A Heavy Subject: Large Bodies in Fiction, a guest post by Matt Wallace
I was a fat kid, and I’m a fat adult. We don’t often see our bodies and our experience living in our bodies represented in fiction written for either audience, and when we do that representation tends to be well-meaning yet poorly realized at best, a cruel mockery at worst.
We all need to do better, and I promise you writing about fat characters isn’t rocket science. Let’s start with language. Because we are fiction writers and words are our tools. I use the word “fat” to describe myself and large bodies, and I feel strongly it’s important to normalize and take the unfair and undue negative connotation that’s been heaped on that word out of it. Not every person of size agrees with me. All of us who grew up having our size weaponized against us have a complicated relationship to the word “fat.” That’s fine. I also believe every fat person should get to decide how they describe themselves.
The most important thing, to me, is that the language you use to describe your characters of size is neutral and non-judgmental. It’s up to you to investigate and interrogate the words and language you’re choosing and apply that standard to them. Language you may think is acceptable and “technical” can be in fact be the worst choice you can make. A word like “obese” has deeply problematic DNA. “Overweight” implies a standard of which weights are or are not “normal” or “acceptable.” So while you may have no malicious intent in employing these words, while you might think you’re using “medically accurate” language, you’re actually casting judgment on your character and making a statement about fatness.
That’s why I use “fat.” Some people are fat. Some people are thin. Some people are tall. Some people are short. None of these descriptors in and of themselves make a judgment on being that thing. They simply differentiate one state of being from the other. It’s the way we view being those things, and how we treat the people we look down on for being those things that straps so much awful baggage to those words.
Your next pitfall to avoid are the tropes that have beset fat characters in all media since time immemorial. The most obvious of these is that we are obsessed with food and constantly eating, and not unrelated to that is our weight being our defining characteristic and how that characteristic is always played for comedy. First of all, people are fat for all kinds of reasons, and being cartoon gluttons binge-eating everything in sight is on the absolutely extreme end of that spectrum. Fat people also do not exist to be the butt of your lazy comedy. In short, take out all your fat jokes, whether it’s other characters casually mocking being fat or their fat friend, your fat character perpetually eating as their entire personality, or physical comedy of the it’s-funny-because-they’re-fat-and-they-fell-down variety. None of it is funny.
Being fat is not the center of our lives, nor does it live at the forefront of our consciousness twenty-four hours a day. The way the world is constructed and how it interacts with fat people is what most often brings our fatness to those focal points for us. The way a lot of people view and treat us is a big part of that. This doesn’t necessarily need to be expressed in outright verbal or physical abuse. A lot of the time it’s the small, passive-aggressive behavior that is the worst to endure. The silent judgment when we dare to eat anything other than salad in public, for example. There is also the physicality of the world itself, whether it’s trying to dine in a restaurant that only has booths with tables bolted to the floor, or trying to shop for clothes at a non-specialty store, or trying to find a seat on the school bus (no one wants to sit next to the fat kid). Things simply are not constructed to accommodate fat people, and regardless of the situation or circumstances more often than not we are blamed for that fact.
This all may seem very complicated to you, but I promise it’s not. You don’t have to follow every word I’ve written to the letter, or learn a rigid and exhaustive set of rules. What really matters, and the thing you probably haven’t been hardwired mentally to do, is stop treating your fat characters like they are the fat characters you’ve grown up watching on TV and start treating them like people, like the characters you see yourself in that you write. Just let us be people, with all the complexity and variation and desires and drives and capabilities that all people possess. Strive to capture how the world, knowingly or unknowingly, positively and negatively, interacts with us and how we try to adjust and adapt to that, but don’t make fatness the whole of who we are.
If you are earnestly attempting to do that, I promise your characterizations and fiction will be a lot better for it. You don’t have to perfect, no one is, but sincere will take you a long way, and in the right direction.
Meet the author
Matt Wallace is the author of Bump, his middle grade debut, and the Hugo–winning author of the adult novels Rencor: Life in Grudge City, the Sin du Jour series, and Savage Legion. He’s also penned over one hundred short stories in addition to writing for film, television, and video games. In his youth he traveled the world as a professional wrestler, unarmed combat, and self-defense instructor before retiring to write full-time. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Nikki. You can visit him at www.matt-wallace.com.
About The Supervillain’s Guide to Being a Fat Kid
Matt Wallace, author of Bump, presents a personal, humorous, and body-positive middle grade standalone about a fat kid who wants to stop his bullies . . . and enlists the help of the world’s most infamous supervillain. Perfect for fans of Holly Goldberg Sloan, Julie Murphy, and John David Anderson!
Max’s first year of middle school hasn’t been easy. Eighth-grade hotshot Johnny Pro torments Max constantly, for no other reason than Max is fat and an easy target. Max wishes he could fight back, but he doesn’t want to hurt Johnny . . . just make him feel the way Max feels.
In desperation, Max writes to the only person he thinks will understand: imprisoned supervillain Master Plan, a “gentleman of size.” To his surprise, Master Plan wants to help! He suggests a way for Max to get even with Johnny Pro, and change how the other kids at school see them both.
And it works! When Master Plan’s help pays off for Max in ways he couldn’t have imagined, he starts gaining confidence—enough to finally talk to Marina, the girl he likes in class who shares his passion for baking. With Master Plan in his corner, anything seems possible . . . but is there a price to pay for the supervillain’s help?
* A Junior Library Guild selection *
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/25/2022
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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