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Mariko Tamaki Headshot

Where Are All The Fat Girls In Literature?

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I write about fat girls.

Because I was a fat girl.

I was the girl who dreaded the inevitable "too tight" saga whenever I went to buy clothes or even (shudder) try on my clothes from last year.

It was a problem haunted my everyday. Not fitting. Literally.

It was not a problem I shared with the protagonists in the books I read.

Archie and Jughead had Moose but Moose was both a boy and a jock. He wasn't so much fat as large. Really, the only fat people in that world were adults, principles and teachers, best described as "bumbling."

I didn't think the Wakefield twins of Sweet Valley High had any fat friends but my friend Abi pointed out they had ONE. Her name was Robin Wilson. Eventually, though, she lost the weight and became a cheerleader. Thank goodness.

I'm pretty sure no one in V.C. Andrew's books were fat, maybe because they had such limited food access.

(You can probably argue here that I didn't read enough, still, there were just not a lot of fat kids doing well in YA lit back then, okay?)

Constance C. Greene's Al series was about a girl with a fat friend named Al, who's mom made her wear ugly clothes that she hated. Of course, one book later, Al lost weight. The baby fat. I remember being incredibly pissed off about this (inevitable) plot twist. Seeing Al lose weight was like watching someone in my red rover line just drop my hand and walk to the other side. Where all the skinny girls were holding hands.

Message: fat isn't something you are. If you are the fat girl at the center of the story, your goal in life is not to be fat.

Shortly after I ditched the Wakefield twins I discovered a new line of books about fat girls, books about eating disorders.

Which basically served as instructions on different ways to lose weight.

I remember there was one about a girl who used to throw her lunches into the top of her parents' piano, which seemed a little unimaginative to me.

Is it possible to be the protagonist in your own story if you can't see yourself in the culture you absorb on a daily basis?

Of course it is.

If it wasn't what would any kid of any race other than white, any queer kid, any differently-abled kid, any kid with a gender other than male or female, do?

It is possible to conceive of yourself if you don't see yourself in pop culture. But it's frustrating.

Of course, to top it off, I was also growing up gay, spending hours in front of the TV, decoding lesbian subtext in my favorite sitcoms (Kate and Allie, Three's Company), imagining, along with what I now understand to be most of the lesbian population of Canada, that Anne of Green Gables' "bosom buddy" Diana Barry was... just that.

Being a fat girl changed significantly for me in my twenties, when I became a member of Pretty Porky and Pissed Off.

Pretty Porky and Pissed Off (aka PPPO), was an activist performance troupe. We didn't see ourselves in pop culture, so we made pop culture. Fat pop culture. Non-diet pop culture. We turned ourselves into rock stars, drag stars, singing "Livin' La Vida Porka," and shaking our fannies to Missy Elliot and The White Stripes on local stages and, sometimes, busy street corners.

In addition to dancing and singing, some of us made art: zines, movies and plays. We put on shows, creating a scene where fat girls could celebrate fat girls, which is to say we created a space where it was not only OK but the norm celebrate fat bodies, which sounds pretty "woo woo" but it was also pretty amazing.

Not that being a member of PPPO dissolved any of the complexities of actually being fat. Obviously. We got the same messages growing up that other fat girls got, had the same baggage, the same doses of body shame. We'd been put on diets and been on diets. Art is revealing. It doesn't make things disappear. It's not like being in PPPO made us citizens of a magical wonderland of carefree fat happiness. Media would ask us what it felt like to promote an unhealthy lifestyle with our art. Bringing us down to earth with their "get real" attitudes.

Whenever I got this question, I wanted to scream, it's not like we're dancing on stage to promote kids eating a cupcake a day! We are dancing on stage because we EXIST. We are dancing against the notion that there is only one kind of girl who takes center stage. Against a vision that is so narrow, and monochromatic, as to be laughable, but also annoying.

Writing books is not the same thing as dancing on a stage in a bodysuit covered in birthday cake.

Obviously.

For one, writing takes longer.

But it is without a doubt a continuation of my fat girl journey. A lot of what I write is inspired by my experiences as someone who struggled to fit in as a kid.

It's also a kind of activism. My goal as a writer is always to write worlds that make sense to me, that reflect, as much as possible, the diversity of girls I know exists.*

I write about fat girls that just ARE fat girls. I write about fat girls who have different feelings about being fat. Girls who hate it and girls, like Windy in This One Summer, who kind of don't really care. Because being fat is not just about losing weight. But sometimes being fat sucks.

It's not a United Colors of Benetton thing, or a Dove campaign thing, it's a "this is actually the way girls look" "this is the way girls feel" type of thing.

To top it off, I write fat girls, not just because I was a fat girl, but because I think they are awesome. Too.

(*Which, to be clear, when working in comics, is not just my creation but the combined effort of myself and amazing artists like Jillian Tamaki and Steve Rolston).