I. Nothing to Lose
When I was six, I put myself on a diet. I stopped eating sweets and forbade my family from using words like “large,” “hamburger,” or “lunchtime.” My parents indulged the phase, thinking up new ways of saying things. A plump friend had diabetes and I wanted to know what that was, but “sugar” and “eating” were off-limits so my mom told me “she has the opposite of what you have.”
I was obsessed with the nine-hundred-pound man who had a heart attack in bed and then had to be craned out of his apartment. My sister and I would fantasize about the logistics: did they have to knock down the walls? How did they attach him to the machine? Was he just hanging there for a while? Soon “crane” was not OK, taking on a definition something like “tool used to lift, then dispose of, obese man who has died from eating too much.”
I thought of fat people as giggly Santas who weren’t quite human. On the old Fat Albert show, the animated hero’s stomach is so big and elastic he seems to boomerang around the neighborhood—tripping, falling, walking into people—without a scratch. When he plays the whale in a community theater production of Moby-Dick, his costume explodes and he flies off the stage, squashing the audience.
Last year, embarking on a dozen books with obese protagonists, I imagined I’d come upon more mature ways of thinking about fat. I’d read a couple of Y.A. books about chubby middle-schoolers who got mooed at, but I thought literary novels would be more nuanced, self-righteous—the equivalent of the rallying cry in the 1973 Fat Liberation Manifesto: “FAT PEOPLE OF THE WORLD, UNITE! YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE….”
But there’s a difference between the politics and literature of obesity. Nomy Lamm, one of the leaders in the size-acceptance movement—a self-described “badass fatass jew dyke amputee”—argues that blubber is largely a matter of genetics, not consumption. In her now defunct ’90s ’zine, I’m So Fucking Beautiful, she writes that “Fat is punk! Fat people are rebelling against societal standards!” Yet many overweight characters turned out to be just as complacent and cartoon-like as the ones I imagined hanging from cranes. There’s no question about how they got so big. “The smell of pig meat warmed my heart,” says Anthony, the hero of Victor LaValle’s The Ecstatic, “I wasn’t fat because of any thyroid condition.”
Obese heroes and heroines are often just what readers expect them to be. Their bodies seem made out of food: they have “cauliflower-shaped” afros, “sausage-like” minds, flesh that “drips like hot fudge off a sundae.” Their lives revolve around eating and digesting. Francois Rabelais’s 1534 creation Gargantua is so intrigued by bodily waste (he comes out of his mother’s womb along with some fecal matter1) that he doesn’t have time for his work. Every morning, after waking up, he “went for a crap and a piss, threw up, burped, farted, yawned, spat, coughed, sobbed, sneezed and blew his nose like an archdeacon.” He composes a poem to capture this kind of earth-shaking physical experience—a tour de force, perfect for the playground.
What a whopper
Plopped on us!
May St Anthony’s fire burn
From every hole before you leave us!
Obesity seems to require its own kind of language, a “lovely little loony” style. “Writing should laugh, not weep,” reads Rabelais’s note to the reader. For Gargantua, being big means giving into all those “slithery” urges. His philosophy is thrilling: “DO WHATEVER YOU WANT.”
II. Belly Up
At a 1980 fat activist conference in New Haven, a group of women calling themselves the Fat Patrol performed a series of songs about the joys of obesity. Giggling and clapping, they described “each gorgeous pound of weight” on their “cuddly-wuddly” bodies. “The pleasures of food were stolen from me,” they cried, “For the promise of being svelte / But now… I’m letting out my belt / Yeah!”
Leaders in the early acceptance movement, many of them feminist lesbians, encouraged people to see flab as something lovely, natural, and even avant-garde. “We’re fat and people shouldn’t be afraid to call us that,” Karen Scott-Jones, a member of the New Haven Fat Liberation Front told the New York Times. “It’s a descriptive adjective like ‘tall’ or ‘short,’ not a dirty word.”
“Fat” has a long list of polite synonyms (“full-bodied,” “Rubenesque,” “big-boned”), but few of them make it into literature. If overweight people are in fact an oppressed minority, it’s one with only a handful of writer-champions. Even in the most sophisticated books, characters fail to grasp the charms of being big. “The fat person lacks willpower… and does not care about friends or family,” writes Judith Moore in her self-loathing memoir Fat Girl (2005). “If he or she did care about friends or family, he or she would not wander the earth looking like a repulsive sow, rhinoceros, hippo, elephant, general wide-mawed flesh-flopping flabby monster.”
Obesity is seen as a bad decision, a spiritual dilemma. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, the prince banishes Falstaff, a “huge hill of flesh,” from his kingdom for reasons at least partially due to his size. As Sander Gilman points out in his thorough 2004 study Fat Boys, Prince Hal takes issue with Falstaff for being “thrice wider than for other men.” He’s not a healthy citizen; he’s too prone to “drinkings and swearings and starings, pribbles and prabbles.” “Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace,” Hal says. Falstaff leaves and never returns (“If I do grow great, I’ll grow less”).
The fat knight is a particularly pathetic figure in Verdi’s 1893 opera Falstaff. While other comic heroes sing bass, Falstaff belts out the Requiem in a less manly baritone, replacing the word Domine (Lord) with abdomine (stomach). At the end of an aria in which he decides virtue is pointless (“Can this honor fill your paunch? When you are hungry? No”) he’s so emasculated he picks up a broom and starts sweeping to the beat.
Kingsley Amis’s grim One Fat Englishman (1963), written as Amis steadily gained weight,2 also frames obesity as a moral dead-end. When the protagonist, Micheldene, visits America, a priest takes in the “full enormity of his fatness” and knows immediately that this is “a soul at variance with God.” Still, he refuses to work on his “spiritual health.” When he spots a tray of anything hot and greasy, he quickly gives up on being thin: “He decided he would not eat this, and then suddenly found he had started to.” His impulse to diet passes as soon as he’s within reach of a meal.
By the end of his American vacation, he is friendless and convinced he has scared off every female he knows. Afraid of being seen as a Falstaffian joke, he intentionally acts like an asshole. His motto: “Better a bastard than a bloody fool.” The girl who he’s sure was “supposed to be my mistress” has dumped him with a stream of insults and a final question: “Why are you so awful?” On the way back to England, he sits alone in his tiny cabin, and, like so many fat characters, ends the book in tears. He blames his female problems on his belly. “The merest glimpse of it might be enough,” he says, “to remind a girl of her obligations to family tradition, to husband or boy friend or host or room-mate or landlady, to humanity.”
III. Seventh Door
Dr. Phil opens The Ultimate Weight Solution (2003) by encouraging readers to acknowledge that (1) fat is not beautiful, and (2) their husbands do not like them better this way. He tells dieters to envision their lives as an upwardly sloping hallway with seven locked doors, each representing a different kind of “control.” When they unlock the last door (“Social Control”), they’re thin. “Personal truth” has been achieved.
Literature that hinges on successful dieting often follows the same plot line. The heroine starts off weak, pitiable, and insecure, and then, after deciding to do the right thing—running around, sweating, panting—she sees the light, gets into shape, etc. It might as well be a sports novel. The bathroom scale is equivalent to the scoreboard. On NBC’s reality TV hit, The Biggest Loser, the person who sheds the most pounds (by doing push-ups, lifting weights, and resisting luscious pastries) wins $250,000. “Having someone love me and being loved would be so much easier,” says one woman on the show, as her trainer nods. “I can lose weight! I can lose weight!” shrieks another.
While male fat novels often escape into caricature, books about females are more influenced by the melodrama of diet manuals: the best stories are usually depressing and hopeless, an exercise in self-hatred (these women have accepted Dr. Phil’s two rules but failed to climb the slope). Judy Blume captures a textbook scenario in her 1974 Y.A. classic Blubber, in which an overweight girl, Linda, dutifully succumbs to her classmates’ sadistic requests. She kisses people’s feet and repeats on command, “I am Blubber, the smelly whale of class 206,” still hopeful that those girls with twig legs and doll faces, the ones who hate her, will be her friends. Instead, they circulate a list of tips for “How to have fun with Blubber”: (1) Hold your nose when Blubber walks by (2) Trip her (3) Push her (4) Shove her.
On Halloween, three girls demand that Linda take off her costume in the bathroom and stand there in her flowered underpants. “I wonder what’s under her cape?” says one. “Probably nothing,” a friend replies. “Oh, there’s got to be something,” says another. Linda’s body seems beyond the limits of imagination. (In the 2004 movie Fat Albert, there’s a similar kind of mystery about the flesh of the titular fatso. “I can’t take my sweater off,” he says. “I don’t know what’s underneath!”).
Although Blubber has a perfect learning curve for a twelve-year-old reader—in the last ten pages, Linda gets her redemption—the setup is a familiar one: victimized plump girl plays martyr, feels used, sobs copiously. No one minds if she acts like a baby. (In her memoir, Moore spoons in ice cream and thinks of telling it “I love you… You are my mother… Mama, Mama, Mama”). There is something innately juvenile, even primitive, about rolls of lard: in Before/After photos, no one doubts that fat represents the beginning of the story.
Helen, the female lead in Neil LaBute’s 2004 play Fat Pig, repeatedly mocks the culture of weight loss, but by the end she too has learned to dislike her body with a Dr. Philian zeal. Her slim boyfriend, Tom, recognizes that she’s “ummm, big… boned, or whatever,” but finds her charming. She’s “not obsessed with looks and money and clothes and useless bullshit like that.” When he wants to kiss her at dinner, she tells him she’d rather focus, for now, on her seafood. He doesn’t mind.
The love affair unravels at the office beach party. Tom sees his ex looking cute in her bikini (played, in the MCC Theater production, by Felicity star Keri Russell) and starts rethinking his current relationship. He’s too embarrassed to be around Helen in public. If they were stranded on a tropical island, he tells her, then things would be perfect. “I guess I do care what my peers feel about me,” he says. “Or how they view my choices, and yes, maybe that makes me not very deep or petty or some other word, hell, I don’t know!” Helen cries. She offers to try Slim-Fast or get surgery or restrict her diet to Subway sandwiches. The theater goes dark.
Fat characters, particularly women, have to provide something in exchange for other people’s company: sex, humor, or at least good cooking. The luscious prostitute in Guy de Maupassant’s 1880 novella Butterball provides it all. She has bosoms the size of brains and a limitless supply of snacks. Stranded on a carriage in the middle of occupied Prussia, she sates her fellow travelers’ every desire. When they realize they’ve forgotten to pack a meal, Butterball (Boule de suif, literally “ball of tallow”) produces, from under the coach seat, two sliced chickens and offers to share.
Later, a Prussian officer announces that he’ll detain the group unless someone sleeps with him. Her companions convince her to do “her job” “with the sensuality of a greedy chef preparing someone else’s dinner.” They cite various women in history who, in the “spirit of self-sacrifice,” let evil men caress them. Butterball can’t say no. She follows the man to his room.
Back on the road, the others enjoy a fine meal while she watches, hysterically crying. Like Helen, she’s the perfect fairy-tale victim. With no ambitions of her own, she merely draws attention to the selfishness of those around her—her greatest, and only, feat.
IV. Sweet Brisket!
“I’m fat,” Daniel Pinkwater told me on the phone last month. “It’s a badly kept secret. You just have to look at me. That would be the giveaway.” The author of more than eighty children’s books, many with characters who are “soft and squishy,” Pinkwater wishes people would stop thinking about size. “At bottom this whole issue is so profoundly and utterly trivial,” he said. That a sane person gives it any thought is inconceivable to me. Your article is trivial, but that’s better than me—I wrote a whole book about this!”
When he published The Afterlife Diet in 1995, activists called him a “class traitor” because his characters were always eating; their weight problem did not appear to be biological. (“The greatest good throughout this time-space universe is the acquisition of halvah,” says one.) The book’s publishers also had a hard time with the subject matter. Pinkwater wanted to put a photo of a beautiful fat woman in a skimpy bikini on the cover, but they said no. They were dismayed that he’d used his advance to write about obese people (who weren’t on diets), and even more upset by the idea that these characters could be sexy. “They said people would be embarrassed to look at the book,” he said. “They thought I was an idiot for throwing away a chance to make money.” He paused. “I am an idiot.”
His publishers refused to reprint the novel even after it sold out in three weeks (the final cover featured a flying hot dog). If the book offended their sense of propriety, as Pinkwater suspects, it wasn’t because of the erotic content. (“I’m not interested in writing about sex; it’s usually boring,” he said). The novel features a flabby sausage-vendor, Milo, who makes love to his voluptuous girlfriend, Linda, by moaning seductive words like “Protein rich! Bull meat and trimmings of sweet brisket! Ah! Sweet brisket! Hardwood! Hickory! Smoked! Spices! Secret Spices! Oh! Knockwurst! Knockwurst!” Sure enough, when Linda has an orgasm, she screams “Milo… the… wiener… is… good!”
Touted as the “first commercially published fat novel, or Schmalzroman,” The Afterlife Diet imagines a heaven designed exclusively for the “circumferentially challenged.” The book’s two heroes, Milo and Milton, see the same shrink at a clinic where ingesting massive amounts of meat is the only therapeutic method that works. Like Milo, Milton sees eating as an intensely erotic activity. On a dinner date with a struggling dieter, he feels like a “monster” for encouraging her to enjoy the meal. “I can’t control what I eat!” he tells his therapist the next day. “In the end, she was looking at me as though I’d raped her.”3
For Milton’s fat community—otherwise known as the “refuse heap”—the possibilities for slutty behavior are limitless. Characters’ jokes about their oral fixations (e.g., “Would you like to eat my hot dog?”) take on a peculiar seriousness. Elegant meals require “consent,” and “mastication fantasies” are to be entertained but never acted upon. The body is most easily violated via the mouth.
If these books were written by thin writers, there might be less caricature, but the authors are often overweight themselves—they don’t have to be delicate about the issue. John Kennedy Toole, who also had a propensity for plumpness, turns obesity into a unique kind of personality disorder. In his sprawling A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), hot-dog vendor Ignatius J. Reilly is so passionate about the tube-steak business that he sees meat deprivation as a form of physical assault. “The human desire for food and sex is relatively equal,” he says. “If there are armed rapes, why should there not be armed hot dog thefts?”
Deeply suspicious of the female body, Ignatius pays his dues to Freud as he wanders around in a state of constant “weenie” consumption, “the tip of the hot dog… sticking from his mouth like a cigar.” His pen pal, Myrna Minkoff, proposes sex, but he repeatedly refuses. He’d rather concentrate on the way it feels when his nostril hairs are “analyzing, cataloguing, categorizing, and classifying the distinct odors of hot dog, mustard, and lubricant.” His “meaningless, impotent existence” drives Myrna crazy. His body puts her in a bad mood. “Where will you ever end?” she snaps. “There’s something so unbelievably tacky about your obesity.”
The perfect shape for psychosexual anxiety, the hot dog is the obvious food of choice for fat literary heroes. I asked Pinkwater, who read A Confederacy of Dunces years ago, if the book was on his mind when he wrote The Afterlife Diet. “I’ll be damned,” he said. “It must have been lodged in my self-conscious.” More than other fat novels, Toole’s classic seems to define what it means to be big: irreverent, goofy, sexually frustrated, obsessed with beef. “There’s a kind of self-feeding shame,” said Pinkwater. “People keep returning to these same clichés. They’re horrible—and irresistible.”
V. Fight Club
Phyllis Macgregor, one of many anorexic activists in The Afterlife Diet, carries a twenty-five-pound hunk of lard in a shopping bag to remind herself how important it is to stay slim. As a spokeswoman for the FFFF club (Fight Fat, Fight Failure) whose motto is SHIT (Self-Hatred Is Truthfulness), she encourages stepping on the scale approximately every two hours. When fellow Fighters relay to her the painful side effects of eating disorders—sweating, hair loss, blood in the urine—she congratulates them and cheers: “Wise up before you explode!”
If getting thin is a process of obsessive counting, obesity seems to swallow all numbers in its wake. Fictional fatties never reveal their exact digits: they’re big, and we’re just supposed to trust them about this. The closest we get to a pound count is in LaValle’s The Ecstatic. A hotel clerk asks Anthony what room he’s in: “Are you 603?” “350 at the most!” he shrieks. Later, he just puts things more simply: “I am the unattractive America.”4
For Ignatius J. Reilly, dieting is a monumental and disgusting waste of time. “Personally,” he says, “I have found that a lack of food and comfort, rather than ennobling the spirit, creates only anxiety.” (“Ignatius gets nasty if we run outta of cake,” says his mom). He takes pride in honoring his physical needs. When his stomach feels full of gas—“gas which had character and being and resented its confinement”—he wonders whether his belly “might be trying, Cassandralike, to tell him something.” He claims that throwing up multiple times on a bus to Baton Rouge was one of the most formative experiences in his life.
Like the Fat Patrol ladies “letting out [their] belts” in the ’80s, Ignatius and his ilk seem to get wider as their stories progress. (“Health note: my stomach is getting out of bounds,” Ignatius says. “The seams of my vendor’s smock are creaking ominously.”) But for most fictional fatties, weight gain is not a source of inspiration; “I am not a fat activist,” says Moore, on the first page of her memoir, as if the idea itself is a little embarrassing. And in The Afterlife Diet, the political issue is not fat acceptance but elimination. “I just wanted to stop being an ugly, useless, worthless, squalid obscenity,” cries one FFFF demonstrator. “I turned my self-hatred into creative aversion. And you can too, you big fat tubs of excrement.”
Teasing out the most visceral stereotypes, these books work on a gut level. “The taste of the cheeseburger mush,” says Moore, “that I pushed against the roof of my mouth with my tongue made me dreamy and forgetful.” Literary blimps seem to be perpetually on the verge of giving into their impulses.5 Theirs is a failure we can relate to and even imagine enjoying: you lie around, watch TV, eat fast food, and hate yourself. Fat characters fascinate and disgust us because they excel at something we all could do. It could come so naturally.