All posts by Debbie

Brilliant Essay on “SF’s Big Fat Problem”

classic science fiction image with fat astronaut

Laurie and Debbie say:

First, it’s good to be blogging together again. We’ve had good reasons to be writing separate posts, and we’ve missed the synergy of our two minds.

Second, it’s great to find someone we don’t know writing an incisive analysis of fatphobia in written and filmed science fiction. R. K. Duncan’s “SFF’s Big Fat Problem” is thorough, thoughtful, and moving. (In case it’s not your world, SFF stands for “Speculative Fiction and Fantasy.”) He frames it very carefully for what it is and what it isn’t:

This is going to be a Jeremiad, not a hopeful essay. If you want the good news about fat protagonists in SFF, look at this lovely piece from Meg Elison. If you need education about fatphobia and the ways it harms fat people mentally and physically, try these episodes of Maintenance Phase on anti-fat bias, eating disorders, and the obesity epidemic.

If you are fat, stay if you need righteous anger, but please don’t make yourself read this if you need something soft right now. This essay is for thin SFF fans and creators.

That might be the only place we disagree. We both know (and we’re sure Duncan does) fat SFF creators who nonetheless flavor their work with fatphobia. Sometimes this is internalized self-hatred, other times it’s simple sloppiness, or unawareness, but it certainly happens, and deserves to be named.

Duncan begins by framing casual fatphobia and the depth of social stereotyping before he moves to SFF, and there he explains why he designed the essay for thin fans and creators:

I want to believe it’s only that writers and editors without access to a fat perspective miss fatphobic passages, that they would change them if they recognized them, that we all agree that it is bigotry, that it is violence to treat fat people like that. I want to believe it enough that I’m stripping myself raw to reach everyone who reads this.

We’d like to believe it too, but evidence points in the opposite direction. From that point on, however, Duncan starts hitting high points and never stops.

As a child, I got used to reading past fatphobia and not noticing the hurt. I got used to thinking of myself as ugly, as undesirable, as obviously lesser than my thin, visibly fit classmates. I left Harry Potter behind long before I was cognizant of being stung by its disgusting fat caricatures, but the damage remains. I was a little more aware by the time we all watched and read Game of Thrones, and historically literate enough to be offended by the nonsense of stigmatizing fat in a medieval setting. We have enough records and enough armor made for them to know fat knights weren’t somehow out-of-shape for battle. Even Tolkien, who I re-read for comfort, doesn’t shy from using fat as a pejorative synonym for lazy and soft, and Bombur is one reason I re-read The Lord of the Rings more often than The Hobbit.

In newer works, the vocabulary of fatphobia is different, but it’s still there all too often. Less likely to be sniveling fat villains or cowardly knights, more likely to be workouts, diets, the casual fear of getting fat. It’s the word “obese,” which you should expunge from your vocabulary unless you’re engaged in activism around how the medical system treats fat people, popping up next to the smell of diabetes, whatever that is, in M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. It’s fat children being as unathletic as their bullies say they are. It’s Sarah Monette’s The Goblin Emperor’s taking time to mention the grace and balance of a fat character when it doesn’t bother to be concerned about those things in anyone else. It’s authors being very clear how worried they are about gaining weight when they post on social media about meals and workouts.

That’s a spectacular point buried in there, that taking the time to note the grace of a fat character is fatphobia. Duncan is extremely generous to the books that trouble him:

I don’t cite these specific books for being particularly egregious …. I cite them because they’re the ones I’ve read recently enough to remember the hurt in detail. Indeed, I would, and will come December, still recommend The Goblin Emperor wholeheartedly. I wasn’t kidding when I say this all blends to white noise. I don’t keep an inventory of all the places I met a little fatphobia and flinched at it and moved on. I remember the worst of my childhood reads, occasional clear flashes from the vast library of my teens, and what I’ve read in the last few months and discussed with fat friends and partners and colleagues. The hurt of most fatphobic moments remains as hypervigilance when a fat character appears, as tension waiting for the whip, not memory of every slight and injury.

He goes on from books to discuss popular films, including one of Debbie’s pet dislikes–“fat Thor from Endgame,” with the same care and precision.  He has some very pointed comments about fat suits in movies. Writing about Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (which he has chosen not to see because of the fat suit issue, he says:

Stellan Skarsgård is a brilliant actor. I have loved his work in many films. He could, without a doubt, have portrayed the evil and depravity of the Baron without a fat suit. Or, if Denis Villeneuve’s directorial vision required a fat Baron in keeping with tradition, he could have chosen a fat actor, and perhaps gotten a performance with the authenticity and power of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin.

Because it’s, and moderated, the comments are intelligent and worth reading. We were especially struck by digenis’s thought:

It seems silly to imagine futures for our planet, let alone for life beyond the planet or on completely fictional fantasy worlds, that just reproduce the exact same body shapes, plugged into the same biased hierarchies of value…

In addition to being harmful or unkind, it is also unimaginative and short-sighted. That isn’t to say that other (futuristic) societies won’t have their own hierarchies of value or biases; just that it would be nice to see authors imagine them in new ways.

Duncan ends with a call to action:

In my lifetime, SFF has become unimaginably more welcoming of my queer self than it was when I began to read. My fat self, not so much. This essay is a callout for everyone who feels they are a part of this community. Do better. Think twice before you consume or recommend a movie or show that uses fat suits and fat stereotypes. Notice where your favorites pivot to the monstrous fat villain, or shorthand a lazy, unfit coward with a swollen belly and a sweaty brow. Call out your friends and favorite authors when they do. Warn your fat friends before they blunder into stories that hate them. I want this to change.

So much of our work is about wanting this to change; we’re simultaneously warmed by finding such a skilled writer doing this work, and infuriated because he still has to.


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Congratulations to 2022 Macarthur Fellows; Focus on Kiese Laymon

Debbie says:

Congratulations to all the 2022 Macarthur Fellows announced this morning.  If you don’t follow the Macarthur Fellowships (also known as “genius grants”), they go to people in a wide variety of fields of interest. The criteria are:

  1. Exceptional creativity
  2. Promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments
  3. Potential for the Fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.

In Laurie’s and my world, a few extraordinary science fiction writers, including Octavia Butler and Kelly Link have been awarded fellowships, as have many other people whose work we admire.

Each Fellow receives $800,000 in unrestricted funds, paid out in equal quarterly installments over five years. In other words, this is the chance to use the next five years to do what they think is most important and most valuable without worrying about income.

The  annual list is always inspiring, exciting, and (for me at least) a test of what I’ve been paying attention to.  This year I’m aware of three of them (usually it’s more like five), and I’m especially excited about one of them. I reviewed Kiese Laymon‘s book, Heavy, in July of 2021, and this seemed like a great day to reprint that review.


cover of Heavy, all text

Kiese Laymon published Heavy: An American Memoir in 2018, but I only got to it last month. Fair warning: this book is not for the faint of heart. Laymon is trying just as hard as an author can to tell the whole truth as he sees it, to pull no punches, to let no one off the hook: not himself, not his mother (the book is framed as a letter to her), not the other people in his life, and most certainly not the white world which is ultimately responsible for most if not all of the miseries he recounts. Not that the book is all misery–it is much too rich for that.

The title of the book tells us right away why I would review it here. Laymon experienced himself as fat from early childhood. He describes teenage eating as self-medication, a deep fear of what the scale would say, a dislike to be seen other than fully clothed. These feelings are familiar to most fat people, and yet this book (along with Roxane Gay’s Hunger, which I reviewed here in 2018) never fail to remind us that being fat is different in a Black body than in a white body. (Gay is quoted on the front cover of Laymon’s book.)  Fat bodies are frequently singled out for oppression; Black bodies in America are effectively always in danger of being oppressed. One way to frame this book is as an example of intersectional oppression–and an example of a strong man’s complex and rich response to the world’s desire to keep him down.

When I imagined the insides of rich-white-folk houses, I imagined stealing all their food while they were asleep. I wanted to gobble up palms full of Crunch ‘n Munch and fill up their thirty-two-ounce glasses with name-brand ginger ale and crushed ice tumbling out of their silver refrigerators. I wanted to leave the empty glasses and Crunch ‘n Munch crumbs on the counter so the white folk would know I had been there and they’d have something to clean up when I left.

Laymon was always fat … until he shifted from eating to obsessive exercise, and to anorexia as self-medication. To echo one of the book’s common refrains, he ate and ate and ate and ate until he didn’t. And when he didn’t, he stopped eating dramatically and exercised unceasingly, with eventual tragic results to his Black body.

I will forget how the insides of my thighs feel when rubbed raw. I will play on the basketball team. I will think 190 pounds is too heavy so I will jog three miles before every practice and game. I will sit in saunas for hours draped in thermals, sweatpants, and sweatshirts. I will make a family of people who cannot believe I was ever heavy. I will become a handsome, fine, together brother with lots of secrets. I will realize there is no limit to the amount of harm handsome, fine, together brothers with lots of secrets can do.

His relationship with his body is not the only relationship in the book; it may not even be the most central one. His relationship with his mother encapsulates the complexities of the book: love, admiration, fear, shame, disgust and appreciation are all there all the time–and we come away with a picture of a woman about whom all of those feelings make sense, and we understand how he can hold them all simultaneously.

In this simplified arc of author-in-a-fat-body, author-in-an-anorexic-over-exercising-body, the third portion is author-in-a-gambling-body.  The gambling narrative illuminates many of the previously opaque issues his mother was having, and is as raw and insightful as the rest of the book.

I kept coming back to the casino because I felt emptier and heavier when I lost than when I won. I couldn’t win, because if I didn’t have enough to begin with, I could never win enough to stop. And if I won, I came back to win more. And if I came back to win more, I would eventually lose. And after I eventually lost, I would remember the thrill of winning. No matter what, I would always come back with the stated intention of winning and the unstated intention of harming myself.

Throughout his own self-examined journey, Laymon never fails to talk about who his friends and lovers were, what his life with them was like, and how much he loves them. With the keen eye of the observant lover, he brings them to life on the page. He also came very early to a realization of how women are treated, and a gut-level unwillingness to be part of that pattern … and the ways in which his refusal also made him a participant. He never lets us forget for a moment that we are all complicit, all the time, and that there are very few paths to escape complicity.

Books like Heavy and Hunger show us something that no theoretical books–about race, about fat oppression, about human pain–can ever convey. Laymon is incomprehensibly generous to let strangers so far into his own life, a journey no reader can or should come back from unscathed.

The work of bending, breaking, and building the nation we deserve will not start or end with you or me, but that work will necessitate loving black family, however oddly shaped, however many queer, trans, cis, and gender-nonconforming mamas, daddies, aunties, comrades, nieces, nephews, granddaddies and grandmamas–learning how to talk, listen, organize, imagine, strategize, and fight fight fight for and with black children.


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