In this world of representation matters, too often fat characters are left off the table. Or, when they are included, they’re the butt of jokes or the ‘heavy’ (pun intended) of a piece. They’re obsessed with weight loss or making fun of themselves with the same fat jokes that have been used to tear fat people down. They’re often never the main character, much less the romantic lead of any story. Their only acceptance is shown when they’re able to do the miraculous feat of losing weight.
We have to do better.
And we are, slightly. I grew up in the days of Fat Albert and Homer Simpson and Judy Blume’s Blubber — characters who are shown as fat and lazy or comedic. Or, as in Blume’s case, characters we aren’t even shown at all other than through the perspective of an outsider. The reader is never given the opportunity to experience the bullying that Linda endures nor the judgment of life in a larger body firsthand.
When the show This is Us premiered, I was so excited. Finally, a drama that would not only show, but would feature, a fat woman — except my excitement didn’t last very long as it was soon understood that Kate’s purpose on that show was to exist as the stereotype of a fat woman. She would portray the self-loathing, diet obsessed version of herself that society wants us to be. I wanted a role model, I suppose, and instead I got more diet culture wrapped in a fat package. (Disclaimer: I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the show after the first half of season one, so if someone claims that she has changed and is now accepting of herself as she is, then that’s great. With as much fatphobia that was wrapped in the first 6 episodes, I can’t see that happening, but it could.)
But, this article isn’t about me, not really. It’s more about the girls that I teach, or even the ones I’m raising, whose bodies come in different shapes and sizes and colors and orientations. These girls all deserve to see themselves in books. And they deserve to see real, breathing, living characters.
Just as you wouldn’t put a person of color in your book and have their skin tone be their only focus, or just as you wouldn’t put an lgbtqia+ character in your book and have that be their defining character, neither should your fat characters be only fat.
So, let me help you out with a few points about your fat characters:
- Make them real people who live in larger bodies. If they’re the butt of a joke, make it central to the plot. Make it mean something. Don’t just put in fat jokes for the laughs. They’re not funny.
- If they’re dieting, make it central to the plot. And make it realistic. But, please, don’t make the diet the entire plot. We’re fed enough ‘weight loss success’ fiction through diet culture. It doesn’t have to be in our actual fiction as well.
- Your fat character isn’t fat solely because they overeat. It’s always more complex than that. Be careful of showing binging episodes and make sure that, if you do show them, you’re treating your character with absolute respect. Binges are generally triggered by some sort of trauma (for everybody) and if you want to show that, then you need to go deep and show that.
- Your fat character isn’t comic relief. I get it. Fat Amy from Pitch Perfect is hilarious. Rebel Wilson is an incredibly funny person. But not every fat person is a comedian. Not every fat person wants to be. Honor that in your stories about them.
- Your fat character deserves a real storyline with a real love interest who doesn’t treat them like a participation trophy. Romance writers, I’m looking at you now. Give your characters some girth and show us what real love looks like among people of size. Not ever heroine needs a 23 inch waist. Not every hero has a sculpted torso. Variety is good.
- MG and YA writers — it’s so, so, so very important for you to include characters of varying sizes in your novel. Our kids are bombarded by diet culture messages before they ever have the opportunity to understand what they are even seeing or hearing. They all need role models that look, sound, and think like them — including the ones with the rounder tummies.
- Your fat character can be an athlete. Being athletic doesn’t automatically mean svelte. I don’t know how many of you are fans of softball — namely college softball — but the college world series just wrapped up. As a mom of a softball athlete, we watched — a lot. Those women are a prime example of the various shapes and sizes and heights and skin tones that athletes come in. Outside of the uniform, it’s easy to judge many of them as being out of shape. But, inside the uniform, there is no doubt. It’s only our stereotypes that allow us to misjudge. So, don’t do that to your characters. Let them be athletic if that’s who they are and don’t feel the need to make your athlete thin.
- And, finally, your fat character’s story should not solely focus around the idea that they are fat. As a fat teenager, I knew that I was fat. I knew that I didn’t fit the mold of what society deems acceptable. I still don’t, and I am still aware of my size. But I also liked to play volleyball and softball and read books and hang out with my friends on the weekends. I worked and I studied and I lived my life. Your characters should do all those things, too. And, if you can find a way to show your fat character dealing with the struggles of being fat while living their life, you’ve hit gold, my friend, and I look forward to reading your story.
This list isn’t extensive by any means. I’m sure there are some big things I forgot. I’m sure there are even some things I got wrong. The point that I want to make in this piece, however, is this — fat people are people who deserve love and respect and that goes for your fat characters, too. Fat is a descriptor of a body size, not a judgment against a person. Let’s remember that as we write our characters into a more diverse world.