And again today…

This time, I wrote about fat heroines in contemporary fiction at Powell’s. A taste:

[I]t’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 ShapiroHeather 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.)

And if you missed Marianne’s post about whether the author really is dead when she’s blogging, check that out, too.

78 thoughts on “And again today…

  1. Oh, I’m so glad you wrote about that, since I never cease being angry about fat in fiction no matter how many times I get to rant about it. ;-) When I realized how brainwashed I’d been by the “perfect size six” talk in Sweet Valley High, I was angry at like my whole childhood world.

    My worst offender on this count is The Cider House Rules, in which a girl who is supposed to be, like, terrifyingly large is something like 175 pounds.

  2. I spent much of “Good in Bed” trying to figure out exactly how fat Cannie was supposed to be, for some reason. Maybe I was trying to figure out how much I was supposed to identify with her.

    One fat heroine that sticks in my craw is the one whose name escapes me from “She’s Come Undone.” They specifically say she weighs 263 pounds (funny I remember THAT but not her name) and her life is basically one big hellhole.

    Which made me mad the whole time I read, because um, I’m fatter than that! I weigh 280! (My life is good, and I don’t need to go on any “picture your food is covered with mold while you’re in a mental institution, and then you will miraculously emerge from said institution weighing 130!” diet to improve it.)

  3. I think my recent experience of being unimpressed with the supposedly-excellent The Secret Life of Oscar Wao had a lot to do with the disillusionment that set in when we were supposed to accept Oscar as HIDEOUSLY HUGE at like 250 pounds, and to accept “35DD” breasts as being just mythologically enormous. (Well, mythological, anyway. 35?? Way to be obviously written by a dude.)

  4. Ha, should have read your article first, you specifically mention She’s come Undone. I thought it was 263, it was 257? Regardless, I’ll read before I speak next time! ;-)

  5. Thanks for that. I honestly never noticed character’s weights in books for most of my life (except in high school, when I was seriously anorexic and every mention of a 125lb or size 4 woman made me feel smugly superior) but since getting into FA it’s become so painfully obvious that so many authors use weight as an automatic “loser” sentence for their characters. And now that I’m starting to accept fat in myself and everyone else (instead of just, “well I’m sure SHE could look okay at 250lbs – not pretty but at least okay – but *I* need to go down to 110 before *I’m* pretty”) it’s becoming so strange to think that so many people see a 200lb+ woman as automatically hideous.

  6. Great post (and it did not fill me with desire to read She’s Come Undone). My go-to example of annoyance about this thing is those Janet Evanovich books, where the character talks about how she’s “not fat but definitely not skinny” at something like 5’7″ and 127 pounds. Please.

  7. Oh my. I am so going to date myself here, but remember Flowers in the Attic? Remember the scary, huge, strong, can-beat-you-up-at-a-whim grandmother? Who weighed – gulp – 200lbs?

    …yeah.

    I suppose I should be glad the character was portrayed as strong and powerful. She wasn’t lazy, either; she was punctual and organized — but she was corrupt and hateful.

  8. How about the Nero Wolfe mysteries, by Rex Stout? Great books which I love, but Wolfe is a big fat guy, right? Archie (narrator sidekick) expresses amazement that Wolfe is graceful and capable of normal movement, and characters meeting him for the first time tend to goggle at him, dumbstruck by his fatness. Like they’ve never ever before seen anyone as gargantuan as… wait for it… his “seventh of a ton.” That’s about 286. Oh, and he has a specially built desk chair, and on the rare occasions when he ventures out of his office, he’s always having a hell of a time trying to find any halfway comfortable chair to sit in. Come to think of it, that’s not too unrealistic! But the way other characters talk about how big he is, you’d expect him to weigh 886, not 286.

  9. For the record, my friend had a very, very brief fling with Junot Diaz, in which she says he would frequently refer to his own privates as “the lizard,” if that tells you anything about the kind of man who would imagine “35DD” exists.

    As for She’s Come Undone, I remember when I read it (mind you, when I was in early high school), I was really moved by it, only because psychologically you could totally understand WHY Dolores had gained all the weight, as opposed to just a “fat girl who’s fat in a vacuum for no particular reason so let’s make fun of her” story. In cases like that, where someone gains a lot of weight as a result of sexual abuse or trauma, or their eating is emotional (i.e. filling a void of something they didn’t get, like a mother’s attention), then I can understand how the weight loss could be seen as redemptive. What I take issue with is something like Bridget Jones, where the protagonist is seriously body dysmorphic and seeking male approval, and the fact that it seems to validate these neuroses in other women. Like, “Oh wow, Bridget Jones feels the same way, so I guess I’m not such a freak for mindlessly eating and acting anxious and frumpy and then wondering why men don’t like me. I think I’ll keep doing it.”

    As I’m learning more about FA, I think part of what I’m realizing is just how draining it is to be that consumed with self-loathing when there’s absolutely no need for it. And reading books about women who punish their bodies and put themselves down certainly doesn’t make it okay or acceptable to do it to yourself.

    As for Wally Lamb, I stopped taking him seriously after I read I Know This Much is True and I found entire sentences and paragraphs and images totally lifted from She’s Come Undone. Seriously, dude?

  10. A big part of my plunge into the FA movement is to stop comparing myself to other people’s bodies. For this reason, I just had to stop reading Big Girl Chick Lit. Initially, it was empowering, in a like-circumstances kind of way, but many of them usually ended up losing weight and bursting the Big Girl heroine bubble for me. As if weight loss SOLVED all their problems and made life oh so much better for them.
    Maybe I’m not reading the “right” ones. It would be awesome to read about a Big Girl who overcomes her own obstacle of self hatred and loathing enough to change her life for the better.
    hmm….maybe that’s why I love coming to this blog so much :)

  11. I have to confess to an addiction to romance novels. I deal with a lot of sickness, death, and pain in my job, and I like a good escape. (Happily-ever-after endings, hot sex with a man who never tires of giving you multiple orgasms….What’s not to like? :) ) But I have grown increasingly irritated lately at the ever-present references to the weight of the heroine. It’s gotten so that there are several authors whose books I’ll leave on the shelf, simply because they’ve insulted me with previous ignorant descriptions of fat characters.

    What gets me is that 99% of these books are written by women. Many of them are plus-sized themselves, or so it seems when I view their pictures. Are they really so full of self-hatred that they describe a character who’s a size 14 (horrors!) as fat and unhappy until she loses the pounds? Or do publishers insist that readers wouldn’t want to read about fat characters? or that it is simply unbelievable that any attractive man would fall for a fat female?

    One more thing….have sizes changed a lot in the last 30 years? When I was in high school (in the 70s) I wore a size 12/14, and I was pretty damn thin. Now I read that those who wear a size 12 or 14 are–yikes!–ginormous.

  12. Once again, bravo Kate!
    And thanks for giving me a few suggestions for my summer reading. I think this summer I’m going make a point of finding and reading books that have fat heroines.

  13. “Like, ‘Oh wow, Bridget Jones feels the same way, so I guess I’m not such a freak for mindlessly eating and acting anxious and frumpy and then wondering why men don’t like me. I think I’ll keep doing it.'”

    I think I generally saw the Bridget Jones books as making fun of Bridget for being so neurotic when she clearly was NOT fat. Granted, if the numbers had been upped 50 pounds, it might have been more believable. When she DID lose to 120-something, though, everyone told her she was too thin.

    What bothers me more are authors like JK Rowling, who are apparently incapable of writing a normal, well-adjusted, good fat character. Every single one of her fat characters is either lazy and fat (Harry’s cousin), comical and fat (Neville, the Fat Lady), or corrupt and fat (Slughorn).

    Every. Single. One. And those are massive bestsellers!

  14. Mrs. Weasley is fat, too, though, and she’s awesome. And you can make arguments regarding Hagrid and Madame Maxine. (Not that I think JKR is in any way perfect in this regard, but I think there are some positive messages hidden in there.)

  15. I heard recently that Pat Ballard was a romance writer who’s heroines were honest-to-goodness fat and not shamed for it. Anyone else familiar with her work? (I’ve got a few holds at the library, and I’m really hoping I’m not going to be disappointed by them)

  16. My test is, is there any reason for [X] specific descriptor? And most of the time there isn’t, with rare exceptions for mysteries and the occasional hard SF story. Yet, despite this, genre fiction is chock-full of exact weights, brassiere sizes, dress sizes, chest, waist, hip and bicep measurements … there’ve been times when, having waded through a page or more of specifications for Character Z, I’ve asked myself, ‘But what about her nose hair?!’

    And yeah, like as not the sizes are unrealistic too. (35DD?! Cripes, there’s someone who doesn’t know a boob from a bobbin.)

  17. Whoo hoo! I have mythological breasts!

    But not a 35. Come on. Does no one edit anything anymore? I think anyone posting on this site could do a better job of editing for grammar and content than the folks doing it “professionally”. I read some awful stuff.

  18. Great topic! This past semester, I did a paper on body image in chick lit for my Feminist Theory class. It’s fascinating to me how often characters’ specific weights are mentioned–or, at least, clothing sizes–and it really shows what a skewed perception many people have of what x weight or y size looks like. About Cannie Shapiro in _Good in Bed_, though–she does lose a lot of weight, but it’s after a traumatic event, and then when she gains it back, it’s viewed as a positive thing. I got the impression that, when the book ended, she was pretty much back where she started. I know Weiner just published a sequel, though, so I don’t know what’s happening in that one. I do recall, though, that Cannie is supposed to be 5’10” and wear a size 16, which sounds an awful lot like myself (veering closer to an 18 these days)–so it was particularly interesting to me to see her portrayed as this definitively large woman, when I’m not sure if I myself am viewed in this way.
    Also, _She’s Come Undone_ used to be my all-time favorite novel, but I haven’t had the heart to re-read it since I discovered FA; I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to view it the same way again.

  19. I liked your article and I have to second one of the commenters at the Powells site about Precious Ramotswe, the “traditionally built” heroine of the #1 Ladies Detective Agency novels. I do want to defend Jennifer Weiner though. You wrote that Cannie (from Good in Bed) is fat but loses a lot of weight. But that’s when she’s suffering from severe depression and is at her most miserable. By the end of the book she’s gained it all back, and writes a magazine column that would fit in as a post on this blog since it’s all about loving her body. I just hate to see that book put in the same category as Jemima J, which I found truly abhorent.

  20. I did appreciate that she was also described as having “the tits of Luba.” But come on, Luba… does not wear a DD, “35” or otherwise. Stick to comic book references and leave the numbers out of it, Junot.

  21. I was going to say, I don’t know what BJ’s weight was in the American version (I assume it was translated into pounds; in the UK and Australia editions it was stones and pounds) but she isn’t and wasn’t overweight. I’m the average height for a UK woman (5’4″), and I weigh around what she does, and my BMI is 22ish, I think. So unless she was written as an unusually short woman, and there’s no mention of that, she’s not actually a ‘chubby’ heroine at all. And I realise you said, later in the piece, that she yo-yos within a ‘not-really-fat’ range, but she’s still included in the not-thin category.

    I know it’s a small niggle, but I find it fascinating that BJ is seen as ‘chubby’ – and that much was made of this in the films; oh no, Zellweger had to PUT ON WEIGHT to play the character – when it’s pretty clear that Fielding was not writing a chubby heroine, she was writing a heroine who was obsessed with her weight because that’s part of being a modern woman.

  22. One of the reasons I really liked the movie MY Big Fat Greek Wedding was that Toula’s journey of self-improvement/self-discovery did NOT include weight loss. While it did include becoming more conventionally attractive (contact lenses, makeup, a new wardrobe), there were NO scenes of her dieting or working out or weighing herself or doing any other weight-loss-y things. (Or at least, if there were, I missed them).

    Toula’s journey seems much more like learning to stop downplaying and denigrating herself, rather than “I make myself over so I can love myself”. While it may not have been perfect in that regard (e.g., traditionally feminine-gendered tropes like make-up and new wardrobe), it is unique as far as I have been able to tell as a mainstream movie in which the heroine, setting off on a journey of self-improvement/self-discovery pays no attention whatsoever to her weight. Not only did this not hurt the movie in terms of plot or characterization, but I adore the movie for it!

  23. That would actually be hilarious! “Dedicated to Junot Diaz.”

    (On second thought, from what Lucy says, he’d probably misinterpret that.)

  24. You must check out Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series! Cosy detective tales, with an unapologetically fat protagonist, who is a baker by trade. Fat and feminist and queer friendly, too. (Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series is similarly feminist-cosy, but Phryne is a flapper-shaped sylph.)

  25. and that much was made of this in the films; oh no, Zellweger had to PUT ON WEIGHT to play the character

    The interesting thing about that though is Renee Zellweger weighed about the same in the movies as Bridget Jones weighed in the books. Zellweger had to gain weight for the role because she is very thin, but (particularly in the first movie) she really wasn’t chubby. She looked chubby relative to what we’re used to seeing as far as leading ladies, but if you saw her walking down the street, you wouldn’t think chubby.

    My pet peeve bra sizes that don’t make sense. A bra size project would indeed be useful!

  26. Sarah: I know Weiner just published a sequel, though, so I don’t know what’s happening in that one.

    I read “Certain Girls” and almost threw it across the room at points, I was so irked with it.

    After the goings-on of “Good In Bed”, I hoped that Cannie would have had some sort of serious growth, in that she wouldn’t spend a goodly part of the sequel engaging in the same old self-deprecating horseshit “humor” about the size of her ass. Instead, it’s just never-ending variations on different ways she can beat herself down for being fat under the guise of…I don’t even know. Being “honest”? It frosted my ass in a big way and I was extremely disappointed.

  27. Interestingly enough, I sort of credit “She’s Come Undone” with partially starting my journey towards FA. My biggest thought when I was reading it was not “Dolores is fat and therefore disgusting” but more identification with the main characters unhealthy behaviors, all of them, and the feeling of hopelessness that she endured. The journey of the book for me was not when Dolores lost the weight, I actually saw that as more of a sidenote. I thought the real journey was her mental healing so that at the end she was happy with who she was as a whole person. Oddly enough, I saw many of her ‘disordered’ eating such as hiding food so as not to share it, and to eat a whole anything instead of what was actually wanted as something my girlfriends and I used to do.
    FA has led me to the HAES approach, and the ‘no food is bad’ approach, and funny enough, now that the overwhelming pressure of food monitoring is off, moderation in many things comes naturally.

  28. I know it’s a small niggle, but I find it fascinating that BJ is seen as ‘chubby’ – and that much was made of this in the films; oh no, Zellweger had to PUT ON WEIGHT to play the character – when it’s pretty clear that Fielding was not writing a chubby heroine, she was writing a heroine who was obsessed with her weight because that’s part of being a modern woman.

    This is interesting, isn’t it? It’s like, we have this cultural belief that if a woman wants to lose weight (and isn’t diagnosibly anorexic), she must need to lose weight. This happens in real life too, of course; people who don’t read as chubby or fat at all seem to be viewed as such for the purposes of weight loss conversations. (Like, everyone is happy to gleefully give diet tips to a size 8 who wants to lose weight, even though they would never say she was fat, per se (at least to her face)).

  29. This is a little bit random, but there is a character on the show Head Case (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0904627/) played by Michelle Arthur, who is not exactly huge or anything but larger than the average size one would see on television. I can’t recall a single episode in which any issue is made of her weight. She is a little clueless–everyone on the show is, that’s the source of most of its humor–but she has fabulous style, she’s sexy and gorgeous, and she gets attention from men on the show. They even show her eating now and then without any handwringing about what or how much. Oddly enough, the thin, blond main character is shown eating fast food pretty much every day. It’s kind of awesome.

    It’s been rolling around my head because I’ve been catching up on the show on netflix and I keep waiting for the episode in which her weight comes up and it just hasn’t. It’s refreshing.

  30. oh god, I just had to say that Jemima J was one of the stupidest books I have ever read. She shoves every single line full of “she looked down at her perfectly toned, smooth legs and though…” “she sat down, crossing her long, thin legs and placed each toned and tan arm on the desk before speaking…” Its so disgustingly boring and obsessive.

    uh oh SPOILLLER ALERT! She finally gets skinny, meets the man of her dreams on the internet (who is a super ripped personal trainer), and they have a perfect life until… SHE FINDS OUT HE HAS A FATTY FETISH!! GROSSSSSSSS!!!!!! So then she leaves him and becomes the super perfect size 8 (ie, bigger than she was before, but skinnier than her pathetic, earlier days) normal person. It’s so patronizing and stupid you might just die laughing. yuck.

  31. What was really annoying about the movie version of Bridget Jones’ Diary? The character’s fantasy weight is ten pounds fewer than it is in the book.

  32. The Good in Bed sequel is horrifically bad, not just from an FA point of view (it’s bad, but not as bad as most other things, which makes it feel neutral in comparison), but just badly written, without likable characters…. it’s just BAD. I cannot believe I read all of Certain Girls without screaming in rage at how much Weiner’s slanders characters I used to like.

    Really, I haven’t liked anything she’s written since In Her Shoes. Which, come to think of it, has a fat character with redemptive sort-of-weight-loss. Rose doesn’t really lose much weight, but becomes much fitter, and thus is described in more positive terms. And, her very thin sister (Maggie) is disappointed by how terrible the commercial wedding dress options are for her “fat” sister (a size 16, I think? I haven’t been wedding dress shopping, so I can’t judge the accuracy of this particular number, but I’m sure there’s sizes at which wedding dress shopping becomes substantially more difficult), and ends up working with their grandmother to make Rose a beautiful dress that properly fits. That seems realistic, I suppose.

  33. I also thought of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, which is now a tv series on HBO.

    I read a lot of mystery and crime novels. Most of what I have noticed is that the protagonist are typically men. Now, the men don’t have to be thin and fit, but they are always smart. The women may or may not be smart, but they must have tight ass.

    I have two favorite feminist writers who don’t focus on weight but on intelligence: Laurie King and Dorothy Sayers (especially her Harriet Vane novels). King’s works are especially lesbian-friendly.

  34. Many of them are plus-sized themselves, or so it seems when I view their pictures.

    I’m a card-carrying member of the Romance Writers of America, and I’ve been to the national conference, and yep, romance writers come in allll sizes. I tend to think myself that often the heroine is written as very thin because, well, that’s how she’s always been. Fatpol is not exactly a hot topic in the romance community.

    Jenny Crusie writes good inbetweenie heroines (Bet Me is my favorite) as well as books that really mess with the common romance tropes. Also, for historicals I LOVE Laura Kinsale, who writes all kinds of ‘unusual’ heroines, including in Seize the Fire, which has a fat heroine and a hero who loves her that way.

  35. For those defending Good In Bed, I just noted over at Powell’s that I might owe Jennifer Weiner an apology, because it’s been a long time since I read the book, and I only remembered the weight loss, not how it was framed. However, having read the comments here about her more recent work, maybe I spoke too soon. Sigh.

  36. I forgive JK Rowling’s treatment of Neville because of Book 7. ;) Though I know she’s far from perfect on a lot of scores, I just love the HP books a lot.

    I was all excited reading Good In Bed too until Cannie lost all that weight. It was clear from the context that what she was doing was terrible and the result of trauma and Not Healthy, but the sop near the end to her “regaining her old Jessica Rabbit proportions” cheesed me off. I didn’t read that as her gaining it all back at the time, but possibly I was just annoyed that even in a book that had so much else going on, and that even worked to give a positive message about loving and accepting yourself, there still had to be weight loss! (I know, the point was she lost the weight and realized that was not the solution to her problems, but still. Argh.)

    Dolly I thought about ordering some of Pat Ballard’s stuff but then I read an excerpt and the writing seemed pretty awful (I’m very snobby about this in my fiction). Please let us know if that turns out to be wrong, though! I only read an excerpt so it may not be enough to judge on.

    Oh and btw everyone, The New Yorker actually published a feature article about an artist who isn’t a dead white male! *gasp* It’s about Nora Roberts, who I have not read myself, but I love for her snarky online presence. It included this quote, which may become my new mantra: “I want to die at age one hundred and twenty at my keyboard after having great sex.”

    DRST

  37. I’m going to disclose my love for romance novels as well, and say that out of all the ones I’ve read, Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Bride McTierney character in Night Play is the only heroine that remotely approaches plus size and gets to have sex (Vane is HOT – and a werewolf, besides). She never has to lose weight in order to be loved and accepted; in fact, there’s a great par tin the book where her sister is completely baffled by Vane’s ability to do so.

    I still wish someoen would write romance novels featuring fat women of color. There’s only so much “smooth, alabaster skin” and “silken curtains” of hair a girl can take before giving up altogether.

  38. I think its relatively common for men to call their johnsons ‘the lizzard.’ As in “I have to go drain the lizzard’. See also: snake.

    Now if Junot spoke of his junk as “The Lizzard’ or ‘THE Lizzard’ I would agree that he’s unlikely to be a friend to feminists or fat women.

    LMAO on the New Yorker DWM snark! Indeed. I actually did a double take when I saw Ephron’s name in contents.

  39. cath the canberra cook: “Cosy detective tales, with an unapologetically fat protagonist, who is a baker by trade. Fat and feminist and queer friendly, too.”

    The problem with Corinna Chapman as a fat heroine is that she’s described as really really big – partly self-deprecating, partly ‘realistic’ yet her weight is 100 kg (220 pounds) and she’s described as tall as well. So yes she’s big, but hardly as huge as either her own descriptions or those of others would have you believe.

  40. (Not a leading character, but still, I love the series so much, and her portrayal always upset me.)

  41. Oh, hey!

    Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy is one of my all-time faves – the protagonist is a fat girl in 1950’s Ireland. The book never says exactly how fat she is, but by the comments of other people, she is plus-sized. I liked this book from the start because Benny Hogan is just big – she’s not used as a negative example of how fat makes you a bad person – and, although she spends some time on a crash diet that doesn’t work, her image changes for her friends and the boy she has a crush on when she starts dressing better – not hiding her size, but flaunting it.

    It’s a very sweet book – when Benny’s boyfriend goes astray, it’s not because she’s fat – and she soon finds another lad who’s been admiring her from afar.
    If you haven’t read it, you should – it’s not chick-lit, it’s not a treatise on fat=sad and slovenly – it’s just the story of a girl who happens to be fat and still has all the feelings that other girls have.

  42. If I ever finish the damned thing, I’m writing a murder mystery in which the protag is ‘just fat.’ I’m writing it partly because I got sick of the way fat is treated in literature, too. The main character’s size isn’t the central theme of the book (nor of the series I hope it will start) — in fact, I ultimately decided it wouldn’t even be a side issue. She doesn’t go on a diet, she doesn’t obsess about her weight, she doesn’t even get harassed about it by other people. Nor is she the only fat person in the story (another peeve of mine). In short, the world she lives in looks something like the real world (except for the not getting harassed part — hey, it’s fiction, but damn it, it’s MY fiction). Stay tuned.

    MK

  43. Aww Circle of Friends!! I haven’t read that in years, but I remember being blown away by the story, Benny totally rocked. Although it’s heartbreaking and infuriating as well, right? But I was impressed with the characters.

  44. Minerva, don’t you know? Fat people need to be isolated from other fat people and surround themselves with thin friends so they don’t get the wrong idea that being fat is acceptable! The writers who include the sole fat friend from any large group of people in their stories are just doing it for the children!!!

    I’m about 1/3 of the way through writing a romance novel myself, however there aren’t any fat folk in this story. (I know, I suck. I started writing it before I found FA or SP and the characters are now stubbornly fixed in my mind. Damn them.)

    DRST

  45. This discussion reminded me that Erle Stanley Gardner, writer of the Perry Mason mysteries, also wrote a series of detective stories under the name A.A. Fair. The detective Bertha Cool, was described as weighing “over 200 pounds.”

    However, even Ms. Cool was down to a svelte 165 in a later story.

  46. Eloisa James has a inbetweenie heroine in Pleasure for Pleasure, and — mild spoiler — her OMG I AM BEAUTIFUL moment comes after getting clothes that are actually built to work with her figure, instead of against it and requiring some intense corsettage . . .

    Of course, Josie is small enough that with a super-duper corset, she can fit into her ‘thin’ sister’s clothing, but I figured the sister was an 8 or 10 (thin enough to pass) and Josie was a 14 or 16, in US sizes. I don’t really know how much a corset can compress, but it’s better than the average romance novel in terms of body acceptance. And yes, I’ve read a lot of romance novels.

  47. I think it’s interesting that writers, perhaps catering to the reader, feel the need to include the EXACT weight of their protagonists, as if saying they are “fat” isn’t enough–the reader has to know exactly HOW fat (neatly wrapped up in an arbitrary number) so they can judge their moral worth/level of sympathy they deserve/whether or not they’re just a lost cause, etc.

    I wrote a short story with a 10 year-old narrator struggling with body image issues. She’s described as “fat” and I meant it that way, not in a body-dismorphic kind of way–people react to her in the story as if she’s fat–and in workshop I got a lot of comments from people who wanted/needed to know how much she weighed, in pounds.

    And what’s with the whole she weighed “257” pounds, as if people don’t go up and down by 5 pounds every damn week? Where does such an exact number come from?

    Anyway, I love this topic, and your blog about it, Kate. “The Fat Girl” by Andre Dubus (a short story) isn’t terrible in terms of how the protagonist finds redemption (not through weight loss) although she’s only about 160 or so. I’d still recommend it–it’s in his collection “In the Bedroom.”

  48. I read this recently http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780552771856-0 in which the heroine type person spends the whole book going on and off various diets from the mainstream likes of WW to a day on Cabbage Soup etc. She describes how rubbish they all are and none of them lasts very long. At the end of the book (as far as I can remember) she realises that basically all this diet lark is a load of old bollocks, isn’t it, and she’d be better off just eating some food and getting on with her life. It’s not particularly brilliant, (she does still basically go on about diets all the way through the book) but it’s better than Jemima Bloody J.

    There was also another Chick Lit type book I read (can’t remember the title at the moment) in which the main character obsessively diets and exercises and I *think* takes cocaine to get ridiculously thin and has an affair with a man who she meets at a conference and at the end she realises what a horrendous mistake it all was (both the man who was an arsehole and all the crazy weightloss stuff). I can’t really remember if she magically stabilises at a still quite small size, probably. I seem to remember it as less dreadful than JJ, though I was dieting at the time so I may not have had my right head on…

    I don’t read an awful lot of fiction these days, most of it’s just too blinking annoying. Particularly if you’re reading what is basically a good book and then it goes OH LOOK I CAN HAS FATPHOBIA ISHOOS LET ME SHOW YOU THEM.

  49. “to get ridiculously thin”

    er, just to clarify, I don’t mean to be body shaming here, what I meant was very unnaturally (for the person in question) thin.

  50. Particularly if you’re reading what is basically a good book and then it goes OH LOOK I CAN HAS FATPHOBIA ISHOOS LET ME SHOW YOU THEM.

    Oh, fuck yes. I’ve had that happen to me twice lately, with Jane Fallon and Gillian Flynn. Reading along, LOVING the books, thinking “God, I wish I’d written this and also that you would be my BFF” — and then, there it is: A gratuitous description of some ridiculous, repulsive fat person, just for laffs. Because that makes every book better!

  51. On Beauty by Zadie Smith has a kick-ass fat main character. It is also one of the best books ever, IMHO.

  52. I would like to recommend a few titles in Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” series. This is an absolutely brilliant series of fantasy novels with protagonists in a stunning range of physical types, from pre-pubescent children to senior citizens and everything in between. In the “Witches” subseries are two (!) fat female protagonists who are never presented as anything but positive characters. Nanny Ogg (whom Elizabeth already mentioned) is elderly as well as fat, totally self-possessed, and unabashedly sexual, and nowhere do you get the impression that you’re supposed to be disgusted by her. A passage in one of the books even describes Nanny Ogg as “attractive, which is not the same as saying she was beautiful.”

    The other fat witch is Agnes, a teenager, and while she is often (realistically) self-conscious and embarrassed about her weight, it is clearly because she knows it is not fashionable rather than because she dislikes herself. She loses a lot of weight at the end of one of the books due to making a long journey on foot, but she gains it back by her next appearance, and the reader is not expected to view this as a misfortune. Both Agnes and Nanny are level-headed and competent.

    The “City Watch” sub-series also has an admirable fat (or at least stout) female character, Lady Sybil Ramkin/Vimes (she gets married in one of the books). She is only a secondary character, but she makes a strong impression whenever she appears because, again, she is so level-headed and competent. She breeds domestic dragons for a hobby and uses them as weapons against anyone who threatens her family.

  53. As long as we’re talking good fat-friendly books, I want to plug the children’s book “Fat Camp Commandos”, by Daniel Pinkwater. Fat kids of fat parents are living happy, normal lives until their parents get a bee in their bonnets about Fat Is Unhealthy and ship the kids off to fat camp. The kids break out of fat camp and have subversive adventures. Lots of fun and size-accepting all the way through.

  54. Daniel Pinkwater is the greatest– I just read his book, The Afterlife Diet, and it has this great character who is a therapist who runs his office out of the world’s best deli and has no patience with people wanting to be thinner. There’s also a doctor who tells one of the fat males that people are just fat– there’s no moral dimension! There’s also a scene with an over-the-top weight loss group session– hilarious! The book is full of weirdly surreal moments (classic Pinkwater) but it will have FA people cheering and rolling (rotundly) on the floor!

  55. Daniel Pinkwater rocks my world. “Alan Mendelson, Boy From Mars” is one of the best books ever, and one of the few that seems to actually reflect my school experience. Leonard Neeble is sort of like me, and the scenes with the therapist where the therapist encourages him to start skipping school and smoke cigars are awesome.

  56. I highly HIGHLY recommend Nalo Hopkinson, who writes gorgeous Canadian-Caribbean magical realism/science-fiction. In one short story of hers, the heroine notices that the wearer of her former body is wearing bike shorts to combat chub rub and it looks sly and sexy (chub rub mentioned in a short story? I nearly cried!).

    Her protagonistas have a variance of proportions, from super-muscular (a lady living on a convict planet in the future) to soft and plump, and it’s just a fact of life, not something to obsess about.

  57. @Karalora – in addition to Sybil, Cherie in the guards series is described as “bullet-shaped”, but is a thoroughly sympathetic character. (She’s a dwarf, though, so maybe the same body standards don’t apply?)

  58. It’s so cool you addressed this, Kate. I know I’ve absorbed so much negativity about women’s bodies in other media genres, but I hadn’t thought about the impact books have had. I haven’t read She’s Come Undone, but the fat hate sounds especially insidious since it’s couched in faux-sympathy. I’ll have to read it this summer to see what I think.

  59. I haven’t read the whole comment thread, but I’d like to suggest The Number One Ladies Detective Agency. She’s smart, she’s fat, she’s funny, she has a love life, and it is an all around great book. The first of a series, I’m told — I haven’t gotten to the others yet.

  60. Heidi said:”What bothers me more are authors like JK Rowling, who are apparently incapable of writing a normal, well-adjusted, good fat character. Every single one of her fat characters is either lazy and fat (Harry’s cousin), comical and fat (Neville, the Fat Lady), or corrupt and fat (Slughorn).”

    I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who hasn’t read it, but reserve judgement on Neville until you’ve read the series. Neville Longbottom is a stand-up guy and a true hero of the series.

  61. Eucritta, every time I read a ridiculously detailed description like what you’re talking about, I feel like that author has taken the old writing workshop gem of “making sure the reader can picture the character” too far. I think there are writers that have had this rule beaten into their heads and don’t realize the reasoning behind it. Description should be purposeful, not a mindless laundry list of attributes just to fulfill the “reader can picture the character” checkbox. Gah.

    And Elise, as a publishing professional myself, I feel that editing is hit or miss. There are places that you can get hired as a freelance editor without having to take any sort of competency test…maybe this happened in the mythological 35DD situation. This is not a slam on editors; I have great admiration for the good ones, and have worked with some unbelievably awesome and reliable ones. However, I’ve also worked with some that epic fail on even basic grammar rules, so it isn’t a stretch to me that a 35DD could pass through.

  62. Try Kerry Greenwood’s “Corinna Chapman” series, I think the first one is “Earthly Delights”.

    Her heroine, Corinna, is not only VERY fat, but she’s sexy, successful, popular, smart, loves her food, has many beloved friends, a gorgeous house, delicious cats, has a SMOKING hot boyfriend (oh the things I would do to that man if he was real!) and solves mysteries in her spare time.

    And the books are funny, well written and delightful.

  63. 1. I clicked the link to the picture of the two of you and got a “bandwidth exceeded”. Which kind of gave me a giggle.

    2. Thanks for linking to the Mammy caricature essay – I love Dr. Pilgrim’s writings at the Jim Crow site.

    3. Sweet Machine, was the character in Cider House Rules Melanie? Was she really only 175 lbs? She was portrayed as a huge, “scary” lesbian if I remember correctly (I read that book when I was 14 or so).

    4. “Particularly if you’re reading what is basically a good book and then it goes OH LOOK I CAN HAS FATPHOBIA ISHOOS LET ME SHOW YOU THEM.”

    Yeah. I second (or third) this. In fact in general, not just in fiction, I’m feeling a bit depressed that sometimes it seems nearly everyone around me can haz fatphobia issues. How do you find a way to enjoy the book, or the movie, and shrug all of that off? Can you tell I am very new to FA?

  64. Okay, going off my comment from way up thread, but I read Pat Ballard’s Wanted: One Groom…

    Um, while I don’t think of myself as a literary snob ;), I still didn’t find it all that good–and I enjoy reading amateur, online fanfiction! I think in terms of having a romance novel that exists with a fat heroine who isn’t shamed for her body, the book is successful — but I guess I want more than that.

  65. Of course there are always fantasy characters, Tamora Pierce’s The Protector of the Small quartet’s main character Keladry is a bigger girl, hell she’s a knight in training – shes got muscles galore even if she is ‘thick waisted’ as her sisters say. Everyone seems to have a problem with her body except for her! They call her ‘cow’ and ‘lump’ and she kicks their asses. She’s one of my favorite characters of all time! She hates bullies and kicks their asses all over the kingdom!

Comments are closed.