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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Fat in Fiction: A Chubby Lady's Critique

Hello, hello!

I'm going to stick a content warning on this post for body issues and descriptions of fatphobia; if that kind of thing is triggering for you, you might want to skip this one. I'll be focusing on the policing of white women's bodies and fatness, because it's what I know most about, and the issue of weight affects black women and Asian women differently. I also just don't have enough information to speak with authority on issues that women and people of colour face regarding their weight, so please keep those areas of my ignorance in mind.

This post is one I've been thinking over for a very long time. Its genesis came from an oft-lauded and shared J.K. Rowling quote:


Lovely words, aren't they? Shame it's complete bullshit. Rowling has been all too happy to endow unattractive, weak, or antagonistic characters with the trait of flabbiness. Neville Longbottom and Professor Slughorn are chubby and portrayed as weak and ineffectual; yes, Neville becomes a more heroic character later, but he starts off as an absolute simp who is frequently bullied. Pansy Parkinson and Millicent Bullstrode are described as 'pug-faced' and 'large and square' respectively; Goyle is also described as rather stupid and fat. Finally, Umbridge is described as 'toad-like' and squat, with a flabby face. Aunt Marge and Uncle Vernon, as well as Dudley, are all huge, fat, muscular bullies. Dudley's fatness and greed are described over and over, and often equated to each other. The only character who is plump and portrayed positively, other than Neville--and see note above for info about him--is Molly Weasley, but she is a mother and therefore doesn't quite count.

Now, the Harry Potter series is basically in my DNA, in writerly terms. I loved the series growing up and still retain affection for it, but that sticking point of fatness always rubbed me the wrong way. Rowling's far from the only author or writer to use that shorthand (even if Rowling denies it). Every movie made in the 90s with a cast of kids had to include at least one fat, stupid, greedy kid, and few things are more hateable than a fat, ugly bully.

By the late 2000s, things had started to improve enough that Norbit wasn't successful at the box office; in another time, it probably would have been. Shallow Hal is the only movie I can think of that features the struggles of a sizeable woman trying to find love; oddly, white women have faced extra scrutiny in this area. Films tend to play this sort of thing for laughs, or, even when a fat female character is present, play her off as repellent and unhygenic or slovenly. Much as she's an otherwise excellent character, Pam Poovey on Archer often falls into the 'disgusting fat lady' stereotype.

Stage 1: Fat is fine as long as it's temporary 

When overweight or fat female characters do crop up, such as in Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle, Danielle Steele's Big Girl, Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone, and The Bridget Jones Diaries, their stories often focus obsessively on weight loss or control. "How can someone love her," asks the narrative, "while she's fat?" Self-love often plays a big part in the stories, but so do substantial weight loss dreams. Obesity is correlated with trauma, being damaged goods, and being repulsive; fat is a sort of squishy prison for heroines, and unless they can escape it, they are often doomed to lovelessness. Worse, books like Size 12 Isn't Fat by Meg Cabot her The Princess Diaries series feature characters who simply shift fatness off as an identity so they can remain desirable. There's always someone bigger, and in TPD, skinny vegan Meg is ever so proud of her chubby princess friend when she starts to work out and skip snacks. Even Disney slides in jabs; while they have fewer fat female villains than one might expect (though the repulsive, sneaky Ursula--as I thought of her when I was a child--comes to mind), there's a scene in Hercules where a sobbing fat girl appears among the throngs of fangirls following the titular hero. The same film does feature a chubby black Muse, but the image of that hideous, weeping fangirl was the one that emblazoned itself on my childhood memory. Weakness and pathetic lack of personal resolve encircled the word like an invisible pair of bodyguards, flanking any idea of fat with coded implications.

Stage 2: Body positivity 

The worst thing one could be, said writers, is fat. But a few writers in the 20th century did buck that trend; in Pastures of Heaven, Steinbeck describes a female character as having a "pleasant curve under her chin" and associates it with fertility and prosperity. In Happiness (tm) by Will Ferguson, May's character is clearly described as fat, but also possessing a fragile beauty.

For all the flak given to Dove, not without reason, they have actually helped a bit with that whole body positivity thing. That movement has made a substantial difference. We still haven't come as far as we could, but full-figured, generously-shaped ladies in lingerie are appearing. The #curvy hashtag on Instagram has more than a slight following. Women are pulling themselves out of the shadows and refusing to conform to gendered expectations of their bodies. Queer people outside the gender binary are showing themselves too, letting others know that fat acceptance isn't just for cis women. Fat, people are hesitantly realising, does not necessarily indicate health or fitness, and should not be shorthand for undesirable traits. I won't be going into the scientific side of this, partly because it's often hard for me to take even on good days, but we're also discovering that being overweight may be caused mostly by the microbial environment in the gut. Exercise and diet affect this environment, but the cause lies in the GI tract, not in a moral failing.

With this in mind, people are beginning to realise that focusing on ability is a better demarcation of health. In turn, fat women are demanding to be treated like human beings, and to be catered to. The sometimes problematic and aggressive BBW (big beautiful woman) romance writing subgenre has popped up to cater to this. It's making good inroads, but an avoidance of calling heroines 'fat', a tendency to code chubby characters in defensive language ("she was healthy, she just had more to love...) and abstraction of characters' physical traits tend to taint the escapism. It is all right to accept fat, the genre whispers, as long as one doesn't think about it too much. the greatest triumph is being loved at all.

The Best Destinations To Swim With Whale Sharks


How can we change the way fat is described and perceived? 

But perhaps it's time to do better than writing characters who are loveable in spite of being fat. Popular language has ugly connotations for the words used to describe weight. "Cellulite" comes to mind; it sounds like a cheap mattress, not something to embrace.

We haven't yet developed a vocabulary for the sensuality of a full figure, or its associations. Mothering ones and abundance are often coded in there, but softness, generosity, richness, and strength can come with fat as well. I have many friends of various sizes, and although a lot of them give wonderful hugs, those with extra weight do tend to be specially warm and strong in their affection. Fat can be associated with suppleness; consider whales or seals, especially when swimming.

"An ocean of delicate skin spilled out before him. She looked as though she'd washed up on the covers, like so much sea foam in the moonlight..."

In summation, the way forward in fiction means acknowledging that beauty comes in more than one shape and size. Slender frames and lean muscles are so often associated with strength that other builds have been chucked aside. For that matter, maybe it's time to do in other conventions; is there any reason an elf can't be chubby, for instance?

Those querying the "health risk" of "encouraging" people to be overweight should read a few studies on the topic. There has been some criticism, but at the end of the day, I am a writer and an editor, not a physician. I do, however, know what's kept me from dying and encouraged me to become more physically active, and over a decade of shaming certainly was not it.


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