Sunday, 29 September 2013

The F Word - Anna Wilson

Fellow Sassie, Fiona Dunbar, recently posted the following question on Facebook:

“To all my friends who write for kids/young teens (particularly girls): do you feel enough is being done in fiction to address fat/thin stereotypes? With all the cultural pressure to conform to certain ideals, is it our responsibility to counter that – and if so, how? *Can* it be done?”

I quickly became engrossed in reading all the comments that were posted under Fiona’s question. I had more than a passing interest for, as well as being a children’s writer, I have two young teenage children of my own who are becoming more and more aware of what society is saying to them. My daughter, in particular, seems to equate “skinny” with “perfection”.

The Facebook debate did, however, remind me that I had once been found guilty of describing a character as a “big fat greedy wotsit”. I remember thinking at the time that it had not occurred to me for an instant that what I had written would be offensive, because the words were spoken by a seven-year-old character in that careless, thoughtless way that children sometimes do speak.

I did, however, edit the comment once it was pointed out to me that if you are a child struggling with eating disorders (which sadly affect children at a much earlier stage in life than they used to) then seeing the word “fat” used in a negative context can be very damaging, as it reinforces the stereotype that “fat” equals “greedy” or “lazy” or “unattractive” or just plain “bad”.

It was pointed out in the Facebook feed that we have, in fact, come a long way and that “we are better than we used to be”. Lord of the Flies was quoted as an example of how not to stereotype large children. I decided to go back and re-read a section of Lord of the Flies, thinking that I would surely not find it offensive, telling myself that the book is a product of a particular time and the characters who gang up on Piggy are hardly portrayed as heroes. However, I have to admit that reading the story again after a 25-year gap, Golding’s descriptions of Piggy did make me squirm:

“The naked crooks of his knees were plump . . . He was shorter than the fair boy and very fat . . .
‘Can’t catch me breath. I was the only boy at our school what had asthma,’ said the fat boy with a touch of pride. ‘And I’ve been wearing specs since I was three.’”

He is referred to as “the fat boy” until he admits that his nickname was “Piggy” and that is the name that sticks for the rest of the book. We never find out his real name. There is no doubt that the fact he is fat and wears glasses equates to him being unappealing and weak.

There is much debate at the moment as to what extent we in children’s publishing should be the “guardians at the gate” on various topics, including that of body image. Should we watch what we write, or does this restrict our creativity? Is the story the thing, or do we have a responsibility? Many publishers increasingly feel that we do. We publish our books under the clear imprimatur of “children’s publishing”, and that in itself says something important: that children are clearly looking for and need something different from adults. Otherwise, why bother separating the two markets?

Children are vulnerable and impressionable, we know that. As a parent I am constantly worrying about and trying to monitor what they watch on television, see on the internet and in video games, so should it come as any surprise that books, and the words in those books, need to be chosen carefully too?

Or are we going too far when we start to worry about editing our characters’ thoughts, appearances and dialogue? Is it in fact ridiculous to load such a simple three-letter word so heavily with negative connotations, thereby driving it into the arena of “issues”? As Caitlin Moran says in How To Be A Woman:

“In the last two generations, [‘fat’ has] become a furiously overloaded word – in a conversation, when the word ‘fat’ appears, it often alarms people, like a siren going off.’

So is the answer to avoid the issue of body image altogether in our writing? In Fiona’s Facebook conversation, writer Dawn Finch commented, “I try not to include any physical description unless it’s genuinely important to the plot.” She said that she likes to leave it to the reader to decide how the characters look based on how other characters respond to them. It is true that there can be nothing more irritating than being told someone is attractive or ugly because they are fat/thin/blond/tall/blue-eyed. (I recently read Michael Frayn’s Skios and found it incredibly annoying to be repeatedly told that the lead romantic male role was gorgeous and had blue eyes and “floppy blond hair”. Personally that immediately put me in mind of Boris Johnson, so from that moment on I was certainly not going to imagine him as attractive, I’m afraid.)

Inbali Iserles, another Sassie, said that “making it an issue is not a good thing”, while writer Sophia Bennett pointed out that even when books are addressing particular stereotypes, the covers rarely do anything to back this up, and in some cases actively do the opposite. She quoted Cathy Cassidy’s Ginger Snaps and Chris Higgins’ A Perfect 10 as examples of books whose covers perhaps even belie the content.

So what to do? Maybe we should at least not make “skinny” the default position for the beautiful and popular. If we are writing a romance, for example, should we go out of our way to make the romantic lead a larger person? If so, how do we do this without it “becoming an issue” as Inbali warns us against doing? And if we do all this, what about the book jackets? Maybe this, in fact, is where the redressing of the balance should start.

(With thanks to Fiona for letting me borrow her FB question!)

Anna Wilson


Penny Dolan said...

A relevant, post, Anna, and a tricky one.

I recently read a couple of the popular and highly promoted David Walliams books - sorry, I don't have them to quote from - and recall a Dahlesque use of fatness as a negative aspect of his characters.

A Wilson said...

Gosh, I have not read any Walliams... And I had not even thought of Dahl, who of course was pretty judgemental about fat children, (Augustus Gloop for one) and frequently had fat adults as baddies (Aunt Sponge, Mr Twit, etc.) It is a tricky question and one to which I do not have the answer. I was mortified to learn of particular, personal stories of anorexic children being upset by the protrayal of stereotypes like this though.

Lynda Waterhouse said...

Many moons ago in the 1990's I wrote two novels for Red Fox, Bonnie Fitch and More Bonnie Fitch in which my heroines were Bonnie (who was larger than most people) and her best friend Lindsay , the girl with the moustache. I wasn't trying to make a huge political point, they were great main characters.

Sue Bursztynski said...

But Piggy was one of the good guys, mourned by Ralph at the end. And his being bullied is not approved by the author. For an example of a positive portrayal of a fat character, check out End Blyton's Five Find Outers. That's one thing she gets very right. Fatty is the leader of the gang, a sort of young Sherlock Holmes, greatly admired by his not-fat group of friends.

I would agree with using descriptions only where relevant. I do.

CatherineAnn Minnock said...

Found this so interesting! As a teen writer (not a "proper" author like a lot of you) I write about people my age, in the 14-18 range I suppose. Reading this has made me realise that, while I've never portrayed someone being "fat" or "thin" in a positive or negative light, every one of my teenage characters is really aware of their body... I suppose because that's how I feel. But I am conscious not to say one figure is better than another. One character's mum is slightly overweight, but the character of course barely notices: she's just "mum" and that's the way she is.

As a reader, I think if a main character is overweight or has spots or something else we might be self-conscious about, personally it makes me feel good that someone wrote a story about a character like that. Even if they are portrayed in a negative light, I can remember always feeling hopeful that someone bothered to write a story about someone with spots--like me! It would make me feel less out of place, even if that feature was portrayed negatively.

As I'm not very sensitive myself, I never really thought of writers having a duty not to use the word "fat" negatively, but now I think of it, it seems so obvious...

A Wilson said...

Thank you all for your comments! I know that Piggy is the hero in Lord of the Flies in the end, but it is because of his being fat etc that he is picked on at the beginning, and I was shocked by how uncomfortable I felt reading it now as a parent when, aged 14, I can't honestly say it bothered me. Catherine, your comments are very helpful. And never say you are not a "proper" author! If you write, you are a writer. As Melvin Burgess's dad said, "Yes he has a job. He is a writer. He just hasn't been paid yet." Good luck, Catherine, and keep writing!

CatherineAnn Minnock said...

What a lovely thing to say, Anna! I'll remember it :)

rebecca said...

I sadly disagree that things have gotten better over the years. Also, I want to point out that it's not just kids with eating disorders who feel and absorb fatphobia in books -- it's any kid who is or has been fat, or who has feared or thought about being fat. In other words, pretty much everyone.

I've done a lot of work on fat characters in children lit; here's a recent piece.