Weight-Loss Narratives and Why They Can Go Die in a Fire

I don’t really see much about fat* characters included in diversity discussions–and that’s understandable and totally cool with me when you consider that there are much larger (no pun intended) gaps in diverse representations in publishing such as race, sexual orientation, and disability. Excellent discussions for diversity in books can be found here, here, and here.

However, fat representation is something I can speak to from experience because I’m a fat woman and was a fat teenager and a fat child.

The topic is broad, and so it’s likely I’ll return to it again. For today, I’ll focus on weight loss narratives.

I HATE THEM.

Phew. Had to get that off my chest.

THEY CAN ALL BURN IN HELL.

Apparently I feel strongly about it.

It’s definitely a personal thing. Is there anything inherently wrong with a weight loss narrative? No. Is there something wrong with the fact that I could list dozens of books with fat heroines who have lost/are losing weight and can only think of a handful of stories with an is-fat-and-stays-fat main character? Yes. That’s where the problem lies.

It’s the prevalence of the weight loss narrative in fiction. It’s the fact that fat protagonists are seen as protagonists (rather than some kind of lazy anti-hero Homer Simpson) only if they’re virtuously trying to not be fat anymore. I call bullshit. Ideally, a human being should be no more defined by their fatness anymore than they are by their hair color.**

Image via Goodreads

Image via Goodreads

One of my all time favorite books is The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson. I adore this book. Princess Elisa, the main character, is a compulsive overeater with some major hang-ups about her role as the Chosen One. I will keep spoilers to a minimum, but over the course of the novel circumstances are such that Elisa, by no choice of her own, loses much of her excess weight. It’s realistic given what she goes through. The larger problem of her self-esteem and inadequacy issues are addressed realistically too, and as a result, in the next two books in the trilogy she has “overcome” her emotional eating and never gains back the weight.

Although I love this trilogy like a “drowning man loves air” there is a stubborn part of me that wonders how much more awesome it would have been had Elisa not lost all that weight–if she’d overcome obstacles and been a bad-ass queen and also a proud fat woman. I hate to say it, but to me that would have been even better. (Not to mention that as more research is conducted, weight loss is shown to be rarely long term, especially weight loss sustained by hard living, starvation conditions like those Elisa faces in the first book).

I’ll give another example, focusing more on romance. I planned to “hate-read” Breaking His Rules by Alison Packard the other week but to be honest I rather ended up liking it. The characters were introduced previously in the series, and I knew that the heroine, Melissa, had lost fifty pounds before her story starts.  Melissa’s weight loss is a main focus of the book, and the hero, Jake, is her personal trainer and helps facilitate all the weight loss. It feels a bit stupid to criticize a book that uses weight loss to bring the heroine and hero together and still enjoy it, but that is who I am, friends.

Just like I said about GoFaT (I just noticed that GoFaT says “Go Fat” and isn’t that so, so perfect), I’m not sure why Melissa needed to lose fifty pounds. Did you know that there are people who exercise and are fit and are also fat? You can go to the gym and eat reasonably healthy and still be fat.*** The story makes it clear that Jake was interested in Melissa even before she lost the weight–which is nice, but feels a bit like lip service. If he liked her anyway…why does she have to lose fifty pounds in order to get her Happily Ever After? I would have prefered the bolder choice: a fat woman who works out on the regular with her hottie gym-owning boyfriend and doesn’t care that her size is a double digit number. As is, the book makes it clear that Melissa is deserving of love, fat or not, but of course…she doesn’t get it until she’s lost the weight.

I could list more books with weight-loss narratives, but this post is already going to be too long.

Here’s a character I would love to see much more of:

A fat woman who isn’t hung up on her weight. Who treats her weight as a feature of her body, not a defining feature of her self and character. A fat woman who dates, is happy with herself, exercises and eats right or doesn’t, but doesn’t view weight loss as the measure of whether or not she’s succeeding in life. Realistically, few fat women who grow up with today’s media do so without developing a few complexes about their bodies (realistically, very few women fat or not who grow up with today’s media do so without developing a few complexes about their bodies). But this is why fiction is great. As authors we can write about characters who are different than ourselves! We can write about worlds and people we’d like to see. As much as I love reading about characters who are struggling with the things I struggle with (like the best TV show ever)  it’s just as much fun to read about a character who should have some of the same hang-ups I do but doesn’t.

As a fat woman, I’m sick of seeing fat person representation inextricably tied to the question of weight loss (having lost weight or wanting to).  As if that is my number one goal in life. It’s not. The fact is that there are scores of fat people satisfied with their lives, who achieve their goals, find happiness and love and success all while being fat. To me it’s a moot point whether or not they’re also trying to lose weight. That’s a side pursuit that actually has little bearing on their value as human beings or their success in other areas. So why don’t we see that in fiction?

Why not a character who represents these successful, funny, personable ladies?

Melissa-McCarthy3

Image via Plus Model Magazine

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Image via pitch-perfect-wikia.com

Adele-Laughing-adele-31520116-600-598

Image via fanpop

I’d read the hell out of a romance about a Melissa McCarthy-like celebrity.

Or how about stories where we see young professional women succeeding all while being fat? Or because they’re fat?

Gabi Gregg of GabiFresh

Gabi Gregg of GabiFresh

Maybe a story about a waitress who does competitive weight lifting in her spare time:

Holly Mangold (image via the NYT)

Holly Mangold (image via the NYT)

And what if a story mentioned the protagonist’s size only in the way you’d also establish that the main character has blonde hair or is one of five children? Why does being fat have to take over the story?

Examples of stories that do this really well.

Image via Goodreads

Image via Goodreads

Eleanor’s weight is definitely mentioned. I’m sure Eleanor at one point thinks about losing weight, but I can’t remember because Eleanor has other things in her life that are much more worth worrying about than her size, like finding a way to get a toothbrush, or where the family’s next meal might come from, or how to get away from her awful stepfather. Being fat isn’t even remotely the most pressing worry she has. Bonus points for Park being head over heels for her.

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

Tracy Turnblad’s weight is the subject of torment by mean girl Amber and her mother Velma Von Tussle–but Tracy doesn’t care. She just wants to dance! And girl is good at it, too. Bonus points galore for having several fat characters (Tracy, Edna, Motormouth Maybelle), featuring a fat character excelling at a physical talent, and for giving the fat girl a love interest.

Notes:

*I am deliberately reclaiming “fat” as a descriptor, not a pejorative term. Thoughts on the “f” word are varied in the body acceptance community, but personally I’m fine with it as a descriptor.

**I choose to reference my fatness much more than my blondeness though, and that’s because my society tells me one is bad and the other is neutral good. Fat activism/fat acceptance/body diversity movements are necessary and good and I love them.

***This is a point made by the fat acceptance movement. I don’t feel the need to expound upon it here since it’s easily Googled.

 

 

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Reviewing a Feminist Classic: The Last Unicorn

Despite a childhood spent reading, I had never heard of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn until Pat Rothfuss mentioned it on his blog as his favorite book. PR goes so far as to imply that you can’t call yourself a fantasy reader if you haven’t read TLU (I’m sure he’s being tongue-in-cheek…or am I?)  Last Monday night I went with some work friends to see The Last Unicorn Screening Tour. It was an interesting experience to see such a classic on the big screen. I wish I had that opportunity more often.

last-unicorn

To be honest, I had no idea what to expect from the movie. I have never read the book, but I knew that the people who made the animated version of The Hobbit also made this film. I have very distinct memories of watching The Hobbit as a kid, and I remember thinking it was creepy and boring. The Last Unicorn was…interesting…if I’m being completely honest. I’d like to read the novel before I pass judgment on the story, but the film was so stylized as to be unrelatable at times. Something about the animation made it hard for your eyes to ever rest, and there were long stretches with no dialogue. The music sent my friends into fits of giggles that they had to stifle so as not to ruin anyone else’s theater experience (nostalgia counts for a lot, and I’m pretty sure most of the audience had grown up with the movie and loved it).

But yet, despite all that, I loved it. I walked out of the theater convinced that The Last Unicorn had more to say about loneliness than any lit fic I’ve ever read (that’s a huge theme of lit fic, right? The loneliness of modern man?). I think I could even call it a feminist text.

(1) The first line of the book reads, “The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone.” [emphasis mine]

The event organizer and Peter S. Beagle mentioned in the Q&A preceding the movie that until this book, unicorns had always been depicted as male. But now, forty-odd years later, can you picture a unicorn that isn’t “girly”?

The.Last.Unicorn.(Character).600.133534

I can’t adequately describe how much I love that. To take something that is by default male, and without fuss or pomp, make it a “her?” I wish I had been the one to do that. Not only to feminize the symbol, but to make her the subject of her own story. The hero of her own adventure. Before 1968, how often was that done? It’s hard to quantify, but TLU surely helped usher in a generation of fantasy writers who gave greater import to female characters and female narratives, treating them as humans (or unicorns!) worthy of their own stories rather than as accessories to a default male narrative.

(2) What is surely ahead of its time is the way the story complicates the myth of the “ideal” feminine being. The Unicorn (aka Amalthea) is beauty and grace incarnate. Her wood is constantly in the bloom of spring. Peace reigns among the animals who inhabit it.

But then, the careless words of two hunters lead the Unicorn to believe that she is the last unicorn on earth.

At this point in the movie, I was rolling my eyes. The Unicorn seems so overwhelmingly characterized by her “beauty” that it’s hard to see anything else about her. She reminded me of the sexualized fantasy women of games–women with too-large purple eyes and flowing white hair–which is exactly how the Unicorn looks.

But then, further down the road (literally, in context of the story), the Unicorn meets several men who want to capture her, and she is amazed that they can’t see she is a unicorn. To them, she is only an exceptional mare. The Unicorn realizes that men see what they want to see.

Both named female characters, Mommy Fortuna and Molly Grue, instantly see her for what she is. Because they see her for what she is, they can communicate with her (to be fair, so can the subpar magician Schmendrick who helps free her from Mommy Fortuna’s clutches). The recognition of her true nature gives the Unicorn a voice. This is the first time she actually communicates with other beings. The silencing of women’s voices is a huge theme in feminist lit.

(3) Being the hero of her own story helps the Unicorn become something new.

Eventually, the Unicorn and her compatriots fall into the hands of the villain, who they’re sure has hidden all the unicorns…somewhere. In order to save the Unicorn from the villainous Red Bull, Schmendrick the magician turns her into a human woman named Lady Amalthea. The longer Amalthea spends in human form, the more she forgets her life as a unicorn. The handsome prince courts her, and eventually they fall in love (I think? The movie didn’t do so great a job at showing this).

But when the final showdown comes and Amalthea must face the Red Bull again, she chooses to sacrifice her human life and her human love to set all the trapped unicorns free. Schmendrick helps transform her back into her true form, and she finds the strength to drive the Red Bull into the sea.

It’s poignant that when she is once again a Unicorn, she chooses to stay that way. This means leaving the prince behind and going back to her wood. But as she goes back, the narrator remarks that she is unique among unicorns in that she now knows both sorrow and regret. It’s those human emotions that make the Unicorn three-dimensional. The Unicorn isn’t a flat symbol of feminine beauty. She isn’t even hackneyed two-dimensional symbol of feminism (ie the victimized female). She is beautiful, but she has sacrificed. She has loved and given that up for something greater, and now she knows human emotion. Giving her human emotions makes her so much more relatable. Not only is she more relatable, but her arc is completed on her own–that is, there is no man by her side in the end. The story is wholly hers, though there are certainly influential side characters who help her. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good romance. But that is not part of this story, nor would it fit.

I’m sure many someones have done more in-depth critiques of this story. I’m sure there are problematic elements I’m overlooking. And there is also not one way to write a feminist story. My reading of the text (screenplay, in this case) is surely relying a bit too much on symbols and archetypes, but I thought The Last Unicorn did a great job exploring feminist themes.