Fat is not a disability: It’s a book deal breaker

I just wrapped up another day of doing the Shred.
It’s been a year since I started putting conscious effort into working out, and I’ve stuck to it.

There have been some months where I’ve gone more days not doing it than days I have done it. There’ve been weeks that have passed without doing a single workout.

But then there are days like today, and the day before, and the day before, where I get into the workout, find that groove, hit flow, and walk away not just sweaty and gross, but feeling higher than anything and super pleased with the workout.

In the past year, I’ve lost nearly 40 inches total.
And maybe 10 pounds or so.

I get down on myself about my weight periodically, but I’ve always been fat. I’ve always had it on my body, and it’s just a part of who I am. In the last year of working out, I’ve gained a much stronger sense of confidence in my own body and in the physical state in which I exist and inhabit. I won’t lie and say that losing double-digit inches in my hips and my waist hasn’t boosted my confidence and made me really happy — especially when it comes to trying on clothes or being able to not think twice about whether something I want to try on will or won’t fit.

But more of my confidence comes from being fat and being able to push myself through an intense, ass-kicking workout and seeing it through until the end. My fat body is able to move and to sweat and to endure for 30 minutes without collapsing, without falling in on itself, without my heart stopping in the middle.

My fat body is awesome for this, and I am grateful every damn day I can do it. My fat body is so awesome for being able to do this that I reward my fat body with doing it again. And again. And again.

I will never be thin, and this is a fact I accepted at nearly 300 pounds a few years ago, and it’s a fact I accept now, weighing significantly less than that.

My fat isn’t something I am regularly conscious of. It’s just a part of who I am, and I accept it as a reality of my existence. I’m okay with it. My body does and feels good things.

I like my body even though it’s fat. I like my body even if you or anyone else does not.

This is on my mind again after reading Becky’s great post over at Book Riot on Book Deal breakers. What are those things in a book which turn the book off to you completely? I agree with nearly every single thing on Becky’s list, and I add one more: books which are about the fat body and that play into fat tropes. More specifically, books about fat girls that play into the fat girl tropes.

Almost all of the time, these books use their fat characters as the story. It is the fat on their body which drives the entire narrative. The character usually hates herself for her fat body because there is nothing worse than being a fat teenaged girl. You don’t get dates. You don’t have friends. You don’t fit into clothes. Furniture and stairs creak and groan under the pressure your body exerts upon it. Trying on clothes in the dressing room is a joke. Sometimes, fat people themselves are the joke — the ones around you or with you, even.

These books center on the issue of fat — being fat means something bad here, and the way to happiness, to friendship, to sexual enjoyment, to being able to move and dance and exist is through getting rid of the fat. Be it through a “healthy new dieting routine,” through gastric bypass surgery, through working out and “putting a little effort into your look.” Miraculously, those changes add up to a character better understanding herself and her place in the world and when her body finally fits the acceptable mode, she is accepted.

It makes me feel ashamed that the message of most YA books featuring fat characters is that your body is wrong, it’s going to kill you, it’s going to hold you back, and it’s not worth the space it takes up on this planet. Because this is a message we already send teenagers and if you don’t believe it, I point you to a recent story about how the Boy Scouts of America won’t let obese scouts go to the annual Jamboree (which is an event centered all about being active and having fun but fat bodies aren’t allowed that privilege because fat bodies aren’t real bodies).

Being fat isn’t a disability. Being fat is a physical state of being.

Why is it that fat people only have books featuring characters like them when the plot of the book centers around the most obvious thing — their being fat? Why is the character’s entire being and existence wrapped up in this one element of who they are? And why is it that losing weight is the end goal? You can be perfectly happy and healthy and active and confident and love for yourself at any size or shape or weight. It is not about the state of the body; it’s about the state of the mind. Fat is a thing you have, not a thing you are.

The more we continue to believe that it is about the state of the body, rather than the state of the mind, the more we continue to tell fat people their state of existence isn’t okay.

We tell them their stories — as they are — do not matter. That their stories will not matter until they reach a certain, socially-constructed, mythical ideal shape. Many times that won’t matter, either, because then their stories are about how they did it. How they “beat” fat.

I want to see more books that feature fat characters — fat girls especially — because I wish that body-positive, empowering books like Susan Vaught’s My Big Fat Manifesto and Simmone Howell’s Everything Beautiful had been around when I was a fat teenager and everywhere I looked, I was made to feel like I did not matter. Because the thing these books do that so many fat character-centered YA books don’t do is they show that fat characters wear their bodies as they do and still have rich, fulfilling, exciting, dynamic, and interesting lives beyond their shape. That they have dreams and goals and their bodies are going to help them get there, rather than hold them hostage or disable them completely.

What I want is for a teen to pick up a book that features a fat character who isn’t a silly sidekick or a laughing stock. Who isn’t seeking a way to better herself by losing weight. There are some authors doing this, but we need more (just like we need more who are writing about diversity or sexuality). I give kudos to authors like Rainbow Rowell, who has written a fat girl in Eleanor in Eleanor & Park — but I must install this caveat to my statement of what we need.

We need more books featuring fat characters that are done with enough conviction — given enough of a life and story and narrative and richness of their own — that they stand alone and stand up to the intolerance that some readers might bestow upon them. In other words, I think that having to explain why your character is fat or talk about that choice and what it may or may not mean in a blog post assumes a lot about your readers, and it also maybe suggests that your character doesn’t have enough to her to stand on her own and be what she is without elaboration. I don’t think it’s necessary to consider the “how fat” question at all.

It stings me to read representations of fat hate, even if it’s meant to be “subtle” or throwaway, as I suspect is the case in David Levithan’s Every Day, where A is essentially a klutzy, worthless monster at 300 pounds and disgusted and repulsed by it.

This is already what we see and experience.

For so many years, I believed that my being fat would hold me back. And it has in some ways — but never because of my body. It’s held me back because of other people’s perceptions of what a fat person can or should be doing.

I was shamed for my body once, by a colleague — a boss — at a program, in front of a group of teenagers. To this day, I remember standing there as she made a fat joke to this group of teenagers who were having a really good time at a program we were running. After she told it, she turned to me, covered her mouth with her hand, and said “no offense, I’m sorry Kelly.” I felt two things: first, tiny and insignificant as a person for being reduced to just a fat body in the eyes of a professional and second, dread that my teens had to see that whatever they may experience in their lives now may actually never “get better” when they become adults.

We can do better than this.

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  1. says

    I feel that my entire life has been being on a diet:-(
    It would definitely be a BIG change if we pick a book about a fat main character who isn't trying to lose wight. And most importantly, we don't get an "explanation" of why/how the character got fat because, some of us were just born to be fat (a little or a lot).
    Kisses, kudos, hearts, thumbs up, and stars for this post.

  2. says

    Here's how my fat acceptance story starts: my dear friend Angelo is involved with disability studies. He told me the story of the day a mentor told him, "You know it's OK to be mad at all these Easter Seal people who want to view you as a tragic mistake." And when he said that I realized, as if for the first time, "It's OK to be MAD about this.".

    These are important realizations to have in the life of a fat person. It changes the direction of what you'll accept. So, I love this post. And it reminds me how much I need to really write about the body horror show that is Every Day.

    But I also want to throw out this: what if fat IS a disability? For me, a turning point in my fat activism was this: understanding that I do not need to justify or explain or defend my "health" to anyone more than I owe them anything about how "I am SO fat and happy!" The only way we can neutralize concern trolls is to move the argument away from But I'm one of the *good* fatties, I promise! I exercise and I run marathons and I have low cholesterol and I swear I'm healthy, I swear I'm not running up your health bills! Do you accept me now? Do you feel less vitriol towards me now?! Can I have some basic human respect now?! towards "It doesn't MATTER if I'm healthy it doesn't MATTER if I run marathons or sit around all day – I still deserve basic human respect and dignity and I still won't be lectured or condescended to by the likes of you."

    What if I can't shred? What if I can't get around so well BECAUSE of the fat on my body? What if I do walk more slowly? What if my cholesterol is higher?

    The answer? SO WHAT. I am still a human, I am still a person, and I am still dying – just the same as all you perfectly healthy skinny people – one day at a time.

    And fat actually IS a thing I am. Fat is a descriptor for how I look and, more than that, living in this world in my fat body fucking defines a part of me. I relish that. And relishing that, I know now, is what I have truly worked for – for the right to say FAT IS A THING I AM AND THAT'S FINE BY ME.

    • says

      I love this, Angie. And I love that we can embrace and accept both the "have" and the "am" aspects of it and everyone identifies on that differently. AND THAT IS OKAY.

  3. says

    I so agree with this post. I cringe when I pick up a book and the back cover copy – the entire selling point of the book – is 'the MC is overweight and feels really bad about it and will figure out how to be more beautiful.'

    I'd love to see more books that if they mention weight at all, are more like 'the MC has a few extra pounds, and she's good with that, now here's the actual story'.

  4. says

    As someone who has always struggled with their weight and as a writer, this is a great post! Great mindset and fabulous point of view. Thank you!!

  5. says

    I feel really sad about Every day because otherwise I consider it a great book about acceptance. It's a shame how Levithan treats this issue. Great post, really great.

  6. says

    I have always been overweight as well. I'm still trying to get down – for health reasons now, less than cosmetic. My favorite fat protagonist book growing up was "The Summerboy" by Robert Lipsyte. It was important to the protag, but it wasn't everything. That was realistic to me. The worst book? "The Pig-Out Blues" by Jan Greenberg. I can hardly remember the story – just that she was obsessed with weight and what she was eating. The most horrifying aspect of the book was the cover – a bone thin girl drinking a milkshake. The cover was such a slap in the face to anyone larger than a size 5. I haven't read it since the early nineties, but I still remember that cover and I still feel loathing for that book.

  7. says

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. I have a fat main character in a novel out on submission now, and I really hope I haven't played into the tropes that you mention. She does have self-esteem issues and periodically try to lose weight, but mostly because of the messages that she gets from her mom. At the end of the book, she decides that she's beautiful as she is.

    • says

      I read Good in Bed but don't recall anything about being fat. A couple of extra pounds is NOT the same as being fat. Extra weight you can fix with exercise, fat… you were born to be that way (from so called big-boned and all).

    • says

      It's been a long time since I read Good in Bed (I mean maybe 8 or 9 years) but I should revisit it.

      I think fat is however you define it. It could mean weighing 500 pounds. It could mean carrying a few extra pounds over your body's "ideal" weight. I don't think there is a line to be drawn because that gets into questions of what is fat enough to be "fat." It is what it is. It's self-defined and socially-defined.

  8. says

    Thanks for this post. Please don't ever stop writing about this. We need more images (more self-images?) in YA, especially of characters who cover the whole range of looks. In reality, teens look all kinds of ways. In books, not so much. On tv, never.

  9. says

    This is such an interesting discussion. America so often paints being anything, but super model skinny as bad. Its not. Its normal. Should we all still work out? Yes, but if we have a little meat to our bones that is not a bad thing. It is part of what makes us human. Thanks for opening up this topic of discussion. I agree that it is a deal breaker in book land. That people are less likely to read a book with a fat person.

  10. says

    I am still incredibly reluctant to pick up any book where fat plays into things for exactly these reasons. I can't ever help but be worried that it's going to get to me in a negative wait, especially since its one of very few issues I can almost never evaluate clinically. I remember when Popular came on the WB and I was AMAZED to see a fat character who was talented, funny, smart – I had literally NEVER seen that in a movie or show before.

    Great post, always glad to see stuff like this. (And fuck every book where getting skinny makes everything better.)

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