How to be Fat

So I’m working through the final stage of edits on the hot-mess hermit book, which as some may recall features a socially awkward, not-entirely-recovered alcoholic recluse with a shame-inducing fetish [linked post includes pseudo-spoilers]. Throughout the process of writing the book, I was so concerned that my hero was irredeemably fucked up, I didn’t spend much time at all worrying about my heroine, who’s generally functional and rational and mild-mannered. Until after I handed in my last round of revisions, when I panicked.

I’ve written a formerly fat heroine, I realized, as though I hadn’t designed her that way myself. I should say, Merry wasn’t romance-novel fat—not a size ten or twelve or lamentingly “curvy.” Merry was clinically obese, a hundred pounds overweight. She lost the weight over the course of a year, before the book opens, and when we meet her she’s hiking across Scotland, still coming to terms with her new body, which she’s simultaneously proud of and displaced by. The book’s not about weightloss per se—that’s something Merry’s dealing with, something that’s shaped and uprooted her and dropped her at a crossroads, but it’s secondary to all the other stuff between her and Rob, the hot-mess hermit.

So why am I suddenly panicked about all this? Because the question sprang into my mind, “Did I get this wrong? Am I going to offend or alienate people with current or former weight issues?” It’s such a thorny topic. I didn’t have an agenda I was trying to push, via Merry. I guess if I had to title one, it’d be, “Everyone has the power to change.” But here are some other messages people could find, if they went looking for them:

No one who’s overweight can possibly be happy.
No one who’s overweight can attract a quality partner.
No one who’s overweight has healthy self-esteem.
No one who’s overweight is healthy, period.
No one who’s overweight deserves love.
No one who’s overweight doesn’t wish they were thin.

Because Merry’s HEA comes after her weight loss, and because she’s happy with the change, I know I’m inviting all these interpretations. I hope it’s clear in the actual pages, neither I nor Merry believe any of those things is true.

Thirty-one, and she’d never been in love. She’d been infatuated, sure. She’d been in love in a guy’s general direction, but she’d never felt that light and heat shining back on her. She’d been clad too heavily in her own self-consciousness to welcome it. Some women wore their curves proudly—rocked the hell out of them, in fact. But that had never been Merry. Her extra weight had been defensive, something to hide behind, not to embrace.

Now the armor was gone. She felt exposed, but the sensation was as thrilling as it was scary. And if she ever wanted to get tangled in the writhing tentacles of passionate, mind-blowing, stupid-making, reciprocal true love, she’d have to make peace with this naked feeling.

She’s ambivalent about the change. Kind of giddy to be on the cusp of fitting into size-eight jeans and other cosmetic mile markers, but kind of let down that it hasn’t left her feeling…something. Something definitive that sparkles with confetti, something with a tangible finish-line tape to break through, or a tiara that says, “I’m Finally Worthy!” in rhinestones.

Let me tell you about another formerly fat gal. Me. I was chubby from puberty onward, and went off to college forty to fifty pounds overweight. I hated it. I did not rock my curves. I felt powerless over my emotional eating and didn’t do a lot of things because I was too self-conscious. I did not wear it well, not objectively or attitudinally. I felt like a sad sausage.

These days I’m thoroughly average-sized, and generally content. My dresses are sixes and eights and tens—I am medium incarnate—and I usually like how I look in my clothes. I can run four or five miles without stopping. I like sweating, a lot, and I eat well. If my favorite clothes start to feel snug, I track my eating habits for a week or two until I feel comfortable again. I feel like I’ve got that stuff under control. Or that I’ve called a tenuous truce with it. Whatever. Close enough, in this sadistic culture.

Shall I share with you the secret of my weight loss? Because I dropped about fifty pounds in six months, and despite a few peaks and valleys, I’ve kept it off for about thirteen years.

I wish I could say my journey was as Biggest Loser-worthy as Merry’s. She lost a loved one and got a major reality check, and went semi-OCD about the project overnight, losing her hundred pounds through a guerrilla campaign of healthy eating and daily exercise. She’s stuck now with a highly quantitative, calorie-policing mindset, but she’s working on that.

I, on the other hand, lost weight on a strict regimen of chicken noodle soup, Diet Coke, crippling infatuation, Tori Amos, and computer solitaire.

Hey, I was twenty-one. What the fuck did I know? I certainly didn’t think I was anorexic—I thought I was finally getting my shit together. I didn’t want to weigh ninety-five pounds or anything! Plus it was working. I probably danced around in the Express changing room after fitting into a pair of size-six jeans on the cusp of a nervous breakdown and sodium poisoning. I was in turns elated and psychotic. And really, really cold, all the time. My periods occasionally called in sick. But hey, it was my journey. It was ugly and dysfunctional and I do not recommend it, but it taught me I was indeed capable of being something other than the only unhappy size I’d known, and since then I’ve gotten into nutrition and exercise, bit by bit, year by year.

What I’m trying to say is, Merry’s fat story is basically mine, except she was more overweight and for longer, and she went about changing her habits in a more rational, informed, and healthy way. But we were identically unhappy when we were overweight, and overweight in part because we were unhappy. We never flaunted the extra curves we frankly resented, because they represented what felt like a womanly failing. Proof of a fundamental flaw. We both came of age heavy, in a culture that sees heaviness as a shameful condition to be fixed at all costs. Fat was what we knew, until suddenly we were something else. Something equally unwieldy, in far different ways.

But this is only one lens. A lens with that aforementioned takeaway, “Everyone has the power to change.” What about the million other lenses? The one that belongs to someone who digs their curves? The one that belongs to someone who wishes they could gain weight? To someone who got heavy after always being a skinny person, and had to adjust their self-image in the opposite direction that Merry and I did? To the life-long, effortlessly average-sized person who doesn’t get why people beat themselves up over this nonsense? To the person who lost weight to feel deserving of love, then attracted only dickbags who cared about looks? To a man? To a person of color? To someone with an underlying medical condition? To someone from a different culture?

To some, “fat” itself is a hate word. To others, a label to be embraced, and fuck you to the people who use it as a slur. There’s no universal experience, when it comes to weight. There are infinite, valid ways that one can view weight and weight loss—both their own and others’—and many people’s feelings on the topic are passionate, to say the least. In this book, I’ve represented only my own experience, tweaked and tailored to fit who Merry is. That leaves a lot of people, with a lot of differing experiences, to alienate.

In my panic, I sweated all over Charlotte about this, as she’d read the book. Wise woman that she is, she basically said, “Your point of view is as authentic as anybody else’s, and you presented it authentically. That’s all anybody can be asked to do.”

True. Plus the subtitle of this book isn’t “How to Lose Weight and Deserve Love!” Unbound doesn’t have a subtitle, and if it did it would probably be, “How to Love a Self-Loathing Hermit.” That’s the core concept. This weight stuff is just formative back-story that’s shaped the heroine, literally and figurative.

I don’t have a thesis to prove, here. I’m just waxing fretful on the topic of representing fat in fiction. Feelings? Seen it done in ways you loved, or ways you loathed? Seen it represented in the same way, too many times to count? Sick of Romancelandia decreeing that a size ten is fat? That boobs and hips are a curse to their female owners—a curse lifted only via the enlightening magic of hero-lust? Perplexed by the way romance heroines always seem to lose their appetites when they’re stressed, so much more pious and feminine than binge-eating? Stuff about heroes and their reactions to their heroines’ bodies, be their waists tiny and supple, or their hips lush and wang-rousing? Free-for-all time in the Wonko-Comments. Lay it on me.

About Cara McKenna

Cara McKenna writes smart erotica—sexy stories with depth. Read more >
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33 Responses to How to be Fat

  1. Alexandra Haughton says:

    All I have for you today is love. No words. Just love.

  2. Shelley says:

    I have lots of complicated feelings about this that I’m not sure I can articulate well.

    The first is that not every story is universal. Thus, Merry’s story doesn’t have to be anyone’s story but Merry’s. The fear, of course, is that Merry’s story is situated within a larger culture where fat=bad, where traditionally heroines must be thin to find love, where thinness=goodness or worthiness or strength (of will or of body). Of course, though, there are people who have lived Merry’s story, even within that culture. So it’s complicated.

    I think it’s also complicated by the baggage we all bring to each story because of the cultural miasma we swim in, and it’s hard to gauge how much of what we write reflects realistic issues for characters who live in that culture, and how much of it contributes to the miasma.

    As an example, I didn’t realize I should be worried about my stretch marks until everyone else in the goddamn world worried about theirs. I just figured they were there, and most women had them, so. . .so what. When I was a teenager, it wasn’t until I’d read Cosmo for years in a row that I got concerned about those little hairs that grow around your aerola (I know you know what I’m talking about, so don’t deny it). I just figured, okay. They’re normal. If I’ve got them, everyone else must too, until I learned to freak out about them and pluck them (OUCH).

    So, when you’re writing a character who is essentially recovering from an eating disorder (which is what I think you’re going for with Merry), obviously she’s going to be at least as insecure and possibly twice as much as your average woman. On the other hand, at what point does the reader begin to worry about *her* saggy arm skin or *her* stretch marks because Merry does? In other words, at what point does our literature contribute to our social norms rather than just reflecting them?

    I don’t know the answer, and I think worrying about the answer too much is utterly paralyzing to a writer. But you took on something big and complex and scary in this book, and told it in a way you knew how to tell it, which takes an amazing amount of bravery.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Yeah, landmines all over. I hope I managed to make Merry reasonably self-accepting. At the very least, she catches herself thinking bullshitty things about her stretchmarks and other post-weightloss imperfections, and calls herself on it. She doesn’t like that those scripts still play in her head, but can recognize them now. She doesn’t like that in her everyday life, she’s got herself in a police state with the calories-in-and-out, and though she’s grateful for the results of that diligence, she knows she has to find a more sustainable way of relating to it all. She’s a work-in-progress. Aren’t we all?

      • Shelley says:

        I think you’ve got something interesting going on with two parallels of people in (or not in) recovery. A tale of two addictions, basically.

      • Ruthie says:

        I feel like there’s a huge difference between self-aware characters and not-self-aware characters when it comes to this issue. A heroine who struggles with her body size or body image and is aware of that struggle in the context of a whole society full of messages — and in the context of her relationship to other people, including the hero — is, for me, a completely different thing than a heroine who fat-shames herself, or allows herself to be fat-shamed, or allows the hero to fat-shame her, without any kind of critical lens on it. It is the latter sort of stories that trouble me.

        • Edie says:

          I think “allow” is a tricky word in this situation, because it’s one thing if the author purposefully allows those behaviors within or toward the characters, and it’s another if that sensibility is an unconscious reflection of societal norms and/or personal bias. Which might be your point, Ruthie, but as shame is a complex reactionary emotion—both in actual people and in fictional ones—I hesitate over the use of “allow”…because it implies that the heroine is at fault, and not the author, should the weight issue be addressed with only superficial depth.

          • Ruthie says:

            You’re right. I was thinking of “allow” in terms of the author, not the character. But it wasn’t the right word.

  3. rube says:

    Oh wow, this was really moving. Thank you for sharing it.

    It reminded me of this true story from a few years ago:

    Very sad. I’m glad that Merry and her hermit get a chance at an HEA.

  4. Fantastic post. What is with the rolling fabulousness of you wonk girls? Give over.

    The first big girl book I read was the ground breaker—Jennifer Weiner’s 2001, Good in Bed. Since then I’ve been very aware of the trope (and er – the actuality the trope grows its hydra head from) and the unfortunate conclusion it all too often draws: Big girls are only truly lovable and happy when they get thin, or the equally pernicious, because let’s make it all about appearance, big girls are lovable despite being fat, as though they’re some special outrider or novelty act deserving of the same standard of attention as ‘normal’ people.

    Then there’s the everlasting happy, funny, clever fat girl vs mean, must secretly be very lonely, messed up or possibly stupid thin girl. Rebel Wilson and the rest of the female cast of Perfect Pitch.

    My girl isn’t your Merry, her situation is completely different but the moment her weight became part of the story I realised there were landmines all set to explode around me. Even the way the hero reacts is a potential bomb blast.

    I only tip toe into the issue, via a heroine who is forced to lose weight for her job, you muck about with it big time, but sounds to me – a person who accidently wrote a big girl trope (and a coming blog post about it) amidst a bigger story about self-deception and expectations, that you’ve handled it with more than care.

    But I have to admit, you’ve left me a little anxious for Merry. What’s a great girl like her, doing with hermit rope guy? She could do better.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      “…big girls are lovable despite being fat.” Despite, yes! Such a good point. Like it’s some exception, instead of merely being incidental. Like any man who does love a heavy woman must have a frigging “chubby-chaser” fetish, and thank goodness, since then the world can keep turning on its objectification axis.

      And hopefully Rob’s a good fit for Merry. Her experiences have made her uniquely suited to empathize with other people’s baggage, and his strengths (he does have some, I swear) teach her loads in return.

      • I’ll reserve judgement on rope hermit man and gorgeous Merry.

        But then I have no street cred. I accidentally wrote a billionaire trope in the same damn story. Know what I’m doing? Not much.

      • TheCatBastet says:

        Does he only like to be tied, and not do the tying?

        Because…the thing is, bodies are beautiful in different ways. One thing I like to do is read the comments on YouPorn videos. YouPorn specifically, for some reason that population of dudes seems more mature. On a few bondage vids I have seen complimentary comments about how extra flesh looks when constricted. Like, things happen. A corset, for example. Someone who likes to see the effect what they are doing is having upon another body may find that specifically appealing. And I’m not talking about SSBBWs vids. These guys aren’t FAs. And I have actually been 100 lbs overweight, and I can tell you that 100 lbs overweight is not FA bait. I felt happier when I discovered that at 250 I was considered too thin to be attractive than at 140 gettin’ attention at da clurb.

        I know you’re doing final edits but you should know that even though lad mags would have you believe that your 40/50 lbs might as well have been 400/500 lbs, being +50 is not the same universe as +100. And your shape has a lot to do with it. A pear +100 is going to have a different experience than an apple +50.

        Anyway. I think you can make this work fine, but I think you should have your heroine process intellectually the kinds of things being discussed here, including why a hero this…problematic…is on the table for her. It probably does have a lot to do with her experience of her body, but is that so terrible? I mean, if he’s a problem he’s a problem for a lifelong thin woman, too, and if he really does have potential, and if an ability to be kind to one another emerges from them because of their assorted fuckedupness, that’s not bad. A lot of being together is showing each other things and agreeeing it’s ok. If she was that overweight for that long, unless she’s like 19, her body is likely going to provide visual indicators. Is she hiding her former fatness from him?

        Anyway, it is not an intrinsically dreadful thing. You can do it.

  5. Jess says:

    My least favorite characteristic of some “big girl” books is the showcasing of her obvious, somewhat unrealistic, and unexplored faults that allow the reader to put herself above that character and say “well that’s why she’s so fat.” I’m thinking specifically of Meg Cabot’s Heather Wells mysteries, Size 12 isn’t fat, etc. In these books, Heather is a size 12 (and later a 14) because she eats insanely bad food (daily bagels packed with cream cheese and bacon, enough servings of fried chicken for several people all in one sitting and so on) all the time and can’t run 100 feet to save her life. It allows the reader to laugh at the character rather than with her. Heather is the funny girl who gets the guy and always solves the mysteries but her size is such a contanst flaw that it overshadows everything else.

    I think the fact that you have taken the time to thoughtfully and critically consider the issue bodes well for how it is handled in the book. The experience of unease in a new body size is an authentic and important one. My husband lost 60-70 pounds some time ago and he is only now coming to terms that that is his body and he should have confidence in it. With Merry, you are speaking to that experience. I look forward to reading her story.

  6. Edie says:

    I read Jemima J when I was 16 years old. At the time, I thought I was fat. I mean, there had to be some explanation for why the cute boys I crushed on weren’t crushing right back on me, right? So I read Jemima J by Jane Green and, at the time, thought it was the Most Romantic Thing EVAH. A fat woman (who, in my head, looked just like me) transforms herself through a totally unhealthy diet-and-exercise regimen, flies halfway across the world, and then nabs the sexy guy she crushed on finally crushes right back!

    At the time, I wavered between a size 8 and a size 10.

    I never once considered myself skinny, because I’d worn a D-cup since age 13. I had an abdomen that curved out instead of lying flat (or, good heavens, was concave). I was a soft-all-over hourglass during a period of time when the opposite sex Did Not Want soft-all-over hourglasses.

    Then I went to college, and the “Freshman Fifteen” definitely became the “Freshman Fifty.” Granted, other factors were at play, but the weight came on with a vengeance, and I floundered. I mean, here I was, actually fat, when before I’d only thought I was fat. For a while, it was all my family could talk about: “Don’t you want to be healthy again?” “You’re not meant to be this size.” But how would I know what was healthy, or what size I was meant to be, when I was obviously so confused over what I looked like, back when I looked like what I was supposed to look like? (…I hope you followed that sentence better than I did.)

    The love life I had developed in college shriveled up in time to my confusion and confidence. I stopped dating, stopped wearing makeup, stopped trying to make myself attractive. Because I wasn’t. I was a size 14. It wasn’t going to be like Jemima J; no man I found sexy was going to see the same in me (especially because, I have to admit, I am incredibly shallow–I like my menfolk brawny and pretty).

    After years of attempting to work in good diet and exercise with my constantly messy hormones (see: those other factors I mentioned earlier), I stopped trying for a second time. I tossed the baggy man-sized t-shirts, shapeless jeans, and bland colors and started dressing my body as though I weren’t ashamed of it. Even though I was. Even though I still am.

    I would give anything to go back to 16-Year-Old Me and shake her so hard that whatever part of her brain looked in the mirror and saw a cow clicked into place and started functioning properly. Because, at size 14, having not dated in five years because I am still confused, I would take that size 10 and run with it. Figuratively speaking, of course, because actual running makes me want to die.

    Obviously, I will be the first to go in the zombie apocalypse.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      One of the catch-22s in this kind of situation is that no matter how a person feels about themselves as an overweight person, no matter whether they want to change or not, by somebody’s measure, they’ll be doing it wrong.

      Want to lose weight? You’ll get the folks who say, “What? WHY? You’re perfect the way you are! If you’re unhappy, fix what’s inside! Love your body the way it is! Don’t buy into all that fashion-industry bullshit!”

      If you don’t want to lose weight? “You know you’re unhealthy though, right? It’s not that we think you’re unattractive, we just want you to be healthy. Here, let me lend you think book that’s going to change your life…”

      There’s no right way to be overweight, to lose weight, to feel about weight, or indeed to write or talk about weight. There’s no wrong way, either, for better or worse. There are just ways. Tons of them. And no matter which is yours, it will contradict someone else’s, and that someone may feel entitled to tell you so. It’s like reproductive rights, child-rearing, etc. These crazy-personal choices that everyone thinks they’re doing the absolute best way. Or want to convince themselves they’re doing the absolute best way, by cramming their patented approach down everyone else’s throats. It can all feel very daunting and confusing and dehumanizing. But I’ll just keep my mouth shut and hug you. You and your glorious soufflé.

      • Edie says:

        I think it’s very important to have heroines (or heroes) who deal with weight issues in different ways–just as it’s important to have protagonists who deal with rape differently, or deal with abuse differently, or deal with all of these (forgive the unintentional pun) heavy issues in some way that deviates from what’s considered the societal norm. I have no doubt that you’ve dealt with Merry’s issues in a manner that’s both authentic and individual, and therefore readable.

        As for my own heavy issue, I’m stuck until I either make a permanent change or come to terms that I am the size I am. Neither has happened, and I am extremely cognizant of the fact that it is limiting my opportunities in life–because I refuse to put myself out there for certain things. I stopped auditioning for shows after a choreographer called me “marshmallow-y.” I stopped dating after a guy said he was “into big girls” like me (because I didn’t want to ever be a “big girl” to a guy, natch). And there were times when my family and I weren’t on speaking terms, because every time speaking happened, it was, “How can we help?” and I was both insulted by and desperate for their help.

        My personal weight concerns are exhausting. And depressing. And, again, confusing, because I can logically recognize that by general comparison I’m not Huge. I’m not Obese. I’m not even Fat. But. In my head I am all of these things. You’d think I’d have it figured out by now, right? But I don’t.

        Overweight heroines in romance are a trigger for me, in a way that heroines dealing with cancer or infertility issues are a trigger. I’m always a little shocked when a woman characterized as a size 12 or 14 in romance is considered fat, and then scoffing when that same woman has some superbly fit specimen of manhood sniffing at her heels. Which makes me the worst sort of reader, and the worst sort of woman, because I just cannot suspend my disbelief enough to accept that an enviably hot guy is desperate to do her. It’s entirely wrapped up in my own experiences, and it’s fair neither to the heroine or the author. Or, really, to me. Because maybe if I actually believed that sort of thing happened, I’d believe it could happen to me.

        It goes without saying that I am still a work-in-progress.

    • Shelley says:

      I relate, girl. See my post below. Also, I think you’re adorable and hot.

      • Edie says:

        “Dysmorphia” is a great way of putting it, both for you and for me–and, probably, in general. How many of us trust what we see in the mirror? How many of us have been told not to trust it, either directly or through inference based on social interaction or media influence? Either way, the issue has grown so twisted for me over the years that I usually just refuse to engage on it.

        I try to give my heroines different body types, but I also make a concerted effort for each heroine to be like, “This is my body. It is the way it is. I’m as comfortable in it as I can be.” It’s a mindset I certainly aspire to. There’s a heroine of mine on the back-burner who is a “former fat girl.” She was much more difficult to work with than the hero of Ardent, who was a former chubby dude. She still needs some more fleshing (again, with my awful puns today) out before she makes her way into the world.

  7. I think similar aspects can be taken from this about writing a character of a race other than our own; we are afraid to offend because we might show an experience that someone with that same background can’t relate to. You won’t ever be able to represent every person who has ever struggled with their weight in one book, in the same way that one middle-eastern-born character will not represent every middle-eastern-born person reading that book. But authenticity counts; if you’re real and showing a character with believable flaws, eschewing stereotypes, that’s what matters.

    • Shelley says:

      I think this is true, too, and as someone who is trying to write a protagonist right now who is a different race than I am, it’s important for me to remember that the story is ONE PERSON’S story, and it won’t represent everyone’s experience.

      • Ruthie says:

        God, same here. I keep giving myself an imaginary hard time for writing this Afro-Cuban hero from Wisconsin who doesn’t speak Spanish. Even though I made a *very deliberate choice* to do so for *very good reasons*, I still think, “God, I’m doing this ALL WRONG. And then I give myself that speech.

  8. Audra North says:

    Using “fat girls” as heroines in romance is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First, because I remember reading about fat-girl-who-gets-thin even twenty years ago and actually believing that it was a magical cure for lack of confidence and willpower (suck it, 14-year-old me) and second, because it was common enough that the “romantically transformative power of weight loss” theme came up in at least a couple of romances that I read each year since then.

    Second, twenty years after that first reading, there are still surprisingly few romances that feature a fat heroine who stays that way and finds her HEA in the same way a non-fat heroine would. I haven’t read Unbound, btw, but should. Meanwhile I’ve seen many more significant age difference romances, mixed-race romances, not-classically-beautiful-but-still-slender-heroine romances, etc, etc. Maybe I just need to read more, or maybe my own brain has been so affected that I see all heroines as falling in the size 2 to 12 range, rather than them actually being so.

    Anyway, if I assume that I’m correctly remembering many works out there, what I’ve read, what I’ve read about, and so on, then hopefully my next point makes sense. And that is that we have a problem with believing too much in the power of changeable size. To some degree, it is. We can lose or gain some pounds and we can get plastic surgery. We can’t change our race or age or the life that has come before us – our past. And perhaps, in this difference, the problem is that we associate too readily an internal with an external change.

    Hmm. Now I’ve lost myself. I suppose my point is simply that you’ve chosen a great topic to write about because it is, in so many people’s minds, “easily” changeable when compared to other characteristics.

    On a side note, size-ism is so dependent on cultural norms. As a half-Chinese, half-German person, when I hang out with my Chinese side, they have a hard time not commenting on how I’m a giant. A GIANT. But when I’m with my German side, they’re like, “Are you ill? You need to eat more. You’re much too small.” It is virtually impossible to explain to either set of relatives that I am who I am and I have found my happiness outside of what I look like or how much I weigh…something that is hard to do in romance novels.

  9. Shelley says:

    You know, I think one of the weight-related landmines that writers often run into is because, in a society where we’re told that you can never be too thin, so many women who aren’t fat think of themselves that way. So when we write characters who (realistically, perhaps) think of themselves as fat even though they wear a size 10. . .are we accurately reflecting the struggles of a woman in our society? Or are we making it worse?

    Sorry, I can’t stop thinking about this, in part because I identify myself as “fat,” or at least a little bit fat, and that might just be some body dysmorphia on my part, or it might be accurate, and I honestly can’t tell. At the same time, I also thought I was chubby when I wore a size 4 (saying things like, “Yes, but I’m so short it looks bigger!”) and the current me wants to go back and smack the bejeebus out of the former me. And women larger than me who hear me describe myself as fat probably want to strangle me with my cardigan, but at the same time, it is authentically how my brain tells me I look.

    • I have quite an issue with this – sometimes I absolutely agree that it’s ridiculous to present a size 12 woman and claim she’s fat. But to me that’s different to presenting a size 12 woman who feels fat, who has been told she’s fat, who legitimately suffers at the hands of a fat shaming society.

      I have been a UK size 10 in my life. When I see pictures of myself, I can’t believe how thin I was. I was absolutely tiny. And yet at the time, I felt fat. I was told repeatedly that I was fat. Part of the reason why I stopped caring about frantically dieting was because I no longer saw the point. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

      And that is why I will not automatically dismiss a heroine who feels fat at size 12.

  10. Serena Bell says:

    I totally hear ya. I periodically wake in a cold sweat because I’ve got a book coming out with an undocumented immigrant Dominican heroine. I’ve been sweating the decision to write her from the very first moment I decided to, and none of the very good arguments for doing it (who’s the right person to write a novel about a white, upper middle-class pediatrician hero and a fair-skinned afro-Dominican heroine living a strangely post-racial existence in Massachusetts, anyway? and who will tell undocumented immigrants’ stories, which desperately need to be told, if I don’t?) has diminished my worries. I think the fear is just something I have to live with–the price of writing at all, maybe, or at least the price of writing something that felt urgent to me. I love what Shelley said, that not every story is universal–they’re these tiny specific windows into one experience that can shed light on bigger questions, maybe, but it’s always a good idea for readers to be wary about generalizing from what they read. And God bless Charlotte.

    I think part of what you’re describing–the fear that readers will feel that because she doesn’t get her HEA ’til she loses weight that somehow she had to lose to deserve happiness–is one of those perpetual dangers of writing in this genre. Romance does implicitly reward heroes and heroines for acts of bravery of all kinds, and sometimes there are collateral acts, like losing weight or moving across the country or changing jobs or marrying to change one’s immigration status, that can seem like they’re being condoned simply because they take place inside that framework. I think as writers we just have to do our best to tell the stories, send the right thematic messages–meaning the ones we believe, the ones we have written the books to share–and hope our readers are sophisticated enough to question rather than condemn our choices.

  11. Jenn says:

    What a great post. I’ve struggled with weight all my life and I come by this struggle honestly. All the females on my mom’s side of the family have body dismorphic disorder, myself included. I struggled with anorexia in college and refused to acknowledge this struggle because so many people were complimenting me. I felt terrible all the time, but people said I looked good and I believed them. Puberty had not been kind to me and I had heard snide comments about my weight and stretch marks all the time growing up so, hearing nice things about my weight felt great. At some point, I realized I couldn’t keep living the way I had and I stopped. I stopped obsessing over weight and started eating again. I gained a lot of weight back and I was really proud of myself. No one else seemed to be proud of me though and I got lots of awful comments on how I didn’t look as good anymore. I was the teensiest bit overweight and I’ve worked on healthy eating habits and focusing on being tone for my shape and not small and it’s changed how I see myself. For the first time ever, I like the way I look. And yet, people still tell me that I used to look so much better when I was forty pounds lighter and almost always on the verge of collapsing.
    Having such a tumultuous relationship with body image has definitely impacted how I feel when I read and also how I feel about certain recommendation posts. I’ve always felt that a core value of romance is that almost always the heroine falls in love with herself while falling in love with the hero. So when the heroine does nothing but trash her body, or is okay with her hero giving backhanded compliments about her appearance, I have trouble finishing the book. I also can’t stand most makeovers, because I always feel the message is you need to change your outward appearance to get people to like you and I don’t think that’s true at all. It also bugs me when people consistently recommend Bet Me as the quintessential “fat girl” romance. I fully recognize that size twelve does not look the same on everyone, but this book spends a lot of time trying to convince me that if you’re a size twelve, it’s pretty much the end of the world. If a hero is somehow attracted to you and wants you to eat more, he must be completely unique, because it’s unrealistic for a guy to like someone who isn’t small. I would love for there to be more heroines of all shapes and sizes. I’d love to have more heroines who were comfortable in their own skin, or at least heroines who spent less time cataloguing their physical flaws and more time thinking about other things.
    You are one of my very favorite writers, so I trust that you wrote an amazing character. I’m really glad that you’re concerned about what her portrayal might say to other women. It sounds like you handled the issue well.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      “I struggled with anorexia in college and refused to acknowledge this struggle because so many people were complimenting me.”

      Ugh, totally. We don’t really stand a chance, do we, when not only ridiculous magazines are telling us there’s no such thing as too thin, but our loved ones are as well?!

      This happens to Merry in a book, a little. Just mentioned in passing, how guys who never noticed her before suddenly are, and how while it’s a side effect she’d been hoping for, she also kind of resents it. I found that very difficult to parse, myself. Like, “Yay, he noticed me! But wait a second…what a shallow dickhead! But wait, I think I look better now too, so… Ah, fuck it. Where’s my Boys for Pélé CD?”

  12. Great post hon, and glad I helped!

    I think the thing is for me: you can’t just pretend issues and feelings don’t exist because you want to or people want you to be a hero of some cause. Heroines are going to feel uncomfortable with their size, because we live in a fat shaming society. And I think it’s some king of irony that on the one hand you’ve got people slamming the lack of realism in having a guy love a fat girl, but on the other people slamming heroines for not being totally confident and happy with their weight and forever pretending that these issues dont exist.

    They do, and they exist whether the heroine is 800 pounds or 120 pounds or has just lost a lot of weight. Your lived experience was the latter. Why should you not be allowed to present that lived experience? You haven’t tried to claim that the heroine is only worthy of love once she slims down. You haven’t spoken through your hero, perpetually judging the heroine. You’ve simply shown that society can make you feel that way, no matter how hard you try to fight it.

    It’s just the way things are.

  13. Laura KC says:

    I love this post–as I love everything you write!

    And Charlotte, I think you hit the nail on the head very succinctly: “Heroines are going to feel uncomfortable with their size, because we live in a fat shaming society.” We are told that if we cannot control our size, we must be worthless. Which is ridiculous. There are all kinds of reasons for two people to have different shapes.

    I come from a whole family chock-full of body dysmorphic disorder, alcoholism, depression, OCD…they all go together, IMHO. For years, my grandmother lived with us and if you walked into the kitchen and took something out of the fridge, she would say “do you need to eat that?” In fact, she had a Yorkie and if the dog would beg for a second treat after she gave her the first, she would say “no more, too fat.”

    But here’s the thing: she honestly thought she was doing us a favor. She really believed that we couldn’t make it if we were heavy (either boys or girls).

    My mother, her daughter, who frequently complains because she cannot find clothes small enough, knew it wasn’t right. She tried not to be as judgmental, but stuff like that gets passed down. Thank god she doesn’t do Google searches on me, so she’ll never know that I once told her “you’ll like her, she’s thin” about a friend of mine and she accepted that at face value.

    Even when I was “the thin one” of the family, I was acutely aware that I was “the fat one” when I left the house–it makes no sense, but nothing about body image really does. I gained weight in college, lost it in grad school. It was up and down and up and down for years, mostly because I had become convinced that there was some specific number–on the scale, on the tag of the clothes, that would make me happy when nothing else would.

    I was thin when I got married. Overweight by the standards of those horrid height/weight things they used to use, but a good, solid target weight for me since I work out a lot of have a solid chunk of muscle. 5’4 and about 140 lbs. I gained probably 15-18 pounds after I got married just from eating with someone else all the time. And then I got sick and put on another 25-30 from the meds I will be taking for the rest of my life.

    I was at dinner with some friends at RWA and I was wearing a very form-fitting dress…*highly* unusual for me. One of my friends remarked on how excellent it made me (and my rather large bust) look and I said to her that I could understand that she could see it that way, but to me even after five years, this body still isn’t mine. I look at it in a mirror and go “who the hell are you and what did you do with the woman who didn’t take Depakote?”

    Altogether, I am about 40 pounds heavier than I “should” be. And by that I mean that my knees, feet, and back don’t like this weight. My cholesterol, my heart, are fine. My regular doc doesn’t care about my weight, only my orthopedist does. So am I fat? Hell if I know.

    Your heroine lost a lot of weight. It changed her. That’s just part of who she is. Your characters are invariably well-developed and I am sure she will be, too. It reminds me a bit of when my sister was pregnant. She was terrified that she would be a terrible mother. But of course, that terror convinced the rest of us that she would be a great mom. And she is.

    I’d be more worried if you didn’t concern yourself with such a major change in the way a character views herself and the way the rest of the world views her.

  14. Pingback: Friday Bookshelf: August 9, 2013 | Plot Driven

  15. Jessi Gage says:

    “There’s no universal experience, when it comes to weight. There are infinite, valid ways that one can view weight and weight loss—both their own and others’—and many people’s feelings on the topic are passionate, to say the least.”

    You capture why weight is such a hot-button issue. I’m glad you’re being true to your character in that she has struggled with weight issues before the events of the book. I’m also glad you’re so mindful of the topic. Regardless of how you handle it in the book, your thoughtfulness will be sure to shine through, and that–just treating the topic respectfully–will hopefully keep negative critics to a minimum.

    And if it doesn’t screw them. If writers worried about whose toes they might inadvertently step on or who they might inadvertently offend, they wouldn’t say as many interesting things or write as honestly. My opinion of course. I’ll add a caveat, that if you want a certain amount of marketability, you’ll generally stick to what’s politically correct, but who doesn’t love a pushed button once in a while.

    I’m rambling. The point is, from this post, it appears as though no weight-issue buttons are going to be intentionally pushed. But if, for some readers, their buttons get pushed in a bad way, that’s not a reflection on your worth or talent as an author. It sounds to me like you’ve worried the appropriate amount over what the reaction is likely to be, and you’ve taken care to handle your readers with respect and honesty. That’s wonderful. I’m SO looking forward to this one.

    Good luck!

  16. willaful says:

    I appreciate your concerns as a writer, because I share them as a reader and just generally as a person. I’ve been fat all my life — though like others, look at photos of my despised younger self and and am stunned to realize I was relatively so small — and in the last 5+ years lost over 100 pounds.

    Yet I still hate fat-shaming and blaming people for their weight and I know better than anyone that losing weight and keeping it off is a tremendous commitment of time and effort. I have a privileged life — I can buy healthy food and have time to go to a gym. And I still struggle with my weight *constantly* — my body will take any opportunity to pack the pounds back on. I can’t blame anyone who thinks it’s just not worth it. I’m also far from sure it’s been entirely healthy for me.

    So I’m constantly balancing the knowledge that yes, people really can lose weight, with the knowledge that *it is fucking difficult and not necessarily worth it* — and feeling like no one should be blamed or harassed for not doing it. It’s intensely complicated! I have no idea if I could write a book myself that I would feel comfortable reading.

    Anyway, I wish you the best. Certainly, thinking about these issues is a good step.

  17. Laurie Evans says:

    “Sick of Romancelandia decreeing that a size ten is fat?” Yes! Also dislike books where the fat heroine constantly obsesses about losing weight.

    I was thin/average as a child and in high school. Put on weight in college and after having my son. When I wrote my book, I had a hard time with my heroine’s body: I always pictured her as thin.

    But why? Because I don’t want her to be overweight like me? Because I don’t want to write a fat heroine? Can I accurately write about a *thin* heroine?

    She’s still thin, because I don’t feel like I can handle body issues on top of everything else in my first novel. But it feels strange, writing about a thin woman.

    Yeah. I have issues.