Fat But

Elizabeth Bluemle - October 29, 2009

Fat issues loom large in our culture, as it were, and kids pick up messages about how they should look that batter their confidence at every turn. Literature for young people should be one place where kids don’t find themselves mocked, dismissed, or shamed. I am not talking about books that deal directly with weight; it’s the books that don’t realize they are reinforcing negative stereotypes that concern me.

While we have all become accustomed to popular culture’s celebration of thin, what I didn’t expect is that books — the refuge of the chubby kid, the place where people understand the value of what lies beneath the surface, a land of acceptance and tolerance for difference — would come around to betray their readers. But you can hardly open an ARC these days without coming across one of the following:

* snide comments about a character’s weight or about fat in general when they have nothing to do with the plot or theme of the story;

* descriptions of fat used deliberately as shorthand to indicate a character’s villainy, isolation, absurdity, and/or repulsiveness;

* books with assumptions about fat people carelessly tossed off as though they are truths rather than opinion.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve grown particularly weary of pudgy-fingered villains with small "piggy" eyes in big moon faces. And the fat kid who serves as clumsy comic relief, or is automatically assumed to have no romantic prospects. Etcetera. We all know the cliches. While thinking about this blog post, a little bluesy Muppety song snippet wrote itself in the background of my mind:

Oh, I’ve been fat and I’ve been lean,
and I’ve been large…ly in between
and I’ll tell you something, honey – it’s not easy being seen.

I’ve lived all along the weight spectrum—from thin to quite round—so I have a special awareness of comments about weight in books and how they might be read — and felt — by young people. I’ve noticed over the past fifteen years a steep increase in hit-and-run weight slurs in books, and I wince for the fat kids reading them. All along, they’ve been identifying with characters, lost in the author’s world, feeling that comfortable coziness one feels with a trusted writer telling a good story – and then comes some mean-spirited, casual or not-so-casual remark about weight, and it’s as though the author has reached out of the pages of the book and slapped that kid across the face.

Now, I’m not saying that fat characters can’t be bad people or have negative qualities. I’m saying that fat doesn’t EQUAL those traits, doesn’t IMPLY them. Writers have to do the work, do more than describe someone’s physical appearance. Writers, editors, I beseech you to remember: fat is descriptive, not evaluative. Let me repeat that, because it’s the essence of what I’m trying to get across here. Fat is descriptive, not evaluative. Notice, in your writing (and your reading), how many villains are fat, and why. How many chubby kids act as comic relief, graceless and absurd? Or serve to embody social isolation, as outcast or unloved, the subject of ridicule and contempt? How much open hostility is there toward heaviness as a physical quality?

Please be aware of language. The title of this post is called, “Fat, But,” in part because it is a mischievously provoking title, but mainly because small word choices add up to big messages. Even innocent little connecting words like “and” and “but” can reveal worlds about what you, the author, are saying about your characters. “And” equals addition; “but” indicates a relationship between two terms.

Descriptive: Fat and graceful.

Evaluative: Fat but graceful.

The former tells you two things about your character: she is a fat and graceful figure. The latter reveals an assumption: that fat people are inherently clumsy, and that this character is an exception. If you live in this big world, you will know that, in truth, grace has nothing to do with weight. 

Here’s a little visual example of grace in a larger package. A very funny couple reworks the Evolution of Dance idea for their first wedding dance. It’s traditional up until around 1:30, when the real dance breaks out and the groom (a man of some substance) shows his stuff:

So, writers and editors, this is my request: please remember that descriptions of weight are just that: descriptions, not evaluations. Questions to ask yourself:

  • Are your fat characters always eating?
  • Are they always clumsy? slow? laughable/ridiculous? because of their weight?
  • Do you use fat as shorthand for negative qualities? Are you trying to convey, through weight, that someone is disgusting, weak of character, bullying, socially outcast, laughable, ridiculous, dismissable, or inherently less worthwhile?

As a reader, I’m disappointed in both the author and editor when I see these things slip past the editorial pen. As a person who cares about the emotional lives of children—both the heavy kids who already struggle so much with disapproval and contempt in their lives, and the less heavy kids unwittingly absorbing society’s message that it’s okay to disapprove of, even despise, people based on appearance and weight—I am truly disheartened by the trend. And as a bookseller, well, I just won’t waste my shelf space when there are so many great books out there.

Writers need to be aware of our own books’ assumptions. And editors, you’ve got to help us watch our “and”s, and—you knew I was going there—our “but”s.

39 thoughts on “Fat But

  1. EM

    Elizabeth, this is a great post. I worked on a novel pubbing next spring in which the quasi-father figure is obese. In his case, it’s a very specific manifestation of PTSD, and it’s used to show the shallowness and prejudice of the main character. Learning to understand Tom’s weight is key to Kyle’s maturation. But the author and I struggled throughout the editing process to walk the line between plot-necessary weight comments and extraneous, even fetishistic ones. In the end I think we achieved the right balance, but we’ll see what the response is.

  2. Cat

    This is a great commentary. And to how many other groups does it apply? Are, for example, characters who are religious always living out negative stereotype of that religion? Are the private school kids always portrayed differently than the public school ones? I work with teens and find it interesting how much they make assumptions about stereotypes when their very friends do not live them out, but that is the stereotype that is being reinforced through the media.

  3. Leigh Purtill

    A wonderful post and one that I hope readers will take to heart as well. Often we don’t realize stereotypes are being reinforced in subtle ways. I dealt with this in my own YA novel which had a plus-size main character. I was very careful to avoid the “but” you mention: Veronica is large *and* beautiful, big *and* talented.

  4. Kat B

    Did you read the story on the BBC about the woman who was attacked by another grown woman for being fat? As an author, it is difficult not to include my own views of the world in what I write. As an editor, it is important, even vital, for me to evaluate whether or not those feelings relate to the story and the characters within.

  5. Sam M

    Thank you thank you thank you! This topic isn’t addressed nearly often enough. (You might be interested in my friend’s blog: diceytillerman.livejournal.com. She has smart things to say on this subject.)

  6. dulcinea harms

    I sincerely appreciate this blog! As a person who has dealt with weight issues all my life, I now see the kids in my life and even strangers and my heart goes out to them. I wish everyone was so sensitive to this issue, and could give it such a voice. Thank you!

  7. Lori F

    Hear, hear!- I completely agree! Especially since overweight currently applies to what percentage of American children? How do authors visit schools and look out at their audience when they’ve said such hurtful comments, no matter how fictionally?

  8. Laura

    Great post! I am also very sick of the “lose weight and your life will be perfect” story, too. It’s time to be a little more creative. I saw Megan Frazer’s comment posted up above and I thought her book handled the topic very well.

  9. Carol Coven Grannick

    Thanks, Elizabeth, for a superlative post on a subject long overdue for discussion. Although the general principle applies to all biases, ‘fat’ is still an unfortunate, but acceptable and accepted bias in our culture. We do need to speak out against that bias by descriptive rather than evaluative writing. Thank you – so much!

  10. Daniel Pinkwater

    My wonderful agent, Jennifer Laughran, directed me to your intelligent remarks, and the comments that follow. All quite correct, but to paraphrase the punchline in a favorite zen story, “it’s a pity to [have to] say so.” I don’t know how many fat characters I’ve written, sometimes in a book all about questions of fat and fat-prejudice, like Fat Camp Commandos, and sometimes a single passing reference, (but the kids never miss it). The point, for me, is that I love _all_ my characters, and also the readers. I submit if that is the starting point, you can’t go very far wrong.

  11. shelftalker elizabeth

    Daniel Pinkwater (!), that is one of the reasons I have always loved your books: the generosity of spirit that drives them is as big as the crazy imagination behind them. I love that you state it so simply: writers, love ALL your characters. Yep, that’s pretty much it. (Hey, if you haven’t read David Grossman’s THE ZIG-ZAG KID, I think you’d love it. There’s a large, large-hearted character in it that makes me want to dance around with happiness that she exists. And I am a big fan of Katherine Paterson’s Mamie Trotter, too.) Thanks for commenting. That goes for everybody — it’s great to know other people are thinking about this stuff. I found the diceytillerman blog really terrific.

  12. Erin Dionne

    Stereotypes and (no pun intended) “reductive” descriptions of characters bring down the quality of a writer’s work. It is a limiting short cut that diminishes our readers, too.

  13. Freya

    World’s most obvious example is from Harry Potter, quoting the wiki: “Dudley Dursley is Harry Potter’s Muggle cousin,\ … He was a very spoiled child, and thus became unpleasantly fat and insolent. He often tormented Harry, taking after the example set by his parents. After the humbling experience of running into Dementors in 1995, however, he mellowed and began to be kinder to Harry.” And thinner, no doubt. Can’t stand this sort of thing.

  14. J

    Thanks – a great post indeed. I read a brilliant YA book recently where the main character is on the chubby side, but not only isn’t this the focus of the book (there are much heavier issues to be considered), he’s the clever and funny one with the girlfriend. It’s called ‘Ostrich Boys’ by Keith Gray. It comes highly recommended – was/is on all the big (and small) British award shortlists – and will be published in the US next March. Do look out for it!

  15. JT

    Wonderful post, I’m actually working on a graceful chubby dancer book right now! I’ll keep in mind the wording, but as a chubster I remember those characters I fell in love with, and how sometimes they disappointed me with image issue problems. Thanks for the post!!

  16. bookvoodoo

    Spot on! I evaluate a lot of children’s books in my job in youth services at a public library, and I’m amazed at the way less-than-perfect appearance (or even the natural signs of age) has become shorthand for an evil character. One award winning novel included the line that a young man liked his teacher “despite her crooked teeth.” Ouch.

  17. bookvoodoo

    Spot on! I evaluate a lot of children’s books in my job in youth services at a public library, and I’m amazed at the way less-than-perfect appearance (or even the natural signs of age) has become shorthand for an evil character. One award winning novel included the line that a young man liked his teacher “despite her crooked teeth.” Ouch.

  18. elizabeth

    Great post, important topic. However, I disagree on several issues. – There are many too thin people as bad people as well (think 101 Dalmations)- in general, certain characters are simply features as stereotypes, rather than as people. When writers often wish to develop an image of a persona, then tend to descend into stereotype to create one. You are most correct that its a problem. But I fear as well that you are condescending to the same issue about which you are addressing. The video- what does it have to do with your post other than that the groom is “a man of some substance”? So what? It’s a simple personal characteristic that isn’t even worth mentioning in the context of the video. Your comment carries no purpose other than to draw attention to a factor that should be unremarkable.

  19. Lara Zeises

    This is a fantastic post, but I want to offer further food for thought (no pun intended): part of the problem is that too many authors write slender characters that are a “perfect” size 2, 4, or 6. This only enhances the idea that anything above a size 6 is “fat” and therefore “imperfect.” (See: the changes to the new Sweet Valley High reissues, in which the originally size 6 twins are now a “perfect” size 2). In my most recent novel, THE SWEET LIFE OF STELLA MADISON, I created a size 8/10 protagonist who not only feels comfortable in her own skin, but also knows she’s cute and isn’t afraid to work it. It’s her confidence that attracts boys to her, not her waistline. If more authors created realistic teens without body image issues, they could affect at least some change in how girls who read perceive themselves. Lastly, a personal pet peeve: please, no more books about overweight girls where the “happy ending” almost always involves the protagonist magically eating healthier, learning to love exercise, and losing the excess weight. While they address the eat less/move more school of thought, they rarely attack the psychological issues that lead the girls to becoming overweight to begin with. To merely say teens are overweight because they eat too many candy bars feeds those stereotypes Elizabeth writes about in this column (again, no pun intended).

  20. Erica Perl

    Great post, Elizabeth. I struggled with this while working on my upcoming book, VINTAGE VERONICA. As the jacket flap states, “Veronica Walsh is 15, fashion-minded, fat, and friendless.” I hope readers will understand that Veronica is not friendless because of her size. That said, it would be dishonest to suggest that one’s experiences don’t play a role. Being treated poorly – for whatever reason – as a child affects how you see the world and writers should resist the temptation to “pretty up” that reality. However, I’m proud to say that Veronica’s story of trying to find acceptance has absolutely nothing to do with dieting!

  21. Sue C.

    Thanks for starting this discussion, Elizabeth, and of course it applies to any automatic link between appearance and character traits. The dancing clip was fun, but could you also tell me, please, where you found that marvelously round and joyful Buddha image? It made my day.

  22. Allison A.

    I read The Very Hungry Caterpillar to a lot of classes earlier this month as part of Jumpstart’s Read for the Record. When I got to the line “…he wasn’t a little caterpillar any more. He was a big, fat caterpillar”, many kids laughed. Sometimes, there was a startled pause before the laughter. I talked about this with the kids after the story: “why is the caterpillar fat? Yes, he’s in a chrysalis for two weeks, so he stores up food. Can you think of other animals that store up food?”. It surprised me that kids found fatness – for *any* reason, in any creature – laughable, and that none of the teachers called them on it.

  23. mp

    Freya, I don’t think you are reading the passage the right way. Dursley became fat because he was spoiled and lazy. There are many ways to become fat–genetics, overeating, too little exercise. This seems purely descriptive to me.

  24. shelftalker elizabeth

    Hmm, I wrote a reply to several comments a few days ago, and it isn’t here. I’ll try to remember what I said. Sue C., the image came from ClipArt.com. It was my favorite of the Buddhas, too. Erica, I do think the wording of the flap copy could lead readers to make the assumption that she is friendless because she is fat. The phrase ‘fat and friendless’ is just too familiar a stereotype for people not to make that association. Even a simple re-ordering of the adjectives would work: “Veronica Walsh is 15, fat, fashion-minded, and friendless.” As for prettying up reality: all I’m trying to say is that there are LOTS of books that portray the victimized, outcast fat kid, and we need many many more books where fat kids are strong, great characters — reflecting real-life. Not all fat kids in real life are outcast victims, obviously; I remember a friend of my sister’s who was the most well-loved kid in our high school. She was really large, and never let that hold her back in any way. I admired her so much and watched her, trying to figure out where she got her confidence and grab-life-by-the-horns attitude. As a chubby kid, reading about other chubby kids who have fun and a strong sense of self is pretty inspiring. Without these role models, fat-kid reading is a pretty grim experience. Part of what we can do with children’s literature is to show all different kinds of experiences and points of view and possibilities, and this post is pointing out that we have been awfully narrow of late and failing in this one area. Keep the comments coming. Love them!

  25. shelftalker elizabeth

    Oh, and Elizabeth — I included the video as a stereotype-buster. So many people seem to think that heavy people are un-athletic or clumsy, I wanted to show a great example of the opposite. Our culture is currently insane. A customer and friend of ours in town (I’ll call her Claire) was in a hideous car accident some years ago. She is a tall woman, and had always been zaftig and quite athletic; whenever I picture Claire, I think of her on cross-country skis, heading out behind the firehouse for a long jaunt. The car crash killed Claire’s best friend and required Claire to have multiple surgeries on a leg that wouldn’t heal. She nearly died three times over the course of trying to recover from all of her injuries. On her first public outing to the grocery store in her wheelchair, she was stopped by a local woman who said, “Wow, Claire. It’s so great to see you out and about! And you must really be enjoying life, now that you’re thin.” There are no words.

  26. Colette

    I won’t read any more of Cassandra Clare’s series or recommend them since I came across this line. “Clary wondered if there were any ugly vampires, or maybe any fat ones. Maybe they didn’t make vampires out of ugly people. Or maybe ugly people just didn’t want to live forever.” Yes, I may be sensitive since I am fat. I found this very offensive. Kids I have talked with about the book glossed right over it; even overweight girls. Thank you for letting me add my 2 cents in.

    1. Stephanie Meyer

      The vampires in Clare’s world are always thin and beautiful looking. It’s because of their diet that they are thin.
      I think she didn’t mean to imply that or that it is being implied that fat equals to ugly. Clary is just wondering two separate things.
      At least I think that 🙂

  27. Peggy Elam

    Fantastic post, Elizabeth. I’ve shared it with many others — including colleagues in the fat studies and Health At Every Size fields, and plan to refer to it on the submissions webpage of my publishing company, Pearlsong Press. (I’d call us a small press, but technically we’re a micro press — we have to grow to become “small.”) I’m a clinical psychologist, and founded Pearlsong Press a few years ago to provide positive and empowering books and resources for people of all sizes, with a special emphasis on size/fat-positive fiction and nonfiction. Thus far I’ve only published books for adults, but will soon be considering a young adult novel and perhaps one day will expand into children’s literature. And….the fat vampires comment reminded me of Andrew Fox’s adult novels “Fat White Vampire Blues” & “Bride of the Fat White Vampire.” Yes, Virginia — err, Clary — there ARE fat vampires. I found Fox’s book interesting not only because it’s set in New Orleans outside of the Anne Rice mold, but because in the first novel the fat vampire has bought into all the negative programming/stereotypes about weight, and overcomes them by the novel’s end. Re: other comments — yes, please, save me from novels for any age in which the protagonist loses weight at the end by changing habits or working through “psychological issues.” People can over- or under-eat, over- or under-exercise for many reasons, including psychological ones, but those behaviors become manifest in flesh or bone for a myriad of reasons, with genetics predominant. Different people will react to feast or famine in different ways, gaining or losing or staying about the same based on individual factors. Thanks again for a wonderful post.

  28. cnashford2

    I don’t know if I missed it or it’s not in this post, but could you write something about why FAT PEOPLE ARE ALWAYS COMIC RELIEFS (and usually if it’s in high school [i.e. the movie Superbad or the show The Inbetweeners], they’re disgusting and rude). These stereotypes & others r really lazy of show, movie creators and need to stop.


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