'You Cannot Shame Me': 2 New Books Tear Down 'Fat Girl' Stereotypes

Mar 31, 2016
Originally published on March 31, 2016 7:49 am

First, we must contend with the word "fat" itself. It should be a simple descriptor, but fat is often used as an insult — whispered by gossips, or hurled by bullies. Many people use euphemisms — heavy, plump, overweight — to avoid it all together. But now, some writers have decided that it's time to take "fat" head on.

"There's a lot of power in reclaiming words that have been hurled as stigma terms," says Joyce Huff, an English professor at Ball State University.

Back in Victorian days, Huff explains, fat characters were were portrayed as greedy and selfish or fat and jolly. Today, they're often written as passive, depressive types. Now, she says, writers are tearing down these stereotypes.

"When someone calls a person fat and that person turns around and says, 'Yes, I'm fat. You cannot shame me with that word,' it's quite a powerful response," says Huff.

Mona Awad is the author of the new book 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl.

"I knew it was a charged term but that is why I put it on the cover of the book," she says. "Because I wanted to unpack it, and I wanted to challenge it, and I wanted to complicate it. "

Awad has struggled with her own weight in the past, as have a many of her family members and friends. She was interested in exploring the effect that can have on a person.

"A struggle with body image takes up a lot of life," she says. "It takes up a lot of psychological life. It uses up a lot of emotional life. It can change the tenor of your very important personal relationships. And that can take its toll, I think, on anyone. And certainly it takes its toll on my main character, Lizzie."

Lizzie's life is told in 13 stories, beginning when she is an unhappy teenager. Deeply insecure, she constantly compares her body unfavorably to her friends and lets men take advantage of her. Awad portrays Lizzie's humiliations with unflinching honesty and a dose of dark humor. She dissects her often difficult relationships with everyone from her over-involved mother to an overbearing saleswoman.

"I wanted to see a woman who is dealing these issues go into a dressing room. I wanted to see her have sex," she says. "I wanted to see those narratives and I wanted to see how they played out. I wanted her to lose weight and then come up against a woman who is larger who is happy with herself."

Lizzie does get thin and is obsessed with staying that way. Happiness eludes her because she has fallen for the myth that everything will change if she just loses weight.

"When we change our bodies do we really change ourselves?" asks Awad, "When we look in the mirror what do we see? In some ways are we still being informed by that person that we were attempting to leave behind? And I think the book is interested in exploring how 'fat girl' is more than just a question of flesh. It's also, it's a state of mind."

In our culture, says writer Sarai Walker, we have this idea that inside every fat person there is a thin person waiting to be "freed." Walker is the author of the novel Dietland. Her 29-year-old heroine Plum is desperate for the chance to undergo weight reduction surgery.

"In Dietland I just wanted to kind of start off with this miserable fat woman who was desperate to lose weight, kind of that familiar territory," Walker says. "And then I wanted to blow up that story into a million pieces."

Walker believes the experience of being a fat woman in our culture has not been taken seriously in literature.

"I knew to write this novel I would have to answer the question: Why are fat women so hated?" she says. "It was really a process of trying to discover that and trying to answer that question for myself. So I didn't know where it would go, where it would lead, but I definitely got angry while I was writing it."

Plum goes though a series of challenges that raise her own awareness of what it means to be fat. She becomes more comfortable with her body, and also discovers a new-found power: the ability to see through her tormentors.

"Because I'm fat I know how horrible everyone is," she tells a friend. "If I looked like a normal woman, if I looked like you, I'd never know how cruel and shallow people are. I see a different side of humanity."

Over the course of the book Plum doesn't get any thinner but she does change — a lot. Her awakening comes against the backdrop of a series of terrorist acts by a violent feminist underground. Walker sees fat as a feminist issue and she didn't want the book to just tell the story of one woman's struggle with her body.

"What happens to Plum doesn't happen in a vacuum," she says. "It's part of a larger problem: This pressure on women to look a certain way and the objectification of women and the violence that can come from that. So I wanted to explore the issue of why is this fat body so stigmatized. Why is the fat female body in general is so stigmatized in this larger framework."

Dietland, which came out in 2015, has just been optioned for TV and Walker couldn't be happier. She believes that it is possible to change attitudes — and having complex, well-written fat characters will help.

"I think a big part of the change that needs to happen," she says, "is to have books, to have TV shows, to have films with fat characters who don't hate themselves, who accept themselves and who challenge the way we think about our bodies."

Walker says when she spoke with writers and producers interested in adapting her book she always made sure of one thing: That they wouldn't cast a thin woman in a fat suit. The actress who plays Plum, says Walker, has to be fat.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's examine a word that we're taught not to use - fat. People commonly use other terms in polite company, you know - overweight, heavy, big - just don't mention it at all. Now some writers are embracing the term that people commonly avoid. Here's NPR's Lynn Neary.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: There have always been fat characters in literature. Back in Victorian days, says English professor Joyce Huff of Ball State University, they were usually either greedy and selfish or fat and jolly. In modern times, those characters are often passive, depressive types. Now, Huff says, writers are confronting those stereotypes and the word that is used to describe them.

JOYCE HUFF: There's a lot of power in reclaiming words that have been hurled as stigma terms at a group of people. So when someone calls a person fat, and that person turns around and says, yes, I'm fat. You cannot shame me with that word. It's quite a powerful response.

NEARY: But the word fat makes a lot of people uncomfortable. And if you want to sell books, it could be risky to put it on the cover. Mona Awad, author of "13 Ways Of Looking At A Fat Girl," says she wasn't afraid to use it.

MONA AWAD: I mean, I knew it was a charged term. But that is why I put it on the cover of the book because I wanted to unpack it, and I wanted to challenge it. And I wanted to complicate it.

NEARY: Awad has struggled with her weight in the past as have a lot of her family and friends. She was interested in exploring the effect that can have on a person.

AWAD: A struggle with body image takes up a lot of life. It takes up a lot of psychological life. It uses up a lot of emotional life. It can change the tenor of your very important personal relationships. And that can take its toll, I think, on anyone, and certainly it takes its toll on my main character. Lizzie.

NEARY: Lizzie's life is told in 13 stories beginning when she's an unhappy teenager, constantly comparing her body unfavorably to her friends. Deeply insecure, she lets men take advantage of her as in this excerpt when a guy stops by her house one night in a drunken stupor and wonders what he's doing there.

AWAD: (Reading) And you don't know what it is - if it's the vodka or the Rose or some sort of black magic - but you can't take your eyes off the fat girl. She has transformed as she always seems to do around this time of night into something you could almost love for an hour.

NEARY: Awad portrays Lizzie's humiliations with unflinching honesty and a dose of dark humor. She dissects her often difficult relationships with everyone from her overinvolved mother to an overbearing saleswoman.

AWAD: I wanted to see a woman who is dealing with these issues go into a dressing room. I wanted to see her have sex. I wanted to see those narratives. And I wanted to see how they played out. I wanted her to lose weight and then come up against a woman who is larger, who is happy with herself.

NEARY: By the end of the book, Lizzie is thin and obsessed with staying that way. Happiness eludes her, Awad says, because she's fallen for the myth that everything will change if she just loses weight.

AWAD: When we change our bodies, do we really change ourselves? When we look in the mirror, what do we see? In some ways, are we still being informed by that person that we were attempting to leave behind? And I think the book is interested in exploring how a fat girl is more than just a question of flesh, you know, it's also - it's a state of mind.

NEARY: In our culture, says Sarai Walker, author of the novel "Dietland," we have this idea that inside every fat person, there's a thin person waiting to be freed.

SARAI WALKER: In "Dietland," I just wanted to kind of start off with this, you know, miserable fat woman who was desperate to lose weight - kind of that familiar territory, and then I wanted to blow up that story into a million pieces.

NEARY: At the beginning of "Dietland," Walker's heroine, Plum, is 29 years old, 300 pounds and desperate for the chance to undergo weight reduction surgery. Walker wanted to write the book because she says the experience of being a fat woman in our culture has not been taken seriously in literature.

WALKER: And I knew to write this novel that I would have to answer the question - why are fat women so hated? So it was really a process of trying to discover that and trying to answer that question for myself. So I didn't know where it would go, where it would lead, but I definitely got angry while I was writing it.

NEARY: Plum goes through a series of challenges that raise her own awareness of what it means to be fat. She emerges more comfortable in her own skin, and, as she explains to a friend in this scene, she discovers a newfound power, the ability to see through her tormentors.

WALKER: (Reading) Because I'm fat, I know how horrible everyone is. If I looked like a normal woman, if I looked like you, then I'd never know how cruel and shallow people are. I see a different side of humanity. Those guys I went on the blind dates with treated me like I was subhuman. If I were thin and pretty, they would have shown me a different side, a fake one. But since I look like this, I know what they're truly like.

NEARY: Over the course of the book, Plum doesn't get any thinner, but she does change a lot. Her awakening comes against the backdrop of a series of terrorist acts by a violent feminist underground. Walker believes weight is a feminist issue, and she didn't want the book to just tell the story of one woman's struggle with her body.

WALKER: Because what happens to Plum doesn't happen in a vacuum. It's part of a larger problem of this pressure on women to look a certain way, and the objectification of women and the violence that can come from that. So I wanted to explore the issue of why is this fat body so stigmatized? Why is the fat female body in general so stigmatized in this larger framework?

NEARY: "Dietland," which came out last year, has just been auctioned for TV, and Walker couldn't be happier because she believes that it is possible to change people's attitudes.

WALKER: If we don't see fat people as human like everyone else, then it's not going to change. So I think a big part of the change that we need to happen is to have books, to have TV shows, to have films with fat characters who don't hate themselves, who accept themselves and who challenge the way that we think about our bodies.

NEARY: And Walker says when she spoke with writers and producers interested in adapting her book, she always made sure of one thing - that they wouldn't cast a thin woman in a fat suit. The actress who plays Plum, says Walker, has to be fat. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.