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Size 24 Is Not a Death Sentence

When I was working on a novel as my MFA thesis, I sent a draft to one of my older sisters. Her first bit of feedback was that I needed to change a main character's weight from 300 pounds to 200, because

You and I know what 300 pounds looks like, but most people don't. If you say 200, readers will picture 300. If you say 300, they'll picture a stereotypical representative of The Obesity Crisis — unfathomably enormous, constantly eating, nearly immobilized, and probably mere moments from an ostensibly preventable death. They'll lose sympathy for her.

The worst part was, she was right about all of it. That didn't mean I was willing to make the change (and it's a non-issue now, since that novel went into the proverbial desk drawer), but it's absolutely true that, for many people, the perception of what 200 or 300 pounds "looks like" (to the extent that there's uniformity among people who happen to share a weight) bears only the most tenuous relationship to reality. (For the record, here's 200-pound me and 300-pound Marianne.) And for many readers, a female character any fatter than Bridget Jones will come off as highly unsympathetic. (Unless, of course, the narrative builds toward her miraculous weight loss — i.e., redemption.) Truly fat women in books and movies are most often villains, mammies, overbearing mothers-in-law, or unlikable tertiary characters (think the irritable secretary with a box of donuts in her desk drawer). The chick lit boom brought us a handful of chubby to moderately fat heroines — the aforementioned Jones, Jemima J., Cannie Shapiro, Heather Wells — but you almost never see a non-thin female character in a mainstream novel whose weight is not a major issue for her. Jemima and Cannie struggle with their weight and eventually lose a lot of it. Bridget yo-yos within about a 10-pound, not-really-fat range, and only considers liking her slightly plumper self when a man comes along and says he does. Two of Meg Cabot's three novels featuring "average-sized amateur investigator" Heather insist that she is "not fat" right in the title. You hear? Not fat! Don't even think such an awful thing! Also, why the hell are a bunch of mysteries titled with references to the protagonist's weight in the first place? (The third is Big Boned.) I know bodies are often central to detective novels, but come on! (See what I did there? I'll be here all week, folks! No, really, I will.)

I got to thinking about this subject after reading a recent discussion about books at the plus-size fashion and fat politics community Fatshionista. Wally Lamb's first novel, She's Come Undone, got a lot of attention there, both positive and negative. On the pro side, it's one of the few contemporary novels in existence that invites the reader to empathize with an actually fat heroine and offers an honest portrayal of some of the discrimination and mistreatment fat women routinely suffer. On the con side, it is yet another narrative of self-hatred leading to redemptive weight loss; it presents a 257-pound body as freakishly gigantic; and it gets details wrong in ways that actual fat people will immediately recognize, even if the average thin reader doesn't. (No, trucks don't actually tip to one side when someone weighing 250-odd pounds hops in. Have you ever seen a truck driver, for Pete's sake?) And worst of all, even as we're meant to empathize with Dolores Price, we're also subtly invited to sneer along with her tormentors. I pulled out my old copy of the book — which I read (and, I should say, loved at the time) long before I came to terms with my own fat body — and only had to go as far as the cover copy to be disappointed:

Beached like a whale in front of her bedroom TV, she spends the next few years nourishing herself with the Mallomars, potato chips, and Pepsi her anxious mother supplies. When she finally rolls into young womanhood at 257 pounds, Dolores is no stronger and life is no kinder. But this time she's determined to rise to the occasion and give herself one more chance before really going belly up.

Are you kidding me? The publisher can't even describe a book about a fat protagonist's (pretty darn tragic) life without throwing in multiple weight-related wisecracks? Fat jokes are accepted so uncritically in this culture, we're even expected to find them appropriate when they're directed at a character we're supposed to root for. I mean seriously, Dolores might ultimately be sympathetic, but she's still a fat chick — let's not get carried away!

Unfortunately, one of the reasons all of those awkward and/or self-loathing and/or defensive fat heroines anchor bestselling books is that so many women relate to their constant weight anxiety and body shame. I could write a novel about a basically happy, active woman who weighs 200 or 300 pounds — or even just 150 — and all but a very few readers would likely suffer cognitive dissonance. "Fat and happy? Zuh?" Women might find the message "Size 12 (or 14) Is Not Fat" empowering, but what about "Size 24 Is Not a Death Sentence"? "Size 26 Is Not a Guarantee of Loneliness"? "Size 28 Is Not Incontrovertible Evidence That You're a Lazy Freak"? Marianne and I know from experience that too many women find those messages frightening, not inspiring. They're so focused on the dream of being thin that the idea of being simultaneously fat and happy is unthinkable. And books that revolve around a 140-pound woman's obsession with her "excess" flab, or cast a 300-pound woman as the villain, or compare a 250-pound young woman to a "beached whale" only reinforce the message that pretty much any amount of body fat is weird and disgusting. So the cycle continues. Those of us advocating for body acceptance have a long way to go before sympathetic, realistic fat characters start showing up in fiction with any regularity. But in the meantime, we can find hope in one Fatshionista member's comment about She's Come Undone:

I will say that reading that book changed my life. I was 19 and suffered from ongoing, intense depression and self-hatred and... it scared me [so much] that I identified so intensely with the self-hatred of the main character that I decided to stop hating myself."

—Kate Harding

÷ ÷ ÷

Kate Harding founded Kate Harding's Shapely Prose, a blog about body acceptance and the treatment of fat people in the media.

Marianne Kirby is dedicated to body politics and fat acceptance. She is co-moderator of the Livejournal community Fatshionista, which has more than 2,500 members.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere: Quit...
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  2. Bridget Jones's Diary
    Used Trade Paper $4.95
  3. Jemima J: A Novel about Ugly...
    Used Trade Paper $0.95
  4. Good in Bed
    Used Trade Paper $0.95
  5. Size 12 Is Not Fat (Heather Wells... Used Trade Paper $3.95
  6. She's Come Undone (Oprah's Book Club)
    Used Trade Paper $4.50
  7. Big Boned (Heather Wells Mysteries )
    Used Trade Paper $4.50

Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby is the author of Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body

21 Responses to "Size 24 Is Not a Death Sentence"

    Stefanie June 17th, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    Over the past few days I've been reading the Josephine Fuller mystery series by Lynne Murray, which features a fat heroine who is shameless about her anti-diet message and fat-acceptance. They each have the word "large" or "ton" in the titles, making a pun on the body size of the heroine in them, but they are adamantly size-positive within the texts. They have both male and female characters in them who are fat and/or fat admirers, and some of the characters are much larger than the "over 200 pounds" that the main character is supposed to be. They're pretty brilliant books in that way and an extremely nice contrast to many of the books you mention in this blog entry, some of which I have read (the Heather Wells ones) and some of which I have avoided.

    The Rotund June 17th, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Jemima J. really pissed me off when I read it. It's a model for crash dieting and self-harm. The epilogue casts her as still fat - at a US size 10, of all sizes, if I remember correctly - and happy with it but the overwhelming message of body hate just freaked me out.

    Ugh. I don't usually have these super negative reactions to books but Jemina J. sets me off every time.

    Kate Harding June 17th, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    Ooh, Stefanie, that sounds great -- I'll have to check those out.

    JupiterPluvius June 17th, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    Let me recommend Sue Ann Jaffarian's Odelia Gray mysteries for a fat, fat-positive sleuth who's realistically and sympathetically portrayed.

    As for the "why is the weight in title" question: that's how series mysteries roll these days. The tea-house mysteries have something about tea in the title, the cat mysteries have something about cats in the title, the fat-sleuth mysteries have something about fat in the title. Nero Wolfe mysteries would probably be all "Nero Wolfe Sits Around the House" or something today.

    Danielle June 17th, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    This was an awesome article. Thank you for contributing.

    Cassie June 17th, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Can't forget P.J. Tracy mysteries. One of their characters is fat and described as having an overwhelming sex appeal. It's a refreshing change.

    Michelle June 17th, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    I really love Alexander McCall's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. The main character is described time and again as a woman on the "traditional build." She is active, happy, intelligent, respected, independent, and proud.

    O.C. June 17th, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    What I'd hated about "She's Come Undone" is that Dolores' weight is presented as outward evidence of her emotional problems. I remember the strong implication, backed up by Oprah's discussions, that a fat body has to be the result of mental illness. As the fattest and sanest member of my family I know that's just not true!

    Kate Harding June 17th, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    Hey, from what people are saying over at my site, I may owe Jennifer Weiner an apology. It's been a few years since I read Good In Bed, and I remembered the weight loss episode but did not remember that it's not presented in a totally positive light. (Also, for the record, even if the rest of the book were crap, which it's not, there's a scene where Cannie tells off a nutritionist -- can't remember if it was for real or in her own head -- that is worth the price of the book.)

    Tari June 17th, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    For the record, I am totally with Marianne - I threw Jemima J across the room several times, frustrated with its oversimplification and total fat-bashing cliche.

    The only fat heroine book I hate more is "Alternate Beauty" by Andrea Rains Waggener, which is actually filled with more fat loathing, but packaged in a purportedly uplifting message that I, for one, didn't see anywhere.

    She's Come Undone? A little better than Jemima J, in my mind, if only because the writing wasn't as crap, and don't I remember a fat love interest at the end? I could totally be making that up, since it's been years.

    For decent "chick lit" featuring actual fat characters pretty much normalized (having sex and *everything*), besides (with caveats) Jennifer Weiner, I can recommend Stacey Ballis, who I've yet to see pull any magical weight loss redemption plot lines. Even for her size 24 characters.

    Meredith June 18th, 2009 at 5:50 am

    Another theme that really drives me crazy that is found in She's Come Undone, Good in Bed, and several other novels with fat heroines is the major psychological issue keeping the heroines fat, and once they break through it, the weight just falls off. Magic! 'Cause if you're fat, it's obviously due to all the malomars and soda. But you eat the malomars and soda to heal a wounded soul! Ugh.

    buttercup June 18th, 2009 at 6:52 am

    Agree w/Michelle about the McCall-Smith books. Precious Ramotswe goes on a diet... once... and decides that she'd rather be happy. She's well-adjusted, loves herself, and is greatly loved by others.

    Psst June 18th, 2009 at 6:54 am

    As someone who is a size 24 (and, uh, not currently dying anymore than most healthy people I know) it made me SO HAPPY to just read in print that size 24 is not a death sentence. WA-HOO!!!!!!!

    minervaK June 18th, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    One of my all-time favorite books, 'Night Train' by Martin Amis, features a lead character who is fat. It's one of the few good 'literary' books I've read that let the main character be 'just fat,' without it being much of an issue in the story. I wouldn't describe her as a 'heroine,' because it's not that kind of book, but I remember identifying with her in a positive way.


    Sue June 18th, 2009 at 1:38 pm

    Kate, thanks for the correction on "Good in Bed," which I was just going to mention myself! If I recall correctly, in that book, Cannie only loses weight because she's depressed (over the birth of her premature baby) and stops eating and spends her days walking aimlessly around the city. Once she (and her baby) are feeling healthy again, the weight comes back and Cannie lives quite happily at her original size.

    Shauna June 19th, 2009 at 9:34 am

    This bothered me about the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants sseries. Not one but two of the main characters gain weight during a depression, and the loss of that weight is used as a sign that they've emerged from the depression and are happy again.

    Not that changes in eating habits aren't a common sign of depression, but the theme of fat=sad, thin=happy surprised me when I'd originally heard the books lauded as body positive.

    Gillian June 19th, 2009 at 10:48 am

    The only thing I'd add to Kate's post - other than a big round of cyber applause - is that in addition to the stock fat characters she mentions, I also notice - both in books and in films - another kind of fat character: the goody-two-shoes, loyal (and usually asexual) friend. Of course, examples escape me at the moment, but it's definitely something I've noticed.

    Lynne Murray June 19th, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    Lynne Murray here, and I just have to say, Stef, that your comment about my Josephine Fuller books made my week! As a reader the 200 pound figure prompted me to write those books. It was the central point of one fat joke too many! I threw a mystery at the wall when the author (whom I had previously respected) had her private investigator heroine refuse to get into an elevator with a grubby-looking old landlady who "must have weighed over 200 pounds." I'd just come from a routine medical check up, showing me to be quite healthy and weighing around 240 pounds. A magazine in the doctor's waiting room informed me that Arnold Schwarzenegger weighed exactly the same as I did. No one was accusing him of breaking elevators, but the same pounds on a woman caused elevator cables to snap and sidewalks to collapse. Clearly it wasn't about pounds but prejudice.

    So when I wrote the Josephine Fuller series, it was important for her to introduce herself by saying she had "never weighed less than 200 pounds in my adult life not counting the chip on my shoulder."

    More recently in writing a romantic comedy (Bride of the Living Dead, which will soon be published by Pearlsong Press) the heroine is a plus-sized woman who is roped into a formal wedding. I purposely did not give an exact dress size or weight. I did mention that my heroine could not find clothing in most stores. I made this choice because a few advance readers wanted to know, "how big" the heroine is. She couldn't really be very big, could she? If she was, the hero wouldn't want to marry her. Is her weight problem all in her mind, or is she really too fat to be engaged? In Bride of the Living Dead, which is chick lit (as opposed to the Josephine Fuller books, which are mysteries), the idea of being too fat to find love bothers the heroine, and I didn't want to distract the reader by handing out a number to measure against.

    As a large woman I once had an old "friend" attack me by asking, "how much do you weigh? I'm only asking because I'm concerned about your health." I didn't bother to answer that question because I was tired, having just come from doing a book signing, and even on my best days, I am not great at face-to-face activism. Worse yet, the woman's concern seemed to be based on an earnest desire to feel superior to me. I did manage to say, "Telling someone how much you weigh in this culture is like giving them a stick to beat you up with. I don't feel like giving you that stick, thanks very much." As I look back on that bad moment in time, I realize that the woman asking the question felt threatened by me and she wanted to get the upper hand by suggesting the my size made me unhealthy, and that she, wonderful person that she was, wanted to pity me if at all possible. Her concern about my welfare didn't extend to congratulating me for having a new book published. So, in retrospect it was a backhanded compliment--with the emphasis on the backhand. Some old acquaintances really should be forgot.

    Speaking of occasions when congratulations are in order--major congrats to authors Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby for Lessons From the Fat-o-sphere and for promoting these useful discussions! We need those lessons!

    Jane June 20th, 2009 at 8:08 am

    I also liked Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me. The heroine is dieting, but PART of the love story is that the man likes her body the way it is and she learns to let herself eat delicious food rather than crappy food that her (underweight and controlling) mother would OK.

    Ashley July 6th, 2009 at 9:49 am

    When I was writing my thesis I came across a journal article that I found very interesting and related to this topic. It was about how in young adult novels sexuality was related to body image. I couldn't find the article available online by itself, but it appears that it was originally a part of the author's dissertation, which IS online. This is the link

    The part that I've read and know is relevant starts on pg 23. But I imagine, if one were so inclined, that there's a lot more of interest in that dissertation.

    Murpho Murphow December 17th, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    Gag. I dislike obese, let alone morbidly obese romance heroines. The guy is never fat. Why should I have to picture disgusting rolls of fat and cellulite and the smell of skin on skin bacteria when the male leads are always ripped and in shape??

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