The Troubling Gap Between Fat Representation and Fat Acceptance in Romance

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Carole V. Bell

Staff Writer

Carole is a Jamaican immigrant, a lover of politics and popular culture, and a Tar Heel by way of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School of Media and Journalism. She teaches, researches and writes about media and society, politics, and public opinion. Her forthcoming book analyses the political and social meanings attached to interracial romance in American film.

More fat representation in romance doesn’t always mean greater fat acceptance. This message came through loud and clear in my recent deep dive into romances with fat heroines. A marathon that began with popular titles like Playing It Cool, The Misadventures of a Curvy Girl, and Muffin Top continued over the summer to include the headline-making 2020 bestseller One To Watch and many others. 

cover image of One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London

Over this time I noticed certain patterns. Muffin Top’s cover declares “size doesn’t matter” even as its contents tell a different story. That discrepancy between marketing and content is not an isolated example. Plus-size protagonists are still relatively uncommon in romance, and many of the books that focus on fat main characters expose them to ridicule because of their size, reinforcing the idea that social sanction must necessarily be a part of the lives of fat people. Books in this mode, and the fat tropes they spread, merit a closer, more critical look.

Conversely, those that avoid some of these pitfalls and really embrace fat protagonists also deserve greater distinction and recognition. So I made two lists: first, an accounting of the most common pitfalls in these books and another, happier, and more hopeful list highlighting some of my favorite romances with fat or plus size main characters and what makes them standout. Look for that list of excellent romances with great fat representation soon!

How Marginalizations Are Represented Matters

The question I keep coming back is this: when writing about a stigmatized group, how much pain, trauma, and rejection must an author reproduce on the page—especially in this genre? And to what end? Authenticity?

The answer seems to vary depending on the group. I read a lot of Black romance, and one of the many great things about that is that Black authors, especially those that center Black love, tend to prioritize the joy of Black love and celebrating Black identity regardless of what others may think or how they devalue that. The same is true of several other groups. Queer readers are also vocal in demanding not just own voices narratives but those that don’t constantly center queer trauma and pain.

I don’t think we’re really there when it comes to body diversity and size. This matters for readers for so many reasons. But my background is in media, politics and society, so I’ll quote from the literature on media influence.

As Ramasubramanian and Yadlin-Segal contend, “Media representations provide cues about who belongs in a society, which groups are to be devalued, and what sanctions are permissible for stigmatized groups.” Romance novels, the literature of love and hope, are a vital part of that.

Muffin Top, Representation, and Fat Tropes

Book cover for Muffin Top by Avery Flynn. Features a fat heroine.

Muffin Top tells the story of Lucy, a fierce but secretly insecure young fat woman (that’s the language she uses), and Frankie, a hunky fireman who’s tired of being thought of as a man-whore. Lucy is smart, successful, beautiful, and big. Those are great characteristics for a protagonist. And Muffin Top does many things well. And yet this book also manifests much of what is wrong with fat representation in romance. It is bursting with prevalent and problematic tropes. 

When the novel begins, the two main characters have already met multiple times through family connections, but they aren’t really friends. They run into each other by chance at a local bar, and Frankie comes to Lucy’s rescue in an ugly encounter with a belligerent and insulting would-be suitor. Afterwards, Frankie offers to help her once more by being her fake date/boyfriend at her high school reunion. 

Lucy is a high-profile crisis communication consultant with a vibrant social life. She sort of wants to go to the reunion and show off that success. As both a single woman and a fat woman, however, she’s loathe to put herself back into a setting in which she was neither valued nor happy. Enter the fake dating trope. In this popular romantic premise, two people pretending to be together find out that they really want to be with one another. In Frankie as her fiancé, Lucy finds a perfectly superficial solution to a much deeper problem. 

What Muffin Top Gets Right

This story was better than many others in its openness about Lucy’s size and the impact it has. I found it notable that this heroine was larger than other main characters who are categorized as fat or curvy. Lucy is also unable to fit comfortably in airline seats and therefore chooses to drive across country. The text explicitly discusses the ways that society makes life difficult for larger sized people.

Author Avery Flynn is particularly good at creating a credible dialog between Lucy and Frankie with regard to sex and sexuality and their physical relationship. This goes beyond enthusiastic consent. It’s character building. This scene helps us understand who they are, how they relate to each other, and how their chemistry evolves. As a result, Muffin Top reads as genuinely sex positive in a healthy way.

None of that however, makes up for the book’s central sin, indulging in fat loathing and calling it social realism.

With that in mind, here are are few fat tropes I think we’d be better off without. 

Fat Trope 1: Making The Fat Heroine’s Insecurity The Central Problem

Much of the trouble starts with the fake dating trope. Rather than light and frothy, the fake dating setup can be really problematic in fat representation. It turns Lucy into the problem rather than the heroine of the story. The relationship could be real if only Lucy liked herself more.

Once Frankie and Lucy team up, the central conflict revolves around the fat heroine’s fragile sense of self and her inability to believe that a beautiful man could ever be attracted to let alone love her, even though he clearly does. Frankie communicates his attraction to and respect for Lucy at every turn, but Lucy has great difficulty registering it. Frankie treats her well, and it causes no end of wonder and confusion. 

Lucy dismisses Frankie’s feelings as a joke, a trick, or an accident of circumstance, something brought on by close proximity. The dreaded miscommunication trope also comes into play more than once. These misunderstandings flow directly from Lucy’s disbelief and insecurity about her perceived worth as a romantic partner. 

Because of this, I had a hard time with this book. Flynn tells this story well, and it is engaging, but the relentless focus on Lucy’s insecurities was jarring. This trope plays out similarly in Take Me by Bella Andre and Never Sweeter by Charlotte Stein.

Fat Trope 2: The Hot Guy Savior 

As successful as she is in other ways, the heroine is saved from this relentless insecurity by the love of a conventionally attractive man, the kind society values. Frankie’s physicality is central to his character. Lucy fixates on his form, and so does the text as a whole. Ultimately, his status affirms and bolsters hers. He saves her. That, ironically, reinforces social hierarchy and affirms damaging conventional beauty standards. Intentional or not, this is how the happy ending occurs in the course of events. 

Fat Trope 2.5: Hot Guy Danger

Before he can save her however, for much of the story, in many of these romances, the hot guy introduces danger into the heroine’s life. Muffin Top is less brutal than Never Sweeter, in which the hot guy savior used to be one of the heroine’s high school tormenters. But here, as in Misadventures of A Curvy Girl, Take Me and Playing It Cool, the outside world is loathe to accept the idea of a romantic relationship between a “curvy girl” and a handsome guy. Of course, the guys are always not only handsome and attractive in a normal human way; they’re exceptional physical specimens, men who attract attention, jealousy, and resentment. Their attractiveness provides motivation for onlookers to object to the relationship and for other women to be rude to the heroine out of jealousy. 

In other words, a man’s good looks are the flame that lures angry moths to a fat woman who’s just trying to get by in the world without too much attention. In Muffin Top, Lucy’s high school rival loudly and publicly proclaims there must be something wrong with Frankie (who’s hot in her estimation) for being with Lucy (who’s so clearly, in her opinion, not). This is not mere acknowledgment of lingering social stigma. There are multiple scenes like this of Lucy suffering personal insult and public humiliation. It all leads to Lucy thinking the following about herself: “She wasn’t a person. She was a walking, talking morality lesson of what happens when a woman lets herself go, when she fails to meet society’s expectations.”  

Here Flynn effectively captures the real, internalized sexism that women like Lucy’s rival replicate. But it’s also a jaundiced perspective on Lucy’s life as a fat woman that unfortunately this book might actually reinforce rather than refute. 

Fat Trope 3: Public Humiliation Of Fat Characters

The shame Lucy experiences also represents a larger pattern. Public humiliation and punishment are a recurring and driving theme in books with larger women as heroines. In Sierra Simone’s Misadventures of a Curvy Girl, the heroine’s ex-boyfriend and a host of other people say atrocious things about and to the two men the heroine is involved with, because of her size. Though their relationship is passionate and fulfilling, the comments are so hateful she runs away from the loves of her life, believing the world will never let them be together. 

Similarly, here’s how one a family member speaks to the main character at a rugby match in full view of strangers early on in the popular rugby romance Playing It Cool:

“I told you to stay in the stands, not embarrass me by running onto the goddamn field in a pair of jeans you’ve barely managed to squeeze your lard ass into. I have a certain image to maintain, and it does not involve being followed around by fat chicks.”

This is not an isolated incident. And that can’t simply be smoothed over with other messages about body positivity and fat acceptance later on in the book. Here again, because of her size, the heroine is still a cautionary tale despite her happy ending. 

More recently, in The One to Watch, a best-selling novel marketed as a romcom, protagonist Bea is a fashion blogger who becomes the first plus-size star of a Bachelorette-style reality show. She eventually gets her HEA as well, but the humiliation and insult heaped upon her in the process is relentless, and it’s all on the page. There’s a brutal repetition to it that I’ve seen readers call out as harmful and triggering.

Questions Raised, Lessons Learned

Who wants to constantly have to  wade through the depth and breadth of torment Lucy, Bea, and Ireland do to get to an HEA? These books are popular so there’s definitely an audience, but I do not. At least not all the time. I spent a long time worrying that I was alone in bristling at the abundance of fatphobia and trauma. Then I found romance critic Corey Alexander (who also wrote romance as Xan West), whose writing comforted me and made me think deeper.  Corey wrote thoughtful critiques of the fatphobia and negativity so common in romance. And I discovered author Olivia Dade and reader reviews and fellow critics that showed me I wasn’t alone. Many readers and authors feel alienated by the ubiquitous presence of fat shaming in romance.

And yet, again and again, these narratives go beyond acknowledging social stigma. They reproduce the worst versions of it on the page. As a point of comparison, racism is a powerful and ubiquitous social force in Black lives, and yet it doesn’t dominate Black romance. Most of us would no longer accept the idea that Black heroines in romances should be constantly confronted with the worst examples of racist speech at every turn or that racism should be the central animating force in Black contemporary romance.

Nonetheless, the equivalent happens with many fat protagonists. At some point, for some reason, some one decided that ritual public humiliation and cruelty had to be a part of the journey for plus size heroines in romance. Perhaps this was in the name of realism. Or maybe it was for the sake of drama. I’m not sure. But it’s my sense—both personally and as someone who studies the politics of media—it’s not good. And not helpful for this to be so common.

What I keep wondering is why. Why are so many of these books so repetitive, and what will the effects be?

Bottom Line: Stop Conflating Fat Representation and Fat Acceptance in romance

Beyond making certain tropes less ubiquitous, the main thing is to just stop conflating the basic descriptive representation of having a main character who’s plus-size with the idea of fat acceptance or positivity. Representation matters. But the content, quality, and ideas embedded in that representation matter too. There is a danger in equating mere fat representation with fat acceptance. I know because this reading journey started with a recommendation from a popular romance podcast that left me sad and disappointed. Celebrating fat representation that’s filled with insecurity and humiliation implies that this is the best we can do. It suggests that fat people are supposed to be happy with, even grateful for, the mere representation of plus-size women as lovable. It implies that this love is so unlikely, so impossible that the idea has to be proven again and again.

But even that idea that these books represent fat people as lovable is questionable. Do these books treat fat characters (usually women) as lovable or is the implication that they are exceptionally lucky in isolated instances?

Reading Fat Representation In Romance is a Form of Social Learning 

I’ve been many different sizes, but I’ve been big for most of my adult life. So I can relate to some of this. Though my experiences are not necessarily the same as many of these characters, this isn’t an outsider’s view. 

On a visceral level, I get that many people identify with the insecurities and negative self talk that these heroines experience. These are incredibly personal issues. But that can be a vicious cycle. What happens when romance others fat people and relentlessly reproduces negative associations and expectations? Given what we know about fiction as a vehicle of social learning and about narrative persuasion—how norms and ideas are passed on through narratives we consume—I worry that a steady diet of these types of stories will become a way of reinforcing fat phobia. It also just feels like an insidious way of vicariously experiencing negative self talk.

Vicarious operant conditioning, for example, is a particular kind of social learning that’s particularly relevant to romance. Sounds fancy, but it is fairly straightforward. It means that we learn by watching what happens to others. We see certain characteristics and behaviors being rewarded or punished and learn their value.

This applies in fiction as well as life. The outcomes, positive or negative, and the rewards and punishment that we see characters accrue because of particular traits and behavior are one way that ideas and beliefs about those traits and the people that hold them are conveyed. Media scholars Valerie Terry and Edward Schiappa applied the theory of Vicarious Operant Conditioning in an empirical study that shows how antifeminist and gender essentialist ideas are conveyed in the novel Disclosure.

Gender Norms and Social Hierarchy

I like eye candy! But I also wonder how other women of similar size feel about the recurring insecure fat heroine saved by a hyper-masculine hunk trope. If romance is a feminist genre, why can’t curvy women find happiness with men that aren’t stereotypical alpha men? Why not? Would that love be worth less? If what counts is social status conferred then yes, but why is romance affirming that?

The Good News About Fat Acceptance in Romance

The great news is that we don’t have to make a terrible compromise. There are romance novels that don’t reproduce traditional social hierarchies about size and gender. Olivia Dade’s work is an excellent example. Teach Me is wonderfully sensitive and the heroine isn’t entranced by traditional standards of masculinity or high status—the hero is not that kind of guy and she loves him for it—and it’s a wonderful reprieve. Talia Hibbert’s Get A Life Chloe Brown is another excellent choice. And there are many more that should be celebrated, like the works of Xan West, Rebekah Weatherspoon, and Katrina Jackson.  I’ve made a list of my top 12 favorite romances with fat MCs. That’s next in Part II.

For More Information on Fat Representation in Romance

Corey Alexander’s Fave Fat Rep I Read In 2019 is a great resource if you’re looking for romance that doesn’t fall into these sorts of negative tropes. (Corey recently died, but their legacy lives on with their wonderful body of work, much of which focuses on inclusion.)

Olivia Dade’s YouTube presentation on fat representation in romance.

Book Rioter Jessica Pryde also compiled a list of romance with fat main characters