3 November 2021
No matter how many plus sized models appear on catwalks, or how much we talk about acceptance and diversity, fatphobia is still depressingly prevalent. But could this be because these body-positive interventions come too late in the piece, long after fatphobic attitudes have become unconsciously ingrained in our mindset by our parents, our friends- and our entertainment?
A study has found that children develop negative attitudes toward overweight people before reaching Kindergarten. It’s shocking, but not all that surprising when you consider the way fat characters are portrayed in the films, television shows, and books that kids love.
If you were anything like me as a kid, you might remember going through a hardcore Harry Potter phase. Subtly drawing parallels between the villains’ “pure blood” crusade and the rise of Nazism, the explosively popular series was praised by many for its messages of tolerance- and not to mention the kickass portrayal of the whip smart Hermione. But Harry Potter contained a more harmful subtext in its portrayal of Harry’s spoiled cousin and nemesis, Dudley Dursley.
Dudley is one of those characters kids love to hate. Hardly nuanced, the character is every negative stereotype of a bully rolled into one. He’s spoiled. He’s cruel. He’s stupid. He’s cowardly. And he’s also comically overweight.
Described as being “wider than he is tall,” Dudley is the target of much of JK Rowling’s sly humour with his physical appearance being apparent fair game due to the character’s inherent unpleasantness.
Dudley’s weight is not incidental to his characterisation. Writing Harry’s antagonist as fat is meant to subconsciously invoke disgust and dislike in the reader, as well as suggesting that his fatness is in itself a moral failing (the character endlessly scoffs sweets in scenes that hammer home his greediness and spoiled nature).
JK Rowling is far from the only culprit, with entertainment empire Disney a repeat offender of moralising fatness. With the physical design of big screen baddies including The Little Mermaid’s Ursula, Toy Story’s Stinky Pete, and Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts, Disney uses excess body weight as an unsubtle symbol that this person is a villain with a capital V. And where a fat Disney character isn’t downright nefarious, they’re probably the unappealingly dopey comic relief.
With representation like this, it’s a wonder any kids avoid internalising the fatphobia of fiction.
Obviously, negative portrayals of body shape rear their head in a whole lot of adult entertainment- think Fat Monica of Friends, to name but one example. But at least adults have learned some critical awareness of media messages. Younger audiences still can’t 100% discern between fantasy and reality, so, the characters they encounter can seem very real. Who doesn’t remember dressing up as a Disney princess back in the day?
We idolise and imitate the heroes of our favourite childhood stories. And almost without exception, these heroes are thin, making overweight children feel less-than, and giving kids who aren’t overweight permission to exercise their thin privilege.
Of course, not every children’s story needs to have tokenistic fat protagonists, and it’s not necessarily harmful if the occasional villain just happens to be overweight. But when the trope of fat equalling bad (or stupid, or lazy, or laughable) results in lazily-written, underdeveloped and plain unlikeable overweight characters, they are impossible for children to empathise with. And while all kids’ characters are typically broadly drawn and simplistic, fat characters are usually one dimensional to the point of being dehumanised.
And being dehumanised, overlooked, discounted, and misunderstood because of body shape is all too familiar to anyone larger than society would like.
So, will we ever break the cycle? The good news is that things appear to be slowly changing, and more positive representations of weight are finding their way into media aimed at children. A niche set of publishers are even attacking the stereotype head on, with “fat-positive” or “body-positive” books featuring overweight protagonists.
But body positive messaging will only reach children en masse when it’s embraced by the mainstream. Imagine an overweight Harry Potter, brave and adventurous, whose size doesn’t define him for better or worse? Or imagine a Dudley Dursley who, though unpleasant, has complicated feelings about his own body with which the reader is encouraged to sympathise with. Imagine if movies, books and tv showed absorbent young minds how to empathise with people of all sizes; and to demonstrate empathy towards themselves if they should ever struggle with internalised fatphobia.
It can’t be that difficult for kids’ writers to create fully fleshed-out, relatable, characters that aren’t exclusively thin. And they need to try harder. Kids are relying on them to grow up with the solid foundation of body positivity required to treat ourselves and each other kindly. So, let’s see some overweight heroes that kids idolise and dress up as next Book Week or Halloween. Because representation matters, no matter your age.
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