Young adult novel explores body image messaging and dress codes in schools

Mayra Cuevas & Marie Marquardt (left to right) Photo by Christopher Perry

Does My Body Offend You?” is a new young adult novel about two girls who start a movement to protest the dress code at their high school after one of them is humiliated by school administrators. The story is told in alternating chapters by Mayra Cuevas and Marie Marquardt. The Atlanta-based authors joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk about their new book and how it invites young women to think critically about body image messaging.

Interview highlights:

How a protest against problematic dress codes led to friendship:

“It’s a story about two very different high school girls who come together after this weird bathroom encounter having to do with their breasts,” Cuevas explained. “They come together to start a dress code revolution at their school. My character, Malena, is a hurricane evacuee who has just moved to Florida from Puerto Rico, and she came to school without a bra because she had a sunburn on her back, and then the school nurse makes her go to the bathroom and paste pantyliners over her nipples. Then Marie’s character, Ruby, is this fierce, female, feminist activist… We wanted to explore not only the part of student protest, but what happens after the protest.”

“Ruby also is someone who’s recently moved; she’s a transplant. She moved from Seattle to north Florida at a time when her beloved grandmother was ill and needed to be cared for,” Marquardt recounted. “Ruby, when she sees Malena [in] their very first encounter in the bathroom and Malena is so distressed and disoriented; Ruby reaches out to her in ways that are, in some ways, inappropriate. She crosses some boundaries, but she also reflects on how she remembers what it was like to show up in this place and just feel at loose ends, not really knowing what the rules were.”

On the many shades of feminism in diverse communities:

“We wanted to write a book that explored feminism from an intersectional lens,” said Cuevas. “Many of the books that we had read up until that point, explore themes of youth activism, feminism, but they were all written from a very white gaze. They didn’t explore this idea that feminism looks very different for brown girls, for Black girls, for indigenous girls; and also that social justice movements look very different for students from marginalized backgrounds and voices of marginalized communities.”

“Whereas Malena is working with rediscovering her sense of voice and purpose, and developing the courage to speak and sometimes yell when she needs to, Ruby is really working out for herself, ‘What does it mean to be an ally?'” said Marquardt. “‘When is it important to learn how to listen, and learn how to step back, learn how to work with others, to open space for important voice voices to be heard?'” 

How Malena and Ruby mirror the authors’ real-life friendship and allyship:

“This is really also just a story about building friendship across differences and how powerful and profound and hard that can be, and those were the hardest scenes to write,” said Cuevas. “They’re discussing racism, allyship, working across differences; and Marie and I would spend days basically sitting across each other at a table, reciting dialogue to each other, going back and forth over the scenes again and again and again, to make sure that that thread of compassion was really coming through. And that, at a time when people are just calling each other out, and there was just so much division in our world, that these two girls were working hard to build bridges in their relationship.”

“Does My Body Offend You?” co-written by Mayra Cuevas and Marie Marquardt, is out now via Knopf Books for Young Readers and can be purchased here.