There need to be more fat children in picture books. There need to be fat children celebrated in picture books. There need to be fat children dancing, eating, running, and playing, and they need to be prominently and warmly featured in picture books. I first realized the depth of this problem when reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar to a group of first graders. The Caterpillar ate and ate and ate, and then he wasn’t a little caterpillar anymore. He was a BIG, FAT caterpillar. I read that sentence and a group of giggles erupted. Not the joyful kind. The snickering, side-glancing, fat-is-a-dirty-joke kind. And even though I had already been a teacher for a while, I wasn’t sure how to respond. Anger and punishment? Explain that he’s not REALLY fat, he’s turning into a butterfly? It felt like any response would reinforce the idea that fatness is to be mocked, a response already ingrained in the 6-year-olds in front of me.
Fatphobic Picture Books
Honestly, children’s literature hasn’t done much to combat this concept. For centuries, the able-bodied, slim, white, binary-obeying child was the only image ever shown in any book. While the lack of fat representation is a problem in itself, the explicit mockery of fat people and children in particular is present in many picture books. The biggest disaster I’ve come across is a book by two heroes of the picture book genre, Rosemary Wells and Marc Brown. Their 2007 book The Gulps is a fatphobic piece of trash that made me shake with fury when I stumbled across it in the library. A fat family loads up their RV with “junk food” and heads off on a vacation. THEIR VEHICLE STALLS OUT DUE TO TOO MUCH WEIGHT and they are stuck near a farm where some good thin people (animals, it’s Marc Brown illustrating) teach those fat, fat fools that salads are better, duh. The reviews constantly refer to this book as “side-splitting” and “important.” Many adults mention in their reviews that, sure, it might make overweight children uncomfortable, but it will make them turn over a new leaf!
My stomach is boiling even thinking about this book existing, let alone the fact that it has been used in nutrition education for children across the country. Fat bodies exist at every nutrition and activity level in both children and adults. It’s a problem to send the message that being healthy can be equated to thinness. It’s a bigger problem to send the message that fat people are unintelligent lumps who could completely change their lives if someone would just mention lettuce to them. Shame and humiliation are never going to positively affect anyone’s life; this book gives free license to children of every size to put down fat children. It would have annihilated me as a fat child. I cannot imagine the damage it has done.
Positive Representation Creeping In
As an adult, I’ve begun to repair my relationship with food, diet culture, and fat acceptance through reading. Memoirs were the first books that really helped me see how limiting societal expectations around bodies can be. Dietland by Sarai Walker was the first fiction book I ever read that loudly called bullshit on diet culture. Then slowly, I began finding narratives that celebrate bodies. Romances where fat women thrive. (One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London, Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade) Stories where fat people openly discuss the exhaustion of dealing with the pressure to diet. (Shrill by Lindy West, If It Makes You Happy by Claire Kahn) Stories where fat people have a range of triumphs that have absolutely nothing to do with any type of loss. (There’s Something About Sweetie by Sandhya Menon, Fat Chance, Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado) In the past five years especially, there have been a number of young adult books published that celebrate fat teenagers. This is AMAZING. But it needs to skew lower.
Recently I read a book that brought back terrible memories and moved me towards amazing healing. Starfish by Lisa Fipps is my favorite book of 2021 so far. This middle grade title follows Ellie, a fat girl with a thin family who endures abuse at school and from her mother. Working with a therapist, she accepts that she does not deserve such treatment. This seems simple, but many fat people grow up with negative messages everywhere from conversations with their loved ones to the picture books they read in elementary school. Knowing that fat people do not deserve that treatment — knowing it is WRONG — does not come easily. I was deeply touched by a note from the author that explained this book was specifically written for a middle grade audience to send positive messages to children at an earlier age. YES! Children of every size need to understand that all bodies are good bodies. The younger the better.
Fat Children in Picture Books
The genre is not completely devoid of positive representation, but the lack of titles I have to share here is the reason for this essay. The picture book Abigail the Whale (published in 2016, and still one of the only books about a large child) is about a girl who is called a whale at swimming lessons due to the large splash she makes in the water. I still can’t give this one five stars because the swim instructor allows the bullying to happen and instead pulls Abigail aside for a helpful pep talk. I’m happy there is a fat child getting page time! But why is this all we get? The recently published Bodies Are Cool by Tyler Feder is an amazing book that features bodies of every shape, size, and ability. So there we have two books, one of which MIGHT send a positive message. My living is picture books. And two is all I’ve got.
There is an obvious answer as to why we see this lack. Many people honestly do not believe fat children deserve representation. They believe fat kids need to be FIXED. We live in a time where there is a War on Childhood Obesity. And for all the shaming and warnings about how large children are unhealthy, nothing is changing in the data. It’s almost as if humiliation and mockery will not change outcomes. To anyone who wants to fight that fat kids can’t be in books because they need to be healthy, I am here to tell you that thin does not equal healthy. We could get into the ickier questions about our national obsession with health as an inherent moral value, but this isn’t even the moment. If we want to teach kids to treat their bodies well, we must first teach them to love and appreciate their bodies, no matter how they look.
There need to be more fat children in picture books. There need to be fat children celebrated in picture books. There need to be fat children dancing, eating, running, and playing, and they need to be prominently and warmly featured in picture books. At this point in my life, I now understand that when a young child laughs at the word fat, I can calmly ask, “Why is that funny?” Most kids will pause and shrug. They laugh at fat because the people around them do. If they respond with “Because they’re fat!” I can easily add, “Oh, I don’t think fat is funny. It’s just another size, silly.” And smile. Kids never get offended, or say, “but it’s not healthy!” or really answer back at all. They’re sponges, figuring out everything they know about the world based on how we talk about them, or talk about ourselves, or act in front of them. Kids of every size deserve fat children in picture books. I’ll keep asking until we get it.