Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Underrepresentation of Overweight Characters in Literature

The Huffington Post takes a bite out of the issue.

From the piece...

So here's the thing: With the exception of maybe Ignatius J. Reilly (and even he seems mostly like a caricature) or maybe Dolores Price or Sapphire's Precious, all of these overweight characters are flat characters (i.e., rather than round characters, to use E. M. Forster's categories). I know, it's pretty ironic. Generally, their weight becomes a defining characteristic that exhibits just a descriptor or two--comic, lazy, weak, evil, etc. Generally, there hasn't been a big range for overweight characters. They have often been a kind of cheap entertainment. 

But maybe that is beginning to change. When I was growing up, people didn't talk about obesity the way we do now. It was a kind of taboo subject. But now that 34.4% of American adults are overweight and another 33.9% are obese (CDC, 2008). Obesity has become normalized in a way and it's beginning to be portrayed more fully in today's fiction. The title character of Big Ray weighs over 500 pounds and the narrator's feelings toward him (that is, my feelings toward my father) are complicated and complex, but this is only in part because of his obesity. The issues that led Big Ray to eat himself up over 500 pounds played out in other parts of his life, most notably for me in the way he treated his family, including me. He was the dominant personality in my childhood household and he expressed this emotionally and physically. I'm not suggesting obesity leads to violence and abuse, but in this particular instance, the troubles with food and the troubles with temper were inextricably linked. I don't have to forgive my obese father for the things he did, and I probably never will, but I can still appreciate the good that was in him. And in the character I based on him, I wanted to present the full range of his personality. Like all of us, no matter what size we are, he was human.

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