Home » Romance » Male Fatphobia in Romance Novels: Why Does Romance Hate Overweight Men?

Male Fatphobia in Romance Novels: Why Does Romance Hate Overweight Men?

29 June 2019

From All About Romance:

In all my years of romance reading, the only hero I recall who was described as overweight was Henry Tewskbury-Hampton of Carla Kelly’s delightful vintage Signet regency Miss Billings Treads the Boards.

Over twenty years.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of books.

Precisely one slightly saggy midsection. Which tightened up by the end of the story.

It’s always difficult to find a cause from looking at end products alone, and I’m sure this state of affairs reflects varying degrees of reader preference, author choice, and editor or publisher requirement, depending on the book. And I’m not saying your Navy SEALs or your shapeshifting werewolf warriors can’t be in peak physical condition, or even that you shouldn’t want your Regency ducal sundae topped with a six pack, however historically implausible that mixed metaphor is. Just because I happen to like bigger men (in fiction and in real life) doesn’t mean everybody has to write it (although I’d be delighted if somebody did, and I welcome recommendations in the comments).

I’m not demanding fat heroes, but I’m done – I’m beyond done – with fat losers.

. . . .

I originally intended to put quotes in this post in which authors used weight to identify their duds and deadbeats, but I realized quite quickly that it wasn’t going to work. There are just too damn many examples. It didn’t seem fair or productive to call out a few authors arbitrarily when the entire industry is taking the same cheap shot.

So as a thought exercise, I wrote some quotes of my own.

Such is the power of male weight in romance novels that I can invent descriptions of male characters and transform them from heroes to zeroes just by changing the words describing their bodies.

Imagine if you read:

Mrs. Gates’s son Robert was moving back into his mother’s house across the street. His sweaty t-shirt clung to his sculpted abs as he carried a television down the steps to the basement.

Your immediate take would likely be that Robert is going to be this novel’s hero. He’s a good guy, probably home because his mom is sick, or he’s between deployments. You probably can’t wait for the other protagonist to meet him.

But what if the author changed that description, just a tiny, tiny bit? Now, instead of the previous quote, you read:

Mrs. Gates’s son Robert was moving back into his mother’s house across the street. His sweaty t-shirt clung to his pudgy belly as he carried a television down the steps to the basement.

Nothing has changed about Robert except his stomach, but that’s enough to tell you he’s going to be a loser. The television, the mom’s basement – it means something totally different when the hero is fat. This Robert isn’t a caretaker or Marine on leave, he’s an unemployed man-child addicted to video games and internet trolling. That sweat is probably yellow, and it definitely stinks.

Link to the rest at All About Romance

Romance

29 Comments to “Male Fatphobia in Romance Novels: Why Does Romance Hate Overweight Men?”

  1. ::shrug::

    Why does Hollywood hate older women? Why does society focus so much on women’s appearance?

    It’s fantasy based on the “perfect” ideal. You can’t complain about what fantasies women have for themselves when much of society is geared toward what men like and want.

  2. Terrence OBrien

    Maybe the consumers who buy the books don’t want to read about fat, sweaty guys?

  3. The answer is, for the same reason that romance novel heroines rarely, if ever, have excess weight on them.

    It’s not complicated.

    • Spoken by someone who does not read a lot of romance. I can think of at four romance sub-genres where a heroine with a bit, or more than a bit, of weight are not just common but practically required. And they sell very, very well.

  4. That sweat is probably yellow, and it definitely stinks.

    It comes in colors? How did I not notice this? At any rate, the OP clearly doesn’t object to having fit heroes. Her objection is that fat guys are universally portrayed as losers in the romance genre. Okay. The challenge with “Robert” is vocabulary. A writer could have fun with this.

    Specifically, “pudgy” or “blubbery” or “pot belly” have negative connotations to start with. So using those adjectives already slants the reader against Robert from the start. On the opposite spectrum you have “bony” or “gaunt” for very thin people. Those characters will have some other character flaw, like being stingy or cold-hearted. Writers usually say “willowy” or “lanky” or some such if a character’s excessive svelteness isn’t a sign of villainy.

    So, what if Robert’s stomach is instead a “cushion” or a “pillow” for the TV as he’s carrying? That implies he’s fat, but cushions and pillows don’t automatically equal loser. Come on, romance writers, whip out your thesauri and start varying your adjectives 🙂

  5. It’s because women are just as focused on physical appearance as men are. Men get called on it, women don’t. The world is rife with double standards.

  6. I think you guys are thinking that the OP is asking why romances use hawt guys as the heroes instead of schlubs. That would be a dumb question for her to ask 🙂

    I got the sense that she would like the romance writers to stop being so predictable about casting the fat guy as a denizen of his mom’s basement. At least he could just be some normal guy, rather than a loser with chromatic sweat. The OP makes it sound as if that trope has been beaten into the ground.

    In college, some “Sensible People” convinced me to read Harry Potter. I realized it wasn’t a simpleminded kids’ story when the talking snake turned out not to be evil. It was just some snake that didn’t like living in a zoo. Rowling wasn’t predictable, so I was willing to read on. I guess the OP would like for other writers to surprise her once in a while. That’s useful feedback for those that write romances.

    • Terrence OBrien

      I got the sense that she would like the romance writers to stop being so predictable about casting the fat guy as a denizen of his mom’s basement.

      Do romance writers cast fat guys as anything?

      • Per the OP, romance writers uniformly cast fat men as losers. Hence her complaint. In any genre, that kind of cliche can get old, like the “all businessmen are evil” cliche. And any others you can think of.

        Businessmen don’t have to be heroes, they can just not be evil. Fat guys don’t have to be heroes, they can just not be losers.

        • Fat guys may not make it as heroes – unless they undergo a transformation to buff during the story – but they can be best friends rather than losers (though they mostly don’t sweat a lot). Also a business man in modern romances is often the hero (as well as being buff and a billionaire) rather than a villain. In fact billionaires are far too common and pretty to be at all realistic (are there any truly handsome billionaires in the real world?); they infest modern romances in the way that Dukes infest regency romances (despite the fact that finding one duke who was youngish, handsome and unmarried would have been asking a lot of 1815 England).

          I’ve noticed that it is quite common for heroines to be described as curvy which I guess is intended as a rejection of the “starving starlet” aesthetic. Not being model thin (ie. emaciated and unattractive when unclothed) is okay but actually being overweight is not, though once again can be allowed in a best friend.

          • Well, part of the problem is that romances are mostly a form of fantasy and today making a million in the US isn’t that hard. Officially there are over 7 million in the US, as many as the next five countries combined.
            Not much to fantasize over.

            Billionaires there are around 600 in the US or about one per half million people so that is rare enough for a fantasy.

            And the boy billionaire fantasy isn’t all that rare either in the internet age. Add in that billionaires tend to concentrate in big cities (over 100 in NYC, 70-some in SF) and it makes it something to dream on, lotteries aside. 😉

            Another romance trope, the secret millionaire, is actually fairly real. A lot of people do work like beasts in their 20’s and move on to passion projects in their 30’s with a few million to their credit. Those are perfect protagonists because they are single, youngish, smart, rich, and focused on things other than paying bills.

            • All the sources I’ve found for billionaires disagree with each other but they do seem to agree that most are too old to make good romance heroes (or heroines). If we are looking for a hero under 40 there are only 50 or 60 real ones in the world so the probability of finding one in your city who is free of any current romantic entanglements and has the physical attributes of a contemporary romance’s leading man is minuscule – even if your city is London or New York. As you say, very much a character in a fantasy.

              The fantasy used to be for millionaires but inflation did this in and I’m not sure that the secret millionaire trope can now work without making them a multimillionaire whose worth runs into the tens of millions. A “few millions” really isn’t enough to be wealthy these days, at least not in a carefree free spending way.

              Fact is, even someone like me can be a millionaire if they bought a property in an expensive city and have lived long enough to pay of their mortgage. And some of those I know in this position have very small incomes to live off.

          • I suspect that billionaires are a stand-in for princes and kings. Billionaires are relatively common (see Felix’s numbers) compared to royalty, which makes them just plausible enough, and you don’t have to make up a fictitious country to boot. Shoot, the billionaire could just buy an island paradise and live as a king.

            quite common for heroines to be described as curvy which I guess is intended as a rejection of the “starving starlet” aesthetic.

            Yep! As Sofia Vergara advises her fashion team, “You can’t draw a woman if you use straight lines!”

            I notice, though, that women who have more of an Audrey Hepburn build get described as “willowy,” which is a much more pleasant adjective than “pudgy.” And you’re right, the fat friend is allowed if she’s the heroine’s friend. There’s no reason the hero’s friend can’t similarly be fat.

            • Jamie, you make a good point. You could call your “willowy” woman “slender” or “skinny” – depending on whether or not you want to be nice – but what is the pleasant equivalent to “pudgy”?

              The least unpleasant synonym an on line thesaurus gave me was “plump” which is still not exactly flattering. Strangely enough though, the heroine of the mystery/romance novel I’m currently re-reading describes herself as a “little plump woman” so it is not completely unknown for the fictional leading lady to be a bit overweight. However, the book was written in 1951 when Audrey Hepburn was something of an outlier amongst the much curvier mass of movie stars and modern rules for romances were not yet set in stone.

              • Terrence OBrien

                but what is the pleasant equivalent to “pudgy”?

                Husky, powerfully built, robust. It all depends on what one wants to plant in the reader’s mind.

                Anorexic or delicate? Pudgy or husky? It’s easy because we are no describing real people. Who can say the author is wrong?

                • I’m afraid that what they plant in my mind is “masculine” whilst I took Jamie’s “pudgy” to be about a female (though it can be used for either sex, the context was female appearance). Maybe more importantly, to me none of your suggestions carry the same meaning as “pudgy” as they give me the me ideas of strength and musculature whilst pudgy connotes softness and fat.

                  I wan’t really impressed by Felix’s suggestions either. None of my acquaintances would know what “Zaftig” means (and I’ve no idea whether it is a pleasant way to describe a woman) whilst “cushy” is just easy or comfy. I guess that Rubenesque is the best though it has sexual overtones that are not implied by “pudgy”. I’m now inclining towards “voluptuous”, though this also has sexual connotations.

                • Transatlantic differences.

                  Oxford might have it different but Merriam Webster has zaftig as “of a woman having a full rounded figure : pleasingly plump”

                  chiefly US, informal, of a woman : slightly fat in an attractive way

                • of a woman having a full rounded figure : pleasingly plump”

                  Ohhhh! So Bess Marvin is zaftig. She’s Nancy Drew’s chum (along with her cousin George), and the description of her as “pleasingly plump” always puzzled me. Especially because she was illustrated as having the same figure as Nancy and George. She’s the blonde in the link; George is wearing pink. The stories were written in the 30s, so I thought “pleasingly plump” was lost to the mists of time. Well, thank you for solving that mystery.

                  That said, even zaftig can be a little ambiguous. Depending on who is saying it, they either mean Marilyn Monroe (especially in Nancy Drew’s era), or someone who is overweight — a description of Lena Dunham is the context in which I first saw the term. I suspect Bess was supposed to be more like Monroe, given all the pleasant adjectives used for her. It’s all in what the writer is going for.

                  Mike, sorry for the confusion. I did mean “pudgy” in terms of fat men, because I was thinking of the OP. I otherwise see that word used for fat children, which reinforces the idea of portraying a fat guy as a loser manchild.

                  For good or neutral adjectives, I had a college classmate who was retired and on his “second life.” He said that when he shopping at a department store, the tactful salesman told him, “Sir, the portly gentlemens’ section is over there.”

                  So, “portly” has an air of respectability for men. “Stout” might be neutral. Also, I suggested above that “Robert’s” stomach could be characterized as pillowy or cushiony. Because like “pudgy” those words suggest softness, but without the connotation of Robert as an overindulged man-child.

                • Terrence OBrien

                  Maybe more importantly, to me none of your suggestions carry the same meaning as “pudgy” as they give me the me ideas of strength and musculature whilst pudgy connotes softness and fat.

                  We don’t have pleasant equivalents for unpleasant descriptors. They are opposites. But we can describe the same person with pleasant or unpleasant words. It’s a choice. The author gets to use what he needs.

              • “…but what is the pleasant equivalent to “pudgy”?”

                Cushy. Zaftig. Rubensque.

                (Try asking BING about “rubenesque figure”.)

                Lois McMaster Bujold had some fun with that. For years they kept trotting out blondes, brunettes , redheads, all cute and willowy, for the young emperor. Then it turned out Gregor really liked girls with…meat…on them. 😉

                Minor detail: Miles’ friend was about to propose…

  7. …because everyone does.

  8. It’s not just Romance. In the Harry Potter series the bullies – and only the bullies – were obese.

  9. I found the article useful for Story. The comments, both here and there, useful as well.

    Thanks…

    I collect essays that point to the tropes that people are trapped in, then try to write to those tropes but twist the genre.

    – Essentially, one woman’s Romance, is another man’s Horror story.

    BTW, Been there, done that, and survived to tell the tale. Yikes!

    • – Essentially, one woman’s Romance, is another man’s Horror story.

      Oh, like some of the unwittingly creepy lyrics in songs. Madonna’s “Open Your Heart to Me” has her saying, “Don’t try to run; I can keep with you.” That line always had me picturing some poor man trying desperately to escape her clutches.

    • Yikes! Both examples are perfect.

      You can take just about any love song and twist it literally to produce a Horror story. Yikes!

      I’ve started a folder for the Madonna song. That is scary! Thanks…

      The twist doesn’t have to be Romance to Horror, it can be Horror to Romance.

      Black Widow 1987 trailer
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDQjTZvVXWU

      The killer disguised who she was each time she married, killing to get the money.

      When I saw the movie, I saw the twist:

      I saw a woman, who is Black and a Widow. She has buried four husbands. A male detective starts to investigate the woman. It turns out that she isn’t killing them for their money, she is a loving woman who knows how “to take care of her man.”

      They were all heavyset men who were tired of being nagged about their weight. She’s a great cook, fixes everything they love, and they died with a smile on their face. As he gets to know her he falls in love. The detective marries her.

      The story goes from:

      “Do you want more butter and salt on your bacon, sweet heart?”

      To:

      The day of his funeral, men are lined up at the gravesite to pay their respects, and to court the grieving Widow.

      Now that’s what I call Romance.

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