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