Updated: Mar 2, 2020
Recently I was at my parents' house in Vermont, cleaning out the bookshelf in my childhood bedroom. I started skimming through some of the books I had loved as a kid and tween. And I was like, "oh my god, these books are the reason I always hated myself for being fat."
I was rarely allowed to watch TV as a kid, except for Gilmore Girls on DVD, which had the wonderful fat representation that is Melissa McCarthy's character, Sookie St. James, a fat woman whose size is never mentioned (though there are many general fat jokes on the show!) and who lives a normal, happy life with her husband who is in love with her. I did watch movies, but while I never saw positive fat representation in them, which made me sad as an aspiring actor, the types of movies I watched weren't usually egregiously mean to fat people - and when they made references to fatness, it was usually the bitchy popular girl who was overly obsessed with her appearance or was bullying a thin girl by calling her fat. Read: these movies mostly thought the anti-fat behaviors they portrayed were not a good look. And if there was a little bit of shitty fat rep in anotherwise compelling story, like Aunt Marge in Harry Potter, I was pretty capable of ignoring it.
But what really screwed me up the most, what inspired me to try nearly every extreme diet in the book, what made me check my reflection in every mirror and window, what made me spend hours of my precious childhood (and adulthood whooooops) hating myself, what made me avoid public exercise/dating/the doctor/etc...was BOOKS!
I love to read. I do it daily, because it makes my subway commute far more bearable. And I REALLY loved to read in elementary and middle school.
One thing that separates reading from TV and other digital media is, it's actually encouraged when you are a kid! I can't tell you how many assignments I had, beginning in first grade all the way through freshman year of high school, that were like "Read any book you want! That's right, ANY book in the library!! JUST READ, PLEASE!!! (And then write a book report to prove that you actually did.)"
Honestly, as a person who automatically doesn't want to do things they are told to do because they are told to do them, it amazes me that I read so much as a kid. Here is how my rebellion manifested, though: my teachers were always trying to get me to read "the classics," and I refused.
SO WHAT DID I READ INSTEAD???
The Baby-Sitter's Club. The Clique. Bras and Broomsticks. California Diaries. Wintergirls. Pretty Little Liars. Anything by Sarah Dessen. A bunch of other tween-popular-girl series that are too obscure to name.
And what did those books leave me with? SELF-HATRED and the belief that my body was BAD AND WRONG!!! YAY!!!!!
What was triggering for me in these books wasn't just that none of the characters were fat. It was how much they feared becoming fat. And it was the numbers. Calorie numbers, sure, but also dress size numbers, weight numbers. Book characters with numbers way lower than mine who thought nonstop about how fat they were. Girls who were bullied and excluded from friend groups and not asked to the school dance because they were a size 8 instead of 2. Girls who were a size 4 and would give ANYTHING to get down to a 2.
There was also another, more moderate breed of book where girls who were a size 12 or 14 dieted down to a 6 or 8 and LO AND BEHOLD, there was the friendship/acceptance/romantic attention/success they were looking for.
Basically, very few of the characters who complained about being fat actually were, and if they were, they weren't anymore by the end of the book. I learned from these books that obsessing over your size was COOL, even if it didn't lead to "results." And that all actual fat people are unhappy until they're "fixed" by losing weight.
Then there were the books that were basically instruction manuals on How To Be Anorexic. There were a lot of lists of foods and their calories (THAT I FOLLOWED LIKE THEY WERE LEGITIMATE DIET PLANS) and romantic descriptions of what characters' bodies went through as they were deprived of food for prolonged periods (the biological term for this is...starvation). Sure, the girls in the books always ended up fainting and landing in the hospital, or addressing the troubled home life that made them feel like they needed to have control over something, or at least joining a sport and finding a healthy way to stay thin instead. But that didn't apply to me! I was fat! I didn't even have a troubled home life! Losing weight could only be a good thing. Yes, this was my Weight Watchers!
But to me, the worst thing was actually not the eating-disordery stuff. It was the way authors had to make it ABSOLUTELY CLEAR that their characters WERE NOT FAT.
It would be language like, "She looked in the mirror. She wished the fat on her thighs would go away. But DON'T WORRY, SHE WAS NOT ACTUALLY *FAT*." "You might think that because of her taste for junk food and lack of athletic ability, she would be fat and pimply. BUT NOPE! She had AMAZING genetics and was TOTALLY SLENDER AND GORGEOUS. DON'T WORRY." Every character's complaint about their appearance was that they looked "plain" or "boring" or even (how I loled at this one!) "too skinny, flat-chested, and knobby-kneed." God, I fucking wished I was plain! By their standards, I was straight-up ugly.
But being indirectly called ugly by my favorite authors was not what bothered me. It was that I read books (and still do) primarily for relatability. It makes me feel less alone to read about characters who are going through something similar to what I am. And reading those character descriptions felt like someone tapping me on the shoulder and being like, "just so you know, THIS DOES NOT APPLY TO YOU." And therefore I couldn't use it as a grounding point to learn about the world, because as a fat person my life was fundamentally different.
I think authors did this because they wanted their characters to be sympathetic - no one had sympathy for fat people in the 90s/early 2000s, when most of these books were written. And probably because they wanted to open them to storylines involving love and romance (obviously, no one at that obesity-epidemic-obsessed time would believe a fat person could be in love. Most people still don't). In general, they didn't want their characters to be limited. Also, I suspect a lot of writers had mad issues with their own dieting and body image themselves and that landed in their work (more on this in a future post). I can't blame them for this, because we were all raised with the same culture around fatness and food. But the effect still sucks.
Once I invested in healing my relationship to food and fatness, I couldn't take it anymore. For relatability reasons, I pretty much only read fat activists' memoirs for about the last three years. But recently, as I've started reading novels to pass the time on the subway, I've discovered I still have this weird dysphoria when I read descriptions of attractive women in books, especially books written by men. The reason it bothers me now is that it feels like only the stories of thin/conventionally desirable people are worthy of being told. And this is the same issue of representation that we see (or rather, don't see) in media and in theatre. It's everywhere, you guys!!
This was a very negative post but soon I will be writing about the fat positive media that changed my life and began to push back against my years of YA-lit-prompted internalized fatphobia! Sadly, there is only one novel on the list (spoiler: it's Dietland). SO OKAY, LET'S WRITE SOME GOOD FICTION ABOUT FAT PEOPLE!!! Especially if it's for kids and teens! And let me know if you know of any, because I will buy it and read it on the subway.