From Augustus Gloop to Dudley Dursley: Fat Studies and Middle Grade Novels

We hear quite a lot about the ‘childhood obesity epidemic’ these days. From Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign to healthy school lunch initiatives by celebrity chefs, we as a culture are concerned about our children’s eating, exercise and well being.

As well we should be.

The problem is, these health concerns are too often framed in ways that are psychologically and culturally unhealthy for young people. The phrase ‘epidemic’ conjures images of risk and contagion, and usually is accompanied by a fear of or anger toward certain populations associated with these bodily ‘failings’. Consider, for example, that historic public health campaigns against tuberculosis became ways to marginalize poor or immigrant communities, who were associated with this disease threat, and therefore became considered ‘diseased’ altogether. ‘Health’ here became a way to justify/disguise classism and xenophobia. Similarly, public health campaigns addressing the ‘childhood obesity epidemic’ (such as this horrific Georgia advertisement) too often use the moralistic shaming and blaming of individual children and their families rather than critiquing systems, such as the food service industry, which makes it difficult to access affordable fresh foodstuffs in urban areas. Here, ‘health’ becomes a way to reinforce stereotypes and prejudice about poor communities, communities of color, and of course individuals of size.

In her essay, “Fat panic and the new morality,” which appears in a 2010 collection entitled Against Health, Kathleen LeBesco analyzes the “obesity epidemic” as a “moral panic.” In her words: “our insistence on turning efforts to achieve good health into a greater moral enterprise means that health also becomes a sharp political stick in which much harm is ultimately done.” So in addition to waif-thin images in beauty magazines, and the pervasive sexualization of even, say, young girl’s clothing, public health itself is a part what’s been called our pervasive toxic body culture – a culture which contributes to everything from self-hatred to self-harm to disordered eating and more. A culture which connects a young person’s appearance, size and/or weight to their worth, their very humanity.

The notion of obesity itself has come under some scrutiny by scholars and activists. Consider that recent research suggests that lower mortality might actually be associated with being overweight, that an entire scholarly discipline of Fat Studies has arisen, or that campaigns such as the Health At Every Size Campaign , the Endangered Species: Women movement, and websites such as Adios, Barbie seek to address toxic body culture.

As a pediatrician, parent, and writer of middle grade novels, I know that stories are an important way that culture gets shaped. Middle grade novels have the power to either reinforce or counteract the harmful messages sent to young people through both the commercial and public health media alike.

Rebecca Rabinowitz recently wrote a wonderful piece called, “Who’s that Fat Kid? Fat Politics and Children’s Literature” for the Children’s Book Council Diversity Blog. In it, she critiques the stereotypes and tropes of fat children in children’s literature: as either bully (ie. Dudley, Crabbe and Goyle in the Harry Potter Books) or a victim of bullying (ie. Judy Blume’s classic Blubber). Fatness often becomes code in children’s literature for gluttony, greed or other moral failings — just consider Augustus Gloop from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; the Oompa-Loompa song says it all: “Augustus Gloop! Augustus Gloop! The great big greedy nincompoop! Augustus Gloop! So Big and Vile! So greedy, foul, and infantile.”

In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Dubois asked “How does it feel to be a problem?” Like stories with a protagonist of color, where the entire narratives becomes only ‘about’ the problems of race, Rabinowitz urges writers not to make fatness a ‘problem’ to be solved. As she notes, many stories with fat protagonists such as Carolyn Mackler’s The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, or e.E. Charlton-Trujilo’s Fat Angie, often portray their protagonists dieting, or exercising or otherwise trying to become ‘less fat.’ In Rabinowitz’ words,

I want to see characters whose fatness is not symbolic of anything. Characters who are fat simply because some people in the real world are fat… I want characters who complete their emotional and social and physical growth arcs without becoming less fat. I like books that confront fatphobia head-on, and I’d also like to see books that aren’t especially about fatness but feature fat characters…Allow fat characters the humanity that not-fat characters have. Banish fatness as a symbol; banish the textual message that a fat character is okay only as long as they’re on their way to becoming less fat.

Thinking about writing a character of size? Consider first if fatness is a part of this person’s myriad qualities, or if it is a singular, defining, stereotyped quality. Like race, class or sexuality, diversity of body size is a real phenomenon in the world to be represented in middle grade literature. The question is, whether we represent it in ways that reinforce old, oppressive stories or change the cultural narrative.

When she’s not writing middle-grade novels, Sayantani DasGupta teaches courses on narrative, health and social justice at Columbia University, blogs for Adios, Barbie, and speaks nationally about girls, toxic body culture, and media images.

  1. Hmm great question, Kari! I’ll have to re-read it (which will be a pleasure, since it’s one of my favorite books) but I do think that Tiny Cooper is one of the most well developed, endearing characters I’ve read in many years. Is his size used as a stereotype? Again, will have to go back to the book, but my gut reaction is to say no — his size is but one small aspect of a richly developed, wonderful character. What do you think?

  2. Makes me think of Tiny Cooper — one of my favorite YA characters of all time in Will Grayson Will Grayson by David Levithan and John Greene. I think in the book he was described at one point as the world’s gayest person who also happens to be large… and the world’s largest person who also happens to be gay.

    What do you think? A character who was presented as large or fat by stereotype or was his size just part of his larger (no pun intended) character?

  3. Thanks for the comment, Rosanne. Words are so interesting, right? There’s this whole interesting history of pejorative terms being reclaimed by community. “Fat” has been reclaimed by many body-activists and scholars, but to me, it’s also an issue of “insider” vs. “outsider”. For instance, until “queer” as a positive, community building word became more culturally common, I would feel uncomfortable using it, as someone not in the community – but an ally. But now I teach queer studies, talk about queer activism in my classes, etc. I think the use of “fat” might have a similar trajectory. But in the end, I agree, it’s about portraying the world our children see around them, and allowing them all to see themselves in the books they read…

  4. Great post Sayantani! and an important topic. I’m always trying to make my cast of characters as realistically diverse as possible including race, native language, religion and body type. But I have to say I do struggle for words to describe the large child that are not laden with negative overtones. It’s a challenge and sometimes I just say the child is tall because its the most positive word for big I can think of. Perhaps that’s lazy writing on my part.

    I’d love to see a list of books that portray the large child in a healthy and affirming way.