Fat and content in Never-Never Land?
Abby OReilly // 26 July 2008
When I was a chubby little girl my chubby little hands liked to do nothing more than flick through the pages of my favourite book, The Hefty Fairy by Nicholas Allan. The title is pretty self-explanatory and as I have seen little written about it, it’s worth discussing because I think it’s potentially an excellent resource for children. The book is about a fat, under-achieving fairy whose weight is so entwined with her identity that she is permanently aware of her size. Hefty, “shaped like an egg,” is basically morbidly obese and is prohibited from flying with the other fairies because her girth means that she keeps crashing into them. So while her peers set off of an evening carrying shiny twenty-pence pieces to collect shiny white milk teeth, Hefty is “far too fat for such a delicate task” and so the other fairies will not allow her to join them. Presumably then she’s sat at home, gorging on sugar-coated pastries and inhaling her weight in ice-cream, stuck in an unfortunate cycle of comforting eating and over-indulgence, later scolding herself for her gluttony as she brushes cake crumbs and bacon fat out of her hair. I can understand. I’ve been there.
But one day Hefty (possibly on a sugar high) thinks enough of this shit, I’m going to fulfil my tooth-fairy destiny and fly my fat ass into some kid’s bedroom, take his or her baby teeth in exchange for this twenty-pence piece that I conveniently found while on a dutiful biscuit-run into the hidden wood. She gets the tooth, looses it, and is berated by the other fairies as a liar during an unsuccessful attempt to ingratiate herself with her slender colleagues. But, there’s a twist. The fairy queen finds the tooth, sparking a number of clandestine conversations between herself and Hefty, leading to the dramatic climax of the story where Hefty realises that she is “just as good as the other fairies” despite not conforming to expectations as to what she should look like in fairy-land.
This is a fantastic book and I love it just as much now as I did then. It simplifies the idea of social exclusion, making it accessible and digestible for a young readership, while at the same time challenging prevailing beliefs that appearances are accurately reflective of ability. Being an overweight five-year-old girl acutely aware thanks to classmates that I did not look like them, I enjoyed reading a book that not only explored issues emanating from being fat, but that also centralised a portly fairy as the main character. Yes, fairies are mythical creatures, but at the same time they are more often than not gendered female and considered the archetypal manifestation of feminine beauty. As a little girl this was important to me. I wanted to be a pretty fairy, or at least wanted to think that I could be. The illustrations are effective and sensitive, and while Hefty is considerably larger than her slight counterparts she is nonetheless attractive, and in many ways is more so owing to the fact she is the only character that is physically distinct. This book, both inspiring and empowering, helped foster a sense of confidence in my own ability from a young age, at the same time as permeating my child-consciousness with the idea that if a person is ridiculed for not looking a specific way this is more symptomatic of problems inherent in society rather than the fault of the individual in question.
Allan does not champion fatness and childhood obesity, since Hefty’s rotund gut does impinge on her flying capabilities after all, but he stresses that she does not have to forfeit her dreams and ambitions because of this, and that she should not be considered any less valuable to the community. It sends an important message to plump little girls that whether they are hefty or not, they can still be beautiful and capable, and to thin little girls not to make assumptions about the abilities of others based on superficialities. While I can appreciate arguments that one should not be defined by physical differences, unfortunately whether this is right or not, it does happen, and it’s more realistic, and likely to be more effective, if we accept this and celebrate inconsistencies rather than denying them. I have friends with red hair who have the “ginger” prefix added to their names to describe them, and I know that when providing a generic description of me, my nearest and dearest would have no option but to make reference to my weight. It is, unquestionably, one of my defining physical characteristics, and to omit it would be to suggest there is something abhorrent about that. So what? There is no malice intended, the word fat like thin is essentially an empty adjective and it’s only the meaning with which is has been invested that has morphed it into a verbal bullet shot with spiteful intent. The default reaction (understandably) to being called ‘fat’ is also to take offence, and this unfortunately perpetuates the problem, with “fattists” and “fat-sympathisers” both feeding into and from the generated distaste, mutually adopting an insulted and insulting stance with the majority not thinking to ask what “fatties” like me actually think. Personally, I describe myself as fat and have no problem with the word, and while I can understand those who are hurt by tubby taunts surely anyone who would take recourse to a superficial physical insult in order to bolster an argument has lost any credibility from the outset? But let’s not assume that the word fat is bandied around as an insult and an insult only, because to believe this makes it so.
The movie Phat Girlz, released in 2006, while for an adult audience, draws on similar themes to those explored throughout The Hefty Fairy. At the end of the film the heroine (a sales assistant and aspiring fashion designer, Jazmine Biltmore), not only enters a fulfilling relationship with a man she is overwhelmingly sexually and emotionally enamoured with, but also lands a contract to produce a plus-size clothing line for a fashion conglomerate. While saccharine sweet in parts, Biltmore overcomes lapses in confidence and a preoccupation with her weight fostered by years of verbal abuse, to get what she wants regardless of both her size and her dissenters. It’s a feel-good movie, and Jazmine, initially consumed by self-loathing, begins to embrace her curves and wobbly bits as she realises that the disdain she elicits is not the result of causing genuine disgust but owing to socially constructed ideas of what makes a woman beautiful (making them essentially fallible). Despite a few scenes overly criticising women for being thin (which is equally unacceptable), by the end of the film the word fat is one to embrace, reiterated by the pun in the title.
My feelings on this subject were consolidated recently with the release of a new game for the playstation 3, titled Fat Princess. The premise of this game is simple: a “beloved princess” is being kept captive by your enemy in a dungeon, and you must rescue her by building a number of bridges or forts, or whatever is needed to infiltrate hostile defences. However, this is not a simple rescue-the-girl mission; the opposition is plumping-up the princess with cake and cookies and a collection of other calorific goodies all probably covered in batter. The longer she is imprisoned, the more difficult it will be to haul her out of the castle to safety and it’s likely to take “most of your army working together to carry her back across the battlefield.” I’m not a gamer, and the last time I fondled a console Mario was eating magic mushrooms, while Sonic and Tails scrambled over a couple of golden rings, but my initial reaction was not to condemn this game out of hand for confirming outdated fat stereotypes because I don’t think it does. I thought that it sounded well fun. But this game has not been welcomed by a faction of bloggers, an example of which here showing the extent to which it has been accused of perpetuating prejudices against fat women.
Firstly, the female character is not described as a “fat monster,” a “fat wilderbeast” or a “fat minger,” but rather as a “fat princess.” I don’t think the title is derogatory, and is tame considering the strength of insults that are commonly levied against overweight women. If I were a princess, I would be a fat one. Fat is a description usually juxtaposed with words such as lazy and ugly, (and all the lard-arsed assumptions that come with that), and so in this respect this game does not fall into the trap of endorsing socially construed prejudices. While this fictional woman is only defined by one aspect of her appearance, there are no aspersions cast on her attractiveness or characteristics owing to the fact she does not conform to stereotypical ideas of what a princess should look like (thin), and she is also not denied the regal title because of it. Secondly, she is considered important enough for a whole army to be deployed with the intention of saving her, despite compromising their own safety. There is no suggestion that she should be left to flounder, collapsing under her own weight and flailing like an overturned beetle as a “drain” on the nations’ resources. She, a fat woman, is central to the entire plot of the game, and frankly I quite like it. She is not generically beautiful, in fact she is the antithesis to all pre-conceived ideas of beauty, and while the game could be criticised for its endorsement of traditional fairytale gendering – the damsel in distress being so disempowered to have jurisdiction over her own destiny that she has to rely on valiant men to save her – it does subvert the idea that only the conventionally aesthetically pleasing are worth rescuing.
While it is not stated explicitly, from what I have been able to piece together about the game, both the captures and the saviours are represented by male avatars. This is perhaps the most offensive aspect of the game because it assumes that men can have autonomous control over what a woman is eating, and as a result control over her appearance. It is also suggested that this can be controlled as a form of punishment. This is complimentary to neither men nor women, but what it does do is draw on modern cultures’ preoccupation with the obese to provide entertainment and present a humorous extreme (albeit not to all people’s tastes). We are regularly bombarded with programmes about fat men, fat women and fat children who are forced to more or less jump through hoops like circus freaks in order to shave a few inches off their waistlines, and generally we love it. If that wasn’t the case TV channels wouldn’t be littered with reality programmes of this nature on a daily basis, and for some reason watching someone’s jaw drop at the realisation that their monstrous weight could result in chalking up a few points on the richter scale should they fart in the wrong direction somehow sates our desire for entertainment. “Feeder” is a term that has entered our vocabulary, introduced by the popularity of television coverage of men who achieve sexual gratification from more-or-less force feeding their partner’s to the point that their guts are practically bursting out of tracing-paper skin, with the women conceding to all orders to eat, eat, eat with sad teeth-grinding determination. We are fascinated by these programmes because we cannot understand why someone would actively pursue a transgressive body-type, and then champion it as attractive. This is an unfortunate phenomenon, but it does happen, and because we find it so compelling gastro-vision continues to dominate our televisual experiences.
It is a scientific fact that if we over-indulge in fatty foods we will gain weight, that is medically accurate, and while there is nothing wrong with being overweight, it is not desirable for health-reasons, and so can Fat Princess not be interpreted as a fair warning about the dangers of eating too much of the wrong foods? And is it fare to accuse Sony of reinforcing negative body attitudes when they are just capitalising on something that is a part of reality and does sell (and sells because we have created a market for it)? Would it not be beneficial to address the reasons why we are preoccupied with self-perfection and weight-control rather than something that is symptomatic of this? After all, Fat Princess represents a fictional world, and any tenuous links to reality are consolidated by our own expectations and pre-existing beliefs.
Had the title been Fat Prince would it have elicited comparable negativity? And would it have been as controversial and popular at one and the same time? I don’t believe so. This is because the idea of a woman enticing a man to stuff his face with pies in order to get herself hot is totally alien to us, and as such would be too far away from our own reality to be in any way engaging. We have also been socially conditioned to believe that appearance is far more important to women than to men (whether this is true or not is questionable), so the thought of a man being fed to morbid obesity does not have the same anticipated consequences because the aesthetic ramifications would be considered negligible. Super Mario, a gaming icon for almost as long as gaming has been established, is a fat plumber. He is a fat plumber of Italian origin who, if the film is to be believed, has emigrated to the US. So, what do we have here? If we analysed deeply enough then we could probably draw on racism, social prejudices, body fascism and class presumptions all manifest in one moustachioed little cartoon character. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. There was no offence intended here but, then again, no-one has been that bothered about poor Mario to question his constitution. Presumably because in reality he’d be riding Yoshi all the way to the bank but, oh yes, like the Fat Princess, he does not actually exist outside of the pixelated world anyway.
But, as always, I’d be interested to know: what do you think? Do we invest media such as this with more importance than necessary, and in doing so ironically validate its influence? Or do you think the Fat Princess is a problem? Is this an example of political correctness working to an unnecessary extreme to the detriment of good old-fashioned fun? Or should Sony consider taking the game off the market? And if so where would this sort of censorship stop? And how would that action be justified without the explicit implication that there’s something wrong with being over-weight? Does a preoccupation with reports like this distract us from more important issues affecting women?