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Overweight, underrepresented: Where are all the fat people in literature?

I’ve always been overweight. Growing up fat in India is traumatic and any fat Indian person can vouch for this. I’ve been shamed for being fat by family, friends, neighbours, kids at school, and random strangers.

It took me ages to accept my body for the way it looked. It certainly didn’t help that I never saw people of my body type onscreen growing up. In Indian cinema, fat people are always the punchline. Because God forbid a woman be fat!

My native tongue is Tamil. And here’s the thing about Tamil movies. We worship 68 year old men putting on full makeup and a wig to pass themselves off as twenty-somethings in movies, but the minute a fat woman walks onscreen, we laugh. Sometimes being fat itself IS the punchline in our movies.

Reading has always been my favourite form of entertainment, but the pasture wasn’t any greener there. Every single children’s book I read had white main characters with skinny bodies.

The only fat character from childhood I can think of is Sancho Panza from Don Quixote. We had excerpts from Don Quixote in our English textbooks in 5th grade and this guy made me so happy! This squire with his signature humor and wit is the only fat character in books I read as a child whose weight did not make him the butt of all jokes.

Image result for sancho panza
Source: Wikipedia

Every other book, however, treated fat people either as the punchline or portrayed them as lazy slobs who did not deserve love. Or maybe they did deserve love but only after they’ve dropped a few pounds.

As a teenager, I started actively searching online for plus size fiction. She Comes Undone by Wally Lamb was a popular result, but I never deigned to read it because the main character, Dolores, was sexually abused and that’s apparently why she was fat.

That’s another trope fat main characters seem to fall into. Their fatness is the result of some trauma from their early years. So many books can be lumped under this category and frankly, it boils my blood. We’re not all fat because something traumatic happened to us.

Each time someone says being fat is the result of trauma, they really are implying that being fat is unnatural. Does society really hate fat people that much?

I myself internalised this hatred for fat people and told myself shrinking myself was the only way to be loved. I knew zilch about body positivity and when people said I would look pretty AFTER I lost weight, I believed them.

And then came Heather Wells.

Size 12 Is Not Fat (Heather Wells, #1)

The Heather Wells series by Meg Cabot is by no means about body positivity. But Size 12 Is Not Fat, the first book in the series, was my gateway into not hating my body so much. The titular character, Heather Wells, used to be a famous teen pop star until she gained a few pounds and was dropped by her music label. Now, as the assistant dorm director at a popular New York college, she investigates a mysterious death in her dorm.

The remaining books in the series (Size 14 Is Not Fat Either, Big Boned, Size 12 And Ready to Rock, and The Bride Wore Size 12) also lived up to the expectations the first book set.

In these books, Heather is fat. She does struggle to lose weight. She does plan on avoiding junk food altogether and keep failing. As a teenager, I was able to relate to this. And I was ready to take any fat main character I got, so I latched on to Heather faster than Spanx sticks to your skin.

I reread the series multiple times as a teenager and even as I write this, I want to read the books again. But I won’t, because I’m sure I wouldn’t like it now. Even the title seems to imply “ooh I am plus size, but I’m not fat”.

Is fat really that bad a thing to be?

As a teenager, Heather gave me the hope that being a size 12 didn’t mean you were repulsive, and for that I’m thankful. But as a 24 year old, I want so much more from the books I read.

Every fat person book always focuses on the character’s fatness. Even seemingly body positive books imply that characters “fell in love DESPITE being fat”.

Size is just a number. Why do we give it so much attention?

I stopped seeking out books with plus-sized leads long back. They make me more mad than not. But looking at some hyped YA literature, I do see hope. More people are writing bigger characters and not making their size a plot point.

However, we still have a long way to go. A really long way.

~ Shruti

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The illustrations in the blog title are by DeeDee51. You can find them here.

35 thoughts on “Overweight, underrepresented: Where are all the fat people in literature?

  1. Aaah Shruti I love this! First off, I didn’t know trauma led to fatness was a trope?? That’s absolutely disgusting!
    I’m glad you found at least one series for some body positivity. My teenage years have been different since there is so much more growth and exposure in the books but it can still be very difficult sometimes.
    Also yes, I’m so happy to see characters like Leah, Molly, Sweetie and so on- my heart bursts with love and gratitude ❤️
    Oh speaking about Sweetie, you’re really gonna love There’s Something About Sweetie- your younger self would have latched on it like anything ☺️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Omg yes, teenage me would’ve loved Molly and Leah! They’re the closest to myself I’ve ever seen in a book.

      Also umm, about Sweetie. I didn’t particularly like WDMR so I’m a little skeptical. But I’ll try it when it releases anyway. 😅

      Like

  2. I totally agree. TSAS (which Charvi mentioned earlier) is pretty good in terms of representation but it’s still horribly inaccurate about desi representation in America

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Loved this Shruti! I have never exoerythis myself as I was always skinny. But yeah I have faced ‘not-fair’ thing of our Indian society so I can totally relate.
    You are right, we do need more plus-sized heroine in our books but I am glad that YA books are including theme these days. Recently there has been some good books with fat girls. But yes, we have a long way to go.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Loved your post, Shruti. I’m fat too. Body positivity is yet to sink in for me. And no, I have Never tried to actively seek out books where overweight people are represented. Maybe, because such books aren’t there. Or maybe because body positivity is yet to sink in for me. Now, I’m prattling rubbish. Anyways, great post, Shruti. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No you’re not prattling rubbish, Debjani! I understand what you’re saying. I’ve been there too! There are so many body positive activists on Instagram—check some of them out, maybe? They really helped. One of my favorite BoPo Warrior is Michelle Elman (@ScarredNotScared on IG). She’s even written a book called Am I Ugly which I recently read and loved!

      If you read YA, there are a lot of books with plus sized heroines that don’t have their size as a plot point. My favourites are The Upside of Unrequited and Leah on the Offbeat, both by Becky Albertalli. Teenage Shruti would’ve killed for these books. I hope adult fiction follows suit too. :/

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the recommendations, Shruti. I will check them out. I do hope that we have more positive representation of fat people in adult fiction. I was about to say “Samwell Tarly” but then remembered, that his representation in the GOT universe is not exactly positive.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I have been fat for a while but like most ppl, I have also laughed at those fat jokes in our movies and internalized that only thin girls are pretty… I don’t know if I’m completely over it yet but I’m glad for the body positivity movement…. I wish the family would stop with their comments too 😔😔
    But your post is powerful and awesome and thank you for writing it… I have never thought much about representation before, so I don’t have the experience of searching for those books before… and even now, I don’t really look for fat character leads, maybe I just don’t trust they will be shown with respect…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is heartbreaking, Sahi! Family is always the worst—they’re the main reason most of us internalize hatred for fat bodies. My own relatives fat shamed me a lot when I was a kid and now they wonder why I don’t talk to them much. 🤦🏼‍♀️

      All this fat shaming only made me an angry person. I’m very good at lashing out at anyone who fat shames me, but that doesn’t change the impact of their words.

      When I was a teenager, I only ever saw books were plus sized heroines lost weight to find love or they implied that a fat woman fell in love despite being fat. Back then, there weren’t enough books about fat people just being. But YA has become a little better with fat rep—especially with my babies Molly and Leah. Thank god for Becky Albertalli. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know… their intentions are fine but they don’t realize how it impacts me.. it’s also something I hear so constantly now that I just don’t really listen properly… I don’t wanna take those words to heart anymore…
        it made you angry.. it just made me very indifferent.. I don’t like engaging in any conversation regarding weight… I think that’s why I never looked for the rep in books either…
        but yes, reading Leah was cool.. while I didn’t enjoy the book a lot for other reasons, her body positivity in the book was awesome… hopefully, I’ll read more such books and maybe get there myself one day 😊😊

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Same! I’m by no way an expert on books with fat rep. I stopped seeking them out long back! But I hope I do start again.

          Can you guess why I related to Leah so much? I was (and sometimes still am) a HUGE sourpuss. While many people didn’t like the book because of her anger, I liked it all the more for precisely that reason. ❤️😅

          Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s been a painful journey. Some of the books are SO degrading. However, anything that is about a fat women who doesn’t date or diet her way to happiness is another one I can add to the list and recommend to readers like you!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. SHRUTIIIIIII. *squishes you with all the hugs* I always hate when fat people are the punchline or used as trauma (particularly with eating away sorrows, that type – I WILL EAT WHAT I WANT??? Maybe I’m just happy with eating food???), and I loved this post! I’ve hovered between fat and skinny growing up and my family didn’t let me down with weight (“Oh, you’re gaining weight, you should be more careful with what you eat.”). Even working in the food industry where I ate a lot of food (primarily because I moved around a lot and my body started burning food quickly due to the activity) and had a supervisor mention that I’m starting to look chunky even though I was normal weight???

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I love this article. Where all my thick chicks at! LOL!! I got so sick of novels that treated fat people like they were invisible or just used to make the hero/heroine look so fit and prettier. So, I wrote my own novel called Syphons where the main character is plus-size and it does not stop her from living life to the full. Yes, she has moments of self-doubt, but she’s still a human! Definitely following and liking your work, can’t wait to read more!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s awesome! So many novels fall into the trap of portraying fat as limiting when in fact it’s just a body type and nothing more. Fat people are not the joke, they’re not the punch line, and they’re definitely not all insecure about their bodies.

      I’m so happy that books like yours exist! Even YA is seeing so many plus-size main characters where their size is not the story. Gotta be thankful for all of them! ❤️

      Like

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