Touchy Subjects in Children’s Fiction: How Do You Write About Being Fat?
I wrote my stories from the heart, and that’s worth more than anything
A long, long time ago (in a galaxy right here) I wrote a children’s chapter book called The Too-Tight Tutu that became a kind of classic in Australia, for a little while anyway. It seemed everybody knew it, with its bright pink cover and great illustrations by Cathy Wilcox. It stayed in print, year after year, which is something of an achievement in this age of disposable, here-today-gone-tomorrow children’s book series. It was one of the Aussie Bites, which was a terrific series developed by Julie Watts, then children’s publisher at Penguin.
Over the years I have always talked about TTTT during school visits. I show the kids a photo of me dressed as a fairy when I was about six, and sometimes read some of the story (the beginning where Merry talks about being fat), and also talk about how really the story is based on me.
I was a fat child who desperately wanted to be a ballerina and, thanks to a ballet teacher who came to our little country school, I was able to do ballet lessons for one year. At the end of that year, when it came time to dance in the competitions, they couldn’t find a tutu to fit me (or the character in the story, who’s called Merry). All ended well, of a sort — they found a tutu at last and I danced on the stage in it, although I probably came last. Merry doesn’t win any prizes either. Such is life! I wasn’t going to sugar-coat that, even in a fictionalized version.
But over the past few years, when I have done a school visit and talked about this book, I’ve seen an awful lot of adults squirming, and I know exactly why. It’s because I use the word FAT. Once or twice, I substituted euphemistic words like large or big or … And then I stopped— I wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all the kids in the audience.
When I talk about being a fat kid, I’m talking about something that was real for me, and is for a lot of girls and boys, and using euphemisms is something I hate at any time. It doesn’t protect anyone. Fat kids know exactly what you are talking about. I certainly did back then, every time I was teased by other kids, and every time a well-meaning adult made comments.
So I went back to talking about being fat as a kid, about not fitting into any tutu other than an ugly black and red adult one, and about having dreams and finding out they can come true. I have a lot of feelings about being fat, about being teased, about all those years of dieting that followed, about why I have spent most of my life being overweight. About why I’m not fat now, which is not some heroic women’s magazine story either.
Recently I read an article by Kelly deVos about what she calls Body Positivity and what it has meant to both her and her daughter, and about the YA novel she has written, Fat Girl on a Plane. It’s an interesting piece, because she talks about how she thought she knew all about feeling positive about being fat, taking no notice of fat shaming and all the debates about it. Until her daughter started dieting and she herself was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. And it’s still not a simple issue for her — or for anyone!
What is the difference between talking openly about being fat and what that brings with it in our society, and fat shaming? The intention, I guess, like any contentious issue. It becomes even more contentious, weirdly enough, when you try to write fiction about it. Because you can’t usually get away with a wishy-washy character that never has an opinion or strong feelings. So what strong feelings will your main character have about being fat?
Shame? Delight? The urge to confront? (Not likely when you’re a teen.) How about being matter of fact? Of simply telling it like it is? Of showing all sides, or at least showing a layered or multi-faceted view of the topic. Despite TTTT being a chapter book of less than 4000 words, I suspect it has resonated all these years because I was honest about me and what it was like. I knew I was fat. I knew it caused issues, like my mother telling me off for eating too many cakes (usually when she was out of the house), and not being able to fit the tutu I so badly wanted to wear. That was simply the story I told.
I don’t believe shielding or protecting kids from these kinds of facts helps them at all. Like death, like accidents, like friends who dump them, kids know this stuff happens. You can pretend all you like that you’re making their lives better by not talking about it. Ultimately, they know better than you.
Many studies have shown that resilience comes from facing up to tough stuff and learning how to deal with it, talking about it, and then getting through to the other side. Fat shaming is thoughtless at best, mean and vicious at worst, but pretending you can’t hear it is worse. I had to pretend for years, even when the worst comments came from someone in my family. I wish now that I had simply had someone I could confide in and talk to about it.
There are other things I could write here about being fat but they are not my stories. When I write about fat characters now (which I have in a recent MG novel), I write from the memories of myself in my teens and 20s, and how I felt, and why I ate and ate. I know darn well that MG novel is going to create more squirming, and it may also mean it won’t get published. But like TTTT, I wrote it from my heart. We’ll see what happens next.