A guest post by Jess Khouri
Sparked by a recent literature assignment of mine, I recently started thinking about material representations of fatness and the absence of positive portrayals of fat in popular literature. Fat can be the punch line, the friend, the enemy, but never the protagonist, never the hero, never the main focus. On my search for literary fat positivity, I came across an article entitled “Finding Fat Lit” written by novelist, Matt Stewart.
Finding “fat lit.” Finding fat in lit? Finding the stories fat tells in lit? Perfect!
The article was disappointing to say the least. The author’s desire to find fat in literature is his desire to see more fat characters representing weight loss, discussing their struggles, giving fat readers someone to identify with while they are simultaneously dieting themselves. (His assumption being that they should be dieting themselves) He later states how food is so satisfying and delicious today that it’s understandable that “obesity” is occurring.
Perpetuation of the fat as glutton narrative. Great.
However, his understanding of fat characters made me consider how certain people have control over the stories fat tells in literature. Authors write fat to narrate their own perceptions, and often misconceptions, of fatness. Much of literature is lacking in fat characters, period, let alone a fat protagonist. And if a fat character does appear, they are often the sidekick, normally used for humour, or the villain, in a symbolic attempt to represent the evils fat causes to the individual, the society, and *gasp* the nation.
And what of a lead character whose body type is never stated? There is an unspoken assumption that we will understand the character as thin because a fat character could not possibly play the role. Literary fat, it seems, is told very similarly to the way fat in society gets told, or rather read.
If fat bodies in literature are telling a narrative of weight loss and if fat is written as gluttonous, unhealthy, and lazy, how does that differ from the way fat is read in real life?
What is the difference between literary fat being read through an author’s construction and our fat in society being read through social constructions? Is our fat not narrating a story to those around us? To those reading our bodies?
What are the stories of our fat telling? And who is narrating them?
Fat, in social settings, gets read through a lens that is inherently fat-phobic. Fat isn’t read as a narrative of its physical materiality, it tells a story of assumptions, weight-based beliefs, and hatred that we come to think of as truth. I use ‘we’ as the dominant groups in society, most likely thin, that have the power to render fat a negative. Fat is seen as a number of negative, cruel, and incorrect assumptions. Fat cannot be seen for its simple physicality, it is impossible to separate it from the social meanings it has come to encompass. And fat is often read as a group, and not on a individual level, rendering fat one, negative, homogenous group of people who do not get to narrate their own stories.
Drawing a parallel between the stories fat bodies tell in literature and the stories that get read in society, we can begin to ask questions of whether literature reflects reality or vice versa. The both are likely mutually constitutive.
I fear that Matt Stewart’s attempt to shrink fat characters through weight-loss narratives, rendering fat identity invisible in storylines, will even further devalue fat identity in society. How can there be a positive identity towards a body that popular outlets, like literature, are continually trying to diminish? To what extent do we internalize this weight-loss narrative and start reading our own bodies as ones that could and should be thin? I call here for fat positivity in novels, for portrayals that recognize the diversity of all sizes and do not fall victim to the assumption that “inside every fat body is a thin one.”
Perhaps once literary narratives start breaking stereotypes around fatness, the narratives of our own bodies will change, we will tell the stories we want, and others will read them positively, as though we are the protagonists, and no longer the villains, in real life.