Close your eyes and throw a dart in the children’s section, and you’ll probably hit a book that has fat-phobia. It may have a snide comment about a fat character – or a book with no fat characters at all. I’m not sure which one is worse. It’s practically a tradition in children’s literature to depict fatness as synonymous with gluttony, with ugliness, with stupidity, or with evil. In Harry Potter, you have major and minor fat villains: Dudley, Umbridge, Crabbe and Goyle. Stuart Gibb’s best-selling Funjungle series features a b-side villain referred to as “Large Marge” throughout the series, who is regularly derided as idiotic and incompetent. And if we started talking about fatness and Roald Dahl, we’d be here all day. Where does this fatphobia come from, and why do we put up with it?
The Problem In Picture Books
Here’s an exercise to try: go to your library’s catalog or the shelves. Try to find a picture book where the main (human) child character is depicted as fat, but the story isn’t about being fat. How many did you find?
There are a handful of picture books that celebrate all kinds of body types, but if you’re a child looking to see yourself in a fun story, a book about body positivity isn’t enough. We know that all kinds of kids deserve to see themselves in all kinds of stories: fantasy stories, adventure stories, funny stories. If the only time you see a body like yours is in a book specifically about how bodies like yours are okay, you might start to wonder if the rest of the world really sees it that way.
Kids learn early that society believes that being fat is something to be feared, loathed, and avoided at all costs. One study found that anti-fat attitudes begin as early as age three. Another study found that children don’t want to be friends with fat characters – and I bet you can infer how they might feel about their real-life overweight classmates (and themselves). This disgust can manifest itself into a dangerous life of dieting and self-hatred. Kids have so many more important things to care about than whether they might be fat according to some arbitrary standard.
Middle Grade Isn’t Any Better
Now go to your middle grade shelves. Ask yourself: why are thin kids the only ones who get to go on adventures or have outrageous amounts of fun? Where is the fat Percy Jackson, the fat kid spy, the fat Baby-Sitters Club member? I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been reading a great middle grade novel and then stopped in my tracks at a casual piece of fat-phobia. It might be a reference to a heavy classmate no one likes. Often it’s an adult who is depicted as fat, and therefore ugly and stupid as well. Or it might be a casual reference to diet culture – like the belief that some foods are bad, junky, or immoral.
A reader’s advisory interivew is a huge piece of children’s librarianship, but it can be challenging to find a middle grade novel that doesn’t have any fat-phobia at all. And lest you believe that adults are able to see past fat-phobia with their maturity, one study found that teachers give fat children worse grades, even when they perform just as well academically as their thin peers. Ask yourself this question: can you guarantee that you treat the fat children you work with exactly the same as their thin peers? I hope I do. I want to. But when you are steeped in a culture of bias, it can be hard to even recognize that bias as it happens in front of you.
Racism and Fat-phobia
When we care about dismantling racism in children’s literature, we must also care about dismantling fat-phobia. In many ways, we can trace fat-phobia back to racist attitudes towards black and brown bodies. When white people sought to differentiate themselves from black and brown bodies, whiteness also came to mean thinness, and blackness came to mean heaviness. It’s hard to find positive representations of fat characters in general, but it’s close to impossible to find positive representation of fat black or brown characters for kids. If we’re being honest, when we depict only thin characters in a children’s book, what we are really doing is forcing adult beauty standards onto children, and those standards are racist, ableist, and no good for anyone.
Children’s literature does have some positive fat representation. Lisa Fipps’ middle grade novel-in-verse, Starfish, gives voice to all the pain that a fat child can feel when they’ve been bullied for years. Daniel Jose Older’s Dactyl Hill Squad features an overweight protagonist on a thrilling fantasy adventure, with no negative commentary on his size. The picture book Bodies Are Cool, by Tyler Feder, features awesome illustrations of all kinds of bodies. While these books are a good place to start, they cannot be the beginning and the end of fat representation.
The fact of the matter is, there’s nothing wrong with being fat. A person’s weight is morally neutral, no matter their size, no matter how or why they came to be that size, no matter what they eat or how much they exercise. A fat body is a wonderful body that can move you through the world, just like a thin body. Children of all sizes deserve to see themselves represented in what they read, and to know that they belong.
Today’s blogger is Chelsey Roos. Chelsey has been a member of ALSC’s Advocacy and Legislation committee, and is a children’s librarian for the Santa Clara County Library.
This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of I. Commitment to Client Group, and IV. Knowledge, Curation, and Management of Materials