The world is obsessed with fat. Trans fat, low fat, saturated fat, high fat, skinny fat, fit fat, good fat, bad fat. It’s everywhere we look these days, and the book world is no exception. And while we're used to hearing about it in the world of diet and nutrition books, The Flat-Belly Diet and its cohorts don't have a corner on the curve market. More and more, weight is playing a role in fiction as well.
But too often, it doesn't seem like the real world. In reality, people walk around in
various shapes and sizes, and that's just the way it is. If they're fat, it's only one aspect
of the things that make them up - who they are, and what they are. Their size is incidental,
circumstantial, not the main focal point of them as a person. But in writing fiction, the author, playing
a God of sorts, has to make decisions. It seems in describing someone's physical attributes,
there is a reason to make them that way, and fat tends to carry the most connotations.
If a character is fat, it's a struggle for them, and often the central theme of the book. It often goes hand-in-hand with unflattering character traits, such as laziness, sloppiness or greed. Even Rex Stout's portly and popular detective Nero Wolfe, while intelligent, sophisticated and successful, is written as very much a creature of comfort - constantly eating, living in opulent luxury, waited on. It has been used to demonstrate psychological problems (often to be physically shed later in the story, in symbolic synchronicity with the shedding of the burden of secrets, or shame, or a repressed past) such as in Margaret Atwood's funny, endearing Lady Oracle or Wally Lamb's troubling tale She's Come Undone. The first is a happy-go-luckier story, of a woman finding freedom, romance and adventure after leaving her weight and her past behind. The second deals with heavy emotional issues of rape, abuse, intense binge eating and neglect. Both stories, however, do not consider the protagonists fully realized, successful, fulfilled characters until they are thin. Patti Stren's book - aimed at young adolescents - I Was a 15-Year-Old Blimp sees the young, female main character resort to dangerous, life-threatening measures to combat her weight. Sure, she learns some lessons, but the main point readers will take away from the book is that she is fat and unhappy at the beginning, and thin and happy at the end.
Sometimes a writer will make a character fat as a political tool, in order to convey their own intended message, be it one of size acceptance, tolerance, or other. This seems most prevalent, logically, in children's books - Judy Blume's Blubber is the strongest example that comes to mind. Written realistically from the point of view of an average-sized, ordinary child named Jill, Blubber tells the story of tthe merciless, constant taunting of Jill's obese classmate, Linda. Jill struggles to reconcile her own feelings of guilt and her need to not be cruel with her fear of falling victim to the same cruelty as her overweight peer. This is one of the few children's books I can think of that deals honestly with the kind of bullying fat (and other noticeably 'different') kids are subject to, and its brutality. Blume makes her point, without coming off as preachy or judgmental or bonking the reader over the head with obvious, overblown clearcut endings.
Some authors also make a character fat for humour purposes, and often mean-spirited ones. J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter series has made her rich beyond the telling of it, is a major perpetrator. Sure, the character of Neville Longbottom is a kind, admirable character, described as plump and round-faced. But two of the only overtly fat characters, Dudley Dursley and Aunt Marge, are hateful, rotten, loathsome characters, whose obesity is described with relish as moral downfall and character flaw. And they should have been plenty despicable enough already. Really, isn't it a bit easy and obvious to have an overweight character with mustard on his shirt, or wheezing, or forever eating cake? Even William Golding's brilliant Lord of the Flies had an easy time with Piggy, the overweight, bespectacled asthmatic boy who was fragile and shrill, weak and soft, and eventually killed off. Would Piggy have been as cringeworthy and pathetic had he only been asthmatic and worn glasses? His softness, his fatness, seemed necessary to evoke as much revulsion and pity as he did.
In a world that is (all too slowly) more often refusing to accept prejudiced stereotyping of other varieties, fat people seem like the last largely socially acceptable target of the bigot.
Will authors ever take to making a character fat just because, like having freckles, or blue being their favorite colour, or does it always have to serve a bigger purpose? Will there ever be a day when a character is fat without it carrying so much weight?