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.
The link between being a hero and being shaped like a Greek statue or post-serum Steve Rogers is so strong that the moment a male in the book is given a physical trait shy of perfection, I know the author is telling me to write him off. He may be the villain. He may be the pathetic and repugnant distraction Busybody Neighbor or Meddling Mom is pushing the main character to settle for. He may be a harmless ally or supportive you-go-girl buddy. What he can never be is the heroic object of sexual desire.
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.
How about a historical? Our heroine finds herself face-to-face with Mr. Grant in a crowded ballroom. Suddenly,
A rotund body inserted itself between her and Mr. Grant. ‘‘I believe this is my dance,” Lord Kelston interjected.”
Oh, buzz off, Lord Kelston. You may have the title, but she’s all in for Mr. Grant.
A lean, powerful body inserted itself between her and Mr. Grant. “I believe this is my dance,” Lord Kelston interjected.
Thank goodness a sexy, possessive someone is here to save her from settling for the likes of Mr. Grant!
The officer thoughtfully tapped a pencil against his chiseled jaw. He leaned forward, causing his uniform to stretch across his broad shoulders. “I could make the ticket go away,” he acknowledged. “If it’s worth my while.”
Ooh. Sexy fantasy cop.
The officer thoughtfully tapped a pencil against his second chin. He leaned forward, causing his uniform to stretch across his wide stomach. “I could make the ticket go away,” he acknowledged. “If it’s worth my while.”
Ugh. Corrupt rapist cop.
I could do this all day. So could you.
Whether a romance reader is overweight or not, or male or not, “a fat man can never be a hero” is a toxic message for them to receive and internalize. Authors, using weight as shorthand characterization is cruel as well as lazy.
~ Caroline Russomanno
I'm a history geek and educator, and I've lived in five different countries in North America, Asia, and Europe. In addition to the usual subgenres, I'm partial to YA, Sci-fi/Fantasy, and graphic novels. I love to cook.