As a fat person, reading books with fat characters is hard.
The first book I remember reading with a fat character in it was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling. Harry’s cousin Dudley, who torments Harry and is babied by his parents, is described as overweight, three to four times Harry’s size, and on more than one occasion Harry compares him to “a pig in a wig.” As I would later realize is a common trope, Dudley’s weight was also tied to his personality. He was seen as lazy, gluttonous, and a bully, all traits authors commonly write for fat characters. Other fat Harry Potter characters were similar: Harry’s aunt Marge, who belittles Harry and his parents. Peter Pettigrew, the traitor. Dolores Umbridge, the torturous, authoritarian teacher. Or, if you haven’t read Harry Potter, consider other famous works. Think of the annoying and whiny character Piggy in Lord of the Flies, or the huge and terrorizing Miss Trunchbull in Matilda. Even in adult fiction, like Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, where the custody lawyer’s weight and physical appearance is to blame for his repulsive personality. Tying weight to negative personality traits is everywhere in fiction. (While I was researching examples for this blog post, I even found a writer’s website with advice on how to write villains, including the recommendation to write them as “fat and fleshy.”)
Years later, I read a romance novel called Big Girl Panties, by Janet Evanovich. The main character, Holly, has gained weight out of despair over her husband’s recent death, realizes she needs to lose weight, and hires a personal trainer she ends up falling in love with. This book follows the other most common tropes for fat characters besides being villains: gaining weight from trauma, and losing weight to find love. Holly isn’t just fat because that’s her body type or because she’s happy that way, she’s fat because she is brokenhearted and out of control of her life, a common trope that suggests fatness is a result of trauma or lack of discipline, not genetics or being happy with that body shape. Her love interest finds her repulsive at first, but grows to love her as she shrinks. Additionally, as Holly loses weight other men start finding her attractive again too, because in this and many other romance books, the main character is only worthy of attention from men when she is skinny.
Fat readers deserve better. Fat characters deserve better.
I am hopeful for the future because I have seen improvements, with more body positive representation in the last decade or so. Readers can now find books with more body-inclusive characters, in stories that are fat-positive, don’t involve trauma as a catalyst for weight gain, and involve finding love without changing your body. In Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, a confident, fun, fat girl falls in love and signs up to compete in the local beauty pageant. Good in Bed, by Jennifer Weiner, follows a woman happy with her body until her ex writes a magazine column about the complexities of dating a plus size woman, which leads to her examining her life choices, losing then regaining weight, and falling in love with someone who appreciates her without her having to change her body. And there’s Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson, with a fat main character that is never once ridiculed or criticized for her weight, nor does she ever have her size made into a plot point to further a character’s empathy or development. She is fat, and that’s just the way she is. These books with positive representations and a lack of obsession with weight loss are not nearly common enough, but the genre is growing. Interested in reading a book with positive depictions of fat characters? Check out Dumplin’, Good in Bed, Nimona, or other body-positive fiction here.
Reading books with fat characters is getting easier. There’s still a long way to go.