Dragonfly Words

Overweight Characters in Children’s Books

January 6, 2010
1 Comment

Is it wrong to make my overweight characters evil and mean? Is this playing into stereotypes? Is this too much of a cliché? Does this teach children to view overweight people negatively? So often with writing it becomes difficult to see past the works of those whose footsteps we walk in so that we can forge our own path. I worry that I will inadvertently play into the stereotypes created by my predecessors, and that my work will suffer as a result.

Certainly obesity is something that shouldn’t be encouraged in children, but children who are overweight, or those with body issues, may become more self-conscious about their weight if characters physically similar to them are villanized in stories. Equally, the kids who would pick on overweight children may feel their behavior is justified through the negative portrayal of overweight characters in books.

The Harry Potter series instantly jumps to mind when I think about negative portrayals of overweight people. Dudley is fat, unintelligent, and a bully. Malfoy, on the other hand, while evil, is intelligent and conniving. He is also thin.

There are many other children’s books that also portray overweight characters in a negative light. Of course, overweight characters are equally portrayed as jovial, yet simple. Rarely do you see a normal, run-of-the-mill overweight character. Rarely do you see an overweight hero (one of the refreshing things about Disney-Pixar’s UP).

But would we want to write an overweight hero? Aren’t we trying to encourage weight loss and exercise? Do we want children to associate being overweight with being dimwitted and/or mean? Or are we inadvertently excluding an increasing population or readers? According to the CDC, 17% of children in 2006 were obese. This is double the amount found in 1980. With these numbers rising, maybe we should not treat obesity in such a negative way. Certainly we can show an overweight character struggling with their weight, or facing obstacles they would not face were they more fit (again to reference UP : Russell faced obstacles brought on by his lack of fitness), but to make every overweight character less than the fit characters may not be the best message to send children.

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