I’ve been doing on/off research on one of my characters, who is in our — and the story’s — society less privileged than I am (every fiber in my body fought against putting it like that, the very idea of accepting that someone is “less privileged” feels wrong and victimizing). This means I have to be very careful when writing my character so that I don’t accidentally insult a large portion of people who are marginalized despite, e.g. being in the majority in the US according to some studies.
“As much as 64% of the United States adult population is considered either overweight or obese, and this percentage has increased over the last four decades”
Yes, so I’m talking about writing an overweight/slightly obese character. She’s 295 pounds even though she’s only 5 ‘4” tall, which is pretty heavy. I’m aware I’m not writing an alien, I’m just planning a character somewhat different from me when it comes to shape and size, but in this case, I feel like it’s important to do a lot of research to better get into the mindset of an overweight, young woman, learn what kind of self-esteem she may have, her mental state in general, whether she suffers of EDNOS or perhaps hypothyroidism, whether she’s accepted her size or constantly fights it and so on.
The first thing I’ve learned during my research is that I have to lurk. Because I’m so incredibly privileged (read: thin), I’ll be in trouble faster than a klepto in a candy store if I open my mouth in one of these safe spheres marginalized people have built, such as blogs and discussion boards. I’m, of course, allowed to express opinions, but usually it’s a Very Bad Idea and impolite to boot.
Anyhow, I was pretty happy for a while, lurking about, reading people’s experiences and stories about their life as an overweight person (because I’m privileged, I’ll refrain from using the word “fat” that some still consider an insult), finding some ideas and view-points when it comes to building my character.
But then I stumbled on this: Thin Privilege Checklist
The way I understand it, I, as a thin person, should be able to say ‘yes’ to every part. My jaw hit the floor. Seriously, who thinks being thin keeps you safe from criticism from strangers, from hurtful comments related to your weight? From people sticking their nose to your personal business like eating habits?
Whoever wrote this checklist, I feel like telling her/him: “Bitch, please.”
Suddenly I don’t feel so meek after all. Here are the points that I have to say “no” to (bolding added):
• I can go for months without thinking about or being spoken to about the size of my body.
• I am not grouped because of the size of my body.
• I am not identified by the size of my body.
• My masculinity or femininity will not be challenged because of the size of my body.
• I can go home from meetings, classes, and conversations and not feel excluded, fearful, attacked, isolated, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, stereotyped, or feared because of the size of my body.
• I do not have to be afraid that when I talk to my friends or family they will mention the size of my body in a critical manner, or suggest unsolicited diet products and exercise programs.
• I will not be accused of being emotionally troubled or in psychological denial because of the size of my body.
Almost every day someone points out I don’t eat enough, and brings me extra food at work (usually desserts). I’m grouped and stereotyped as an anorexic / orthorexic / one of those health nuts who are afraid of chocolate. I’m not feminine enough because I haven’t curves and a big bust. Friends and family criticize my weight as in “you don’t eat enough / god you’re thin / here, eat more potatoes! People stare at me because I eat salad during lunch (“oh, she must have anorexia!”) or bike to work (“oh, she doesn’t know how to enjoy life!”). Seriously, because our culture (and I daresay, especially women) are so obsessed with food, I can hardly eat my salad in peace without someone asking “how on Earth are you going to survive with just that?” Sometimes, e.g. when out with friends, I’m too embarrassed to order anything green even if I wanted it, because someone’s going to comment on that. I know it’s stupid, and usually I really don’t care what others think, but it does gnaw a bit if people talk, wonder if you’ve got an eating disorder.
But I guess you guys are right. I should go “bitch, please” at myself, and stop whining, because thin people are never judged incorrectly and harmfully by their appearance, excuse my slight bitterness.
Either way, at least I’ve found lots of brain food when it comes to planning my character, and am able to see certain aspects of life from another person’s point-of-view. That’s something, still, right?
How has character / story research widened your world view?
Flegal, Katherine M.; Carroll, Margaret D.; Johnson, Clifford L.; Johnson, CL (2002). “Prevalence and Trends in Obesity Among US Adults, 1999-2000”. JAMA 288 (14): 1723–1727. doi:10.1001/jama.288.14.1723. PMID 12365955.