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The Fat Body Problem

“I do play all the characters, when I write them, one after another. If they actually had to film me, the only one I could play would be Samwell Tarly or Hot Pie.” — George R. R. Martin

 

“It was funny, she thought, that people treated her flesh like a public resource, a reservoir for all their insecurities and emotional dysfunction, when it was she who had their insides at her fingertips.” ― Gretchen Felker-Martin, Manhunt

 

Has there ever been a richer time to be fat? We live in a time when there is mainstream discourse about body neutrality and fat acceptance. We’re not at the point where it’s widely accepted or adopted, but at least it’s talked about. I was a fat child during the Obesity Epidemic years; it is a major improvement to not always be referred to as a disease. This discourse is shifted, little by little, by visible fat public figures like Lizzo and Jonah Hill glorying in their bodies or simply declining to speak about it with press and strangers. It’s reshaped, little by little, by the inclusion of diverse body types in previously narrow passages like the cover of Sports Illustrated and in major fashion shows. Now is a glorious time to be fat.

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror have been narrow passages for fat bodies, too. I have a copy of an anthology most people have never seen: 1983’s The Science Fiction Weight-Loss Book,  coedited by Isaac Asimov and a young George R. R. Martin. It’s a fascinating mix of work from that time: a diet-crazed Asimov writes in his introduction that he himself struggled in the “battle of the bulge” and looks forward to a time when science might solve this problem: the fat body problem. There are shorts within from Orson Scott Card and Robert Silverberg about self-loathing and food deprivation that encourage the reader to sympathy for the authors, if not everyone who struggles with the endless hunger of self-denial and suffering in the name of thinness. Other stories, like Jack Vance’s “Abercrombie Station,” put a toe into the pool of warm water that will one day be the acceptance and even celebration of fat bodies. But the collection closes with Stephen King’s 1978 short “Quitter’s Inc,” in which cigarette smoking and weight gain are equivocated and both punished through literal torture. 1983 was a harder time to glorify obesity.

The quote up top from GRRM encapsulates the problem perfectly: Martin is fat, like a lot of creators and fans in our communities. He literally writes these characters and these roles; he created Samwell Tarly and Jon Snow for his series, A Song of Ice and Fire. But he cannot imagine a body like his cast in the physical role of hero. He sees himself as Samwell, who (it must be said) is a fabulous character. Samwell studies and uncovers; he helps turn the great wheel of the story. He says clever things, overcomes family trauma, and he fucks right there on the page, showing us his “fat pink mast” and then putting it to work. Martin can do it; but I don’t think he knows he can do it in the spotlight. We are in the golden age for the Samwell Tarlys of the speculative fiction world.

This might be news to Martin, who came up in the wake of writers like Asimov and Herbert and Moorcock, all of whom wrote fat characters as slovenly, avaricious, cruel, stupid, slow, and sexless. This might still look like too narrow a gate for him to pass through. But a lot of other writers have been dynamiting the door to open it up to ADA standards and beyond. Ooh baby baby, it’s a wide world. It has to be; so many cool fat characters are pushing through.

The first time I read a description of Archie, the fat French con woman in Sarah Gailey’s River of Teeth, I thought I’d died and gone to my personal heaven where everyone but me is a tailor. She’s fat on the page, but also quick in of hammer-swinging action. She works her way into disguises that allow her to express gender fluidly. She’s charming and picks pockets and hits absolutely zero of the stereotypes associated with fatness in fiction. Gailey knows what fat people are actually like, and they write a splendid example of what’s possible.

The quote above from Gretchen Felker-Martin is drawn from the kind of example that a fat author can imbue into a fat character. In her novel, Manhunt, Indira is a fat brown fertility doctor who wields incredible intelligence and power, while also being subject to the cruelty and projection of thin white people. The way that Felker-Martin shows us Indira as aware of her own sexuality (explicitly, exquisitely, expositioned with her thighs on either side of someone’s face) as well as aware of how other people deposit their insecurity into the image of her body is nothing less than masterful. Felker-Martin is a decadent, gutsy writer, and never better than when she’s cradling the decadent gut of one of her fat characters.

Not everyone is into that vibe, and I get it. Every golden age comes at the expense of a lot of iron and soot that came before. Some readers just want a character who happens to be fat. Derry, the main character of A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah Hollowell is simply fat. She isn’t punished or hated for it, and it’s not part of what happens to her amid the magic and disappearances of this lovely, haunting debut novel. Hollowell writes the kind of incandescent power-flexing that many of us fat kids dreamt of: not a bench press but a beauty press, far from the body and evoking the delicacy of night-blooming flowers.

Brawler Adoulla from Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon is similarly incidental. Ahmed writes violent action and emotional intimacy with the same kind of breathless devotion; he’s like a boxer who sags in his opponent’s arms after victory, weeping for the brotherhood of their mingled blood. Adoulla’s body is aging and softening; he endures the projected opinions of men and boys upon it. But the power remains in his body, his arms, his armor. He is unaffected by his fatness, and he moves with the same grace and grim determination as ever. Ahmed does not run from the body, but sags and snaps with it. He is weeping, he is weeping, but the fighter still remains.

Nalo Hopkinson’s Gilla, the girl from the story “The Smile on the Face” in the collection Falling in Love with Hominids, carries a body that is more than just incidental. Hopkinson puts Gilla at the cruel intersection of race, color, fatness, and desirability and then turns loose the rush hour traffic of adolescence on that intersection. The result is a girl degraded and derided for her body, and those who don’t harm her physically both blab and believe rumors about her that are powered by her body and its unruly differences. Gilla gets one of the best revenge arcs I have seen, becoming a literal fire-spitting dragon when a girl’s invective is simply not enough.

Books where fat bodies bear stigma and suffer the stock insults of the petty terrorists who never have anything new to say certainly have their place. But I’m most heartened when fat protagonists get to do their thing and live a life that is authentically fat. Marianne Kirby’s Dust Bowl zombie duology, Feral Seasons, features a teenage hero pitted against the walking dead and conspiracy, but also the realest struggle of a fat girl in a tough situation: chub rub.

Like Martin, I grew up reading those authors who make the fat body a problem: a portal for horror, an anachronism for science to solve, or a reason a person can’t be a knight. Like Felker-Martin, I’m determined that the body I live in should be a part of the worlds that I experience and create. Like every author on this list, I’m putting my whole fat self on the page, in the worlds that I want to see, in the struggles I know to be real by the ache between my thighs, in the heroics and beauties I know we can achieve because I see and feel them every day.

Fat kids today will grow up with fat vampire slayer Guillermo de la Cruz and fat superhero Faith. They’ll go on adventures with Cora from Beneath the Sugar Sky and come home with Nina from Six of CrowsThey’ll write their own stories, seeing themselves as the hero and the love interest and the conman and the cinnamon roll. Maybe they’ll never see a thin actor don a fat suit to play a character that a fat actor should have portrayed. They’ll see their work adapted into movies and television and when someone asks them who they might actually play on screen, they’ll shrug and say they could play anyone.

Because in that future, the fat body is not a problem.

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Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a science fiction author and feminist essayist. Her debut, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, won the 2014 Philip K. Dick award. She is a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. In 2020, she published her first collection, “Big Girl” with PM Press, containing the Locus Award-winning novelette, “The Pill.” Elison’s first young adult novel, “Find Layla” was published in 2020 by Skyscape. Her thriller, “Number One Fan,” will be released by Mira Books in 2022. Meg has been published in McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and many other places. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley.

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