It happens more often than you would imagine: there I am, minding my own business, reading a book. A book I’m probably quite enjoying, a book probably written by someone intelligent, someone who knows how to write. And then, bam! Out of nowhere, a random act of fatphobia leaps off the page and smacks me in the face. This can take many forms, none of them enjoyable for me as a reader.

Some that spring to mind include dehumanising descriptions of characters and their bodies: the number of chins they have when human beings do, generally, only have one chin, for example. Or maybe it’s the sole fat character in a book being cast as the bully, a common trope in children’s fiction in particular, but not at all absent from adult writing.

I started noticing it again and again in crime fiction: our plucky hero or heroine will be trying to crack the case, only to be faced with the obstructive force of a Stupid Fat Person – often in the form of a security guard, nurse or desk sergeant – getting in their way. And if it’s not the presence of this kind of bizarre stereotyping, it’s the absence of anything better: the almost universal dearth of fat characters who are interesting, cool, or just plain normal.

I am a fat woman, so I am supernaturally attuned to the ways in which the culture I inhabit and the media I consume talk about bodies like mine, and the people or characters who have them.

Fatphobia is so extremely normalised in our media and culture that it’s easy for writers to fall into fatphobic tropes without even realising they’re doing it. When was the last time you read a book, let alone wrote one, where a fat character was not only present in the story but was represented as a fully formed, multifaceted human being rather than a hasty assemblage of tropes, cliches and prejudice?

This is why it’s become so important for me to write fat characters. I know I can do it in a way that feels truthful to me, and hopefully also feels true to other people, fat or otherwise.

I’ve been asked a couple of times if I’ll always write fat protagonists, and frankly the answer is yes, not only because I don’t know how to write any other kind of protagonist, but also because I don’t believe that there’s been adequate representation of stories of fat women.

When I encounter the majority of fat characters in books, they’re not treated with respect or afforded the same humanity as non-fat characters created by the same author. My life is fun, vibrant, stimulating, full of love and friendship and romance, but I so infrequently read fat characters in books that reflect that.

Of course, drama comes from conflict, so there is an inherent need for friction. Sometimes in my books that friction comes from my knowledge of navigating the world as a fat woman (whether that’s structural issues or self-limiting beliefs). My wish for more positive representation of fatness in fiction isn’t a demand that nothing bad ever happens to a fat character in a book ever again. It’s a desire for the kinds of characters, the kinds of stories, the kinds of conflict, to more accurately represent the many and varied lives of fat people.

Something I wanted to cover in this piece was authors who do it well. Unfortunately, I struggled a little bit, especially when trying to think beyond young adult and romance writing, where representation of marginalised identities tends to be better, at least anecdotally.

Literary fiction and crime fiction often feel particularly woeful; I would sincerely love to hear about meaningful depictions of fatness in either. In the adult romance space, Rebekah Weatherspoon, Olivia Dade and Talia Hibbert are all known for creating plus-size protagonists that are treated with dignity by the author.

In terms of writing for young people, my favourite will always and forever be Julie Murphy, author of Dumplin’, among many other books for teens and children (and now adults too).

When I was writing my debut novel, No Big Deal, the knowledge that Dumplin’ existed – and was wonderful – enabled me to write a fat teenage protagonist with greater confidence than I might otherwise have had. Outside of these spaces, I find the work of Meg Elison and Carmen Maria Machado exciting and stimulating in more speculative and horror-oriented stories and longer works.

Meg Elison’s short story ‘The pill’ is especially worth seeking out online, or in her collection Big Girl, a speculative story about an extreme-weight-loss drug with the power to turn the whole world thin, forever, but with a ten per cent fatality rate, and what it means for the fat people who hold out against it. In the universe of ‘The pill’, fatphobia and weight loss both exist as concepts. We don’t need a literary utopia where authors have to pretend that everything is sunshine and rainbows for fat people. But what makes Elison’s story feel so significant is the way that she engages with these ideas, the ways she explores and exploits them, rather than simply taking them as they are, in their unexamined form, straight from our oppressive cultural landscape.

And the authors and books that do it badly? Unfortunately, there are too many examples to list; too many times I’ve experienced that excuse me? reaction I mentioned earlier.

I was recently on holiday with fellow Mslexia contributor, fat lady and author Alice Slater. As fat lady authors, we often end up talking around this particular subject. She cited a very popular novel published by an indie press that we had both otherwise enjoyed, save for one particular scene in which an unpleasant character’s fatness was referenced no less than 15 times. There is simply no situation in which this is relevant or necessary. It feels like an elaboration of the adage ‘show, don’t tell’: show me the character is unpleasant, don’t just tell me they’re fat and expect me to put two and two together.

Another recent high-concept thriller novel has achieved almost legendary status among readers who are attuned to fatphobia in fiction, because of how shocking and dehumanising the language was around its fat character. A fat, greedy banker? How original.

Whether you’re contemplating writing a fat protagonist or a fat supporting character, the factors to consider are the same.

The key question to ask yourself is why? Why are you writing this character as fat? Is it because you need someone to function as a symbol – whether that’s a symbol of obstructive authority, a symbol of ridicule, a symbol of obvious unattractiveness – or is it because they just are?

If you can’t imagine this character, however small, living a full life outside of this encounter, then you probably don’t need to make them fat. If their fatness is incidental to the encounter, it’s probably fine that they’re fat. Equally, you could also challenge your ingrained beliefs by asking why an interesting character you’ve created couldn’t be fat. Is there any reason at all, beyond the fact they’re written as attractive, competent, outgoing or professional?

This consideration needs to be taken even more seriously when planning to write a fat protagonist. In the kindest possible way: if you are not fat, and the reason you’ve made this choice is because you want to explore an issue (vice, greed, excess, ugliness) and think that personifying this through a protagonist is a smart way to deal with it... I would suggest you simply don’t.

If you’re working on a project where you’ve already written a character as fat, it will be worth taking a look back through the text to where this character appears, and checking how many times their fatness is referred to. If it’s starting to sound a bit like the example I gave earlier – 15 times in one scene! – then delete, delete, delete.

Likewise, would you feel empowered to give the personality characteristics you’ve written for your fat character to another character from a marginalised identity, or would that start to feel a little bit grim? If so, rethink.

Reflecting on these issues can help you to ensure that ingrained prejudice isn’t inadvertently surfacing in your work. Since we live in a fatphobic culture, it’s not surprising that these sentiments filter through unchecked. But as writers, would it not be exciting for the realm of fiction to be a place that we can imagine things differently? Not through creating impossible utopias, but by making sure what we put on the page is intentional.


5 to try

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Samantha Irby

I love reading a fat author grappling with the weird thorny feelings – physical and emotional – around being fat. Although it’s not the sole focus of Samantha Irby’s work, it does come up often in her trio of memoirs, all of which are absolutely hilarious.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

It’s just delightful, okay?! I know I’ve mentioned it before, but if you want a sweet, sunny teen romance with a fat protagonist, Dumplin’ will not let you down. And once you’ve read it, you can hop over to Netflix and watch the lovely (and actually fat) Danielle Macdonald in the lead role.

Shrill by Lindy West

Although the fictionalised television version is also great, the nonfiction source material of Lindy West’s Shrill is a refreshing, personal look at life as a fat woman in the 21st Century and all the weird, unexpected conflict it can bring.

Every Body Shines: Sixteen Stories About Living Fabulously Fat edited by Cassandra Newbould

Everyone feels slightly differently about their body, so the Every Body Shines anthology for young people gives us sixteen different stories that explore fat liberation and body image.

Welcome to Your Life by Bethany Rutter

What? A little shameless self-promotion never hurt anyone!


BETHANY RUTTER is the author of YA novels No Big Deal and Melt My Heart, and her debut adult novel Welcome to Your Life was published in March 2022 with HarperCollins. She co-hosts the books podcast What Page Are You On? with Alice Slater.

This article appeared originally in Issue 95 of Mslexia.

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