The Skinny

Jonathan Wells


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ZE Books
17 August 2021
ISBN: 9781733540193

From the publisher

Critically acclaimed poet Jonathan Wells gives us a thoughtful, candid, and powerful memoir about the universal exploration of adolescence and self-image, the frailty of masculinity, and all the places we seek comfort in a world trying to redefine us. 

“Everyone had a clearer vision of my body than I did. It didn’t feel as if my body was really mine.” At fourteen-years-old, Jonathan Wells weighs just 67 pounds, igniting a scrutinizing persecution of his body that follows him into adulthood. 

As a boy in preparatory day school in upstate New York in the 1970s, Wells’s teacher abuses and humiliates him for his size, forcing Wells, for the first time, to question his right to take up space in the world. Wells’s father, reading his weight as a clear deficit of masculinity, and perhaps sexuality, creates a workout regimen meant to bulk him up. When that doesn’t help, he has Wells seen by a slew of specialists, all claiming he is in perfect health, and yet the problem cannot be denied: he is simply too skinny. 

Wells’s complicated relationship with his charming but elusive mother does not help matters. As the eldest son, he is privy to the struggles of a fraying marriage in which he, however slight, plays a divisive role. Wells is sent to boarding school in Switzerland, where his size continues to generate controversy, from the merely rude to the violently abusive. And yet, even as he manages to establish an identity of his own, one which must invariably contend with gender norms and conventions, his father’s obsession with his size follows him to Europe, threatening to destroy the space he has painstakingly won for himself.  As he grows into an adult, combating the intrusive liberties others take with his body, Jonathan must define masculinity for himself, ultimately coming to terms with the damage of a father’s love. 

Praise for The Skinny

“One of the most vulnerable memoirs I’ve ever read, Jonathan Wells’ The Skinny is the story of surviving the long, brutal gauntlet toward manhood that many boys who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s endured. An important cautionary tale illuminating the devastating, lifelong harm caused by rigid gender rules and the parents who try to enforce them.”

—Bill Clegg, author of Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man and The End of the Day

"This touching memoir of growing up in suburban New York in the ’70s and ’80s reads a bit like outtakes from Mad Men, if told from the perspective of a teenager with a more nuanced point of view on the overwhelming tropes of masculinity that dominated that era… This coming-of-age chronicle is lushly rendered and touchingly intimate, a critique that is loving and unsparing at the same time." 

—Chloe Schama, Vogue, Best Books of the Summer