What is it? Why is it harmful? How can we spot it in our stories?
I’ve started sharing some of the feedback I find myself giving regularly to editing clients – this time I’m chatting about FAT SHAMING. (Search for #EditingTipsFromAnna on Twitter to find other topics.)
Disclaimer number one:
Previous clients – please don’t worry that I’m talking about you. I will NEVER reference specific stories and I only share topics that I find myself returning to on several occasions.
Disclaimer number two:
This blog has been a slightly long time coming as I wanted to frame it carefully. I don’t think I know everything and I’m not shouting this down from a high horse or some weird moral high ground. I am a flawed individual (we all are!) but fat shaming is something I’ve seen creeping into more stories I work with, and I wanted to chat a bit about it.
As with every kind of representation, we can all do better. I’m not saying I’m perfect or always get this right, and I don’t think you should beat yourself up if you don’t either. What we can do is recognise where we fall short, then try to do better. I really want the world to be full of outrageous and adventurous stories, ones that show a range of people and do as little harm as possible. I guess that’s what this blog, and the feedback I give to clients around this area, is all about. Let’s do less harm. Let’s represent people fairly. Let’s build a kinder world.
Disclaimers over! So, what the heck is fat shaming?!
Simply put, it is an action or depiction that humiliates or judges someone based on their size. This is something I hope we can all agree we would rather see less of in all areas of life, but I’m going to talk specifically about how this works in stories.
Fat shaming in novels falls into two broad categories – overt and covert. Overt shaming would include characters purposefully mocking fat people, unchallenged slurs, and exaggerated descriptions. This doesn’t crop up so much. What is much more prevalent (and I would argue pervasive and harmful) is covert fat shaming. Sadly, I see this a lot in both the novels I edit and those I read from reputable publishers.
Covert fat shaming plays into a lot of harmful stereotypes that are being very slowly debunked, but there is still a long way to go. A lot of us unconsciously absorb harmful beliefs towards fat people and this then comes out in how we represent them in our stories.
Basically, I’ll say again, don’t beat yourself up if you find covert fat shaming in your stories. It is EVERYWHERE and it’s super hard to get this stuff right all the time. Recognise your missteps, correct them, and move on.
Covert fat shaming often falls into four categories…
1. THE FAT CHARACTER IN A NOVEL IS THE LEAST DESIREABLE/INTELLIGENT/SELF-CONTROLLED
Here, fat characters will be described as ugly and will not be sexually attractive or even seen as a viable person to have a romantic relationship with, they will make obviously silly comments and be the butt of jokes, and they will cause problems with their lack of control.
Sadly, I read a published novel recently in which the only bigger character was annoying to all the slender characters, and they were socially unaware. They were a chore for the other characters to deal with and, in a novel of great character depth, the fat character was a flat caricature.
I’m not saying that fat characters cannot be annoying or lack self-awareness BUT if your only large character is displaying one or more of these character faults then this is falling into harmful stereotyping.
One way to spot this is to isolate each character in your novel. Make a table with their name and size at the top, and then write down their contributions to the story, and how other characters interact with them. If your fat character is always causing mishaps, is a sexless being, or is confused and being laughed at, then you may have a problem that needs to be addressed.
2. DESCRIPTIONS OF FAT CHARACTERS ARE UNFLATTERING
This is most often seen in descriptions of fat characters eating and walking.
Eating is an obvious problem area. As a society, we equate weight gain with a lack of self-control. We are told that to be fat is unhealthy and undesirable. And so, we demonise the act of eating itself. To watch a fat person eating is to witness something unpleasant happening.
What nonsense. I’m not going to go into the multitude of issues with this kind of thinking here, but please be very careful when describing a fat character’s eating habits.
Ask yourself – why am I describing this? Is it important? Am I paying the same close attention to the eating habits of all my characters? Am I using language designed to repel or neutral, pleasant words?
Walking actually covers a wide variety of physical activity, and it’s another area to be particularly careful when describing. There are two main issues here – the words used to describe the activity and the fat character’s reaction to physical movement. I’m not going to list the words that should be avoided when describing the bodies of fat characters or the way these bodies move. I think, if we all interrogate our writing, that we know when we have used words that are harmful and unhelpful.
Be careful when describing how larger characters react to physical exertion. If they are sweating or panting, why aren’t the rest of the characters doing this too? Or why is it particularly remarked upon that the fat character is going these things?
3. THIN CHARACTERS USING ‘FAT’ AS A DEROGATORY TERM
Fat is not a bad word. It’s not a harbinger of doom. It’s not an insult.
Fat is a descriptive term.
As a society, we need to move away from asking, do I look fat in this? Why would looking fat be so terrible? And why would it matter if we showed our bodies as the sizes they are? Sometimes, literature needs to lead the charge. I would love to read more books populated by people of all different sizes who love themselves exactly as they are.
This isn’t to say that characters cannot have self-esteem issues that display as concern about their weight. What I am more talking about here are the throwaway comments that quietly reinforce a view that being fat is not good.
This is a hard one to spot in our own stories. It’s so ingrained in us that it can so easily slip through the net. The best way I can suggest of weeding this out is by reflecting on and challenging our own views on fatness. If we think there is nothing wrong with being bigger, we’ll spot the moments when our characters do.
4. TOTAL EXCLUSION
This is the most prevalent type of covert fat shaming I come across in stories, both those I edit and those I read from published authors. In novels, a world is created that in almost all ways reflects the real one, except there are no fat characters.
This is alienating. I think some people are scared about writing in fat characters, as they don’t want to get it wrong. I hope it’s been clear in this thread but I’ll say it again – it’s okay to get things wrong. I know Twitter (and much of social media) thrives on rage and hate, and would like to make you believe that mistakes are unacceptable, but that’s not true. I personally believe it is much better to try, fail, and then do better next time.
Instead of writing novels where fat people are absent, give writing a larger character a go. Share sections with a trusted friend and interrogate how you’ve written them. Spot the mistakes and rewrite. My dream is that fat representation soars, and a character’s size becomes less of a plot point and simply one part of the wonderful person they are.
I recognise that with any type of representation, I don’t hold all the answers, that I can (and probably will!) get thing wrong, and that this is an ongoing, morphing discussion. But let’s write kinder stories. Let’s write novels that allow fat people to see characters like themselves fight dragons and overcome trauma and have wild romances. Let’s populate our novels with all kinds of people, all muddling through life together in a beautiful mess.