Fat In Fiction

Jan 5 2013 @ 2:19pm

Hannah Rosefield deconstructs the role of obesity in literature:

In 2010, 33.3 percent of American adults were overweight, and another 35.9 percent obese. Yet fiction has largely ignored this worldwide expansion of waistlines. The average character in today’s novel is no fatter than the average character in a novel published 10, 50, or 200 years ago. In "On Being Ill" (1926), Virginia Woolf notes how strange it is that illness should feature so little in fiction. Her explanation for why this might be applies equally to fatness — not because fat is or is not an illness, but because both are species of physical experience, and literature, for the most part,

does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind, that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible, and nonexistent.

Woolf knows, as every one of us does, that this is nonsense, that "all day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours." But it is hard, almost impossibly hard, she suggests, to convey physical experience in words. To record in language "the daily drama of the body" — healthy or sick, fat or thin — would need "the courage of a lion tamer; a robust philosophy; a reason footed in the bowels of the earth."

Jessa Crispin broadens the conversation: 

The question might be reworded from "Where are all the fat characters in literature?" to "Where are all the fat characters in literature whose fatness is not the central issue of the novel?" I'm kind of blanking on that one. It's like abortion in literature. Where are the abortions in literature that are not the central problem of the book? Can a character just have an abortion and not have it be like the worst thing that has ever happened?

D.G. Myers pushes back against Crispin's analogy.