Study Guide

The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things Food

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Quick: what do onions, cashews, movie popcorn, Frosted Flakes, pasta, Popsicles, Twinkies, Hostess Cupcakes, and Krispy Kreme doughnuts have in common? Give up? They're all food that Virginia binges on throughout the course of the book.

Food's a major player in The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things. And while you might be tempted to jump to the conclusion that this is because Virginia's fat, her body size actually has nothing to do with it—instead of packing on calories in this book, Shmoopers, food packs on meaning. Let's check out a passage where food shows up in the book to see what we're talking about:

Mom's always nagging me about junk food, so I stashed the Doritos bag behind a couch cushion and buried my nose in Teen People. (2.24)

Virginia's mother's incessant nagging about what her daughter eats is just one of the ways she communicates her displeasure with her daughter's body. But since there's nothing wrong with Virginia's body, we can understand this as representing Dr. Shreves's own obsession with what she perceives to be perfection—and in her book, only thin bodies can be perfect. So when she gripes about Virginia's body or eating, we're subtly reminded about how rigid and narrowly defined her mother's expectations are.

There's something else we can see in the above passage, though, and that's Virginia's response to her mother's, shall we say, perfection obsession. Virginia doesn't tell her mother to buzz off, nor does she eat differently to appease her. Nope, instead Virginia hides her food, and when she does, we are clued into the shame Virginia feels. Nothing spells shame quite like hiding something, after all, which is only reinforced by the fact that Virginia doesn't defend herself. If she were okay with herself, she'd have no problem telling her mom to mind her own beeswax.

Food doesn't just represent feelings when it comes to Virginia and her mom, though. Check out this exchange between Virginia and Byron:

While we're in the buffet line, Byron makes a sniping remark about how I look like one of those Teletubby characters. He emphasizes the word "tubby." Before I can stop myself, I kick him in the shin really hard. […] He slams down his plate of latkes and stomps away. I help myself to one of his potato pancakes. (27.32)

We assume Byron's in the buffet line because he's hungry, so his willingness to abandon his food and his place in line when he gets upset clues us into just how upset he gets. And it's pretty stinking upset, it seems, based on the slamming and stomping he does, too. For someone who's just raped someone, Byron sure gets irritated about a kick in the shin… But anyway, we digress.

Importantly, at this point Virginia is filled with anger and disappointment at her brother, and since everyone's acting like things are just fine when it comes to Byron, she has no outlet at home for her feelings. Coming from a family that's loathe to speak freely, then, it makes sense that the way Virginia expresses her distaste for Byron is non-verbally, first with a kick, and then by taking his food. She is manifesting her dislike for her brother, even if she has a hard time saying it.

And that's what's at the heart of food as a symbol in this book. Whether we're talking about Virginia blowing her diet as soon as she finds out about the rape, or Mrs. Shreves's home-cooked dinner, or the Oreos Byron shovels into his face on the couch, the moral of the story is this: if you can't get the words out or your mouth in this book, you can always shove food into it. Food is the way the Shreves family communicates; it's how they say with their bodies what they can't say in words.

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