Title: Does My Head Look Big In This?
Author: Randa Abdel-Fattah
Genre: YA Contemporary
Completed: 14th June 2017
Goodreads Rating: 3 stars
School is tough enough without throwing a hijab into the mix… Amal is a 16-year-old Melbourne teen with all the usual obsessions about boys, chocolate and Cosmo magazine. She’s also a Muslim, struggling to honour the Islamic faith in a society that doesn’t understand it. The story of her decision to “shawl up” and its attendant anxieties (like how much eyeliner to wear) is funny, surprising and touching by turns.
I first read Does My Head Look Big In This? when I was in grade 5 or 6 (I think), soon after it was published (2005). When I first read it, I really enjoyed it, and I think I read it a few more times throughout my early teen years. Considering all the crap that’s been going on in the world at the moment, I found myself wanted to revisit this preteen favourite. I wanted to refamiliarise myself with its messages, and of course to see if it stands up to my changed standards over 10 years down the line.
The answer, in summary, is sort of.
What I Liked:
- It’s an ‘own voices’ Muslim Australian YA novel. When it was published in 2005, I’m almost certain that it was one of the first of its kind in Australian fiction. The author is also an Australian-born-Palestinian-Muslim (although I believe she’s an Australian-born-Palestinian-Egyptian-Muslim), and so I can only assume she’s writing from her own experiences as a young Australian Muslim. This also means that there’s a lot of content that I don’t feel comfortable commenting on. I’m not Muslim, nor am I Palestinian, so her interpretation of these experiences is something I can’t really disagree or agree with. I will just say that Adbel-Fattah has received both praise and criticism from others within the Muslim community in Australia (and America) for her depiction of life as a teenage Muslim.
- The diversity. One of the things that really stood out to me reading DMHLBIT as an adult is the diversity of Muslim representation. Amal’s family are Palestinian Muslims, her best friends Laila’s parents are Turkish Muslims, and her other friend Yasmin’s father in Pakistani, whilst her mother is English, having converted to Islam during her university years. Many of the characters are Muslim, but their cultural differences, as well as their personalities, values, and varying experiences in Australia, are all really well fleshed out.
- The relationship between Amal and Mrs. Fuselli. Even though this is just a side-plot, it’s my favourite in the novel. Mrs. Fuselli is Amal’s elderly Greek neighbour, and throughout the course of the novel they go from hating each other to developing an unlikely friendship, which is just heartwarming. Also, Mrs. Fuselli is sassy and snarky and great.
- Ilene and Josh. I didn’t really warm to a lot of the characters, but Ilene and Josh were great. Ilene is Japanese-Australian, and actually has a personality beyond her identity. Josh is Jewish, and was just chill.
- The nostalgia. This was one of the first YA Contemporary books I ever read, and definitely the first one I read with a Muslim protagonist. Rereading it reminded me of how I felt back then, how much I learned whilst reading this book and, surprisingly, how much it’s impacted me as I’ve grown up. I would never have considered this book particularly influential in my life, but rereading it made me realise how much the messages it sends (particularly of coexistence and harmony) still resonates with me.
- The messages. Beneath everything else, DMHLBIT sends really important messages of tolerance, coexistence, and acceptance. They were important in 2005, and they’re just as (if not more) important now.
What I Didn’t Like:
- The main characters are defined by their struggles. This can be said of all the characters, but I particularly noticed it with Simone and Laila. Simone’s only defining feature throughout the entire novel is her body image issues. In fact, aside from her crush on Josh, it’s her only characteristic. Meanwhile, Laila is defined purely by her struggles against her conservative family. She has no real personality aside from this. Obviously character development isn’t always a strong point of YA novels, but in this case it really irritated me.
- Incredibly uncomfortable glamourisation of eating disorders. Simone’s only characteristic is that she thinks she needs to lose weight. It’s almost all she talks about. Although her friends disagree with her, the overwhelming impression throughout the novel is that no matter what, she (and her mother) think that she’s too fat. This leads to some really concerning dialogue about eating disorders. At one point, Simone says to Amal: “I wish I could be anorexic but I don’t have the self control. I’ve tried the whole bulimia thing, but I can’t even throw up. How pathetic is that?” This isn’t followed up by a discussion of how damaging eating disorders are, and how it’s not something Simone should be aiming towards, the statements are just ignored. Now, seeing as the book’s target audience is young girls, this attitude towards weight and weight loss really concerned me. As did the fact that Simone picks up smoking as a way of losing weight. Yes, all her friends tell her not to, but smoking is still used as a method of weight loss, which is an equally unhealthy message to send to young people. There’s also some really unhealthy attitudes towards needing to wear makeup to be socially acceptable, which infuriated me to no end.
- Marginalising (and odd) approach to romantic relationships. A pretty central part of the novel is that Amal doesn’t want to have a romantic relationship because she doesn’t believe in physical intimacy before marriage. That’s absolutely fine. What I had a problem with was the implication that all romantic relationships have to have physical intimacy, or they’re not romantic. Obviously this could be brushed off as a product of a time before asexuality was widely accepted, but that’s not really my issue with it. Obviously, it’s pretty dismissive towards asexual relationships, but it also sends a concerning message to young readers that all romantic relationships must have physical intimacy, and therefore if they have a girlfriend/boyfriend, they must engage in physical intimacy. Now, it goes without saying that romantic relationships don’t need to have physical intimacy to be intimate and romantic, but young readers might not be able to make that distinction.
- Amal and Adam. Ugh. I really liked Amal as a character when I was younger, so this may be a result of me growing up a bit, but OH MY GOD. Not only were they both disrespectful, ignorant, and arrogant (in different ways), but their entire ‘romantic attraction’ was utter bullshit. Their friendship was unhealthy and misleading enough, let alone the attempts to justify their failed romance. Ugh.
- Info-dumping about religion. Obviously explaining and understanding religion is pretty central to the plot, but it often wasn’t disguised well enough. For example, there’s a scene were Amal has to explain what the Sabbath is to Simone, but only a few lines later Simone is correcting Amal on her use of complex Orthodox Jewish language, and Amal is talking about how much Simone knows about religions. I don’t have a problem with disguising info-dumping as explanations to other characters, but it at least has to fit into the plot.
- It’s quite preachy. Amal has a very firm idea of the ‘correct’ way to practice her religion, and no matter how many times she says she’d open minded, she’s not. This attitude spills through into the wider novel. It wasn’t preachy in the sense of ‘Islam is the only true religion’ or anything like that, but it definitely gave the impression that there are ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ ways to practice religion, and ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ morals to abide by. Things like the ‘bad character’ Tia being racist, a bully, and drinking to excess at parties, or like Laila’s mum being uneducated (due to her upbringing) and “not understanding Allah”. I didn’t notice this when I was younger, but as a adult these things stood out to me as a bit childish and judgemental.
Overall, I did still enjoy Does My Head Look Big In This. Honestly, though, if it weren’t for the immense amount of childhood nostalgia it still holds, I probably would have only given it 2 stars. Not only did I feel like I’d definitely grown out of the characters, the amount of potential problematic attitudes within the novel really distracted me from enjoying it more. I still think it has an important place as an own voices novel for Australian Muslim teens, but I think that 12 years after publication some of its attitudes (not towards religion, I should add, as far as I’m aware) are a bit outdated and concerning.
TL;DR: Would I still recommend it to younger readers? Yes, unless some of the scenes and themes might upset them. Would I recommend it to adults? Meh. There’s probably better books out there that deal with similar issues.