Fat and lit

deborah deborah at suberic.net
Mon Feb 3 18:17:25 EST 2003

Some thoughts on fat.  These are heavily influenced by a paper on
children's lit and fat written by a colleague; she's offered a copy to
anyone who requests of me by private email.

In the vast majority of cases in children's literature (sometimes
excluding books where fat is the issue), fatness is used as a symbol of
a character flaw, as race or class used to be.  DWJ is less guilty of
this than many: Shine is fat, but so is Lydda (fat & muscle combined),
and Nan is that rarest of all children's lit heroines: a fat girl who is
still fat after she's had a successful quest.

There are three main types of flawed fat characters. Dudley, the
Dursleys, and Aunt Petunia; the corresponding family in Ibbotson's The
Secret of Platform 13; Katherine in The Language of Goldfish; Nazir in
Shabanu are all "lazy, evil, or stupid" fat.  On the other hand, the boy
in Hatchet; the girl in The Perilous Gard; Stanley Yelnats in Holes;
Call in Jacob Have I Loved are all "became thin as a sign of personal
growth" fat.  "Victim" fat arrives in Miranda from "When She Hollers".

Now, let's stop talking about literary sterotypes for a moment, and
explore instead what we mean when we say "fat".  When we talk about fat,
fat people, and fat politics, we end up talking in many registers at
once without realising:

- health
- beauty
- choice, agency, and free will
- morality, excess, and consumption

We mix them up without realising, so different assumptions and myths
from these different registers will come into play without the speakers
realizing.  For example, people will talk about fat as "ugly", but will
go on to include "unhealthy" or "slobby" in that definition of "ugly".

Let's separate these out a little bit, so when we think about "fat", we
can think about which set of registers we're working with.  Be
suspicious if the registers are slipping, when you're listening to
someone talk about fat.

Health: *Please* read the amazing article at
http://www.tnr.com/docprint.mhtml?i=20030113&s=campos011303  (it
requires a free registration, or send me private e-mail, and I will send
you a copy).  Additionally, medicine is a culturally influenced
institution like any other.  Commerce is also tied very tightly into
so-called "objective" science, as you can see from the article's
discussion of C. Everett Koop and the diet industry.

Beauty: Beauty's just a standard.  Some of us find fat ugly, some of us
find it beautiful, some of us find it a neutral characteristic, as we
might find brown eyes, or freckles.

Morality: We have strange Puritan roots, and ask angry questions: how
dare you take too much pleasure?  How dare you be out of control?  As we
know from "health", that's not true anyway -- and even if it is, who
cares?  When thin people can eat three hot fudge sundaes, we say "oh,
how I envy you," not "oh, you're so gross".  It's as if we use fat as a
palpable sign of sin, like left-handedness once was.

Choice: Given any two people in a culture with similar basic nutrition,
it's patently untrue that you can tell anything about their eating
habits by their body types.  cf. thin people with hot fudge sundaes,
above.  Moreover, even if  -- as is not so -- you could tell what
choices people are making, why should those choices be markers of evil?
Exactly who is hurt?  Why is, say, choosing to eat excessively -- which,
again, can't be identified by body type -- considered evil, while
choosing to wear Nikes -- equally visible, and known to be be created in
harmful conditions -- is not? And why don't we equally hate skinny
people who eat excessively?  Or bulemics?  Or anoerexics, who are also
working with problems of excess.

"fat chance", The New Republic, 27 Jan 03, p.8 or 9
_Never too Thin_, Roberta Pollack Seid
_Invisible Woman_, W. Charisse Goodman, esp. chp 6

deborah at suberic.net
"I don't want to know what the structuralists think!  I want to
know what you think!"  -- Archer's Goon, Diana Wynne Jones

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