T he image of the female body and questions of ideal beauty and its relationship to size have been central to many works of modern fiction. For example, in British author Fay Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She Devil (1983) (made into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Roseanne Barr in 1989), the protagonist, Ruth, described on the book's flap copy as a "lumbering, clumsy woman, over six feet tall, with a jutting jaw topped by spouting moles," revenges herself on her petite (and beautiful) rival by destroying her life and then having cosmetic surgery so that she can literally assume her physical presence. Weldon's novel and the film based on it provide a caustically humorous look at society's expectations of women—especially of women who become mothers and wives. More recently, author Jennifer Weiner, herself a plus-size Jewish-American woman, has come out with romantic comedies, such as In Her Shoes (2002) (made into a film in 2005 and starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette) and Good in Bed (2001), in which the heroines are also plus-size. They don't, however, lose weight at the end of the tale. Instead, they have healthy and very active sex lives and also find Mr. Right without transforming into delicate beauties.
Helen Fielding's wildly successful Bridget Jones's Diary (1996) (filmed in 2001 with a "zaftig" Renée Zell-weger) is also a candid look at the various demons that plague single, almost middle-aged, white-collar women in a late-capitalist world. The eponymous Ms. Jones is forever on a diet because she sees herself as too large, but she is just as forever reneging on them. Indeed, each of the entries in her fictional diary is prefaced by weight measurements and food or alcohol intake. In a bit of irony toward the end of the novel, Bridget reaches her goal weight, and people tell her she does not look well. Popular literary representations of dieting tend to focus on middle- to upper-middle-class white women trying to fit a hegemonic body ideal. Success is often in spite of one's body not because of it. The proof is heterosexual love.
The focus of literary representations of obesity and bodily difference has not, however, been exclusively on women. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Edna Ferber's "The Gay Old Dog" (1917) condemns Jo Hertz, an old bachelor, to a single life with his demanding sisters and mother. At fifty, he is fat, and his body rebels in "his fat-encased muscles" when he tries to look youthful (Fer-ber 1947: 12). After a love affair destroyed by the demands of his family, he falls into a bachelor's life as his sisters move on to their own married or professional lives. He becomes "a rather frumpy old bachelor, with thinning hair and a thickening neck" (Ferber 1947: 19). During the beginning of the Great War, he watches the troops march down Michigan Avenue as they go off to war when a voice in back of him shouts "Let me by! I can't see! ... You big fat man! My boy's going by—to war— and I can't see!" It is his former lover who has married and whose son is marching. He sees the boy and "picked him assuredly as his own father might have" (Ferber 1947: 26). He returns to his home and his sisters confront him about his social life, at which time he turns on them: "You two murderers! You didn't consider me, twenty years ago. . . . Where's my boy! You killed him, you two, twenty years ago. And now he belongs to somebody else. Where's my son that should have gone marching by today?" (Ferber 1947: 27). Rendered impotent by his family, Jo's body is the public sign of his thwarted reproductive drive.
The quintessential fat boy's novel in American literature is John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces (1980). His protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, is depicted as "waves of flesh rippling beneath the tweed and flannel, waves that broke upon buttons and seams" (Toole 1980: 13-14). His external appearance reflects his own asexual-ity. Reilly's New York-born, Jewish college girlfriend Myrna Minkoff has failed in her many attempts to seduce him because "my stringent attitude toward sex intrigued her; in a sense I became another project of sorts" (Toole 1980: 137). Are fat men asexual, or are they perceived as asexual, or are they made asexual by marriage, or is their sexuality damaged by their fat?
The protagonist of Kingsley Amis's One Fat Englishman (1963), Roger Micheldene, is concerned with "keeping hidden the full enormity of his fatness" when he is off to seduce women. "Recent experience suggested that that belly, exposed in a moment of inattention or abandon, could cause total withdrawal of favours previously granted" (Amis 1963: 18). In Salman Rushdie's first novel, Grimus (1977), a fantasy work centering on a quartet of misfits, one of them, Virgil Jones, "gross of body" (Rushdie 1977: 12), is in love with the hunchbacked Dolores O'Toole: "they loved each other and found it impossible to declare their love. It was no beautiful love, for they were extremely ugly" (Rushdie i977: 12). When they finally do make love, their "disfiguration [is] transformed into sexuality" (Rushdie 1977: 50). "Her hands grasping great folds of his flesh . . . It's like making bread, she giggled, pretending to work his belly into a loaf" (Rushdie 1977: 50). Only the disfigured may love the disfigured, and in the rhetoric of the novel the fat boy is as disfigured as the hunchbacked woman. The power of literary representations can allow characters to use their weight as a protection against the world or as a sign of their own impotence. In the end, no one loves a fat man.
There is also a body of literature for young adults, which deals with issues of body image and dieting. There is one particular subgenre called the young adult (YA) romance whose themes often revolve around young women and body politics. As Brenda O. Daly remarks, this fiction is an exploration of "the quest for thinness, which sometimes, leads to eating disorders, [and] is most common among white girls in the middle and upper-middle classes, the exact readership of YA romances" (Daly 1989: 52). Daly argues that the belly/ viscera, which is the site for both sexual urges as well as hunger pangs, has become a site of conflict for the upper-class woman, who must suppress both kinds of appetites.
This phenomenon is reflected in YA fiction: The heroines of these books tend to be "saintly" and constrained, neither admitting to a desire for their lovers, nor to a desire for food. Daly also notes that psychological as much as physical nourishment is at the heart of this genre and suggests that the young women in these books experience a continued and often frustrated need for the mother's nurturing influence (which is typically terminated at the oedipal turn). This lack expresses itself in how the heroine's conflicted relationship with food is also connected to her strained, unfulfilling relationship with her mother. As an example, Daly refers to a book written as part of the Starfire series, created in the 1980s by the author/creator of the Sweet Valley High franchise, Francine Pascal (and written by a wide range of ghostwriters). True Love is about Caitlyn Ryan, a student at the upper crust HighGate academy. She is madly in love with Jed Michaels but pretends when she sees him that she doesn't want to, because, "ladies (and only ladies are allowed in HighGate Academy) do not admit to such desires" (Campbell and Pascal 1986: 52). Most popular literature that engages dieting as a theme, then, is raced, classed, and gendered.
The YA fiction for adolescent boys that deals with weight, weight reduction, and the social stigma of obesity aims for the most part to ameliorate the difficulty of such a social position rather than to encourage weight loss. Certainly, the most appalling model for the fat male child is in William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954), where the character of Piggy is described as a "bag of fat." He is introduced to us as a fat boy defined by his pathologies: " 'I was the only boy in our school what had asthma,'
said the fat boy with a touch of pride. 'And I've been wearing specs since I was three' " (Golding 1954: 8). Suffering from asthma, he becomes the representative of the rational trapped in the body of the fat boy. Thus, he is eventually the human sacrifice that signals the final breakdown of all civilization among the children on the island:
Piggy fell forty feet and landed on his back across the square red rock in the sea. His head opened and stuff came out and turned red. Piggy's arms and legs twitched a bit, like a pig's after it has been killed. Then the sea breathed again in a long, slow sigh, the water boiled white and pink over the rock; and when it went, sucking back again, the body of Piggy was gone.
(Golding 1954: 181)
He is the most degenerate of the children in terms of his dependence on civilization (his glasses as an example) and, at the same time, the most civilized. Once his tenuous ties to civilization are destroyed, he is unable to function in the "natural" world of childhood thinness and cruelty. His "asthma" marks his body as much as does his corpulence.
Golding's novel, popular with young readers, does not offer the "moral" lessons of confronting one's own difference that is demanded by YA literature dealing with obese males. By 1971, Robert Lipsyte's autobiographical novel One Fat Summer, recounts how his alter ego, Bobby Marks, struggles through a summer at Rumson Lake, where he learns both moral and physical self-control. Likewise, the Australian author Ian Bone's Fat Boy Saves the World (1998) shows how the fat but graceful "Neat" can change others while being true to his own "fat" self. Catharine Forde's Fat Boy Swim (2000) shows how morbidly obese fifteen-year-old Jimmie learns to swim and shows the athlete hidden under the layers of fat. Chris Crutcher's Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes (1993) pairs the obese narrator Eric Calhoune with Sarah Byrnes, whose face and hands were hideously disfigured in a childhood accident. Outsiders show great moral courage to aid one another. There is no Piggy here.
In dealing with dieting, certain genres also validate, albeit implicitly, the extreme consumerist ethic that informs dieting culture. Jan Cohn analyses the centrality of the market and themes of ownership and exchange in the romance novel genre. She cites research by feminist journalist and thinker Barbara Ehrenreich, who found in her review of magazines like Playboy in the late 1970s/ early 1980s that the image of the ideal American man had changed over the years. In popular representations, the model American male went from being frugal, hardworking, and family-oriented to being an individualist who worked hard but played harder, when it came to money and women (Cohn 1988). The women who figure in popular fiction as a whole and in the romance novel in particular are configured to be the handsome, well-built, successful hero's perfect counterpart. They often have bodies and consumption patterns that conform to and perpetuate the dominant social ideal. Many of these women eat conscientiously, with an eye on their weight.
See also Southern Fat
References and Further Reading
Amis, Kingsley (1963) One Fat Englishman, New York: Summit.
Bone, Ian (1998) Fat Boy Saves the World, New York:
Pocket Pulse. Campbell, Joanna and Pascal, Francine (1986) True
Love, Toronto: Bantam. Cohn, J. (1988) Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass Market Fiction for Women, Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Crutcher, Chris (1993) Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes,
New York, N.Y: Greenwillow Books. Daly, Brenda O. (1989) "Laughing WITH, or AT, the Young Adult Romance," The English Journal 78 (6): 50-60.
Ferber, Edna (1947) "The Gay Old Dog," in One Basket,
Chicago, Ill.: Peoples Book Club, pp. 11-28. Fielding, Helen (1996) Bridget Jones's Diary, New York:
Penguin Books. Forde, Catharine (2000) Fat Boy Swim, Harlow, Essex:
Pearson/Longman. Golding, William (1954) Lord of the Flies, New York: Berkley.
Lipsyte, Robert (1971) One Fat Summer, New York:
Harper & Row. Rushdie, Salman (1977) Grimus, London: Granada. Toole, John Kennedy (1980) A Confederacy of Dunces, New York: Grove Press.
Weiner, Jennifer (2001) Good in Bed, New York: Weldon, Faye (1983) The Life and Loves of She-Devil,
Washington Square Press. New York: Pantheon Books. -(2002) In Her Shoes, New York: Pocket Star Books.
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