There is a man my husband knows who never greets me without commenting on how much I weigh.
“It looks like you’ve lost weight,” he often says. Or, “Have you lost weight?” he asks, encouragingly.
I suppose he means well, but I find it judgmental and intrusive. I don’t care if he thinks I have lost weight, should lose weight, or should not lose weight. I don’t want it to be a constant topic of conversation, and I’d rather he keep his evaluations to himself.
The truth is probably that he thinks I should lose weight, and he thinks his comment is some kind of positive reinforcement that will encourage me to diet and exercise and get down to what he would consider an appropriate dress size for my short stature. The other truth is, every time I see him, I’ve probably gained a half-pound or so since I saw him the time before. In the past 28 years since I married Ben, I have gained about 56 pounds—or about two pounds a year. I now wear the same size shorts as my husband, who is fourteen inches taller than me.
Yes, I am overweight. If I weren’t so short, I’d probably be “plus-sized,” but because I am short, I just buy clothes in the ‘teens and hem them about eight inches. I’m not proud of my weight, I’m not pleased with it, but like most of us who are overweight, there’s not a whole lot I can do about it. I know all about set-points and the body’s near-miraculous ability to defy physics and chemistry to stay at the most weight it’s ever achieved, and I have accepted the near-impossibility of long-term weight loss.
All of this has come up because of a comment made by a reader of Gracie’s Revolution. Usually, it is best not to respond to comments on your book because it’s seen as petty. You write the book; you accept the criticism. But I’d like to share my thoughts about a particular character to whom the reader apparently took exception because I think it makes an important point about creating characters in novels.
First the comment: “For a book meant to be about open- mindedness and inclusiveness, this book was very disdainful toward plus- size women. Yes, I am one,” commented MeMeMe.50. She gave the book two stars, apparently for that reason, as she gave none other.
I knew when I created Belinda, a large woman who attends the women’s coffee klatch in my Johnson Station series, I was taking a risk. Overweight women are not unusual in Iowa or anywhere else in the United States, so I wasn’t conjuring up someone unbelievable. The risk I took is in deciding to avoid the trope that goes like this: “Overweight women are wonderful. They may be overweight, but they’re funny and the life of the party.” (See Shallow Hal and Hairspray.) I knew that many people – perhaps even some plus-sized ones – would be pissed that I didn’t adopt that stereotype when I included an overweight character in the book.
Well, guess what. We’re not all funny, and some of us aren’t even very nice. Some of us talk too much, argue too much, and frown too much. But it has nothing to do with our weight. The reason Belinda is obnoxious and argumentative isn’t because she’s overweight, it’s because she’s obnoxious and argumentative.
Nearly all the women characters of my Johnson Station novels are at least slightly overweight, and most of them are significantly so. (They are American and over 50, after all.) They all have come to terms with their dress size, like I have. The exception is Liz, who is obsessive-compulsive about her weight, significantly underweight, and paranoid about gaining an ounce. Her fixation on cookbooks is one manifestation of that.
Not one person in Gracie’s Revolution – there is no omniscient narrator – criticizes Belinda about her weight or talks about it behind her back. There is no disdain. A person’s appearance is part of what an author conjures up in creating a character. It certainly didn’t seem out of place to me to have a large woman at the coffee klatch. But it would be hackneyed to make her funny and the life of the party. Gracie doesn’t like Belinda, but it’s not because she’s overweight. And she doesn’t constantly ask her if she’s lost weight.
Creating real-life characters is a part of the challenge of writing fiction, and when you create one whose characteristics include a generally maligned feature, it’s risky if you don’t make them the darling of the novel. I accept that. But I think it’s important to fight against stereotypes. And I think it is important to accept ourselves for what and who we are.
So, yes, MeMeMe.50, I am “one,” too. Just a little shorter than most.