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."