Where are all the fatties in fiction?

>> Tuesday, June 1, 2010

I was not a pretty young girl.

I spent most of my childhood and adolescence as this awkward, overweight, bucktoothed, big-nosed creature that barely felt female. This is embarrassing to look back upon, but it's true, and I know I'm not the only one who has ever felt that way.

All the articles I've just completed about dating and self esteem have me thinking about how the concepts relate to fiction. Sure, we all know that TV rarely shows the chubby, clumsy kid as the beloved star. However (whether this is accurate or not), novels are still widely thought to be a more intelligent and productive form of entertainment compared to what comes out of Hollywood. And that brings me to my question: where are the fat kids in books?

I'm not talking about niche romance novels or erotic literature designed to cater to fetishists. I'm not talking about the bumbling, weak, deplorable fat boys found in children's books like Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Piggy from Lord of the Flies. I remember reading both these books in school as a kid and wanting to die of humiliation. All of a sudden, I wasn't the quiet girl in the corner anymore. I was just like the ugly, whiny boy who eventually met his end.

Even the Harry Potter series' Neville Longbottom is portrayed as a coward and a failure until the later books, and never mind the picture we get in the early books when Harry is pictured as bony, swift, and smart, while his evil cousin Dudley is wide, stupid, and always hungry. Can't a fat kid be nice, smart, and confident?

The picture grows even more depressing when you look for examples of fat or otherwise imperfect female characters. I can't even think of any in YA fiction.

There's Joan in Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle, who I found easy to relate to, but she lost the weight as she grew older. Worse still, I seem to remember her losing it through limiting her meals to frozen vegetables or a single cracker.

Usually, the best you get is a "plain" female protagonist, and you get the impression that those girls are really supposed to be slender, glossy-haired beauties who just have low self-esteem for no particular reason. Twilight's Bella is "plain", yet within days she seems to have half the male population of her new town falling at her feet. And though I haven't read the Sookie Stackhouse novels myself, I've heard that the main character is supposed to be a size 10. That's a far cry from her TV counterpart Anna Paquin (who I'll admit I think is adorable), but at least it's something, even if it's a size or two below the average American woman.

I'm not a fat advocate. I don't know if people can carry too much fat and be healthy at the same time; I'm not a doctor. But I've been on the fat side of things. I've stood on the scale with the sky-high numbers. And I know that if I'd seen more positively portrayed large characters in fiction as a child, I would have found it easier to build self-esteem and gain the strength to deal with my weight in a healthy way.