[Social media resources updated 9/20/18 – Article resource update in progress]
Are you a skinny writer? Do you want to write an awesome fat character but aren’t entirely sure of the best ways to describe them, of the pitfalls to avoid?
Fat lady (me) reads about being fat
Well, I can’t tell you the absolute no-error, no-pissing-any-fat-person-off way to doing this, because fat people aren’t a hivemind and because the fact is that when you’re writing outside your experience, you’re gonna mess something up. You’re going to say something that makes a person you’re trying to represent go, “Wait a second, that’s not how it feels. That’s not what it’s like to be me.”
You cannot perfectly represent the fat experience in a single character. You can’t perfectly represent the fat experience in a hundred characters. Fat people, like all people, are just too different.
BUT ALL IS NOT LOST. There are things that you can keep in mind, things to avoid, things to consider doing. As a grade-A, certified, obesity-promoting fat person, I can at least give you a place to start. I’ve written a couple of personal essays on this topic (here and in TEDx form here) and opinion-y blog posts (here and here) that you can also check out.
Before going any farther, I think you should follow and read some tweets from Ok2BeFat. You’re not going to be able to write a fat character if you don’t think it’s okay to be fat, or don’t understand why it’s okay. Go read some of those tweets as your foundation.
Did you do it? Okay.
Without further ado, here is my Guide for Skinny Writers Who Want to Write Fat Characters.
What Kind of Story Do I Write About a Fat Character?
Here’s the thing. If you’re a skinny writer, and you have always been skinny, please, please, please do not write about the fat experience. Do not write books about what it’s like to be fat, especially not if you’re like “being fat is awful!” Do not write books about fat characters on weight loss journeys. Do not write books where the entire plot and core and theme is that this character is fat and this is what it means to them to be fat.
If you’re a skinny writer, do not write books about fat characters being fat.
You can write a story about anything else. In fact, I WANT you to. I want you to write stories about fat children saving the world, I want you to write stories about fat teenagers falling in love. I want you to write stories about fat adults getting pulled into murder mysteries. Write stories about fat adventurers, fat teachers, fat office workers, fat pirates. Take ANY story that you’d write with a skinny character and give it to a fat character instead.
But don’t write a story about what it’s like to be fat. That’s not your story to tell. Leave that to fat writers. Instead, support us by writing all those other stories.
But Isn’t Fatness Part of a Fat Person’s Everyday Life?
My fatness is on my mind a lot. Sometimes it’s practical. I take up more space than many people. When I go to a new restaurant, I don’t always know if a booth will be big enough for me or if I need to get a table. When I’m about to get into a crowded car, I need to point out that more people will fit in back if I’m in front. When I need new clothes, I know that I’m not likely to just find them at the mall. I probably have to go online.
Sometimes, it’s on my mind because the world won’t stop reminding me that I’m fat and they hate me for it. It’s summer, so even sites I normally enjoy are posting diet tips and weight loss stories. I’m a loud fat activist, so some days I end up blocking a lot of people on Twitter who popped up to yell at me for my fatness. Some days I’m just having a bad self-image day. Some days I’m just tired of being strong.
But other days it’s positive. Other days, a new dress arrives, and I look real damn cute in it. I post selfies on every social media I have and feel good about my body and myself.
My fatness is on my mind a lot. It’s an important part of me – but it’s not the only important thing about me.
It’s not how I make all of my decisions, or all of my connections with other people. It’s not the only thing I ever think about. It’s not on my mind every hour of every day.
Your character can think about their fatness and be affected by it, but you should write stories where the most important thing about your fat character is not that they’re fat.
How Do I Describe a Fat Character?
This is probably the most-asked question I see. My thoughts on the matter are really pretty simple:
Don’t avoid the word “fat”.
Simple, but also a little tricky. Fat activists and a lot of other fat people have reclaimed it and are happy to use it – in fact, even prefer it over any other word – but a lot of people have trauma associated with it. It’s very difficult to escape the negative connotations built around it.
It wasn’t until very recently that I would even say the word fat out loud to describe ANYTHING – another person, an animal, a wallet – because I thought everyone would somehow suddenly notice that I was fat. Like it was a secret I was keeping and as long as I never hinted at it, no one would know. I would kill to just not be fat.
You, as a skinny writer, need to know this. It’s a loaded word. Respect that.
I happen to be of the opinion that it’s a word we should be using more, not less. We need to use it positively and neutrally – as an adjective, not a description of worth – and eventually it won’t be quite such a bad word. There’s power in casually calling a character fat, the same way you’d call a character tall or mention their brown hair.
So, call them fat. For me, this is far preferred to words like “plump” or “chubby”, because those are just euphemisms. It’s what you say when you don’t want to insult someone by calling them fat, and ideally, you’re creating an environment in your story where “fat” isn’t an insult in the first place.
I also don’t much care for “curvy” unless it’s a word fat people are using on themselves. From skinny people, especially skinny men, that usually means, “Yeah, she’s fat, but I’d fuck her” or “I’m really attracted to this fat girl, but I’m ashamed of it. If I say she’s curvy, maybe people won’t judge me as much”.
Both are gross.
Don’t waste your time with weight and dress sizes. They don’t say anything about what a character looks like. One size 20 doesn’t look like another. 250 pounds on someone who’s 5’4” isn’t always the same even on someone of the same height, and it’s definitely not the same on someone who’s six feet tall.
I could be about seeing a fat character say she’s 300 pounds and she’s happy with herself, but you may want to consider if you’re able to handle it well. Talking about numbers – about weight, clothing sizes, measurements – is a HUGE trigger for many fat people. It has to be handled with a lot of care and nuance that skinny writers might not have just because they’ve never been in our shoes.
Instead, just call them fat. If you want to describe them more than that – this is kind of specific to your writing style – talk about how they carry their fat. Do they have a lot of belly fat? Is it mostly in their thighs? Do they have large arms? Are they just big everywhere? Fat people are not all fat in the same way.
I really liked the way Julie Murphy talks about Willowdean’s fatness right in the beginning of Dumplin’ – she’s going to work at a fast food place where the uniform options are pants or a dress, and because the elastic on the pants won’t stretch over her hips, she has to opt for the dress. This spoke volumes to me as a fat woman and told me that I wasn’t dealing with the smaller fat people I’m used to being given leading roles. Will is well and truly fat.
Go look at a fat positive blog – like Chubby Bunnies – and see the many beautiful shapes and sizes that fat people come in if you need some help.
What Kind of Person Should They Be?
Any kind of person! Seriously! Any kind. Fat people have all kinds of personalities and motivations. We can be in any of the Hogwarts Houses. Fat people are all races, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, all everything.
Do keep intersectionality in mind. People are complex. We are rarely just one thing, dealing with just one oppression, or benefiting from just one privilege.
Use me for example. I belong to several marginalized groups – I’m fat, I’m a woman, I’m bisexual, and I have disorders and trauma.
But I also have a lot of privilege – I’m white, I’m cisgender, I’m (almost entirely) able-bodied, and (at this point in my life) I’m pretty financially comfortable.
All of these things are not separate from each other. They intersect and interact. Being a fat woman means I deal with all kinds of problems that fat men don’t, but being a fat white woman means that I’m safe in ways fat women of color aren’t. I face stigma for my fatness, but I also escape other kinds of stigma because I’m not a fat and disabled. I don’t have to try and navigate food anxiety while also navigating the shit people get for being on food stamps.
Different intersections face different problems and privileges and you have to keep that in mind. When you write at intersections that you don’t have experience with, it’s more research, more time.
Yeah, it’s complicated, but so are people. So is writing. It’s worth it.
This also means that you shouldn’t just be writing fat people who are also cis and straight and white and neurotypical and able-bodied.
Some people might say something like, “Oh, what will the SJWs want now, a fat black autistic trans woman in a wheelchair and in poverty?” like it’s a joke, but that’s not a joke. That person exists. That person deserves respect and representation.
I will give you a caveat: Keep stereotypes in mind. Fat people are often written as lazy, messy, and greedy. Those are real qualities that real fat people have, but because these are traits that have traditionally been used as ways to oppress fat people, writing a character like that requires a lot of sensitivity and nuance.
Same for when you consider their confidence levels – they’re often either written as completely hating themselves, or as having this over-the-top confidence. I think it’s good for skinny writers to lean more towards writing fat characters with a good amount of confidence, but just like anyone else, fat people have bad days. You’ll just have to consider how much of that is important or worth putting in your story. A fat werewolf girl saving the galaxy probably isn’t having a lot of days thinking about her body. Or maybe she is. It depends on your story and your focus.
Think of it like this – if you wouldn’t be putting those thoughts and bad days in with the same character but skinny, think about why you’re doing it when they’re fat. Is it just because you think fat people are supposed to hate themselves?
Writing fan characters with stereotypical traits can be done. In fact, it should be done, because lazy, messy, greedy fat people with confidence all over the spectrum exist and deserve to be told that they’re human beings, not stereotypes.
As a skinny writer, you should consider if you’re the right person to do that.
What Else Can I Do?
Do some looking around in your genre for other books that feature or star fat characters. You might try things like “fat positive [insert genre here]”. There’s a good chance you won’t find a lot.
It can also be worth your while to look at what books are criticized for their poor portrayals of fat characters. You’ll start to get an even better idea of what to avoid.
Go read up on some fat activists. Some big names in this area to get you started are Ragen Chastain, Marilyn Wann, Virgie Tovar, and Substantia Jones, but there are loads more out there. There’s fat activism all over social media, especially Twitter and Tumblr. Go look up fat voices and listen.
The last thing I’d like to say before the resource list is this:
One of the most radical things you can do is write a fat character who’s just living their fat life, going on adventures, and being happy in their own bodies.
Some Extra Resources Just For You
I’ve linked to a bunch of stuff in the post itself, so check those out, but here are some other things. I’m sorting them into two categories –
- Articles and essays about writing fat characters or insights into fat activism and fat life.
- Fat activists, writers, artists, etc. on social media. None of them talk 100% all the time about fat activism because, well, people have many interests. But they’re fat people who talk about fat oppression from many angles and/or incorporate fatness into their art, and they’re important voices to follow.
I am CERTAIN that I’ve missed things while putting this together. If you have anything or anyone that you think I should add, let me know in the comments or on Twitter or in a message. I will keep this list updated. I could especially use more articles because tbh while writing this post I completely forgot almost every great fat article or essay I’ve ever read in my entire life.
Articles and Essays
Your Fat Friend | Kivan Bay | Roxane Gay | Artists_Ali | Samantha Irby | Evette Dione | Mermaid Queen Jude | Angie Manfredi | Julie Murphy | Fat Legend | Fat Girl Flow | Ashleigh Shackelford | Fatventure Magazine | Femmina |Sofie Hagen | Dr. Cat Pausé | Caleb Luna | Melissa A. Fabello | Becky Albertalli | Julie Daly | Jenny Trout | Amy Spalding | Hillary Monahan | Bree Bridges | Adrianne Russell | Amanda Levitt | Michelle Allison | Simone Mariposa | red3blog | The Fat Lip Podcast | Meg Elison