For too long, scholars and critics not working from a fat studies perspective have celebrated novels that feature fat teens losing weight and finding happiness and self-worth only because of that weight loss. Indeed, in her article, “Voracious Appetites: The Construction of ‘Fatness’ in the Boy Hero in English Children’s Literature,” Jean Webb analyzes fat character’s “lives [as having] the potential to expand positively as their waistlines recede healthily” (119) (my emphasis). The “as” in Webb’s analysis is key to revealing the ableism and fat bias inherent in U.S. society in general and in Webb’s argument in particular. Fat studies, however, reveals that the “Bildungsroman of weight loss” that Webb valorizes is far from being the positive and pragmatic solution she characterizes it as. Instead, working from a fat studies perspective, I claim that when a quest structure melds with the cosmetic panopticon, we get what I call “the fat quest” (see Fig. 1), a culturally constructed set of steps a fat protagonist must take before he/she can be considered worthy. Recent novels like My Big Fat Manifesto or Eleanor & Park positively challenge the fat quest, breaking its pattern or excluding it altogether. But if we are to help youth find worth outside of a qualifying “as,” it is essential that scholars stop arguing from ableist perspectives and begin celebrating and empowering critique and literature that reads positively through a fat studies lens.
The Fat Quest
While a “Bildungsroman of weight loss” can exist—and be praised as positive—in ableist discourse, a body-positive, fat-acceptance discourse doesn’t accept or ascribe such a benign-bordering-on-positive name to such structures and strategies. They are better called and understood as a “fat quest,” a path—assigned by a thin-centric society to fat people—that characters must follow in order to illicit empathy, understanding, and to even be considered human. The fat quest is, then, a culturally constructed set of steps that must be taken before a fat protagonist can be considered human enough, thin enough, and worthy enough of dreams and quests that “normal” teen protagonists get to undertake. And though the fat quest promotes ableism by tying health and worth to weight via fat bias, understanding its structure, breaking it down, and reframing it as one version of instead of as the YA fat fiction genre itself opens up a space for authors, scholars, and readers to challenge ableism. Such is the power of genre—texts mix and mingle via uptake and help disparate readers enter the discourse through shared expectations while encouraging the questioning of ideology through reversals and gaps.
In the U.S., we love a good quest. It’s an old genre, but one that we readily recognize and understand. After all, the American Dream is a quest, a journey from nothing to something typified by our national mythology of the “self-made man.” The American Dream, in fact, demands willpower and scorns those too “lazy” to make their dreams come true. This quest structure, then, melds with the “cosmetic panopticon” (Giovanelli & Ostertag 2009:289), 4 a prison of our own making, powered by our media’s consistent and exclusive casting (e.g., in literature, movies, television, theater) of fat people in the roles of “the old, the ugly, or the comical” (Jester 2009: 249). Our teens must “[navigate] puberty’s mysterious turf” with the help of this media that celebrates an ideal that “can only be attained by the thinnest 5% of the population, thus, oddly consigning the majority to outsider status” (Glessner et al. 2006: 117). They quickly learn that their bodies are “the ultimate expression of the self” (Brumberg 1997: 97) and that “fatness in the United States ‘means’ excess of desire, of bodily urges not controlled, of immoral, lazy, sinful habits” (Farrell 2011: 10). Indeed “much more than a neutral description of a type of flesh, fatness carries with it such stigma that it propels [teens] to take drastic, extreme measures to remove it” (Farrell 2011:10). And, as The Biggest Loser, as diet ads, as One Fat Summer teaches teens, fat characters can be “good”—they can get the girl or boy, win the prize, stop the bullying, save their family, earn respect—if, as their extreme measure, they go on the fat quest. Unfortunately, such diet measures rarely work outside of marketing and fiction and readers are left wondering why they cannot achieve a similar “magical” transformation 5 and left believing that they are even more worthless than before (Bacon & Aphramor 2011).
As I’ve outlined in Fig. 1, Robert Lipsyte’s(1977) One Fat Summer is the quintessential fat quest tale, his protagonist, Bobby Marks, the negative baseline against which I measure the positivity of the portrayal of other fat protagonists. First published in 1977, One Fat Summer follows Bobby Marks’ summer fighting bullies and his own body only to come out the winner and, more importantly, thin. He is celebrated for this weight loss; it solves his problems. His journey, as Fig. 1 shows, consists of nine steps that become the defining structure of a pure fat quest tale, a structure which drives all character and plot development, a plot that teens easily recognize and can predict the outcome of—the character will live thinly ever after.
© Taylor and Francis: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21604851.2016.1146117
This really whets my appetite for Fig. 1.
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It’s dashing 🙂