A Guide for Skinny Writers Who Want to Write Fat Characters

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

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.

(Note: Not all of the links in this blog – especially to the Tumblrs – are going to be SFW. Click with caution.)

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?

Any story!

…Almost.

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?

Well, yes!

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 or Fat People of Color – 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 person in a wheelchair. 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?

RESEARCH!

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 three categories –

  1. Articles and essays about writing fat characters or insights into fat activism and fat life.
  2. Sites centered entirely on fat activism and/or fat positivity.
  3. Fat activists on social media. I don’t think any of them talk 100% all the time about fat activism because, well, people have many interests. They’re still important to follow. I’m particularly including activists here that run along various intersections.

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

http://bookriot.com/2015/07/10/combating-fat-phobia-ya-lit/

http://feministing.com/2015/09/18/we-need-to-center-not-exclude-black-women-in-fat-acceptance-movements/

http://www.ravishly.com/2015/09/17/tips-flying-while-fat

Fat Activist/Positivity Sites

http://fatbodypolitics.tumblr.com/

http://thisisthinprivilege.org/

http://pocfatfashion.tumblr.com/

http://sizeacceptanceinya.tumblr.com/

http://fuckyeahchubbyguysofcolor.tumblr.com/

Fat Activists

http://queerandpresentdanger.tumblr.com/

http://marfmellow.com/

http://mightyfemme.tumblr.com/

http://culturalrebel.tumblr.com/

https://twitter.com/fangirlJeanne/

https://twitter.com/misskubelik

https://twitter.com/catagator

Fat Revolution

I’ve struggled for most of my life with my weight – for awhile with trying to lose weight, with thinking that I had to lose weight, and eventually with learning to love my body as it is, however it is. This journey hasn’t been helped by all of the hate and abuse that I – and most fat people – get thrown my way. I get nasty messages. People retweet my selfies to mock my weight. It’s nearly impossible to find awesome fat YA characters, and people question whether it’s appropriate to include fat characters in books for kids.

This is one of my many attempts to fight back.I’ve had this piece kicking around for months, waiting and waiting to be read. I finally got that chance at the Ball State Writers’ Community’s first reading, and a friend was kind enough to record it.

I’m indecently proud of this reading, so if you like it, please share it.

Content warning for extensive talk about fat oppression/stigma/abuse, and for mentions of rape and rape culture.

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.