Monday, May 13, 2013

Diversity 101: Who's That Fat Kid?

Fat Politics and Children's Literature

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.

Stereotypes/Cliches/Tropes/Errors
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” [96]. 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" [42]. 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.

Suggested Reading
  • 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.


Rebecca Rabinowitz has an M.A. from The Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College. She reviews for Kirkus Reviews and blogs at http://diceytillerman.livejournal.com.

49 comments:

  1. excellent! well said!

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  2. Well said, Rebecca! The idea that fatness is something to be overcome parallels the common trope in literature about children with disabilities that imply a cure is necessary before the character can lead a full life.

    It doesn't look like you've found a lot of novels for young people that you can recommend, which points to the amount of work that lies ahead of us writers.

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    1. Thank you, Lyn. Indeed, I do see quite a lot of portrayals of disability that use disability as a negative symbol. Many disabilities, but possibly blindness most of all.

      See downthread for some books that I recommend partially -- books that have both fat positivity and fatphobia, swirling together.

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    2. Thank you, Lyn! Yes, disability is used as a negative symbol sadly often.

      See my response to Rosanne downthread for a couple of books that I can recommend partially -- they contain fat-positive and fat-neutral messages, but they also contain fatphobia at the same time.

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  3. My favourite author is Diana Wynne Jones, and every time she describes a fat person, I flinch, for all of the above reasons.

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    1. Isn't it frustrating how literary fatphobia shows up just as often in the books of writers who are truly top notch in other ways?

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  4. Is it the writers or the publishers/editors who select for the "fat formula"?

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    1. Well, the answer to that question could vary, about any particular book. But when an ideology is as prevalent as fatphobia is in our culture, it never comes from just one source. It comes from all sides. Various institutions spurt out fatphobia in various ways, and each adds to the harm caused.

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  5. Rebecca, so true. The cases that make me saddest are when either:

    * when the character development somehow magically equals weight loss + taller + breasts (for female characters) or muscles (for male characters). Basically if you have character development, you will go through puberty in a conventional and productive fashion, and by the way will lose weight, or

    * when the weight loss comes from something deeply negative (eg. forced march across the desert on a diet of nothing but rat, GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS; stranded in the middle of the Canadian bush with no resources, HATCHET), and yet still comes to mean something positive.

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    1. Yes, those are heartbreaking. How can fat folks be respected or seen as full people when the message is that fatness itself is inherently symbolic of inner flaws?

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  6. @farah, sigh, yes, "the fat of stupidity".

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  7. @tanita, one thing I remember loving about A LA CARTE is that for all the book focused more on weight than I wanted it to, I don't believe she lost any weight. And the book, rather than doing food shaming, continued its joyous love of food throughout, even as she was concerned with her weight.

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    1. Nope, she didn't lose any - at the time, I felt like I was supposed to focus on the teen angst of her wanting to lose weight, but the food in the book was supposed to be a joy, and I'm glad that came through.

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  8. Rebecca, this is outstanding!! I am also zaftig and I remember that I used to enjoy reading Andrew M. Greeley's adult mysteries. He used to describe fat women in a lovely, attractive way and I even wondered how he would describe me. Then, his books took a turn and fat equaled, lazy, social climber, unattractive and even bitchy. Sigh. Thank you for your wonderful post!

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  9. Well said! Have you read Vintage Veronica by Erica Perl? Although the main character (who is fat) is a victim of bullying, she doesn't lose weight but instead experiences character growth unrelated to her weight. Of course, I read this a couple of years ago and wasn't reading it through the lens of Fat Studies, so I could have missed things. Anyway, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

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    1. I have read Vintage Veronica. My favorite aspect is the fabulous funky clothing. It conveys that fat people can have lots of fun with clothing and personal style, which should be a no-brainer but, in our culture, isn't. However, I was sad about Veronica eating diet food near the end. I found that detail to imply that she might be heading towards losing weight -- not because diet food especially brings weight loss in real life, but because it symbolizes weight loss in our cultural code.

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    2. Ah, I didn't remember that part about the diet food. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the book. I agree--the clothing was pretty awesome!

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  10. Thanks for the list of suggested reading--very helpful.

    I agree I'd love to see books with a fat character that aren't about fatness. I can think of quite a few but as is the case with race. When race or size isn't the "issue"driving the plot, readers tend to gloss over the race or size of the character and mentally assign the character whatever race or size they are expecting or would prefer to see. There are a few places, this blog and the child_lit list serve among them, that call attention to books in a category but getting the word out about those books more widely is quite a challenge.

    Have you got some positive examples of books that do this well?

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    1. Thank you, Rosanne. Fully positive examples are hard to find; the most I can do is recommend books that contain a bunch of positive messages alongside some negative messages. My Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught has tons of fat positive and fat neutral constructions and also some harmful stereotypes (such as fat people wearing sweatpants and smelling bad); it's a rich and fruitful read for the work of teasing all those messages apart. The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin by Josh Berk is a wonderful, hilarious book about a fat, deaf kid -- it's *almost* entirely fat positive, but it does convey that the protagonist is fat because of how he eats. This wouldn't be a problem if we didn't already have a stereotype that fatness is always caused by eating habits, but we do.

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  11. Check out Ysabeau Wilce's Flora Segunda. Flora isn't skinny, yet she accomplishes much and turns out beautifully at the end of the book. Fatness, weight loss, etc. don't feature in the story at all. Thanks for this insightful post!

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  12. Thanks for this insightful look at FAT in children's books. I'm glad you mentioned thinness too. There are plenty of thin stereotypes––a thin person is stingy, tough, mean, dried-up, sickly, self-starving/anorexic, vain, etc., etc. Is body type, not to mention eye and hair color, a writer's (culturally based) short hand for creating a character? Something to watch out for!

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    1. Thank you, Phillis. While it's true that thinness is occasionally used as a negative stereotype, that phenomenon isn't equal to fatphobia. First of all, there's the frequency. We could easily name fifty thin characters off the top of our heads whose thinness is not used as a negative stereotype, whereas characters who are fat but not *symbolically* fat are few and far between. Secondly, fatphobia is institutionalized; it runs through the veins of our cultural institutions. A thin person (or character) is not assumed or expected to represent other thin people or thinness itself. Thinness isn't an otherized demographic group. Thinness is the privileged position on this axis, in mainstream culture and children's books.

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  13. Thanks for opening my eyes to this.

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    1. Thank you for reading, and being open to it!

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  14. Thanks, Rebecca.

    For those of you who don't read Angie Manfredie's blog, FAT GIRL READING, here's a link to her posts with the 'fat' label: http://www.fatgirlreading.com/category/fat/

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    1. Thank you, Debbie. I will definitely check out that blog.

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  15. One of the reasons I love ELEANOR AND PARK is because the female protagonist/love interest describes herself as heavy, but it isn't really part of the story arc, it's just one piece of who she is.

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  16. This is one of the reasons I love Tamora Pierce's Circle books--one of the four main characters (who each get equal consideration in the series) is Trisana Chandler, canonically fat, canonically suffers from cultural fatphobia, and whose character arc never involves weight loss as character growth.

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  17. This is one of the reasons I love Tamora Pierce's Circle books--one of the four main characters (who each get equal consideration in the series) is Trisana Chandler, canonically fat, canonically suffers from cultural fatphobia, and whose character arc never involves weight loss as character growth.

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    1. I'm intimately familiar with Song of the Lioness, but I've never read the Circle series. Thank you for letting me know.

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  18. Hello, hello.I thought that it would be awesome to get acquainted with you because you feature content on what i'm most interested in, diversity. It's so hard finding other people who are openly passionate about this subject, so i'm so glad to connect with you and all the other bloggers who contribute to your blog.

    Hope i can see you back at my blog.It too talks about multiculturalism in books.And i'd love your input XD

    guinandlibertadtomas.blogspot.com

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  19. Are you familiar with Yolanda's Genius? I found that an incredibly positive and unusual depiction of size.

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    1. Oh, thanks for that reminder. I read Yolanda's Genius about 15 years ago and quite need a refresher.

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  20. Thanks for the thoughtful article, Rebecca. You put your finger on something that I've noticed, but not clarified in my mind, for years. Although not Hispanic, I speak Spanish and regularly give presentations to Spanish-speaking audiences such as Migrant children and their families. I find the difference in attitude among these audiences is that there is much less negativity or baggage associated with fatness. In my experience, many Mexican immigrants are so matter of fact about different body types that they'll often call each other "Gordo" (Fatty), or "Flaco" (Skinny) etc. with no judgement attached. Something to be learned in how other cultures view fat?

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    1. It's always nice to hear about moments when body type is used descriptively without judgment. That said, I think we have to be really careful about assuming which cultures have fatphobia and which don't; it's all so complex, and fatphobia can operate in so many different ways, and cultures interweave in so many layers.

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  21. I totally agree with you. People should not be discriminated or judged just because they are overweight. a lot of people need to realize that normal human beings come in all SHAPES and SIZES. diversity isn't only about your skin color or where you come from. I think you nailed that in your post. People should not be judged by their cover, and only by what they are as a person inside. People do not realize their words hurt so much that it can lead to someone taking their own life. I believe people should get to know each other and how they are in the inside instead of what they see from the outside. It's kind of like the saying, "Do not judge a book by it's cover." By showing that fat people are the bad ones in childrens books, they children begin to believe it and start acting that way in school and outside of school which will soon be brought into the workplace when they age. I totally agree with you. People should be loved no matter what their skin color is, how fat or skinny they are, what their hair texture is like, etc.

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  22. As someone who tries to be a sensitive author creating characters that reflect reality, I'm now trying to figure out how I did in SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS.

    My protagonist and her parents are "round" and make no effort to lose weight, although they do try to eat healthy food except when under stress. The mother dresses well and assures the daughter she will "grow into her grandeur." My character is bullied, however--not entirely because she's fat, although that certainly figures into the situation. (She's also an only child who's not great with other kids, is a little obnoxious about her intelligence, and embarrassed herself in kindergarten claiming she had a "small person with wings" living with her.) Her bullies nick-name her Fairy Fat. At the end of the book she's the same weight as always but has managed to make friends (some of them small and with wings). Her chief tormentor gets her comeuppance.

    So, seriously, how did I do? Like most authors, I struggle to avoid stereotypes AND political correctness at one and the same time. We're bound to stumble off that fine line, and I keep telling myself the effort is worthy even then.

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    1. I haven't yet had a chance to read Small Persons with Wings, so I can't answer your "how did I do?" question. But I really appreciate your reading here and being open to these ideas. Indeed: the effort is always worth it. This is about our common humanity.

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  23. As the brother of 4 sisters who struggled under the crushing weight of fatphobia and the father of 2 daughters I hope will be recognized and embraced for nothing more than the size of their big fat hearts, I believe conversations like this one are critical to change. Thank you for articulating this historical reality so poignantly, and for outlining a path out of such horribly inaccurate messaging.

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  24. Thank you, Jeff. In this fatphobic culture, every bit of support feels like gold. I look forward to the day -- and am working towards it -- when fat politics and Fat Studies will be welcome alongside other social justice movements and studies.

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