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.