Writing Someone I’m Not: An Obese Character

(And a few words on depression)

While T. is preparing his post on fighting in fiction, I’ve been doing some brainwork (sure, some may challenge this claim) over the future characters I’ll be writing. Specifically those who are very different from me.

I’m about to write an overweight/obese person into one of our novels, and I started to do some research on what it’s like to be overweight. I came across many interesting discussions and opinions. How different stories and people can be found! How differently they experience a rather simplified condition that is obesity (terms are debatable. Some prefer ‘fat’, some ‘obese’, some merely ‘overweight’. I’m going wikipedia on the terms here so bear with me)!

So: my aim was — and is — to navigate through different stories of people whose BMI exceeds  30 kg/m2 to get some ideas for my character.

What I found particularly intriguing in discussions about obesity were statements akin to “I’m obese yet eat veggie food 1300kcal a day” or “I am healthy and active even though I weigh 400lbs.” Okay, is this my character? Hm, maybe not. I’m trying so hard to see through these statements and into these people’s lives, imagine what is their definition of healthy and active, or whether they deceive themselves as well as their audience when they claim to eat only 1300kcal/day and still have a high BMI. I couldn’t imagine being as active as I am with 390lbs more on my frame. And to me active is someone who walks several kilometers a day and/or exercises daily at least 30 min until they’re out of breath and sweatin’ well and proper. But still I’m wondering… what if I wrote my obese character to be a 1300kcal eating and plenty of exercising woman? How’d she get so heavy then? Is it physiologically possible to turn all those vegetables into fat, considering how little calories 1300 per day is! (I eat easily over 2000 and am 110lbs/5’7” but I also exercise a lot! Oh and don’t throw me that “Research shows that it is more dangerous to be 5 lbs underweight than 80lbs overweight. It’s true; being too thin is dangerous, too, moreso, in fact” -crap. Show me the research if you’re one of those people who think like that). I’m not sure if that’s the kind of a character I can realistically portray.

I think I’ll go down the less positive route. For most of the accounts I’ve read from different blogs and discussions express misery, self-hatred, and depression when it comes to being obese.

You are bombarded with insults on a daily basis. People treat you as less than human, as a bottomless well that sucks in all your money considering how much your fat costs to your country. You and your condition are stigmatized. Maybe this is my character? Someone to whom being overweight is not fun or healthy. Who is not comfortable at 295 pounds when she’s only 5’3” tall. Someone who’s only 22 years old, so she wants to date boys, live the life of a young person who is not singled out due to her looks. Okay, I’m getting somewhere here, I think.

The more I read, the deeper I got to the mindsets of overweight people, especially those who claim to be healthy and comfortable with it (not claiming I’d truly understand them!). Some compare obesity to depression. Obesity is something one can’t fight. An obese person is a victim of a terrible illness. We should accept obesity as we accept mental illnesses, because just as much as a depressed person can do to ward off his/her depression, an obese person can do to fight his/her extra pounds.

You know, I wish they had a TV show called ‘The Cheeriest Sunshine’ or something. Like the Biggest Loser, but instead of overweight people, there would be two teams of depressed basket cases. You know, people who suffer of anxiety attacks, severe depression, the works. And then their self-imposed mental problem would be treated with making them do happy things. And think happy thoughts.

Guess what, happy thoughts and things don’t do the trick. On a good day they help. It’s always better to do something than nothing. But they don’t cure you. You need medicine when it’s so bad it limits your life to a similar degree (or even worse) than being obese does.

So then the overweight people go to the Biggest Loser. They exercise and have a balanced diet. They go through a lifestyle change. They become healthier and happier. Without a rollercoaster of pills. Their quality of life improves. A lot of it comes down to a lifestyle change and self-control. Could I cure depression this way too?

I digress. But maybe my character will think of herself as a victim?

While I don’t know for sure yet how she will turn out, I have to admit I’ve learned a lot so far about a condition I tended to regard in a very black-and-white way. And this is one of the great things about writing: the research one has to do to be able to go into someone else’s shoes. I know it’s also something to be criticized, but like the general consensus turned out to be on this excellent uni course I took, Reading Other Minds by Howard Sklar, PhD, yes, the author has the right to portray other minds — and bodies.

-K. Trian

P.S. Here’s a poem I found on the internet by some random poster on a thread about obesity.. It’s quite heart-wrenching, actually.

Being Fat

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