  He finds her in tears from the bully’s fat-shaming comments, and as Tom approaches her, Jo asks, “Is being fat a crime?”  Tom doesn’t fully understand, saying that if she’s so hurt by it, then she should just try losing weight.  Jo responds in full-blown sarcasm, quickly shutting Tom down.

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Tom struggles to think of how to convince Jo to be his project’s subject.  On a whim, Tom steals a “before” photo of a once heavy friend.  Presenting the photo to Jo, Tom claims that he was previously overweight himself and that he has the “secret” to Jo being able to see the same results.

Of course, Tom is an idiot.  There is no secret.  So, when she shows up and his answer is, “I played sports!” Jo is ready to check-out.  Tom convinces her that there’s got to be a sport for her.  Jo reluctantly agrees to give it a shot as Tom declares that they’ll try every sport the school provides and definitely find one that will suit Jo.

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This is the basis for the plot of Big Jo, but this is not a she-loses-the-weight-and-yay-roses sort of story.  The focus isn’t about the physical change of Jo, but rather the inner changes that she has to make as she learns to see her body for the beautiful thing it already is.  As she builds a friendship with Tom and finds the joy in seeing how her body can really move, she develops the self-esteem she had always been lacking.

Big Jo asks a lot of questions about the current structure of the beauty industry.  Across the world, we consume this very specific notion of what’s acceptable to look like.  Author Aroslegi addresses the insanity of discluding certain people from feeling comfortable with themselves simply based on how they look.

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Although the message of the story is deeply rooted in a serious issue, Jo is still a fourteen-year-old girl, and the series has a sense of humor to match that.  Big Jo isn’t merely a political platform, it’s a really enjoyable series with strong characters who can interact in ways that are beyond hilarious.

There are a lot of fantasy-like dwellers in the story, like Jo’s Fatty Godmother and the author herself, but they don’t detract from what is building up to be a great story.  Before Fat Jo was picked up from the Discover Section on Webtoons, the story was still pretty loose.  You can tell that the author has tightened up a lot of things since being a featured piece.  The story became more solid, and the art style has only seen continued improvement as each chapter goes by.

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I enjoy how Tom and Jo interact and watching their relationship build brick by brick is great to watch, but I appreciate that her entire life and character structure isn’t dependent on him.  He isn’t the too-good-to-be-true guy that just magically loves her, he is someone who has to go through some big changes as well.  His perception of what’s beautiful changes as he works as Jo’s trainer and friend.

Big Jo has a lot of promise.  It’s different.  The story isn’t telling the reader, “If you change your body, you’ll get confident,” but is rather, “Confidence comes from loving yourself, not changing yourself.”  Any obligation we may have to change should stem from self-love, not self-hate.  This is what Big Jo seems to be preaching, and it’s a powerful message that I don’t think I see a lot in any media I’m consuming regularly, but most especially the comic world.

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Big Jo confronts fatphobia without fear.  It’s a series that isn’t afraid to portray itself as exactly what it is, a tale about a girl who is beautiful and fat.  It’s a story about being unapologetically you–inside and outside.

There is something for everyone in Big Jo:  humor, romance, fantasy, sports, literature, and growth.  Big Jo is everything we need in the comic industry today and should be celebrated as such.  It isn’t perfect, but it has so much room to grow and refine that I only see it getting better and better.

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What do you wish there was more of in film, TV, books, and comics?

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