Diversity 101: Who’s That Fat Kid?
Fat Politics and Children's Literature
Contributed to CBC Diversity by Rebecca Rabinowitz
My Personal Connection
I’m a fat person living in a virulently fatphobic culture. We’re soaking in it. The ubiquitous fear and hate of fatness is both glaring and invisible. It’s job discrimination; it’s insults from strangers on the street; it’s doctors who refuse to treat fat patients until we lose weight. I’m dedicated to fat politics, which is a social justice movement, and Fat Studies, which is a critical/academic lens.
In children’s books, fatness often symbolizes negativity. One common trope is the fat bully. Think of Dudley Dursley. Think of Dana, the fat bully in Carl Hiaasen’s Hoot. Think of Nazir Mohammad, the fat bully in Suzanne Fisher Staples’ Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind. Also common are fat victims. Think of Miranda in Cynthia Voigt’s When She Hollers – a fat girl who was terribly abused for years and has just committed suicide as the book opens. Miranda exists specifically to show Tish, the similarly-abused protagonist, what path not to take. Think of Dell in K.M. Walton’s Empty – a fat protagonist who’s raped, bullied, abandoned, and (like Voigt’s Miranda) driven to suicide. And think of Jake in Rebecca Fjelland Davis’s Jake Riley: Irreparably Damaged – Jake’s a fat bully and a fat victim. The tropes of fat bully and fat victim occur far too often to be random. Lest we think that any particular example might be random, textual evidence often specifically links the actual fatness with the negative trait, cementing the conflation. About Hoot’s fat bully: “This time Dana hit him with the other hand, equally fat and damp” . About When She Hollers’ fat victim: "Tish had watched the fat girl lumbering out the doors and down the sidewalk to where the car waited. Waddle, waddle – her buns rolling up against one another – like a girl going down the hallway to the electric chair every day" . Fatness is mapped onto negative characteristics as if it were some sort of profound literary symbol, and as if such mapping were harmless to people in the real world.