Put Fat Girls in Your SFF YA

Welcome to another Expanded Universe column where I feature essays from authors and editors of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as from established readers and reviewers. My guest today is Sarah Hollowell. Sarah is definitely not several raccoons in a trenchcoat. Her poetry (not about raccoons) has been in Apex Magazine and her essays (also not about raccoons) have been featured on The Butter and The Gloss. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahhollowell.

Sarah Hollowell

Sarah Hollowell

Hey, it’s my friend Chester the Corgi! How you doing?

I’m good I’m good I’m great I just got back from walks and now I’m gonna work on my novel!

Oh yeah, Magic Space Girl! It’s a young adult novel, right?

Yeah! When my human is gone I read her books and she loves YA and I thought she’d love it if I wrote YA so I’m writing this YA and it’s about a girl named Kimberly who finds out she’s a space witch but the space witches are dying so she has to travel to another galaxy to save them!

That’s a really awesome idea and I can’t wait to read it! I’ve noticed something, though–you keep describing Kimberly as things like slender and slim.

Yeah! But I think I might change it to “skinny with long limbs she’s never gotten used to” and then in later books – this totally has trilogy potential – she’ll be confident and then I can use slender!

But why?

Because she’s skinny.

Yes, but why?

Well that’s…that’s what they look like. Right? My human has a lot of books and I’ve read almost all of them and that’s what the girls look like!

Why not make her fat?

I don’t think girls in scifi or fantasy books are usually fat.

But you could use this opportunity to break the mold. Make Kimberly fat.

I don’t know…there’s a lot of running across strange planets and you don’t really see fat people in space I mean there aren’t plus-size spacesuits right?

Plenty of fat girls can run, Chester! Isn’t your human kind of fat?

Yes yes yes that’s true! She’s really soft and really good for snuggles.

And you guys go running together on your walks.

She likes to run yeah but sometimes I just stop and stare at her and she says “Chester why are you just staring at me” and then “Chester come on it’s cold” and “Chester please do your business”

The point is, she’s fat, but she likes to run. And there are plenty of skinny girls who don’t like to run. Kimberly is skinny right now, but she never ran before finding out she was a space witch! Why is it that she can run across a strange planet, but fat Kimberly couldn’t? Also, remember, Chester, it’s your world. You’re making it up! You can have plus-size spacesuits in your made-up world.

Yeah yeah okay I think that makes sense. But…what’s wrong with having a skinny protagonist?

There’s nothing wrong with it, not really, it’s just…Here. Let’s do this. Imagine that you’re a fat teenage girl.

Chester the Corgi

I’m a dog.

Okay but you’ve had to put yourself in the shoes of a skinny teenage girl to write your novel. So just make her fat instead.

Yeah, you’re right. Okay. Okay. Let’s go.

You’re a fat teenage girl, and you love YA. You especially love scifi and fantasy. Space? Hell yeah. Magic schools? Hell yeah. Magic schools in space? Sign you up. And everyone says dystopias are out of style, but you still can’t get enough. Got it?

Got it.

So you read all these books, as many as you can, and it becomes difficult not to notice a pattern. You realize all the girls in all the books are just different kinds of skinny. You can’t for the life of you find a girl that looks like you. Books are supposed to help us dream and dream big but you’re starting to feel like you’re just too big to dream. You’ve read a couple books where fat girls get to be loved in the real world, and that’s wonderful, but fat girls don’t get whisked away into alternate worlds and told they’re a long lost princess. Fat girls don’t get to see the magical underside of New York City. Fat girls don’t save planets.

I guess… I guess it would be really hard to see that over and over. It would start to feel like the books you love so much don’t really care about you and then how could you wag at all???

It does get hard to wag. But skinny girls are told over and over again that they can have all those adventures, especially if they’re also straight, cisgender, and white. They have thousands of books. Shouldn’t fat girls get some, too?

You’re right. But what can I do? I’m just one corgi with a dream of having the next bestselling YA trilogy turned into a multimillion dollar film franchise.

You can make Kimberly fat. Think of what Magic Space Girl could mean to fat teenage girls everywhere, who just want to really believe that they, too, could be one of the last of the space witches.

But how do I do it right? I don’t want to try to write a fat character and then have her end up doing more harm than good. I don’t want my human to be sad with what I write.

Good boy, Chester! That’s a really good question! You’re such a good dog, yes you are!

It’s important when writing someone different from you to be respectful and accurate, because bad representation can do real harm, especially when there’s not that much representation out there in the first place.

Since you aren’t, in fact, a fat teenage girl, there’s a lot you can get wrong, maybe without even knowing it. Here’s what you do: Research. Read up on what it’s like to be fat. Get on your human’s laptop and check out some fat activists. See what they have to say about fat oppression, fat positivity, and fat representation. You’ll learn a lot just from reading what we’re saying about our lives in the real world.

Read about what fat people want to see in our fictional representation – and what we’re sick of seeing. Find out what we’ve liked, and why we liked it. Find out what we’ve hated, and why. Fat people aren’t a monolith, we’ll have differing opinions, but there’s definitely some stuff we commonly agree on. Make sure to check out the Size Acceptance in YA blog, which has loads of great resources!

That’s a lot of work…

It is, but trust me, it’s worth it if your book can let even one fat girl out there know she isn’t being forgotten.

Okay. I’m in. I’m going to make Kimberly fat. I’m going to do the research and I’m going to do it right and my human is going to love it and she’ll give me treats and–

Hell yeah, Chester. Now, let’s talk about intersectionality…

Readers, what kind of character representations do you want to see more of in your SFF/YA? One lucky commenter will win a book from our Stacks.


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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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23 comments

  1. Awesome fat girls are my thing, as you know (Bob). I’m so tired of books with bad representation. So tired

    Great post, Sarah!

  2. Jordan /

    Personally, I’ve been on the lookout for asexual characters in the books I read, especially SFF/YA. In the grand scheme of things, there don’t seem to be a whole lot.

    • Yes! Good point, Jordan. The most prominent ace character I can think of is Sherlock Holmes and even there, newer iterations seem bent on sexualizing him. Which, don’t get me wrong, I love some Johnlock, but you’re right–we need ace characters, too.

    • Check out Erica Cameron’s books! Her newest, Deadly Sweet Lies, has an asexual character, and she’s said that she’s going to have at least one asexual character in ever novel she writes from here on out. :)

    • Sherwood Smith’s “Banner for the Damned” has an asexual main character. I remember it well because it surprised me so.

  3. Chester is adorbs!

    And yes, put fat girls in your YA (and other SFF), and better yet, don’t have them magically lose weight as part of the plot! :) I feel like anytime I do find a larger protagonist, the last page is always “And somehow fifty pounds had dropped off her without her noticing!”

    I do remember that gloriously not happening in Jane Lindskold’s Child of a Rainless Year (it’s adult, not YA). Also notable for having an older protagonist. I remember being surprised when the “background” kept barreling past her youth, since so many protags are 19 or so, and finally moved into the meat of the plot when she was like 50.

  4. Leanne /

    Yes! This kind of representation would make all the difference in the world to girls growing up. I’m putting a fat girl in my YA fantasy right now. Also– Yay, young novelist Corgis!

  5. dr susan /

    This post made me cry :) When I was a kid reading SFF books, it wasn’t just that there were no fat girls, there were no girls! Thank you, Chester and Sarah, for giving today’s girls characters they can relate to.

  6. Melanie Goldmund /

    Yes, I agree, more fat girls. And for myself, more “mature” women, from middle age to beyond. Also, I probably have Asperger’s Syndrome and I just don’t talk a lot to people I don’t know. (Sometimes I don’t talk a lot to people I do know, but anyway.) In many cases, I have trouble keeping up my end of the conversation, let alone starting one, so I’d like to see more female protagonists who think a lot and say little. It seems every heroine these days is always prepared with a snappy comeback and is never at a loss for words.

  7. Chester is a very good boy. :3 Thank you for writing this!

  8. Von Berry /

    I want to see more fat guys main characters.

  9. superrrr /

    Why not also make her bald and with lots of cavities and bad breath?

  10. Fascinating, and agreed. The YA SF novel I got two-thirds of the way through before work so unkindly took my free time away, starred a female protagonist who, while not “fat” per se, was definitely not thin.

    She’s also of Turkish descent, and she doesn’t shave. How’s that for mold-breaking?

  11. Sailer’s Law of Female Journalism: The most heartfelt articles by female journalists tend to be demands that social values be overturned in order that, Come the Revolution, the journalist herself will be considered hotter-looking.

  12. Sarah and Kate, what a thoughtful column, and I love Chester!

    As a reader, I’m always for a protagonist who is unique, and I get bored quickly of the “cookie-cutter” characters. Bring on the MCs who look like regular people and are complex, well-developed characters, please!

    • This is exactly what I was going to say. It’s nice to be on the same page as Marion!

      Sarah wrote such a great article here. It’s friendly, relatable, and so down-to-earth. Love it :)

      Thank you Kate for bringing such talent to the column and to FanLit!

  13. Rae Carson’s YA trilogy “The Girl of Fire and Thorns” features a heavy female protagonist in a world influenced by Hispanic language and culture, and they’re very well-written books, to boot! :)

    As a person who lives in a diverse world, I love seeing that world reflected in fiction, and I’m looking forward to more and more examples of that diversity!

  14. Caitlin /

    I think more main characters who aren’t incredibly beautiful and don’t become beautiful at some point in the story would be a good idea. And thank you for this post!

  15. Arcanist Lupus /

    A little bit surprised that nobody has mentioned Trisana Chandler from Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic yet.

  16. Jordan, if you live in the USA, you win a book of your choice from our stacks.
    Please contact me (Marion) with your choice and a US address. Happy reading!

  17. This Comments section added a lot of new books to my reading list!

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