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08 May 2014 @ 10:36 pm
Some things to consider when writing fat characters.  
Here are some things that I wish authors would keep in mind when they're writing a character who is fat. I'm making this list with various hats on: children's lit critic, person interested in social justice, book lover, and fat person. The "we" in the list refers to real, living, breathing fat people, which surely must be relevant to the creation of fat characters.

We aren’t symbols. We’re real people. We’re no less complex than anyone else.

Our bodies aren’t symbols of — well, of anything. Not of greed, not of bullying or being bullied, not of inner pain, not of eating habits, not of wellness or illness, not of moral character.

The fat on our bodies is not “extra.” It’s not any less a true part of our bodies than any other part. (Sure, a person can go on living if they lose some amount of fat. That doesn’t mean the fat was extraneous. A person can go on living if they lose many body parts or body tissues. Bodies are wondrous things and can survive and thrive across many types of change.)

We aren’t sad and tragic. We’re members of an oppressed group, and we’re harmed by that, but we’re also strong.

Our fights against fatphobia are not generally welcomed in social justice contexts. We’re an oppressed group whose liberation movement is not generally considered a liberation movement at all.

We’re not the “before” picture of an emotional, spiritual, or physical growth arc.

Fat bodies aren’t any more monolithic than any other category of bodies.

Fat people aren’t any more monolithic than any other category of people.

Fat stories aren’t any more monolithic than any other category of stories.
steepholmsteepholm on May 9th, 2014 06:58 am (UTC)
Excellent - this should be a poster!
Rebecca Rabinowitz: Hotter Than a Hot Dogdiceytillerman on May 9th, 2014 04:44 pm (UTC)
Hey, thank you!
(Anonymous) on May 9th, 2014 02:55 pm (UTC)
Very good post! I remember being annoyed at the way Harry's cousin is portrayed. "Fat" shouldn't be used to describe anything about a character except, I guess, if he's especially large.
Rebecca Rabinowitz: Orphea Prouddiceytillerman on May 9th, 2014 04:49 pm (UTC)
Thank you!

Fat shouldn't be used to connote anything about a character -- but it's not that fatness should be ignored. It should be one detail of complex characters, such that their fat isn't symbolic or reductive but is a fact of life.
Tuonen Hauki: sturgeonheadsplasticsturgeon on May 11th, 2014 10:18 pm (UTC)
You could probably boil that down to, "Hey! We're real people!"
Rebecca Rabinowitz: Dicey's Songdiceytillerman on May 12th, 2014 04:19 am (UTC)
I'm not so sure. I think that would help with two-dimensional fat characters, for example, fat bullies. But I don't think it would help with the fat characters who are three-dimensional and emotionally complex yet still lose weight as part of their social/emotional growth arc. Think Alt Ed and The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things and Hatchet. Those authors are remembering full well that fat people are real people, they just think our fatness connotes that we have something yet to accomplish before our house is in order. That is literature's version of concern trolling.
Tuonen Hauki: sturgeonheadsplasticsturgeon on May 13th, 2014 04:24 am (UTC)
Oh yeah--that's true.
Rebecca Rabinowitz: Dicey's Songdiceytillerman on May 12th, 2014 04:21 pm (UTC)
Actually, even some of the fat bully characters are three-dimensional. I think that the two-dimensional fat characters would be fixed if the author could remember that we're real people, but sadly I think the fatness=flaw notion is so deeply entrenched that a lot of fat characters would come out exactly the same as they do now.

If that weren't true, real fat people wouldn't be getting those same messages in real life -- that our fatness proves our emotional house isn't in order yet.
leyiraleyira on May 12th, 2014 04:12 pm (UTC)
I read a romance years ago where the main character was supposed to be fat. I don't think she really started out as anything other than not a coat hanger, but I was intrigued because romance leads are never fat. The hero of the story's mother was an opera singer who of course was large because opera singers can't be skinny. Throughout the story he made her realize there was nothing wrong in how she looked and that she was in fact beautiful. I remember thinking, hey, that's nice to hear... then in the end through some fair godmother wizardry she became "truly beautiful" read:not fat. I was completely flummoxed by the what the author had been trying to say, as it was obvious she had some kind of message she thought she needed to publish. I was just disappointed in the whole thing.
Rebecca Rabinowitz: Bea and Mr. Jonesdiceytillerman on May 12th, 2014 04:17 pm (UTC)
A friend of mine who's analyzed romance literature told me that this pattern -- the one you mention -- is a standard romance trope! The romance heroine has something-or-other supposedly-wrong with her, ie, her beauty is "flawed" in some way; the man comes along and loves her just as she is, and this is part of how we know he's the right man for her; and then she changes anyway.
Frankenmonstrous Cyborg Creatureetana on May 13th, 2014 05:28 pm (UTC)
hell yes
well said!
Rebecca Rabinowitz: Hotter Than a Hot Dogdiceytillerman on May 13th, 2014 05:33 pm (UTC)
Thank you, darling!
sheff_dogs on May 13th, 2014 05:43 pm (UTC)
Hell yes indeed!
Rebecca Rabinowitz: Hotter Than a Hot Dogdiceytillerman on May 13th, 2014 05:45 pm (UTC)
Thank you! :)
(Anonymous) on May 19th, 2014 09:27 pm (UTC)
Right after I read this post, my library received a copy of 1 Year, 100 Pounds: My Journey to A Better, Happier Life by Whitney Holcombe. I didn't read the whole book, I just skimmed it, but it did seem to break a lot of your rules, which had me wondering how you feel about the way fatness is portrayed in the nonfiction / health / diet / self-help market.
Rebecca Rabinowitz: Rodzinadiceytillerman on May 20th, 2014 12:41 am (UTC)
Fatness is portrayed in the the nonfiction/diet/self-help market the same way it's portrayed in mainstream culture and media: as a bad thing, a perforce unhealthy thing, an indicator of physical, emotional, and moral flaws, a tragedy, the "before" in a before-and-after story, and an avoidable thing that any right-thinking person would want to avoid.

Of course that book broke my "rules" -- my above points are attempting to unsettle a mega-powerful system of oppression and lies, and I aimed my points directly at that system's tools. The very title of your book promotes the Fantasy of Being Thin even before anyone cracks the cover.

The weight loss industry might as well be called the weight cycling industry. That's what it causes.