Revisiting Your Sixth Grade Bookshelf: "Blubber"

Remember that time when kids weren't expelled for being jerks?
Publish date:
August 7, 2013
bullies, mean girls, nostalgia, YA lit, judy blume, fat girls, M

One time in college, my roommate Ruth Ann and I made up a whole satirical list of Fat Girl Rules. I cannot remember most of them, but I can very clearly recall the one that said a fat girl’s favorite animal should not be any type of animal that could be used as a nickname against her.

This ruled out such adorable things like pigs, cows, elephants, dinosaurs, gojiras, hippos and walruses. And of course, the big mamajama of them all: whales.

So while I’m not saying pudgy Linda Fischer asked for her entire class to make fun of her, I am saying that maybe next time you get to choose the topic of your fifth grade oral report, maybe you don’t choose to do it on one of those animals. Life lesson tip from one fat girl to another, Blubber.

Poor Linda just wanted to educate her peers about whales and how their blubber is harvested by men called flensers. But then Wendy, aka the Regina George of Mrs. Minish’s fifth grade class, passes a note to her friend Caroline that says “Blubber is a good name for her!” Caroline giggles and passes the note to Jill, our intrepid narrator who hates everything except for peanut butter and stamp collecting.

And that’s how it starts.

I really can’t confirm that bullying has been around since caveman times. I’m not a historian. I’ve never taken an anthropology class. But I could totally see some cavekids ostracized because their dads brought home a secondhand sabertooth tiger skin or they were forced to wear last year’s rocks in their hair or maybe they ate too many berries at the communal fertility feast.

Look, kids can be assholes to each other for the stupidest reasons. Sometimes it’s over sneakers, and sometimes it’s over some pudgy girl just trying to get an A on her stupid homework assignment.

Judy Blume has updated some of her books because some items are outdated (sanitary belt in Are You There, God?, I’m looking at you; for a whole year after I read that, I assumed my mom didn’t have periods because I couldn’t find her sanitary belt) but there is ABSOLUTELY NO WAY that she could update this book, which was published in 1974. If kids these days did some of this shit to one of their classmates, they would be expelled SO HARD AND SO FAST. Zero tolerance, bitches.

Linda, obviously, is bullied by the kids in her class. And they are BRUTAL. Here’s a list of the most egregious things they do to her:

1. Make the entire bus call her Blubber and sing songs about blubber while throwing paper airplanes at her head. They also steal her jacket and tell her that she doesn’t need it because she’s so fat that she can keep herself warm. (NOTE: this isn’t true, says my heating bill from winter 2011.)

2. Jill dresses up as a flenser specifically to make fun of Linda at the Halloween parade at school. (But she dangles photos of dolphins from her flenser hat instead of whales so while I’m not pointing fingers or anything, I don’t think Jill would get the title of Smartest Girl in the class.)

3. Wendy, Jill and Caroline corner her in the girls bathroom and try to rip her clothes off, then make fun of her flowered panties (who didn’t wear flowered panties in 5th grade?) until she cries. Then they make her curtsy and kiss Wendy’s dirty sneaker.

4. The “How to have fun with Blubber” list, consisting of tripping her, holding your nose when she walks by, pushing her, shoving her, pinching her and making her say “I am Blubber, the smelly whale of class 206.”

5. Force her to kiss the fat boy in the class and also show all the boys in the class her underpants.

6. Pretend that a piece of chocolate was a chocolate covered ant and physically force (like pinching her nose force) Blubber to eat it. She threw it up and when the class was confronted, Wendy told the principal that Blubber just couldn’t help herself due to fatness and went crazy over the chocolate. (This is now the excuse I’m going to use when I can’t stop eating those already-unwrapped Starburst candies. “Sorry, boyfriend, I can’t share these delicious lazy candies with you due to fatness.”)

Wendy is the ringleader of this day-in, day-out psychological torment, and she is so good at it that I can only assume she grew up to be the eventual mastermind behind Abu Ghraib. Jill is so consumed with mob mentality hatred for Linda that she starts blaming her for everything that goes wrong in her life.

When Jill is caught putting rotten eggs in her neighbor’s mailbox on Halloween, Jill automatically assumes Linda told the neighbor that it was her, even though she doesn’t have any proof. So the class decides to put Linda on trial (by locking her in a closet) but Jill starts to have second thoughts about Linda’s lack of legal representation (habeus corpus!) and yells at Wendy and... well, you can see where this is going.

(I want to point out that Jill yells at Wendy because Wendy called Jill’s Asian best friend a chink. No, I’m serious, that’s in this book. So while I don’t really like Jill that much, I am glad she stepped up and told Wendy to shove it. Way to plant, Jill.)

Linda is moved from social pariah to Wendy’s best friend, and Jill is now the shutout. The entire class starts teasing her, calling her Baby Brenner because she’s a picky eater and only eats peanut butter.

Here’s the thing about Judy Blume novels: They’re incredibly true-to-life. There’s no real resolution in this book. Wendy, like many real life mean girls, doesn’t get her comeuppance. At the end, Jill is eating her peanut butter sandwich alone at her desk and reflects, “By lunchtime it was easy to tell that Wendy and Laurie were going to be best friends and so were Donna and Caroline. Some people are always changing best friends.”

Reading Blubber put me right back in the middle of elementary school. I remember having to eat lunch at my desk occasionally, milk cartons lukewarm from sitting in the hallway all morning. That anguish when you find out you and your best friend are in different classes and the only time you get to see each other is at recess. There’s even that random girl who won’t shut the fuck up about horses.

A part of me wishes I could transport myself into the book as the cool, hip school counselor and tell Linda that she will be OK. That even during the worst of it, it will pass. Wendy will forget about you eventually when she finds more interesting things to do instead of torture unsuspecting fat girls.

And you, you will forget about Wendy, though you will be more cautious in the future when people say they want to be your friend because you know how quickly girls can turn. Ten years from now, it won’t matter. It will be those few weeks in fifth grade, and your cheeks will burn at the memory of it, but at some point, you’ll forget who even started making those comments to you.

And then she’ll friend you on Facebook and you’ll pause for a second. Wendy? Wendy who? Wendy from elementary school? The lightbulb will click on and it will all come rushing back at you, the shame, the embarrassment, the self-hatred. But still — you’ll think, well, why not? Your mouse will gravitate toward the accept button, but swing over to the ignore button. You’ve learned how to do that. Wendy taught you well.