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'You Cannot Shame Me': 2 New Books Tear Down 'Fat Girl' Stereotypes

Mona Awad is the author of <em>13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl.</em> She is pursuing a PhD in creative writing and English literature at the University of Denver.
George Baier IV
Penguin Random House
Mona Awad is the author of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. She is pursuing a PhD in creative writing and English literature at the University of Denver.

First, we must contend with the word "fat" itself. It should be a simple descriptor, but fat is often used as an insult — whispered by gossips, or hurled by bullies. Many people use euphemisms — heavy, plump, overweight — to avoid it all together. But now, some writers have decided that it's time to take "fat" head on.

"There's a lot of power in reclaiming words that have been hurled as stigma terms," says Joyce Huff, an English professor at Ball State University.

Back in Victorian days, Huff explains, fat characters were were portrayed as greedy and selfish or fat and jolly. Today, they're often written as passive, depressive types. Now, she says, writers are tearing down these stereotypes.

"When someone calls a person fat and that person turns around and says, 'Yes, I'm fat. You cannot shame me with that word,' it's quite a powerful response," says Huff.

Mona Awad is the author of the new book 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl.

"I knew it was a charged term but that is why I put it on the cover of the book," she says. "Because I wanted to unpack it, and I wanted to challenge it, and I wanted to complicate it. "

Awad has struggled with her own weight in the past, as have a many of her family members and friends. She was interested in exploring the effect that can have on a person.

"A struggle with body image takes up a lot of life," she says. "It takes up a lot of psychological life. It uses up a lot of emotional life. It can change the tenor of your very important personal relationships. And that can take its toll, I think, on anyone. And certainly it takes its toll on my main character, Lizzie."

Lizzie's life is told in 13 stories, beginning when she is an unhappy teenager. Deeply insecure, she constantly compares her body unfavorably to her friends and lets men take advantage of her. Awad portrays Lizzie's humiliations with unflinching honesty and a dose of dark humor. She dissects her often difficult relationships with everyone from her over-involved mother to an overbearing saleswoman.

"I wanted to see a woman who is dealing these issues go into a dressing room. I wanted to see her have sex," she says. "I wanted to see those narratives and I wanted to see how they played out. I wanted her to lose weight and then come up against a woman who is larger who is happy with herself."

Lizzie does get thin and is obsessed with staying that way. Happiness eludes her because she has fallen for the myth that everything will change if she just loses weight.

"When we change our bodies do we really change ourselves?" asks Awad, "When we look in the mirror what do we see? In some ways are we still being informed by that person that we were attempting to leave behind? And I think the book is interested in exploring how 'fat girl' is more than just a question of flesh. It's also, it's a state of mind."

In our culture, says writer Sarai Walker, we have this idea that inside every fat person there is a thin person waiting to be "freed." Walker is the author of the novel Dietland. Her 29-year-old heroine Plum is desperate for the chance to undergo weight reduction surgery.

"In Dietland I just wanted to kind of start off with this miserable fat woman who was desperate to lose weight, kind of that familiar territory," Walker says. "And then I wanted to blow up that story into a million pieces."

Walker believes the experience of being a fat woman in our culture has not been taken seriously in literature.

"I knew to write this novel I would have to answer the question: Why are fat women so hated?" she says. "It was really a process of trying to discover that and trying to answer that question for myself. So I didn't know where it would go, where it would lead, but I definitely got angry while I was writing it."

Plum goes though a series of challenges that raise her own awareness of what it means to be fat. She becomes more comfortable with her body, and also discovers a new-found power: the ability to see through her tormentors.

"Because I'm fat I know how horrible everyone is," she tells a friend. "If I looked like a normal woman, if I looked like you, I'd never know how cruel and shallow people are. I see a different side of humanity."

Over the course of the book Plum doesn't get any thinner but she does change — a lot. Her awakening comes against the backdrop of a series of terrorist acts by a violent feminist underground. Walker sees fat as a feminist issue and she didn't want the book to just tell the story of one woman's struggle with her body.

Sarai Walker is the author of the 2015 novel <em>Dietland. </em>She has also written for <em><em>Seventeen</em> </em>and<em> <em>Mademoiselle </em></em>and was a writer and editor for <em><em>Our Bodies, Ourselves.</em></em>
Marion Ettlinger / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Sarai Walker is the author of the 2015 novel Dietland. She has also written for Seventeen and Mademoiselle and was a writer and editor for Our Bodies, Ourselves.

"What happens to Plum doesn't happen in a vacuum," she says. "It's part of a larger problem: This pressure on women to look a certain way and the objectification of women and the violence that can come from that. So I wanted to explore the issue of why is this fat body so stigmatized. Why is the fat female body in general is so stigmatized in this larger framework."

Dietland, which came out in 2015, has just been optioned for TV and Walker couldn't be happier. She believes that it is possible to change attitudes — and having complex, well-written fat characters will help.

"I think a big part of the change that needs to happen," she says, "is to have books, to have TV shows, to have films with fat characters who don't hate themselves, who accept themselves and who challenge the way we think about our bodies."

Walker says when she spoke with writers and producers interested in adapting her book she always made sure of one thing: That they wouldn't cast a thin woman in a fat suit. The actress who plays Plum, says Walker, has to be fat.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.
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