Tag Archives: fat suits

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 tor.com, 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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We Are Insatiable … For Our Own Stories


Debbie says:

Your Fat Friend’s open letter to the writers of Insatiable is an especially clear-voiced clarion call for people’s right to tell our own stories. The trailer for the show is embedded below; if fat-person stereotypes and/or simplistic conceptions of attractiveness disturb you, you might not want to hit play.

For those of you who chose to skip, Patty is a miserable fat high-school girl who is mocked at school. She also eats too much, can’t really exercise, and gets no dates. Over one summer, she has her jaw  wired shut and comes back thin. Thin Patty vamps and poses like the slow-motion scenes in an erotic movie, radiating “I’m a sex object” from every pore. According to the official site linked above, she goes on to enter beauty pageants.

Unsurprisingly, the trailer has received a lot of pushback, including a petition with over 100,000 signatures, and the show may be cancelled based on the intensity of the reaction. The petition reads, in part:

“For so long, the narrative has told women and young impressionable girls that in order to be popular, have friends, to be desirable for the male gaze, and to some extent be a worthy human … that we must be thin,” the petition reads. “This series needs to be cancelled. The damage control of releasing this series will be far worse, insidious, and sinister for teenage girls, than it will be damaging for Netflix in their loss of profit.”

Your Fat Friend finds a moment to feel for the writers of the show:

I know the sting of pouring my whole self into a creative project, only to find that — too late — it has hurt someone else. I have no desire to compound that sting for you, or stand in prejudgment of your work.

This moment of what I read as absolutely authentic kindness comes after she tracks the history of the fat suit in her life:

Tyra Banks was one of many to wear a fat suit around the turn of the millennium. I was in my late teens and early twenties, struggling mightily against the body that had always been hopelessly mine, stubbornly resistant to the many changes I tried to force upon it. From The Nutty Professor to Friends, fat suits were everywhere. Often, the only fat people in movies or on TV were those caricatured by thin actors in meticulously crafted fat suits.

… Some were hopeless, pitiful befores who couldn’t get a date, couldn’t make friends, couldn’t connect to anyone. … Only becoming thin made their stories worth telling.

Others were the gluttonous punchlines of Norbit and Austin Powers, blissfully unaware of how disgusting they were in their two piece swimsuits, repulsive in their voracious appetites for food and sex. Shallow Hal, which seemed to fancy itself the most high-minded of fat suit portrayals, asserted that only a man under hypnosis could find a fat woman attractive, provided he couldn’t see her actual body. His attraction to her was played for laughs, a stick-thin woman throwing plus sized panties to an eager man in her bed to peals of audience laughter. Who could want that?

Whoever these fat suit characters were, the message to me as a young fat woman was clear. If I stayed fat, I was destined to be the butt of every joke, categorically undesirable and unlovable, a social pariah who was lucky to have any friends at all. I learned that I was repulsive, no matter how I dressed, what I accomplished, or who I was. I learned that my personhood would always be overshadowed by my body. I learned that my only redemption could come from getting thin. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to get thin.

By the turn of the millennium, I had stopped watching anything that made fun of fat people, so none of these shows are really in my orbit (I think I saw one Austin Powers movie, and hated it). I didn’t realize the widespread use of fat suits, which I associate with the genre of stories where the “disabled” person has to be played by an able-bodied actor so she can “be redeemed” and walk (!) at the end of the story.

Where Your Fat Friend goes from personal narrative to trenchant political insight is right here:

These weren’t stories of the failures of fat people. They were stories about the supremacy of thinness.

These thin fantasies held up ghoulish faux-realities of life as a fat person, grounded in little more than their own imaginations. And there was no counterbalance, no alternative narrative, nowhere to turn from the desperation, isolation, and bleakness of fat lives as invented by thin people.

Your Fat Friend has nailed the key point, not just about thin people telling fat people’s stories, but about anyone telling another group’s stories, especially a marginalized group’s stories: unless we put an immense amount of effort and intentionality into listening, and into creating a full and rich portrayal, the stories we tell about someone else will always be our projections on what it is like to be that person, and live that life.

Even the most miserable fat person knows that being fat is not the only thing they are. Even the most self-comfortable fat person knows that being fat is one of the things they are. But the imaginary fat person in a thin writer’s head is no more and no less than a fat person. And if the writer is, as there are inescapable reasons to be, afraid of being fat, that fear will color and oversimplify the character. A writer who chooses to write outside their own experience has an enormous obligation to do it well*, to live into the reality of the people they are writing. Here’s more from Your Fat Friend’s letter:

At every turn, thin people control the stories about fatness that are told on the biggest stages, amplified with the biggest speakers, broadcast with the strongest antennae. And often, they tell the stories that make them feel best: stories that lift thinness up not as one of many natural body types, but as a badge of honor, earned only by those strong and smart enough to tame the wilds of their bodies.

I do not expect painstaking detail, documentary-style slice-of-life stories of real fat people told with clinical precision. I just long for a story — any story — other than the one narrative offered up by the limited thin imaginations of fat lives.

What seems clear from the Insatiable trailer is that the writers, whoever they are and whatever they have lived through, did not spend anything like enough time and effort to provide Your Fat Friend, and me, and the 118,000 people who have signed the petition, with a true story. They were not, in fact, insatiable when it came to learning the truth.

So I hope the show is cancelled, or at the very least taken back to the drawing board. And if I were Netflix, I would hire Your Fat Friend as one of the people to write the replacement.

* If you happen to be a writer who wants to do this work better, I recommend Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. The book, and many superb workshops and other spin-offs can be found at the link.