YA: My Body in Pieces by Marie-Noëlle Hébert

If you want to understand what is going on in someone's mind who is struggling with body image then I highly recommend that you pre-order this book. Release: April 2021

My Body in Pieces is Marie-Noëlle Hébert’s first graphic memoir of her personal journey coming to terms with her own body. From childhood to a woman in her twenties, this moving autobiography goes well beyond clothes not fitting and fat-shaming. It delves into how bullying and unsolicited comments only further fuel the deep sentiments of self-loathing that no amount of exercise or dieting can overcome. Of particular note is the fact that these profound feelings are conveyed mainly through the author’s accomplished drawings rather than the story’s text.

Marie-Noëlle’s story opens when she is in her twenties living in her own apartment. She feels a heavy weight on her chest, anxiety, which is beyond remedy. She calls her mother to ease the pain, but her mother only asks her if she has had enough water to drink. No one seems to be able to help Marie-Noëlle assuage her pain. After she is friend-zoned by a love interest, she holes up in her apartment, refusing to see friends to hide her rejection.

Marie-Noëlle was a beautiful baby and a cute little girl who loved Barbies and princesses. The panels of her carefree childhood are heart-warming and among my favourite in My Body in Pieces. She also takes dance lessons, which she loves, but gives up when the costumes she is given are too small. As a pre-teen, she has to shop in the women’s department to find clothes that fit.

Along the way, she receives a lot of advice on how to negotiate her presence in the world. She is advised to wear dark colours, never horizontal stripes or anything tight. And of course, she is repeatedly told to pull in her stomach. At a very young age, Marie-Noëlle internalizes the message that what people see, her body, and not her, the person, is what counts.

My Body in Pieces
Marie-Noëlle Hébert
Translated by Shelley Tanaka
Groundwood Books, House of Anansi
$19.95, paper, 105 pp

Life intensifies in high school when appearances are everything. Her parents sign her up for soccer. She trains hard and loses weight, which she is commended for. But the unsustainable grueling exercise and regimented eating mean that Marie-Noëlle puts even more pressure on herself to maintain her weight, which ultimately leads to further guilt, anxiety and self-loathing.

If that weren’t enough for a teenage woman to handle, there’s the bullying at school and her father’s vicious remarks at home. All of this casts further doubt in her mind that she is worthy of love. Fortunately, she has many friends. In fact, it is her friend Matilda whom Marie-Noëlle is finally able to confide in about her negative feelings about her body. Matilda tells Marie‑Noëlle to seek help, which she does after teetering on the brink of suicide.

With a graphite pencil to tell her story, Hébert uses realistic drawings that evoke the lightness and darkness of her thoughts. Her panels resemble black and white photographs, which work perfectly with the flashbacks she uses throughout her story. Many panels are intentionally blurred, reflecting a vague memory or a feeling of discomfort. The book itself is well-crafted with Hébert skillfully drawing the reader’s attention to important details.

Marie-Noëlle’s story offers keen insight into what it is like to live in a body that does not conform to society’s unrelenting beauty standards. It also shows that even people with good intentions, such as Marie-Noëlle’s aunt offering a book on dieting, can ultimately undermine how someone feels about themselves. But more than anything, My Body in Pieces offers a glance at what lies below the surface of someone struggling with their body image. There is nothing sugar-coated in this story. It is heartbreakingly honest, and every teacher, guidance counselor and psychologist should have it in their library.

This review has been crossposted at the Montreal Review of Books.


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