Contributed to CBC Diversity by Rebecca Rabinowitz
My Personal Connection
I’m a fat person living in a virulently fatphobic culture. We’re soaking in it. The ubiquitous fear and hate of fatness is both glaring and invisible. It’s job discrimination; it’s insults from strangers on the street; it’s doctors who refuse to treat fat patients until we lose weight. I’m dedicated to fat politics, which is a social justice movement, and Fat Studies, which is a critical/academic lens.
In children’s books, fatness often symbolizes negativity. One common trope is the fat bully. Think of Dudley Dursley. Think of Dana, the fat bully in Carl Hiaasen’s Hoot. Think of Nazir Mohammad, the fat bully in Suzanne Fisher Staples’ Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind. Also common are fat victims. Think of Miranda in Cynthia Voigt’s When She Hollers – a fat girl who was terribly abused for years and has just committed suicide as the book opens. Miranda exists specifically to show Tish, the similarly-abused protagonist, what path not to take. Think of Dell in K.M. Walton’s Empty – a fat protagonist who’s raped, bullied, abandoned, and (like Voigt’s Miranda) driven to suicide. And think of Jake in Rebecca Fjelland Davis’s Jake Riley: Irreparably Damaged – Jake’s a fat bully and a fat victim. The tropes of fat bully and fat victim occur far too often to be random. Lest we think that any particular example might be random, textual evidence often specifically links the actual fatness with the negative trait, cementing the conflation. About Hoot’s fat bully: “This time Dana hit him with the other hand, equally fat and damp” . About When She Hollers’ fat victim: "Tish had watched the fat girl lumbering out the doors and down the sidewalk to where the car waited. Waddle, waddle – her buns rolling up against one another – like a girl going down the hallway to the electric chair every day" . Fatness is mapped onto negative characteristics as if it were some sort of profound literary symbol, and as if such mapping were harmless to people in the real world.
Another common trope is more insidious than the fat bully or fat victim: fatness symbolizing negativity in the personhood of a fully realized, relatable character. In these cases, characters – usually protagonists – lose weight as part of their emotional growth arc. These characters tend to have a “reason” why they’re fat – eating junk food, eating emotionally, “overeating” and/or a tendency to be sedentary. They usually begin the book with emotional and/or social difficulties – which is common enough in children’s lit, and not a problem, except that here, immaturity or sadness or loneliness or lack of independence is specifically conflated with fatness. As these characters become emotionally capable, they change their habits and they lose weight. Such protagonists tend to be complexly human and sympathetic, but the books convey in no uncertain terms that getting your house in order brings weight loss. Sometimes the characters become thin, sometimes only less fat, but fatness is unquestionably the thing you want to change from, not a state that’s okay to end up being. A few examples among the myriad that exist are Catherine Atkins’ Alt Ed, Carolyn Mackler’s The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, Julie Halpern’s Have a Nice Day, e.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s Fat Angie, and Gary Paulsen's classic Hatchet.
There’s nothing inherently wrong about protagonists who shift their eating and exercise habits, but the conflation of eating and exercise habits with morality and maturity is reductive and troubling. Moreover, the baseline implications that healthful habits always lead to weight loss and that thinness is always healthier than fatness are nothing short of dangerous. Fat people can have healthful habits and thin people can have unhealthful habits; the size of a body doesn’t reveal a person’s actions. (Our cultural ideology says it does, but that’s a myth.) The relationship between cultural fatphobia and the push towards healthful habits by contemporary media and medicine is mostly outside the scope of this post, but please see the suggested reading (below). When children’s book after children’s book features a protagonist who changes their eating and exercise habits, completes their emotional growth arc and loses weight, readers can’t help but absorb the message that fatness is something to be left behind. Fatness means you have miles to go before you sleep: you’re unhealthy, you’re unattractive, you’re not whole. A fat character, like a fat kid in real life, is not considered fully human.
Things I’d Like to See
I want to see characters whose fatness is not symbolic of anything. Characters who are fat simply because some people in the real world are fat. It’s soul-crushingly unfair to living, breathing fat people when books use a fat body to “show” – as in “show, don’t tell” – anything at all. I want characters who complete their emotional and social and physical growth arcs without becoming less fat. I like books that confront fatphobia head-on, and I’d also like to see books that aren’t especially about fatness but that feature fat characters. Fat folks contain multitudes, just like everyone else. Allow fat characters the humanity that not-fat characters have. Banish fatness as a symbol; banish the textual message that a fat character is okay only as long as they’re on their way to becoming less fat. Sometimes, as fits the story, let fat characters be happy and loved just as they are.
- Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight. Linda Bacon. BenBella Books, 2010 (second edition).
- The Obesity Myth: Why America's Obsession with Weight is Hazardous to Your Health. Paul Campos. Gotham, 2004.
- Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby. Perigee/Penguin, 2009.
- Two Whole Cakes. Lesley Kinzel. The Feminist Press, 2012.
- The Fat Studies Reader. Eds. Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay. New York University Press, 2009.