Is it ok for fat main characters to battle internalized fat phobia?

Right now in the book community there is a conversation going on about fat representation.  People are discussing the internalized fatphobia of main characters and if those storylines where the heroine has to overcome internalized fatphobia to find her own worth are worth telling. Being the founder of Fat Girls in Fiction and the fact that I have now read over 100 books with fat main characters and talked to dozens of authors who write fat main characters I have some thoughts on the subject and I will say those thoughts have evolved since I have been doing this work.


My gut reaction to these stories when it started was that I wanted confident fat main characters. I was tired of the stories where they had a journey of self love and I thought they only further pushed the ideas our culture tells us about fatness and internalized fatphobia. I was ready for the new stories that are starting to be told with women owning their bodies and their fatness and living their best life. Now I will say, I personally still prefer those stories, but I do see the need for the other stories to be told. They are a part of the modern fat identity and deserve a place to be told, but it is not as cut and dry as that.


I think we have to look at why and how those stories are told. Some of them are stories authors need to tell for their own personal reasons. Many of these stories deal with overcoming internalized fatphobia and many times often mirror the author’s personal journey. These stories are therapeutic to tell. Stories are also told for readers, there are readers who are still struggling with these things and these stories are often helpful to them.


As women in this culture we are inundated with fatphobia. It is everywhere. It is impossible to escape. It is on the tv, in our stories, in our stores, in our families and friends, and because of that it lives in all of us. Every single confident fat person had to do a lot of work to be that way and has to do work everyday to fight it. That is just the truth of the world we live in. You can not scroll facebook without before and after pictures, watch a tv show without a fat jab, or go into a store without seeing diet culture. And while all of these things don’t cause noticeable harm everytime (because it would be debilitating if it did) it is a constant reminder that you are not good enough, that society sees you as less than, that your body is someone’s worst nightmare. That can mess with your head, and fat people live with that on the daily. 


So while I prefer books that portray a fat MC who has already done the work to unpack their internalized fat trauma, others still need help on that journey. Many women are new to the idea of radical self love. And that’s what it is, radical self love. So just because a reader is tired of the stories about the journey to radical self love does not make them unnecessary for other readers. I want those stories to be there for the people who need them.


That being said, I do think there are some harmful ways of telling those stories I believe authors need to be aware of and thoughtful about. 


Weight loss stories – Stories where the main character loses weight in order to love themselves are harmful. They only further the narrative that you need to weigh less and change yourself for love. 


Finding confidence through a love interest – When a fat main character learns their worth only after a love interest shows interest in them, that is not true self love. True self love isn’t because of or affected by forces outside yourself. It can be especially harmful if the love interest loves them despite their size. This can still further the narrative of unworthiness. FMC’s need to love themselves on their own and the love interest needs to love them as a whole person not love them because of or despite their size. So I would ask authors to keep this in mind when telling stories with FMC’s.


Bullying – While I think it is okay to tell stories about overcoming bullying, I think an author needs to be really careful in telling them. It is a part of life many fat people can relate to, and one that many fat people are still trying to unpack as adults. Childhood bullying has life long effects. I think those stories need to be told, but oftentimes they lean too much into the trauma. The trauma can sometimes feel like it is used for shock value and is over the top and excessively hurtful. This is why many fat people won’t read books with FMC’s because it can retraumatize them. Fat People know how bad it can be, you don’t have to remind them in such dramatic ways. So I think these stories are important, but they should be handled with care and run by a sensitivity readers.


Also, if you are telling a FMC with a journey of self love, please put a content warning on it. While some people need to read that story, other people will be set back in their own journey to reading it. So please be thoughtful of readers’ individual journey’s and mental health and allow them the choice to read a story with internalized fatphobia. Otherwise we run the risk of people being leery of reading books with FMC’s which will not help to further body diversity in books.

So those are my current thoughts on internalized fatphobia in books. We need some books that deal with it since it is still such a large part of the fat experience. But we also need more books with FMC’s who already love themselves and can model what it looks like to already love yourself and just live a life where your fatness is just a small part of it. We need more of these books. These books need to be the default fat representation that right now the self love journeys seem to be. Flip them. Make the stories with internalized fatphobia the exception and stories with FMC’s living their best like the rule.

That is where my thoughts are currently after doing this work for over a year.


But also, these are just my thoughts and I am just one person, so do with it what you will.

on a wrinkled white page, a fat woman dreams of a thinner body. Text: Is it ok for fat main characters to battle internalized fat phobia? There is also a visibly confident curvy woman