* This post contains a minor spoiler for Stephen King’s The Outsider.
* Content Warning: Negative language used to describe obesity.
Stephen King has been scaring us in print since Carrie came out in 1973. There’s a lot we could learn from Stephen King, a lot of things we should emulate about him. He won praise from Victor Lavelle in a New York Times review of The Outsider for his care with culture and a character of Mexican descent, Yune Sablo. (Mr. Lavelle, I also read Night Shift so many times the cover eventually fell off!)
While I do applaud his respectful handling of culture and ethnicity in The Outsider, there is another group he doesn’t treat with nearly the same respect.
I was hooked right away by The Outsider and have been reading it whenever I can. One thing I had noticed is a real dearth of description of characters. I’m assuming the character of Terry Maitland is a white guy because I haven’t been told otherwise. One women is described as a blonde with green eyes and that’s about it for description.
What I did notice quickly is that if a character is given a description, it’s one of the most important things about that character. For instance, the District Attorney’s description is, “His hair was as black as Kiwi shoe polish, and worn short, but a cowlick stuck up in back, making him look younger than ever.” This character goes on to use that youthful appearance to try to lull a murder suspect into trusting him.
Another character, a cop, is “a hugely pregnant woman in a sleeveless flower-print dress.” She attempts to use her pregnancy to forge a bond of sisterhood with the murder suspect’s wife.
So, in this world of descriptionless people, where only the most important things about the character are described, we encounter Arlene Peterson. When we meet Arlene, her hands are “cupping her fat upper arms as if she were cold.” We are quickly assured that Arlene was once “a slender vision in white lace when Father Brixton’s predecessor married them. She had still been slender and beautiful after giving birth to Ollie, but that had been seventeen years ago.” And now, “she was on the verge of obesity.”
A little later in the scene, Arlene is not coping well with the death of her son. In fact, she was “holding her considerable belly and nearly screaming with laughter.” She begins to experience what is almost certainly a heart attack, signaled when “One hand cupped her large left breast.” She collapses and her husband Frank grabs at her, “but she was too heavy,” for him to catch her. He checks her pulse, slipping his hand “around his wife’s big neck.”
Her husband’s thought as she’s dying is “We’re going to get you on a diet.”
As a person with obesity, this message came through loud and clear. Her weight was the most important thing about her. Her weight meant that she was “once” beautiful. I had to stop reading for a little while, to be reminded that this is what my favorite author thinks about fat people.
To be fair, this scene is told entirely through the point of view Arlene’s husband, Frank. So, it could be argued that the language used characterized Frank’s feelings, but King doesn’t do anything to push back against it. Also, this is far from the first time he has used this sort of language when describing people with obesity.
Steve, as your devoted reader, I ask you: please don’t do this.
There were so many things that could have been more important than Arlene’s weight. Her grief. Her devotion to her remaining family. How about her career? Does she have one of those? I don’t know. But boy, do I know she was fat.
And I understand, you thought you needed a reason for me to believe that a relatively young woman would have a heart attack. But you didn’t, not really. People have heart attacks. And strokes. They have tragic accidents. Arlene Peterson did not have to be obese for you to kill her off, and you certainly didn’t have to remind us that being fat made her unattractive every opportunity you got.
According to a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), more than 2/3rds of American adults are overweight or obese, and more than 1/3 have obesity. About 1 in 13 have extreme obesity (a BMI of 40+). This makes people with obesity a large enough group that we deserve better representation.
How to start?
● Include people who are fat in your stories without their stories being about their fat. Let them be happy. Let them like themselves. Let them be attractive.
● Don’t make their character arc be about overcoming their weight. You are not helping the cause if you include a fat person only to have them become a skinny person by the end.
● Watch the language. Here’s where it gets tricky. Society tells us constantly and relentlessly how horrible it is to be fat. It’s hard to find words that are even neutral, much less positive, to describe people who are fat. Just the act of pointing it out can be construed as a jab, as in the examples from The Outsider above.
○ Avoid phrases like “she has a pretty face, even though she was fat,” or “He’s fat, but he’s got a great personality.” These suggest that a character is likable and/or attractive despite their fat.
○ While it may be hard to find positive words for fat, it’s easy to find and eliminate negative words. Flab, blubber, comparisons to barnyard or sea animals should all suffer the delete key.
○ When choosing your language, another thing to consider is how you’d talk about that person if you were instead discussing something like their race. Would you include another comment about their skin tone there? Would you worry that another comparison to aged wood might be too much? Use the same care with your descriptions of people with obesity. You don’t have to remind us of it all the time.
● Be aware that society bombards people who are obese with the constant message that we are not worthy of love or respect, that we’re lazy, unmotivated, and unattractive. We get that message everywhere, movies, magazines, television, social media. It’s in our minds, it’s in our souls, it’s in our blood. As a creator of content that can influence the way people see the world, you not only have the ability to help, you have a responsibility.
As a child in school, Donna Leahey turned her vocabulary homework into short stories. Years later, she is still crafting stories. Geek, gamer, writer, mother, procrastinator, and pet lover, Donna is a practicing veterinarian and free-lance writer as well as an active creator of podcasts. You can hear her and her friends on Beyond the Cabin in the Woods: A Good Ghouls Guide to Horror, Collective Snark, and Once More With Feeling: A 20th Anniversary Buffy Fancast as well as her 4th podcast, The Family Business: A Supernatural Fancast. You can follow her on Twitter.