Rage Against the Diet ex Machina: Does That Mean I’m Pro-Fat?

Lynne Murray says:

The Greeks had a word for it–deus ex machina. Playwrights who got their characters into an unsolvable predicament would trundle out a piece of stage equipment, a crane or mekhane, to lower actors playing gods onto the stage.

The god characters would then solve the mortals’ problems.

Fat characters in fiction often inspire the author to bring out what I call the diet ex machina. Divine intervention is now considered lazy storytelling, but fat is generally considered so detestable that writers have to work very hard to get most readers to identify with a fat main character. The most popular solution is to diffuse fat hatred by bringing on the Magical Diet Fairy who transforms the fat character into a thin character.

What’s that? Successful dieting in the long term is about as likely as a Greek god coming down to solve our problems? Sadly, that doesn’t figure into the equation.

Of course, there are books with unapologetically fat heroes. I recently collaborated with Peggy Elam at Pearlsong Press to compile an updated version of a comprehensive list celebrating fat friendly fiction. This list is a work in progress. If we’ve missed a book, please leave a comment on the page so we can add it. [If anyone would like a printable one-page list of fat-friendly authors by genre suitable for taking to the bookstore or library, leave a comment here and I’ll send you one.]

When the list was complete, I announced it on Facebook and one of my friends shared the info with her own Facebook friends, adding the warning: “Check it out..whether pro fat or not..some good reading…”

I was a little startled at the “pro fat” phrasing, because it makes it sound as if these books promote fatness. Then I realized that for many people just reading about fat characters at all is disturbing. Putting together an entire list devoted to fat heroes might be interpreted as an invitation to the reader to become fat. Worse yet it might be–horrifically–a suggestion that “it’s okay to be fat.”

By that measurement, yes, I am pro-fat. I’m also in favor of all people to accepting and honoring their bodies unconditionally: fat, thin, disabled, old, young, whatever.

How did I get here? And why do I feel good about it?

I took this path in my writing because I couldn’t tolerate one more fat joke in a novel. Worse yet, the real stories of life-sized humans were not being told in current fiction. I just could no longer stand the lying myths that constituted the only way fat people were represented.

In the field of “quality literature” or “mainstream fiction,” novelists such as Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins, mirror the mainstream myths about fatness and its cures by saying, Julie Orringer’s review offers problem and cure in one sentence: “Edie Middlestein, the novel’s larger-than-life protagonist, is killing herself by overeating, and her family can’t bear to watch.”

A writer can build her reputation by examining and displaying her disgust at extreme obesity (as there is in detailing other ways readers wouldn’t want to be, such as senile dementia) indulging in body negativity as sort of a Biggest Loser body-bashing for intellectuals.

I was surprised and happy when Laurie pointed out the article that prompted this post, “Obesity as Metaphor” by Hannah Rosefield. Rosefield’s piece examines four 2012 books that take very fat characters as their subject. (Some descriptions Rosefield quotes in her article might be triggering for those of us who avoid fat-hateful prose.)

Michael Kimball’s Big Ray, Heft by Liz Moore, The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg, and Erin Lange’s young adult novel Butter all have protagonists who are double or even triple their “healthy” weight. They are super obese, or very nearly so. Super obese is one step beyond morbidly obese; it is the technical term for someone with a body mass index above 50.

Arthur Opp, one of the narrators of Heft, is …  six foot three and somewhere between 500 and 600 pounds. A retired literature professor, Arthur hasn’t left his Brooklyn home in a decade. Edie Middlestein, the Midwestern Jewish matriarch in Attenberg’s multigenerational family saga, weighs 332 pounds and is about to undergo her second obesity-related operation. Butter takes its title from the nickname of its 423-pound, 16-year-old narrator. Sick of being bullied and ignored, Butter decides to step into the limelight and announces his intention to eat himself to death live on the Internet.

These four novels constitute an emerging and very modern genre, one that explores the physicality as well as the psychology and sociology of obesity. They describe what it’s like to move as an obese person, to approach buildings and furniture and vehicles in which you simply don’t fit: how quickly you sweat and tire and lose your breath.

As Rosefield notes and quotes, these authors all include a heaping helping of disgust along with their detailed observations of physical ways in which fat people move, dress, eat, drink and interact.

When an author’s language masks contempt as observation it’s a more covert agenda than the simple “lose the weight, win the boyfriend” fairy tale. But the underlying assumptions come through loud and clear: “Fat is bad. Extreme fatness is very, very bad. All fat is caused by dramatic overeating and laziness and demonstrates  emotional or mental disease. Weight loss is the only path to repairing the damage and living a meaningful life.”

Rosefield provides an unusually insightful examination of the uses of fat as a metaphor:

It’s not surprising that these four novels portray fatness as inherently unhealthy and unattractive. The obese body has to be these things, if it is to function as a metaphor both for the outsider and for economic guilt. In using the obese body in this way, Heft, The Middlesteins, Big Ray, and Butter invoke the conventional obesity discourse — that is, of obesity as undesirable and unnatural, both the cause and the product of psychological distress.

But another discourse exists, one which disputes the terms and the values we apply to fatness. This discourse … rejects the medicalization of fatness, refusing to see it as an illness, or the cause of illness, and objecting to the use of labels such as overweight (over what weight?) and obese.

I was delighted to see Rosefield quote from Marilyn Wann’s foreword to The Fat Studies Reader, concluding the quote with Wann’s diagnosis:

If you believe that thin is inherently beautiful and fat is obviously ugly, then you are not doing fat studies work… You are instead in the realm of advertising, popular media, or the more derivative types of visual art — in other words, propaganda.

Rosefield turns back to the four authors whose novels she is examining. She includes spoilers which I am also including (ha, ha, ha, I don’t care, write a hateful book, suffer a spoiler!):

Kimball, Moore, Attenberg, and Lange probably would not see themselves as writing within the fat-hating, body-shaming discourse that Wann identifies. But their novels make many of the same assumptions. Butter, Edie, and Ray all suffer from obesity-related health problems, which lead to the death of the latter two. It is seen as imperative that all four characters lose weight in order to enjoy a fulfilling and healthy life; all four are unhappy, and eat to compensate for emotional dissatisfaction. Unlike chick lit novels such as Good in Bed, where fat characters have to change their attitude to be comfortable in their bodies, the fat characters here have to change their bodies if they are to be comfortable in the world.

It’s troubling that these novels take such a uniform and conventional approach to obesity. If it is not to become quickly sterile, an obesity-focused literary genre must expand to include examples that show other ways of talking about and being fat.

After reading all this, you might need an antidote; that’s one of the things the fat friendly fiction list linked above is for.

(Thanks to Cheryl sat on Fat Studies Mailing List for the Attenberg article.)

8 thoughts on “Rage Against the Diet ex Machina: Does That Mean I’m Pro-Fat?

  1. I read “Heft” because Jennifer Weiner raved about it so much on Twitter last year. It’s the only one of the four novels discussed here that I have read, so I can’t speak about any of the others, but I have to say that I absolutely loved “Heft.” I found Arthur to be an extremely sympathetic and appealing protagonist. The book is primarily about how he begins to overcome his loneliness and isolation. Losing weight was never going to be a magic solution to his problems; he had to learn to accept himself and reach out to others.

    I would be interested in your take if you actually read it. I am not obese, but I have struggled with shyness and social phobia and found that part of the story to be very relatable and moving. If there are parts of the book that are fat-negative, I think they are secondary to a fat protagonist who is lovable and whose happiness the reader roots for.

  2. (Full disclosure: Sue Trowbridge is my web diva and over the years of working together on my web page she has often pointed out to me articles of interest on body image issues–much appreciation for that!)

    Hi Sue,
    I tremendously respect your judgment, and some of what I wrote in the post above comes from my own issues. There are many types of prejudice and I have to confess that these books trigger two of mine: (1) I avoid stories that I hear or observe as fat phobic simply because they make me feel bad, and (2) I usually don’t read what is called “mainstream” literature, omigosh, that’s for the same reason now that I think about it! Mainstream books like Ordinary People or all those books where the family comes home for Christmas and learn the mom has cancer… I avoid those books about miserable people, multi-generational secrets, family problems, painful confrontations and fatal illnesses. As my father used to say, “It’s too much like real life.” My own personal quirk is to keep my own psycho-economy balanced by only reading novels with such subject matter when there’s a murder or a paranormal infestation somewhere in the mix. But the fat phobic issue is the main one here.

    I spent some time looking at the excerpts from “Heft” online. A surprising number of pages are available there that I can see that the main characters are likeable. I could easily see how you could root for them and want them to be happy after all they’ve suffered. “Heft” is well-written, as are Butter, The Middlesteins and Big Ray. Clearly, some of the other three books have a higher fat-hostility content. Arthur in “Heft” mainly seems to be sad, isolated and stuck.

    The only argument I have with “Heft” (aside from the improbability of the 500+ pound hero who has not gone upstairs or down the front steps of his house in years being able to walk, even slowly, for half an hour to a nearby park) is the implicit assumption that bingeing on unhealthy foods caused the character’s extreme weight gain and eating healthier foods in smaller quantities will somehow mysteriously reverse it. That’s a major hot-button issue with me because it’s almost invariably untrue and such a whopping big proportion of the population accepts it without a single qualm.

    LA Times Review of Books article zeroes in on how this plays out in “Heft”:

    “By the end of the novel, Arthur has started to lose weight, and there is the suggestion that his financial security will enable his weight loss in the future, as it has enabled his weight gain in the past. Resolving to eat healthily, Arthur fills a bowl “with beautiful fruit. Apples & pears & bananas & mangoes & grapes, red and green. Kiwis like stars on the top. Blueberries & strawberries & oranges & grapefruit.”
    http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?type=&id=1274&fulltext=1&media= passions

    I am also a major fan of fruit. But it’s not the holy grail that’s going to reverse extremely large body size. So, in a nutshell, that’s my problem with these books and why they make me feel depressed rather than empowered.

    I do agree that themes related to weight are not the only thing in these books and I totally get how a reader having different issues could enjoy different aspects of the same story. I believe all literary experiences are unique and equally valid.

  3. I recognize that modern opposition to fat people (and fatness in the abstract) is different than it used to be, but it’s hard for me to put my finger on how it’s changed.

    These four novels constitute an emerging and very modern genre, one that explores the physicality as well as the psychology and sociology of obesity. They describe what it’s like to move as an obese person, to approach buildings and furniture and vehicles in which you simply don’t fit: how quickly you sweat and tire and lose your breath.

    There’s a lot of physical description of Nero Wolfe’s obesity, written a couple of generations ago. A lot of it is *wrong*. A tall man who weighs 285 pounds is fat, but Wolfe’s “seventh of a ton” is described as monumental, overwhelming, forcing him to live in a custom-made world where everything is oversized and reinforced. It’s vivid description, and one way it’s different from the modern stuff is that Wolfe doesn’t have to lose weight to come into his power. It took decades for it to occur to me that maybe Wolfe isn’t a disgusting fat whale whose shirts are the size of tents, but only that slender and fat-phobic Archie perceives him that way.

    I’m surprised to hear about “Big Ray” and “Heft.” The anti-fat novels I’d been aware of have focused on women, girls, or boys hating their bodies. It feels like adult men are in a different social context

    1. I had the same slow burn on figuring out that Nero Wolfe did not in fact weigh all that much compared to how he is described.

      I think that one way modern opposition to fat is different than it used to be is the moral element: when I read decades-old fatphobia it reads like “oh, that’s disgusting” or “upsetting to look at” but when I read current fatphobia it reads like “what is wrong with that person? why doesn’t she/he take care of him/herself?” I suspect that the “sinful” language around food is comparatively recent also.

  4. Adrian, you make an intriguing point about Nero Wolfe’s 285 pound frame being seen as monstrously immobilizing.

    It got me thinking about Bertha Cool, a 165-pound “fat” female detective, first seen in 1939, by Earl Stanley Gardner writing as A. A. Fair. I found a couple of Wikipedia entries that make a point similar to yours about Archie Goodwin’s view of Nero Wolfe. One entry speculates that narrator Donald Lam sees Bertha as disgusting and huge because, ” most of the women whom Donald Lam finds attractive weigh somewhere between 110 and 125 pounds.”

    Frankly, I think the movies and movie magazines have a lot to answer for in creating a mythical, desirable female body that invariably weighs 110 pounds. I don’t know what the male movie magazine fictional ideal would be–150? These are the entertainment world stats, enforced by public humiliation of anyone larger and communicated to the public like a plague virus.

  5. Serendipitously, I’ve just be rereading the Nero Wolfe mysteries. Whatever Archie’s reaction to Wolfe’s body it’s always made clear that Wolfe is the powerful genius in control of what happens. And there are ways in which his size is treated as imposing in a positive way.

  6. I just finished “Heft” two days ago and have been thinking about it ever since. This morning I did some Internet searching to see what others thought and came across this posting and the Rosefield article. I thought both were fascinating but I have to say I agree with Sue Trowbridge above–Heft does not belong in the same discussion as The Middlesteins, which I also read (or it should be used as a counter example of an author who IS able to portray fat without relying on the same tired cliches).

    I am obese and agoraphobic and I both recognized myself in Arthur Opp and was moved to tears by how compassionately Moore portrayed him.

    I think if Moore gives him a “problem,” it’s not his weight but his compulsive, disordered eating (which is a great problem in my own life and which I try daily to overcome). It’s certainly true that not all fat people are fat because of an eating disorder, but some of us are, and I for one wish I could stop–not to lose weight but to stop the cycle of anxiety and stress produced by my compulsion. When he eats fruit at the end it’s doesn’t come across as “oh, he’s healthy now! Now he’ll lose weight and be happy!” Instead, the scene is meaningful because he is at last able to delight in the beauty of food rather than feel trapped by it. The fruit is the first thing he eats thoughtfully or seems to really taste.

    Arthur does not lose weight by the end of the book, nor is he punished for that by the author. He does not have any health
    issues. As Sue said, Moore seems much more interested in his loneliness than in his weight.

    Reading Rosefield’s article, I got the sense that she included Heft because it was ‘neat’ to do so, being one of four popular works about fat people published this year (I have to admit I haven’t read the other two), but I don’t think she really understood the book.

    Anyway, Thanks so much for the interesting discussion!


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