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A diverse classroom library includes and respects fat characters, too

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Illustrated smiling man with books pile on teal background
 (iStock/Denis Novikov)

Many teachers excel at stocking their shelves with books featuring characters of diverse abilities, races and socioeconomic statuses. However, representation of size diversity, particularly with regard to fat main characters, is often overlooked. The absence of differently sized characters has far-reaching implications for students because students’ engagement and motivation in reading are influenced by the presence of relatable protagonists. Rudine Sims Bishop’s “windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors” framework underscores the roles books play for learning about others, reflecting aspects of oneself, and facilitating exploration.

“Fat is viewed as profane,” said Dywanna Smith, a former English teacher who focused her dissertation on establishing safe spaces for Black girls to discuss body size. She emphasized that when fat students lack representation or only encounter characters who reinforce fat bias, it sends the message that they do not belong. This bias, known as fatphobia, involves discrimination against people based on their overweight or obese body size. Experiencing weight stigma has lasting effects: A 2012 study in the journal Obesity found that weight stigma did not motivate weight loss but can result in isolation and avoidance, among other coping strategies. Overweight or obese kids also are often victims of bullying, which is correlated with increased suicide-related behavior

Every student deserves access to books with relatable stories that foster a sense of inclusivity and cultivate a love for reading. Teachers can explore ways to critically examine the presence of fat characters in literature and seek books that portray fat protagonists in all of their complexity.

Not all representation is good representation

The literary landscape includes few fat characters who follow well-worn storylines. “Their size is one of the main conflicts of the story and typically it (has) to be resolved with that person losing weight,” said Smith. Caitlin O’ Connor, a language arts teacher from New York who presented on fat positivity at the National Council of Teachers of English conference last year, added that plot lines where fat characters lose weight can be harmful because it communicates fat characters are only likable if they are committed to getting smaller. 

Fat characters are often subject to harmful stereotypes. “It’s not just the presence of fat characters that we need. It’s the good representation of fat characters that we need. We need them to be represented as whole people with stories and lives that are full, that matter, that aren’t just a list of tropes,” said O’Connor. She cited Piggy, a character described as fat from Lord of the Flies, as an example. “He’s constantly called fat and framed as lesser than,” she said, adding that the way that Piggy is treated throughout the book suggests fat people are deserving of name calling and bullying. Other common tropes include framing fat characters as unable to decide what is best for themselves, having fraught relationships with food, or being uninterested in athletic activities. O’Connor emphasized that fat characters should not be confined to proving thin people’s physical superiority or serving as comic relief. 

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If a teacher has to explore a book with a fat main character that falls into reductive stereotypes, it can be a learning opportunity. O’Connor encouraged teachers to engage students in discussions about character portrayal and patterns across other books. “Having these discussions builds the critical thinking skills and perspectives we want our students to develop,” she said. “We can teach students to recognize and challenge stereotypes through literature.”

Literature can debunk stereotypes and tropes

Teachers can curate diverse book collections that feature fat characters in multifaceted roles and that combat anti-fat bias. O’Connor emphasized the power of language, urging teachers to discuss words as a tool that can uplift or oppress. She suggested repositioning the word “fat” as a descriptor, not a derisive term.

When choosing a book with a fat character, Smith recommended that teachers ask whether the character’s portrayal contributes to existing harmful attitudes, prejudices or stereotypes. Additionally, it’s crucial to assess whether the character is allowed to grow and change throughout the narrative.

Among Smith and O’Connor’s recommended books for students are Lisa Fipps’ Starfish, Crystal Maldonado’s Fat Chance Charlie Vega, Susan Vaught’s Big Fat Manifesto, and a collection titled The (Other) F Word: A Celebration of the Fat & Fierce, edited by Angie Manfredi. These narratives explore themes of self-acceptance, challenging societal norms and celebrating diverse bodies. Other recommendations include the anthology Every Body Shines, edited by Cassandra Newbould, Claire Kann’s If It Makes You Happy, Paul Coccia’s Cub, and Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath, each contributing to a tapestry of stories that defy stereotypes and promote body positivity.

Where teachers can start

Addressing the needs of students, especially those experiencing fatphobia, begins with critical introspection, according to Smith. She suggested making a table with the days of the week and noting what you do to support students and colleagues who are fat. “Oftentimes very little is written down,” she said.

Some teachers may not know where to start and don’t want to say the wrong thing when broaching discussions about body size. Smith urged educators to familiarize themselves with fatphobia and read fat literature for adults, such as The Body Is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor, which advocates for radical self-love to counteract harm caused by bias or fatphobia, and What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon, which covers how to challenge cultural attitudes and advocate for social justice.

Highlighting the historical intersections of race and body size, Smith considers Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings a keystone text. Thickening Fat: Fat Bodies, Intersectionality, and Social Justice, edited by May Friedman, Carla Rice and Jen Rinaldi, explores fat oppression and activism through various perspectives.

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The worst thing teachers can do is to stay silent about fat characters or the lack thereof, Smith said. “Do we really want to be responsible for saying, ‘Because you are fat, you are unworthy of grace, dignity, love and to have your story heard?’” she asked. “In the absence of this discussion, isn’t that what we’re saying already?”

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