Writing and Reading the Fat Girl
by Kathryn Stagg
At some point in my life, I began to believe that people only ever wrote about women when they were beautiful, and that women were only beautiful when they were thin. I’ve been trying to pinpoint the moment in my life when I began to make that assumption. Were women described as slender, petite, or delicate in the books that I read? Or did I unconsciously fill in those details once they’d been described as beautiful? Either way, the books I read from a young age seemed to have a dearth of fat girls.
If there were fat female protagonists out there, they were hard to find. I’d look for them in the synopsis, the inside flaps, the cover art that would either erase them from the marketing or plaster them over the page like a badge of honour (something that would make it difficult for me to bring the book up to the checkout counter). When I did find books that had fat female protagonists, my feelings were almost always mixed. I wanted to see myself reflected in the pages of the books I read, but I didn’t want to identify with the fat girl’s experience. I both did and did not want to be seen. But my appetite for books about bigger girls never waned. I’d sandwich my fat girl books in between my classics before bringing them to the counter to be checked out.
One of the very first books that I read about a fat girl was Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone. I took to Dolores Price immediately. Her body, so big and unwelcome, was deeply familiar. Her pain and humiliation felt personal to me. I wanted to be friends with Dolores, wanted to live side-by-side her in a place where our bodies were beautiful.
As an adult, I can’t bring myself to re-read Lamb’s novel. It meant so much to me as a teenager, and I feel sure it would let me down if I were to read it now. More than that, there are aspects of the narrative that deeply troubled me, even as a teenage girl, things that have lingered in my consciousness. Dolores Price has a very troubled childhood. In addition to the various traumas she suffers throughout the book, she is also overweight. The fact of her weight is inescapable in the book. Boys hang out of the windows of passing cars, calling her a whale. She’s unable to fasten her seatbelt, since her stomach is too big. Meeting her college roommate for the first time, her roommate is horrified she’ll be living with someone so overweight. In the hallway, her roommate’s father loudly complains that he isn’t paying good money for his daughter to room with a hippopotamus.
The problem is, Dolores Price weighs 257 pounds. Lamb’s characterization of a body of Dolores’ size is disturbing; the extremity of her experience doesn’t seem to match up with her actual weight. Instead, the figure feels arbitrary, a number that is supposed to automatically register in the reader’s mind as monstrous. Of course, there is no size that is monstrous, yet in Lamb’s novel this isn’t always clear. As a teenager who was in a similar weight range, the book forced me to re-evaluate the way that others might look at me. In a book meant to elicit empathy, Dolores becomes an other – something foreign, occupying space in a way that is not just uncomfortable for her but for everyone else too. It felt like a clear line had been drawn: Dolores as spectacle was on one side and I was right there with her. Was this the way that other people looked at my body? Was this the way that I should be looking at my own body? To this day, I’ve never been able to completely shake the perspective on my body that was left behind after reading She’s Come Undone.
The question of how much Dolores weighs may seem inconsequential; regardless of the number, the reader is meant to empathize with her experience as a fat girl. Yet when writers choose to focalize fat girls in their narratives, there’s a lot at stake. Fat female protagonists are few and far between; when writers get it wrong, it can be both crushing and exhausting.
Last year I read 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad. With ‘fat girl’ scrawled in large letters across the front cover, the book explicitly stakes a claim: this is a book about fat girls, a book where the very concept of the ‘fat girl’ will be taken up. The title made me weary – while there’s been a movement to reclaim the term ‘fat’ as a descriptor as opposed to a flaw, it’s still a term that carries the potential for accusation.
The book is divided into thirteen interconnected short stories, all of which are centered on Lizzie’s relationship with her weight. The book traces Lizzie’s evolution from a fat teenager desperate to lose weight to a thin adult who is painfully unsatisfied. There’s a lot of things that rang true in the narrative, small details that captured the experience of being uncomfortable in your body very well. Lizzie’s relationships are often plagued with tension: tension between her and her best friend Mel, who compare themselves with the goal of being deemed the least attractive; tension between Lizzie and her mother, who wants to live vicariously through her daughter once she has lost the weight. Lizzie lives in a world where many of her friends and colleagues are unable to see that their own experiences of love, friendship, and food aren’t universal. For Lizzie, the world she occupies is entirely different because of her weight. In fact, Lizzie’s weight is her defining feature – her characterization beyond the fact of her weight is almost non-existent. While Awad occasionally makes reference to the music that she listens to, these external details feel completely disconnected from other descriptions of Lizzie in the book. Lizzie is a fat girl and little else.
That weight comes to characterize Lizzie so completely was clearly intentional. Lizzie is a signpost; this is what happens when we as a culture put so much emphasis on size and beauty. We hollow people out until they are a shell of themselves, or not even of themselves, but a shell of what they feel they’re supposed to be. Lizzie’s story is deeply depressing; her fixation on weight derails her. By the end of the book she describes herself as “… nothing but oats and anger consumed over the sink at six am.” Lizzie has little, if any, substance.
While I understood the intention, I still found it troubling. At first I had difficulty understanding my discomfort surrounding this book. I believe that the emphasis on weight and on beauty can be toxic; I believe in the repercussions of this toxicity. More than that, I’ve lived through the repercussions. But whether you’ve lived with the stigma of being fat or not, you’re a human being with a complex set of emotions and relationships. In 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, there were moments during the narrative where the characterization of Lizzie felt so reductive as to strip her of even the most basic quality of personhood. Like the moment in She’s Come Undone where Lamb forces the reader to look at Dolores as an other, by the end of the narrative 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl has become a book that forces us to look at Lizzie from the outside. And not only are we looking in at her, but what we’re seeing is what we’ve been told we would see.
When she is overweight, Lizzie is desperate for male attention, willing to hook up with anyone that finds her attractive (even if she doesn’t find them attractive). She’s always ordering fast food or baking cookies and brownies. After she’s lost the weight, she becomes mean and judgemental. Her interactions with others are stifled; she is bitter and petty, unable to live her own life. Her existence is meted out in measuring cups that limit her portions. In both of these incarnations, Lizzie begins to feel a bit like the coatrack on which the reader is meant to conveniently hang all the stereotypes and assumptions they have about fat people. While we’re meant to empathize with Lizzie, and to recognize the tragedy inherent in her story, the book never asks that we see Lizzie as anything beyond the moniker she is assigned on the cover of the book. Lizzie is a fat girl, even when she is thin; her character doesn’t challenge us. We know this fat girl; we’re comfortable with this trope. It might sadden us, it might offer some insight into what it’s like to be fat, but it’s ultimately what we expect. We’re on one side of the glass, and Lizzie is on the other.
Every fat girl has their own story, their own experience of what it’s like to navigate their way through the world in a big body. Befriending another fat girl and comparing experiences can be an exhilarating feeling – feeling seen and heard by someone who understands where you’re coming from, feeling comfortable talking openly and honestly about your body and how you struggle with it. We share many of the same humiliations and struggles, but at the end of the day our stories are as different as our individual bodies. That is to say, not all fat girls hate themselves. Not all fat girls obsess over food, are desperate to lose weight, and are unhappy with the way that they look. Not all fat girls struggle to elicit sexual or romantic interest. Fat girls can be sexually active, fat girls can fall in love. Fat girls can live.
I don’t want to erase the very real difficulties that can come along with being fat, because they are real for so many girls, and they have a place in the books that we read. Narratives that attempt to gloss over the struggles of being overweight, that attempt to realize a world that accepts fat girls by pretending that it already exists feel deeply dishonest and alienating. We live in a culture that is hostile towards fat people and there are very real ramifications that come along with that hostility. But to focalize so intensely on the hardships also feels dishonest. It reduces the fat girl to a stock character whose sole identity is her weight. In the effort to illustrate the difficulties of being fat, we risk rendering the fat girl two-dimensional. I want to read about the fat girl who struggles with her self-esteem, the fat girl who wants to be wanted and yet never feels that she is, the fat girl who inhabits her body with a self-consciousness that is painful. But that fat girl has to breathe, she has to bleed, she has to live. I don’t want to read about the fat girl on the other side of the glass anymore.
Kathryn Stagg is a writer and researcher. Her work has appeared in The Puritan's Town Crier, where she is a staff writer. She is also an organizing member of the Slackline Creative Arts Series. She lives in Toronto.