The most intense fat shaming I’ve faced was when I was a kid. Obviously, that also led to me carrying a lot of internalised fatphobia I had to work on. It was only in my early twenties that I even started putting in the work to overcome everything I’d internalised. My journey towards fat acceptance and liberation has been long and it grows as I learn.
A big part of my learning and growing also involves talking about and boosting books with positive fat representation. And yet, I shy away from Middle Grade and stick to YA and Adult fiction. Why? Because I’ve been burned by KidLit with fat characters in the past. Obviously, I’m trying to change that now especially since there are good children’s books coming out that have positive fat rep, but we also have instances like a couple of days back, where a huge number of Pitmad pitches were fatphobic.
That coupled with all the feelings I had while reading an actually good middle grade novel with fat rep pushed me to rant about my experience with KidLit on here.
Strap on, it’s going to be a wild ride.
Fatphobia in popular KidLit.
The children’s literature I grew up with was completely fatphobic. The magic school series that must not be named is one example. (Tangent: My old article about all the fatphobic sentiments in the series is now hidden in the depths of my drafts awaiting reformatting. Despite the article’s past popularity, I don’t think I can, in good conscience, bring it back now because I legit do not want to talk about TERFling again, even if it is to dunk on her. After this instance that is.)
Anywho, the other popular set of books kids my age read was Roald Dahl. I learned only a few years back that the dude was a raging antisemite but dear God, the amount of ableism and fatphobia in his books shakes me to this day.
Remember Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?
I have a problem with literally everything about Augustus Gloop’s portrayal, starting with his name. Like, they really named the sole fat kid Gloop and of course, he’s also greedy, gluttonous, and vile. Check out how he’s described when he’s first mentioned in the book:
“The picture showed a nine-year-old boy who was so enormously fat he looked as though he had been blown up with a powerful pump. Great flabby folds of fat bulged out from every part of his body, and his face was like a monstrous ball of dough with two small greedy curranty eyes peering out upon the world.”
Grandma Georgina even calls him a “repulsive boy” when she sees him on TV but honestly, the only repulsive thing here is this portrayal of a fat kid. How was this allowed to go on a children’s book and how did we all read it? The way none of us even realised how fatphobic the book was until we read it as adults goes to show how commonplace this kind of representation was when we were kids.
“But Augustus was deaf to everything except the call of his enormous stomach. He was now lying full length on the ground with his head far out over the river, lapping up the chocolate like a dog.”
The book may have been written in 1964 but it was still very much a famous book in my time and it still is. So tell me, why did adults think this was appropriate reading for little kids?
And that’s not all.
Augustus eventually gets sucked up by a pipe dangling into the river and of course, gets stuck as well because hey, did I tell you he’s fat?
Even the Augustus Gloop song the Oompa Loompas sing is fatphobic AND ableist.
“Augustus Gloop! Augustus Gloop!
The great big greedy nincompoop!
How long could we allow this beast
To gorge and guzzle, feed and feast
On everything he wanted to?
Great Scott! It simply wouldn’t do!
However long this pig might live,
We’re positive he’d never give
Even the smallest bit of fun
Or happiness to anyone.”
They then continue to refer to him as “revolting boy”, “unutterably vile”, “greedy, foul and infantile”, and… you get the picture. Basically every fat stereotype ever.
His portrayal in the book follows typical straw man tropes of fat characters in that we’re supposed to assume that Augustus deserved what happens to him because he’s fat, eats a lot, and has overindulgent parents who let him do that to his body.
Almost all the supposedly popular KidLit has such fat stereotypes. The fat characters are either greedy or the comic relief (with fat jokes they’d make about themselves so you wouldn’t feel guilty about laughing at them). Either way, the character’s worth is tied to the way they look.
And can we take a minute to talk about the whole greedy stereotype for fat characters? Each time a book or movie equates fatness with greed, it really, really pisses me off. All they do is reinforce harmful stereotypes like overindulgence and laziness. Like, listen, WALL-E, you can portray the downsides of capitalism without dehumanising fat bodies. Novel, I know.
When kids read fatphobic books…
…they become fatphobic too.
Literally no one is born with anti-fat bias. It’s the media we consume that forces unrealistic body standards down our throats and constantly reinforces stereotypes that make us believe that fat = bad. The laziness stereotype only tells kids that fat people just need to try harder to live up to this thin ideal, thereby perpetuating anti-fat bias.
The message is beamed to us over and over, to the point where even toddlers have body image issues. A 5 year old in my family sucks in her gut before posing for pictures. Also fun aside, when she and I were goofing around and running together one day, her grandmother immediately went “oh keep running! You both can afford to lose weight!”. Nuke my family, I swear.
And it’s not just the kids in my family.
Studies time and again show that children learn about anti-fat bias way too young. One study showed that children between the ages 9 to 11 show implicit weight bias of the same magnitude as adults with implicit racial bias. Another study shows that children apparently don’t want to be friends with kids in bigger bodies.
Since media directly influences consumers, doesn’t this send a clear message on exactly how harmful fatphobic portrayal of people can be on kids? Fat kids internalise this harmful messaging, the straight-sized ones don’t want to become fat or they’d face a similar treatment, and the bullies can straight up have a field day because hey, if Augustus Gloop deserved it, so do their fat classmates.
This is why a massive overhaul needs to happen in kid’s media, especially KidLit. Bring in some diversity, make the fat kid fabulous, check your own internal biases. There’s so much work to be done and maybe we’ll have a new generation of kids who grow up with a diversified reading list without the kind of internalised fatphobia you and I did.
Fat rep in contemporary KidLit.
While I don’t read as much middle grade as I do YA and Adult fiction, I am particularly partial to the ones that have positive fat rep. But my past trauma can also make some of these books quite triggering.
I recently read Jemima Small Versus the Universe which made me hella uncomfortable because one of the nicknames for Jemima Small is Jemima Big. It gave me war flashbacks to being called Big Shruti to differentiate me from the other (thinner) Sruthi R. in 7th grade. Fun, right?
It’s because of all the shaming being condensed in my formative years that I find it difficult to read fat rep in KidLit. I do love books that combat fatphobia head on, but you know what would have helped me a lot as a child? Fat kids being themselves in books. Kids being fat because fat kids do exist in real life and the stories not being only about the fatphobia they face.
I don’t know if it’s too early to hope for such incidental fat rep in children’s books but for now, the ones about fat kids facing up to their bullies will have to do. And you never know how much it can help someone stand up to their bullies!
Which brings us to Starfish by Lisa Fipps.
This was supposed to be a review of Starfish which turned into a semi-rant about fat rep in MG novels real quick. Oops?
In her episode on the Fat Like Me podcast — 10/10 recommend it btw — Lisa mentioned that Starfish was initially a YA novel. She then rewrote it for Middle Grade with her publisher’s advice because it would help her reach kids while they’re being bullied for their appearance. “And maybe, just maybe, Starfish would reach the bullies and get them to stop” as she says in the book’s Acknowledgements.
Isn’t that amazing? I’m so glad Starfish will be out in the world soon!
Starfish is about Ellie, a fat kid who loves swimming. She’s nicknamed Splash after cannonballing into a pool one summer. She also faces a lot of fat shaming in school and at home from her very mother. To combat with this, she comes up with a list of Fat Girl Rules such as “no making waves,” “avoid eating in public,” and more. However, with the help of her dad, a new friend, and a therapist, she’s able to get rid of the rules, live life her way, and also stand up to her bullies along the way!
And did I tell you it’s entirely in verse? It really has my whole heart.
I may have grown up with Augustus Gloop as representation, but can you imagine how much Starfish can help kids?
It has so many quotable lines but this has got to be my personal favourite:
“Don’t let your mom’s issues with weight become your issues with weight, kiddo.”
I still think Nancy Paulsen owes me monies in damages because of all the tears and snot I got on my iPad while reading this book. It was just so, so relatable, you know?
Also, I know I just said I detest all the fatphobia books with fat MCs invariably carry but somehow in Starfish, I was still rooting for Ellie because she’s on the path to standing up to her bullies from the get-go even if she doesn’t know it.
Starfish also has really positive representation of therapy which I once again appreciate so, so much. This is the kind of book kids should be reading so they understand fat bodies are nothing to look down on and also how therapy can really help everyone in standing up and showing up for themselves.
I highly recommend Starfish for anyone who’d like positive representation of fat kids and therapy in middle grade novels.
If you’d like more great middle grade book recommendations, I suggest checking out Ambivert Words. My friend Dany loves MG and they’re my go-to person for KidLit recommendations.
(PS: If you order Starfish using my Bookshop affiliate link, I’ll also earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.)
- Have you read any MG novels with positive fat rep?
- Did you resonate with anything I’d said here?
- Are you interested in reading Starfish?
Talk to me in the comments!