Write Fat Kids

To the person who found my blog by searching “should you use the word fat when writing children’s books”:

Yes.

Use the word “fat”. Use it as a descriptor. Use it positively. Say that a kid in the book is fat, along with everything else they are.

ezimba12671253529100I grew up reading books with skinny, heroic kids, and fat, selfish, bratty bullies, fat villains, and fat, lazy kids clearly there to teach a lesson. These were books I loved – books I still love – but you don’t spend your entire life being told you’re the worthless sidekick or greedy villain without it taking its toll.

Write awesome fat characters. Tell fat kids that they’re awesome. Please, please, write books for fat kids, and help them grow up hating themselves a little less.

Write fat kids that are loyal and smart and funny and driven and kind. Write fat kids that love to read and that love to play sports. Write fat kids who go on adventures with their friends and save the day.

Write fat kids that are flawed and confused, not because they’re fat, but because being a kid is hard. Finding yourself is hard, and all kids get lost along the way.

Write fat kids that find their path again and come out the other side stronger, but not skinnier, than before.

Don’t tell fat kids that they’ll only be the sidekick or the villain or a teachable moment. Give them a fat hero to look up to. Teach them to be heroes.

ezimba12671265517700And yes, please, use the word “fat”. Don’t hide their weight. Don’t use euphemisms. Don’t teach shame. Teach them to love themselves, whatever their bodies look like. Teach them to love other people, whatever their bodies look like.

Don’t tell them they’re beautiful just on the inside, but on the outside, too.

Please. Write fat kids.

Sincerely,

A Fat Kid

On Beauty and Body Diversity in YA

Yesterday, writer Taylor Breslin made a great post on Tumblr about some of her big frustrations in young adult fiction. The big topic? Stupid beauty standards and female confidence. It’s a great post, and you should go read it. It got me thinking and I want to expand on this a little and also connect it to my continued desire to see more body diversity in YA.

…what I don’t see in a lot of young adult fiction is characters being physically attracted to each other in a normal way. It’s all “he/she was the most insanely gorgeous and perfect person I have ever laid eyes on.” So many female protagonists gain their love interests and even their male friends because the guys meet them and are instantly paralyzed by their beauty. Not by any aspects of their personality. It’s ridiculous, and it doesn’t give normal teenage girl readers much to identify with (nor is it a good example of how to build relationships with people).

Of course, it’s not only the girls who are insanely beautiful – the boys are, too. The boys are always superhuman gorgeous (even when they’re not superhuman). I get that there’s some wish fulfillment there, but it’s everywhere, and there’s a key difference between the beautiful female protagonists and their beautiful male counterparts. The boys are allowed confidence. That usually makes them sexier. Most of the super hot guys in YA novels are entirely aware of how gorgeous they are, of the affect they have on women, and often aren’t afraid to use it to to their advantage.

Our girls don’t get that. As Breslin points out, the girls talk about all of their physical traits in a negative light – they’re too tall, too skinny, with eyes that are too big. The attempt to make these teenage girls somehow relatable always ends up with them being skinny and awkward. Or they’re a clumsy heroine, which often seems to be used to bring too-strong-willed female protagonists down a peg. The girls who are confident in their appearance are often villains, whether it be that popular girl in school or the sexy lady vampire trying to kill the protagonist.

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I understand that everyone has insecurities about his or her appearance, but it would be good every once in while to have a character have some self-confidence in that department. Better that it be a NORMAL LOOKING character who can be confident in herself instead of some kind of preternatural model goddess.

It’s incredibly difficult to be a teenage girl without insecurities, especially considering all of the shit that’s thrown at women every day. Be skinny, but not too skinny, because men don’t want a sack of bones. But don’t be too fat, either, god, they don’t want whales. Look like you’re not wearing makeup, but don’t look too natural. Who can get bombarded by that for most of their lives without breaking a little?

That’s even more of a reason to have some confident, normal-looking girls in YA. Give teenage girls someone who really looks like them and who is completely fine with – hell, who even LOVES – her appearance. And let those character discover their beauty on their own, or to already have it when the book begins. Don’t give them half a dozen guys to fawn over them and then have them still wringing their hands saying, “But I just don’t understand why!”

For me, even better would be a fat character with confidence. Not someone who’s euphemistically curvy or ‘a little plump’, but fat. An actual fat girl with casual confidence in herself and her own beauty, who doesn’t need a romantic interest to make her see it, and who doesn’t lose half her body weight and suddenly ‘match her inner beauty’. (Anything that involves fat people losing weight to match their inner beauty makes me want to put that bullshit gif on loop forever.)

We need some normal-looking characters. Check out Breslin’s post for a good list of authors who do that, but also as she points out, most of those are in contemporary YA. In fantasy or scifi YA, it’s almost impossible to find. We need diversity in YA bodies, and we need them to love themselves. Maybe then our teenagers could learn to love themselves a little sooner.

Roller Derby and Body Positivity

roller derbyFor a long time, I felt like I wasn’t allowed to really live because I’m fat. I kept thinking, “Oh, when I’m skinny, I’ll…” It was all in the future with this mythical tiny body. I believed that being fat meant that there was very little I could do. I thought it held me back.

If you’re ever feeling like that, go to a roller derby bout. Seriously.

I went to my first bout on Saturday night. It was a home game for the Naptown Roller Girls. There’s a whole lot that’s awesome about roller derby, and I’m pretty sure it might become a sport that I actually follow. It’s a sport dominated by women and, even better, these women come in all shapes and sizes. They run all across from short to tall, skinny to fat. If you can skate, you can be a derby girl, and each body type comes with its own advantages. Little girls can slip around the other skaters. Big girls can easily block the opposing team or slam through the pack.

Watching the bout made me feel kind of amazing. I don’t know if I could personally ever do roller derby because I bruise easily and don’t always have the best balance, but neither of those have to do with my weight. If I wanted to ignore the bruising and learn to skate, I could be a derby girl and my weight wouldn’t be holding me back. It would even give me advantages that the skinnier girls wouldn’t have – just like they’d have advantages over me.

If you struggle with body image issues, go to a bout. If you aren’t sure what this whole body positivity thing is about, go to a bout. See those women of all sizes working as a team and kicking ass, and you’ll start to feel a lot better and find a great understanding of body positivity.

Writing Fat Characters

This is a lot funnier if you know YA cover trends.

This is what your headless YA heroine could look like.

I’ve been reading and writing for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been significantly overweight for just as long. I have always been the fat kid, and you can bet that caused some baggage. I had trouble fitting in desks. The idea of going on an airplane terrified me simply because of the seat size. I could never find cute clothes in my style that also fit. I got teased. For most of my life, I’ve heard over and over again that most of America is overweight – so where were they? Why was I the only one in almost all of my classes?

What’s a ten or thirteen or seventeen-year-old bookworm to do but escape into books? Books, after all, are a refuge. They take you into other worlds where anything is possible. You could captain a pirate ship, defeat dark wizards, fly, and, of course, get the fairy tale romance.

Unless, of course, you were fat. If you’re fat, you’re the ugly friend. You’re the villain. You try too hard, and people pity you. You’re jealous of all the “pretty” girls. You’re the sassy best friend with a brain full of quips and no character depth. You don’t get the guy unless he’s also been presented as equally undesirable, and then you’re a loser couple to laugh at.

And let’s not forget the guys. Fat guys are the lazy, sloppy stoner friends and the nerdy virgins that the protagonist has to put up with and will maybe teach them something or other about acceptance. Also, again, the villain (though recently, conventionally attractive villains have been more popular so of course they’re all toned muscle).

I love young adult fiction more than anything else. For the most part, the body type of a character doesn’t bother me. I don’t really pay attention. But when you’re a fat girl and every protagonist is slim, it gets to you. You start to get the message that you don’t count and don’t deserve to have adventures and happy endings. You start to think that your life won’t really begin unless you get skinny.

If an author does try to give other body types a try, they’re tall, skinny, and awkward. The default is for all the guys all have defined abs and arm muscle and their bodies are all hard and the girls are all soft and it’s totally not euphemistic at all. When a fat girl does show up, they usually mean that they’re a few pounds overweight, or they fall into the aforementioned categories.

But wait, you might say. There are YA books with fat protagonists! Why are you complaining?

Look at those books. They’re all about how horrible it is to be fat, and how the protagonist has to diet and get thin. Eventually there’s some theme of acceptance, but they usually still end up skinny in the end. Don’t get me wrong, bullying due to weight and eating disorders are very real problems and should be addressed. But there are other sides to being fat. It’s entirely possible to be fat and happy with yourself. With the society we live in, it can be really hard, but it’s a thing that does happen. I’m really fat and I spent most of my life dealing with self-esteem issues. I still do. But I’ve also learned that I’m fucking beautiful and not just “on the inside”. I’m not a skinny girl trying to get out of a fat body. I’m me, and I’m just as worthy of respect and being treated with decency as anyone else.

I want to see a fat girl in YA fall in love, and not have it be hopeless. I want to see her get kissed, but not out of pity or a cruel prank. I want to see her have amazing sex (and trust me, I’ll be talking about sex in YA later). I want the same for fat guys, too! I want to see a fat couple that isn’t the subject of pity. “Awww, at least they have each other!” They’re people, and I want to know the trials and tribulations of their relationship and fuck yeah I want them to have amazing sex. I want a fat girl to end up with the hot guy or the average guy or the fat guy. I want her to end up with someone that truly loves her and not despite her fat.

(For more on the sort of things fat girls deal with in the dating world especially if you’re wanting to write a fat girl but don’t have first-hand experience, you should really check out this post.)

I want to see a fat girl go on an adventure. I want her to go to Faerie and be just as tempted by fairy food as anyone else and not think about the calories. I want her to ride dragons and steal magical artifacts and seduce a pirate captain (I really like pirates, can you tell?). I want a fat guy to get into a sword fight over a lady’s honor and win. I want him to defend a castle, or be the best mage in the land.

More than anything, I want to have fat protagonists in YA and have them be treated as more than their fat. I want it to be a fact of their character – they are fat – and then that’s it. Their entire lives don’t revolve around them being fat. It doesn’t run their life and it certainly doesn’t ruin their life. Can we just have that? Please?

Of course, being a writer, I can’t expect to just put this plea out into the universe and not do anything about it. I try to have a lot of body diversity in my stories, because I think it’s important, and my preference is to not make a big deal out of it, because I think normalization is also important.

I’ve struggled, though. I’ve been afraid that people will see me writing fat characters, see that I’m fat, and go, “Ohh, that’s why the girl’s fat. Self-insertion/wish fulfillment/etc.” Being fat does lend me towards being really passionate about having more positive fat characters, especially in YA since it’s what I want to write, but it’s not about wish fulfillment. Still, I always feel the need to defend myself and I hate that.

I want to get to a point where I don’t feel awkward or ashamed at all of the fact that I’m writing a fat protagonist. I want to celebrate the character just like I would any other, and give him/her just as much attention and love and care. I want to think more about her personality and her emotions than about the fact that she takes up a little more room in the world.

I spent a long time going out of my way to never say the word “fat” or to never talk about eating a lot of food because it was like, “Oh no, they’ll all notice I’m fat!” I hated being that way. Now it doesn’t bother me at all. I can suggest that I shouldn’t be one of the people in the crowded backseat because I’m bigger and not feel ashamed. I can talk about how pizza is a godsend and not feel like everyone thinks I’m a pig. I want to write characters that can do the same, that don’t feel like they have to somehow hide their bulk. This includes not necessarily using euphemisms like “curvy”. What’s wrong with the word “fat”? What about chubby or plump? (Plump is my favorite because it has all sorts of beautiful connotations to do with really good fruit and fertility and things.)

Being fat does have an every day impact. A lot of fat girls I know deal with chafing thighs. It can be hard to fit through narrow spaces when you have a large belly. There are plenty of small, practical details that could go into the story of a fat character just like they do for anyone else. And yeah, being fat, especially in a society like ours, can absolutely have an impact on your worldview. There are loads of things that impact your worldview but don’t take over your life, though.

What about the issue of health and fitness? I know you’re thinking it. How can a fat character go on an adventure if they’re out of shape and can’t run from the bad guys?

Here’s the thing. Being fat doesn’t mean being unhealthy, and being skinny doesn’t mean being healthy. That’s the same for whether or not you’re in shape. There are fat people who can easily run a mile, and skinny people who struggle to run a block. The default for most YA protagonists seems to be “in shape”, even if they never work out or do anything to keep their bodies fit. You can certainly write a fat character who struggles with the running aspect. You can write a skinny character who does, too. Just know that you can also write a fat character who’s in shape. That is something that exists. For more on fat health, totally check out this blog, which also links to even more resources on the topic.

I want to give fat teenage girls someone to look up to. I want them to see that, oh, this girl is fat like me and she’s still having an amazing adventure. She has confidence, but also struggles with the sort of things that I do. She has depth. She is fat, but she is more than that. There’s no point in ignoring the fat of a character, it just shouldn’t be the only thing that they are. They’re also people.

Here’s the part where I ask for your opinions. What do you think about this? I’d love to get a dialogue going on this. And if you have any book suggestions that involve fat characters presented in a positive or human way, please share them! I’ve been pretty critical here and it would be great to have some positivity. I’d also like to do a post in the future for Tuesday Reads about good YA with fat protagonists.