i don’t feel represented: fat representation in books

TW: discussion of weight loss, body image issues, mention of eating disorder

Today I’m going to talk about an issue I don’t discuss on this blog a lot because it’s very difficult for me in my daily life, and that’s fat representation in books.

Something you may not know about me because I don’t post full body selfies is that I am overweight. I have struggled with my weight since my sophomore year of college, but have been having an extra hard time with it the past few years. I have cycled through many diets, seen a nutritionist, and tried to change my habits time and time again. I have dealt with body shaming from people around me as well as eating disorders, and have an extremely fraught relationship with my body when it comes to weight.

This is why fat representation of books is important to me. Every time I see a book come out, especially YA, with a fat protagonist, it immediately goes on my TBR. I am eager to see nuanced stories of weight issues and representation of a variety of body types.

I’m going to begin by saying that I can count the number of books I’ve read with actual fat rep where the fat person isn’t vilified or negatively stereotyped on less than two hands. In probably a third of those, the fat character still tries to lose weight and it’s framed as healthy weight loss and as a positive thing for the character. I have read very few books where weight loss is still not the end goal for a fat character and they still have a genuinely happy life while being fat.

Fat representation in books is not very nuanced. I’ve noticed that fat characters tend to be either a) vilified and shamed and used as a cautionary tale or b) body positive with no doubts about themselves. When fat characters are portrayed positively, it’s usually after they’ve gone through a self-transformation and chosen to focus on “self love and self acceptance” and “embrace their body and themselves.” Sure, they often get hate either from online anyonymous haters or in person from family, but they are usually portrayed as so confident in themselves that it doesn’t hurt as much as it used to and doesn’t make them doubt themselves or completely fall off the acceptance wagon.

I think portraying body positivity in books is great and important, but the journey towards body positivity is not a straight line or as simple as deciding to accept yourself. Body positivity isn’t something that happens all the time; it’s something that fat people strive for every day and sometimes we don’t get there. Even when you think you are body positive, you can still be tempted by diets and the promise of feeling “normal,” whatever that means, and negatively influenced by social and social media messaging about bodies. Body positive people aren’t immune to doubts about themselves and their bodies, and that’s why I don’t feel seen in a most body positive books because body positivity is a daily struggle.

Basically, I’d really like to see more books about the journey to become body positive. Though seeing body positive characters is great, personally I just wish that we could see how those body positive characters arrived at self acceptance and body positivity, as opposed to having it glossed over. Body positivity isn’t and doesn’t have to be all or nothing in order to be valid, and I want to see more books with fat characters that portray an array of our experiences.

There is no one fat experience, and fat experience is more than only being the villain or idiot or only being body positive. I just hope that soon, publishing and the world in general are ready for portrayals of fat people’s lives that are more nuanced and fully exploratory of our experiences.

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  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this! I agree that it seems many books about being fat are either one side or the other, and there is so much more room for representation and more authentic portrayals of this journey! Sending love!! ♥

  2. Yes, I agree!! The journey to body acceptance is something that isn’t touched on as often as it should be and it is SO important!! A book can do so much with just paper and words. It can touch someone’s heart and what they learn or see can then be carried forward into their life <3

  3. I really relate! And you’re on point about the representation in books. Recently, I read One to Watch but it was honestly triggering for me. The main character was self-assured but the book deliberately has everything come down to her weight and shows fatphobia in DETAIL with no repercussions. I simply could not understand why it is considered a good book.

    While the journey of building body positivity is good, I would also like to read books with fat main characters but with a totally different plot. Being a fat person is often the small things in everyday life and is, more often than not, not the main theme of our lives. I would like it to be minor in the plot but also exist.

    1. Actually, One to Watch was a big reason I decided to write this post! I honestly don’t know how I feel about it because I am enjoying some aspects but also noticing the same things you did. The fatphobia in it is really painful to read and I feel like the format kind of lends itself to glossing over it and simplifying it. Every time someone says something about Bea’s weight, she has the “right” response but I feel like her “confidence” in the book is kind of put on and there to make a point.

        1. Yeah, she just didn’t feel like a real person to me. I literally just finished it and now I kinda feel like I just didn’t need a whole book to prove fat people are worthy of love.

  4. Thank you for talking about misrepresentations of fat reps in books! 💕 I haven’t read a lot of books with great body positivity messages from main characters, but do you maybe have a few recs that you feel have authentically represented fat people? I agree with you that many others I’ve read felt more like stereotypes. 😠 Thank you!! 💖

    1. I thought There’s Something About Sweetie by Sandhya Menon was the best fat rep I’ve probably read because of its focus on her journey toward confidence.

  5. This was such a insightful post, thank you for honest thoughts! I definitely agree with you, I wished fat representation in literature was more nuanced and it’s so frustrating that we don’t get to see the journey to body positivity very often. Fat representation is so important and I wished the mainstream literature industry would understand how important it is to see one’s own struggles reflected in books in an authentic way

  6. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, as someone who’s fat, I totally get what you’re saying. I don’t know if you’ve read I’ll Be The One by Lyla Lee but I absolutely loved it, by far the best fat rep I’ve come across which is realistic as well as empowering so I would definitely rec it 🙂

  7. Fatphobia can be so sneaky and insidious. Like, I can’t even count how many books use tropes like the parent who “let themselves go” after losing a job or the “out-of-shape” gym teacher or even the super condescending backhanded compliments like “They may not be a size 6, but they have total inner beauty!” Oh wait, I saw all three of those just in the last book I read. :-/

    1. the whole “letting themselves go” after a major life event thing is one of my biggest pet peeves in books and in life. I think it’s so horrible to shame people for changes in their bodies after a major life event, like the person doesn’t have more important things to worry about and maintaining a thin weight always needs to be a priority.

      ugh, so sorry you had to suffer through whatever book that was :/

      1. Exactly! It felt like the author had some self-esteem issues she was unconsciously working out because that’s a few too many comments to be a coincidence.

        The really annoying thing is that the main story actually got me through a really bad time a year ago. It was so ridiculous and melodramatically suspenseful — like a Sweet Valley thriller — I just *had* to know what happened next. Re-reading it now, I’m like, “Did I really not notice these awful comments or was I just really desperate for an exciting story to keep me going?”

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