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Writing the plus-sized character.
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Written by Amanda Gannon   
Tuesday, 09 August 2011 00:07
Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a fat girl, and knows that I am committed to the principles of size acceptance.  It's very important to me.  So, in my stories, I try to make an effort to include women who are definitively not thin.  There's trouble with this, though.

How do you write about a person's size so that the reader knows that they really are supposed to be capital-F Fat? A lot of sexy fiction (and unsexy fiction, but that's not our trade here) written from a woman's point of view has some version of this in the first fifty pages:

"Sexerella knew that she could stand to lose a few pounds, but nobody had ever complained about her voluptuous womanly body, and she knew that her new super-tight velveteen dress was going to look like leopard-print dynamite over her dangerous curves at the fuckerware party later that night."


Some readers read that and go "Well, who couldn't stand to lose a few pounds?"  Others read it and go "Sheeyeah.  That chick isn't fat, she's just got some meat on her bones.  She's sexy and curvy."*  They think that because those thoughts are familiar to them; because, as a result of nasty social conditioning, women in real life tend to have an internal monologue that goes "Holy shit, I have an ass the size of a Belgian draft horse's and nobody will ever want to fuck a woman with a horse-sized ass!"** at least a dozen times a day.  That mindset doesn't seem odd.

The point being, readers don't parse that as meaning the character is actually fat.  They parse it as being typical female self-deprecation, and go on to classify the character as being "sexy, not fat."

So to get the point across, you either have to resort to clumsy and intrusive efforts to introduce figures into the narrative – "Sexerella pulled out a number of dresses, not sure which European size corresponded to her US size 22." – or you have to rely on super-subtle cues and the reactions of other characters.

That's tricky, because if you lean on it enough to make it apparent to the reader that the character really is fat, it can seem like you are fetishizing it.  And, yeah, I write kinky porn, but not fat fetish porn, because I find a lot of fat fetishism is bound up in some pretty gross attitudes about fatness, food, and women, and I just don't want to step into that mess because I do not need the aggravation.  Also, I don't like to contribute to the fetishization of people's identities, because doing so requires maintaining those identities as special and unusual "Others," and othering people is not okay, even in a seemingly appreciative context.  Oooh.  I sense a good article there.

Anyway.  It's also tricky because, if you give a specific number, if you get really definite about the size of your character, some people will say "Okay, I like some cushion for the pushin', but that's too fat!" and some will say "Aw, come on, that is not fat at all!"

Not to mention that even if you do cave and give a height and weight, most people stink at accurately imagining what a given weight looks like.  When you say "two-hundred-pound woman," your audience probably isn't picturing what an actual 200-pound, or any other weight, woman looks like.  They may be picturing whatever their definition of "Oh dear god no!" is.  Because they don't know what 200 pounds actually looks like.  They hear 200 pounds and they panic.

You often can't even use the most accurate descriptor, "fat", because it's a word so laden with negative associations that even size-positive people get nervous when we see it, because we often can't tell right away how the writer means it.

I shouldn't even need to point out that saying "She was fat but sexy!" is just wrong and missing the point.  I mean, really? Thanks, authors who do this.  Thanks for making your character the fuckable exception to the unfuckable fatty rule.  Way to tear down those nasty cultural constructs, you douchefarting asshole.

Some people just flat don't like reading about fat characters because it grosses them out too much.  I want to say fuck these people, because, you know, seriously, fuck them, but I also want to sell books and memberships and be able to pay for things like medical care and hot running water and my freaking house.  So I do the thing where I don't mention exact numbers, and let the reader fill that in with whatever they most identify with or are most comfortable picturing, and hope that my contribution to inclusive erotica is not so unobtrusive that it goes unnoticed.

It's interesting writing a story about a character who is fat and mostly okay with that.  Conflict with one's own weight is familiar to a lot of readers, and it's also a way to make the weight issue visible, to make it real.  If a character has problems with how she looks, we have an excuse to discuss how she looks in more detail, and that can provide an opportunity to discuss these issues in a sympathetic way.  But someone like Stormy, who is a big girl but doesn't feel particularly bad about that . . . someone could conceivably read the entirety of Witches' Mark and not realize that I see her as being 5'0-5'2 and somewhere between 180 and 210 pounds.  They could be imagining her at 5'5 and 140, and, well, I might normally quibble, but with erotica, you really want to get the hell out of the way and give the reader room to imagine whatever turns them on most.

A real problem with Witches' Mark was actually writing stuff from Darius's point of view.  Richard and Eldarra both are comfortable with larger women, and enjoy their carnal company a great deal.  Darius is twenty, relatively slender, blazingly attractive, and kind of a little brat.  Yet, if I leaned hard on the fact that his attraction to Stormy is unusual for him because he generally prefers slender women (like, say, Lia), I make him sound like a total douchebag.  "I usually don't go for fatties, but your titties have converted me." Yeah.  I didn't want people to think badly of him in that way, because he has enough of a problem being likeable as it is, what with being – again – a melodrama-prone twenty-year-old tragedy magnet.  So I kind of soft-pedaled it, and am still not sure how I feel about doing that.

Even mentioning in the synopsis that's going on websites selling the e-book that Stormy is a fat girl feels like misrepresentation, because the story isn't about that (as, indeed, way more stories about fat protagonists should not be about their fatness).  It would be weird to mention it in a >400 character synopsis, or in content tags, for the same reason it would be weird to mention that she has wide feet or grey eyes.  Those things aren't really important to the narrative.  Singling them out puts unwarranted emphasis on them, and especially in a synopsis, can make it feel like you're an asshole fetishizing an identity.

It's a thorny issue.

I know Paul covered this some last week, but there is a lot of good discussion on the web about writing racially diverse characters, and even with all that excellent dialogue, it's something that I am uncomfortable with and worry about doing wrong to the point of saying something I don't mean.  I'm trying, and plan to try doing it more, but I'm not going to rush myself, because if I do I'm pretty sure I'll fuck up and do something that I'll be ashamed of later or, worse, that I'll really hurt someone's feelings.  I'm not happy about that, but I think being honest about my shortcomings serves my principles better than putting my foot in my mouth because I wanted to be all "I can write diverse characters, too!  Look what a considerate white lady author I am!" and didn't take time to think things through.  (Sometimes the best contribution to a conversation about oppression is knowing when to shut the fuck up.)

I haven't seen many people talking about the size issue – though I concede that the discussions might be out there and I just missed them – and I think it's a shame.  Writing inclusive fiction is important, but it's also really intimidating, even if you are the minority you are writing about, because, like it or not, you are pushing against a lot of unexamined prejudice.  And while you really don't want to pander to people with shitty attitudes, you also might be in a position where you are terrified of losing readers, because, you know, eating and paying your mortgage is kind of important.

That I have been able to determine, there are four reasons to include fatties (or people of color, or any number of other woefully underrepresented identities) in your narrative.

1) You can do it to include people, to make more people feel welcome and to fight against the endless tide of skinny or perfectly imperfect heroines, and to fight whitewashing and racism-by-omission.

2) You can do it because you genuinely want to examine and discuss the politics of body size or race and so on.

3) You can do it because you want to help readers become more comfortable with the idea of people different than them by giving them someone they can indentify with but who is fat, or Black, or mentally ill, and so on.

Then there's the last reason:

4) You, as the author, are thinking "You know what would be hot here?  FATTIES!" and you then proceed to write something that, rather than celebrating body diversity, is actually a really gross stew of wishful thinking, stereotypes turned into turn-ons, and grotesque objectification.

It is not easy, if you aren't really well-acquainted with the politics of a group, to write about them in a sexy way without doing something unintentionally offensive.  Even if you care and have the best of intentions, it's not easy.  And a lot of people don't care, which makes folks mistrust authors and narratives until proven worthy.  The people who do care and who try to do it right but still get it wrong – sometimes terribly wrong, sometimes committing fail by only the barest margin – are standing on short sufferance (quite understandably, believe me, I'm not cutting anyone any slack here).  It's hard to tell, sometimes, where the line between description and fetishization is drawn.  Aaaand, lest we derail completely I will discuss that in more detail at some other time, I think.

I think fiction can serve as a useful way of getting people to feel more comfortable with people not like them, especially erotic fiction, but there is a fine line between being inclusive, which makes people feel welcome and warm and happy, and the fetishization we just talked about, which not only makes people feel unwelcome and gross, but which does absolutely nothing to change anyone's opinion of fat people, people of color, and so on, because it relies on the very same wrongheaded ideas that support prejudice.

Of the three decent reasons listed above, I think the first is what I am most after, with the other two coming in behind, neck and neck, and who finishes second depends on the narrative.  It's important to me, because I can't count the number of times I've read a story and been put off by the same tiresome assertions that the character is totally built but not, like, fat or anything, or that she is self-conscious about her body because she feels she is too thin, and so forth.  (Not that plenty of women don't feel self-conscious because they're really thin, they do, and that is terribly painful, but this is something that pops up in so much women's fiction, and it is obviously a way of giving the character an arguably less-than-ideal body type without violating the cultural sense of propriety that dictates that fat people are unsightly, and their bodies are shameful and their lives are uninteresting.)

I want to counter that in whatever small way I can.  Not including fat people would be like saying (albeit in a very quiet voice) that our stories aren't worth being told, and that's awful close to being told our lives aren't worth living.  And even quiet voices can deafen and drown out, if there are enough of them.

That is not the message I want to send.

* Others read it and go "Man, a fuckerware party sounds awesome!" And they are.

** This is a lie.  Both in the sense of plenty of folks loving women with big asses, and in the sense that there are plenty of people who find draft horses quite attractive.  Shires?  Dead sexy.  Just sayin'.

Last Updated on Sunday, 27 November 2011 01:37
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