Cover issues: plus-sized characters

Entertainment Weekly had a short feature in the books section of the latest issue that really got me thinking about first impressions and appearances – where both books and people are concerned. You see, there’s a reason why I don’t have a picture of myself as my avatar/gravatar/profile pic. I know that most of my blogging and Twitter friends have an image of me in their heads, though I would have no idea what that picture might be. I’m sure the most of you would be surprised to know that I’m a large woman. And not Reubenesque or slightly heavy for my height, but “Southwest Airlines would charge me for two seats” big.

I’ve always resisted putting photos of myself up online because of the first impressions or assumptions people make of me in real life – assumptions purely based on my appearance: lazy, no self-control, uneducated. That’s one of the things that I love about the blogosphere – people get to know me purely for my mind and from the words that I say, the books that I read.

I could give you a history lesson of all the reasons for my weight issues and food addiction: self-protection, hiding, shame, anxiety, depression, emotional eating. But that’s not what I want this post to be about. I want it to be about not hiding anymore, not worrying about the impression people online might have of me if they know what I looked like.

(Please don’t think I’m making light of the issue of obesity. Believe me, I know all the health issues, the reasons why I need to get a handle on it – and the past winter has been about starting to take those steps. It will be a long and painful journey, but one I know I need to take.)

And, I wanted to bring up the issue of book covers and plus-sized characters. The feature that Entertainment Weekly ran was about the covers of books with overweight protagonists, and how many of them feature a “normal-sized” person. (And let me say up front that I’m not blaming the authors of the books – just wondering why the publishing industry feels the need to do it.) Some examples:

The Wife’s Tale by Lori Lansens – The main character is described as weighing over 300 pounds. No way are those the legs of a 300-pound woman – unless she is 9 feet tall.

Size 12 is Not Fat by Meg Cabot – No, it’s not. So why did they put a much smaller-sized woman on the cover?

Life in the Fat Lane by Cherie Bennett – Do teenage girls really need the idea that if they can pinch some skin on their stomach, they’re fat?

Lilian’s Story by Kate Grenville – The main character is described as having “layers of fat” to protect herself from sexual abuse. So why does the cover model have chiseled cheekbones?

I could give you many more examples, but this post is taking long enough to write. Any good books with plus-sized characters to recommend? What do you think about the issue of misrepresenting characters on book covers – whether it is misrepresenting race or size or anything else?

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55 Responses to Cover issues: plus-sized characters

  1. Sandy
    Twitter: youvegottaread

    First of all Carrie, I commend you for saying everything that you did here. I know that wasn’t easy, and I’m so proud of you. And I know you are working on it. I’ve been down the gain and lose rollercoaster, and losing is torturous. Just torturous. It makes me wonder why and how I allowed the gaining to happen.

    This is also why I love blogging. It takes physical appearance out of the equation. You could be heavy, skinny, blind, bald, handicapped, or have one eye in the middle of your forehead, but all that matters is what is inside our hearts and minds. It is as close to utopia as we’re going to get.

    I think the issue at hand is similar to the white-washing issue we’ve run into time and again. Publishers don’t think the book-buying public want to see an African-American person on the cover of a book, even if the protagonist is black. Same deal with a plus-sized protagonist. I’ve always been so annoyed with that, and you came up with some excellent examples. I mean, I was aghast at The Wife’s Tale. Who wouldn’t want those legs? Who came up with that cover? One book that everyone loved (me not so much) was The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, about a woman who was not only heavy, but just big in general. And the cover didn’t mask that, which I appreciated. Great post Carrie!
    .-= Sandy´s last blog ..Sunday Salon: Slogging through molasses =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Thanks, Sandy – in one way, it was scary to write this post, but in another way it has been so freeing to feel like I’m not hiding anymore.

  2. Amy S. says:

    Good for you for making note that these covers are NOT “plus-size” women or representative of a 300-lb women (the legs), a size 12 (please!), and a book cover that shows a teen squeezing her stomach. For years I thought I was fat at 5’9″ and 145 pds. Now I’m at 175 pds and still want to lose 15 more.
    .-= Amy S.´s last blog ..The Melting Season: quickie review =-.

  3. I really appreciate this post because I feel like you poured your heart and soul into it. I don’t think characters should be misrepresented on book covers or in the media. Part of what makes humans interesting is our diversity – if we were all the same we would be a dull bunch!

  4. Carrie, this is a wonderful post. I am just like you, which makes me think about my blog theme. I’m a natural blond, I’ve never had a cat, and I’m heavy. The person who designed my blog had never seen me and I pretty much just gave her some colors I liked and there you have it. I do love my theme, but that image is not me. Then again, I’m not a housewife, either. Just a fun title. I guess my blog is kind of my alter-ego in many ways.

    I have struggled with my weight since I was in the third grade. I remember laying in bed, sucking in my stomach, praying to God to make me skinny when I woke up. That never happened. I was never obese, though, until after the first “love of my life” dumped me unkindly. Then my weight skyrocketed. I’ve twice lost most of the weight in my adult life, but I’m at the heavy end right now. Despite the stress eating of the past two weeks, I am working on it. We can make that journey in tandem.

    Regarding the book covers, I see very well what you mean. Skinny white women sell the books apparently. If I remember correctly, the cover of Jemima J by Jane Green had the legs of a larger model – maybe not exactly the size of the main character, but not a supermodel either.

    I haven’t traditionally put a lot of pictures up of myself either. Once I started meeting other bloggers, though, I didn’t really know what the point of hiding was anymore. Putting up my vlog was a big step for me.

    Great post!
    .-= Literate Housewife´s last blog ..#236 ~ O, Juliet =-.

  5. Michelle says:

    I’ve been seeing this issue around the blogosphere and like the minorities on covers issue, I think publishers need to pay attention and step up. While we may want to promote healthy weight, not everyone is a size 4. And it only makes things worse to pretend that everyone is (or should be).

    I know it must have been tough writing this blog post. And good luck with your attempts at achieving a healthier weight.
    .-= Michelle´s last blog ..The Sunday Salon 2-28-10 =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Thanks, Michelle! Hopefully that’s one thing that book bloggers can influence – telling publishers that we will still purchase books that have normal-looking people of every size or ethnicity on the cover.

  6. I’m so glad you posted this. I think this is just as important as the race issue. I’m sick of seeing all these thin thin girls in magazines and on book covers – women are so tyrannized by body image. (And articles accompanying the picture of the thin movie star invariably read “She never diets!” yeah, right) All that does is put pressure on girls and women to starve themselves and/or hate themselves and/or eat more. I am all in favor of protesting to the publishing industry on the perpetuation of this harmful practice!
    .-= rhapsodyinbooks´s last blog ..Black History Month: February 27, 1902 – Birthday of Marian Anderson =-.

  7. Trisha
    Twitter: Trish422

    Body image has to be the most pervasive and most under-appreciated issue. Whenever people talk about a “healthy weight” I cringe a bit. What exactly is a healthy weight? According to most charts I’ve seen, I should weigh 110 pounds (I’m about 5’3″). I haven’t weighed 110 since I was in fifth grade. The correlation between health issues and weight is not as drastic as people think. You can be healthy and chunky, especially in a society that considers anyone bigger than a size 8 to be overweight. I can play baseball, run, climb stairs, hike, roller blade, and so on, and I am nowhere near my 110 pound “ideal healthy weight”. Okay, enough of my rant. As for your “reasons” for your “weight problem”, I recommend saying what I do: I like food. It tastes good.

    You make such a wonderful point here. With all the hoopla over race issues, it’s nice to see someone plainly state an issue that gets ignored or eye-rolled. Thank you!
    .-= Trisha´s last blog ..Sunday Salon: No Fun Title =-.

  8. Wendy
    Twitter: bookishpelican

    Love, love, love this post. I couldn’t agree more!

  9. Pam says:

    all about vee is a good one too… great post!
    .-= Pam´s last blog ..Review: The Body Finder by Kimberly Derting =-.

  10. I also love about the blogosphere that I feel people get to know me first for my personality, so to say, though writing ability does play into things. It is limiting in its own way, something I’ve been thinking about lately.

    I am not smoking hot like blue girl nor do I have her lovely tresses my hair is thin and best kept rather short. But I still like her, something about the way she’s standing and looking out tugged at my heart when I was working with my designer….I think her original name was “lonely girl in winter” and that just fits me.

    But a funny thing is that I originally didn’t want to share a picture of myself because I look young. I still have people that think I’m 16 even though lines are starting to show up on my face. But I think I get discounted in life a lot for looking young and inexperienced and even when I tell people how old I am, they still treat me like a kid.

    Having said all of this, I think it would be nice if we could live in a world where things were accurately represented. I don’t know how to change that and I don’t know why we live in such a world of illusions. I don’t know why we buy into one perfect image no one can ever be. Basically, I just don’t know.
    .-= Amy @ My Friend Amy´s last blog ..The Very Informal Gone with the Wind and The Wind Done Gone Read-a-long =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Amy – I don’t know either. And it would be very frustrating to be discounted simply for looking young!

  11. Heidenkind says:

    ((((((HUGS)))))) Wonderful post, Carrie! I admit to seeing the cover of that Size 12 Is Not Fat book and finding it deeeeeply ironic that they had a picture of such a skinny woman on the cover.

    I can’t really think of any books besides that where the protagonists were over-weight, but I’m sure there has to be more.
    .-= Heidenkind´s last blog ..Musical Notes: Darkfever & Flat-Out Sexy =-.

  12. Marg
    Twitter: MargReads

    I am always reluctant to put pictures of myself up on my blog for exactly the same reasons as you. Every now and again I do, but I am definitely not loud and proud! In the last year I have lost some weight but I am really struggling with it and have a very long way to go.

    The thing with the controversy around white washing is that it focussed on just one type of cover that is sanitised, when there are a whole bunch of issues – size being just one other!

    Thanks for this post.
    .-= Marg´s last blog ..TSS: February reading round up =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Marg – I agree! I also agree that weight loss is a long journey – one thing Swapna mentioned in her review of The Wife’s Tale is liking the fact that losing weight wasn’t presented as something that could be accomplished by taking a magic pill. A lot of times books about overweight characters involve them waking up and realizing they need to lose weight – and then doing it easily. Well, I’ve woken up lots of times to that realization and it’s still freaking hard! LOL

  13. Excellent post, and one that needs attention, much like the whitewashing issue earlier this year with Bloomsbury.
    .-= Amanda (A Bookshelf Monstrosity)´s last blog ..Books by Theme: Autism in fiction =-.

  14. Cathy says:

    Has anyone ever noticed that the models for plus size clothing are really not overweight? Frankly I think it would be nice to open a catalog and get a fairly accurate idea of what an article of clothing would look like on me, but that’s not going to happen any time soon. Why? Because fat people don’t want to see themselves as fat. (I can say “fat” because I am.) If the plus size models being photographed for catalogs are over a size 12, sales in that company fall significantly. For many of us, being discriminated against is not enough; we must also discriminate against ourselves.
    .-= Cathy´s last blog ..Mailbox Monday– A Little of This, A Little of That =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Cathy – I have had that exact same thought about the plus-sized catalogs – very frustrating.

  15. Ronnica
    Twitter: RonnicaZ

    Thanks for sharing and sticking up for us bigger girls. I think it’s sad that publishers think (and probably correctly) that they have to “normalize” the people on their covers. Simply put, as a people, we’re not comfortable with people who fall outside a particularly culturally-accepted normal box. One great way to fight this IS for plus-sized people, non-white people, people with disabilities, etc. be put on covers.
    .-= Ronnica´s last blog ..Control Hog =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Ronnica – I agree – maybe if more people demanded accurate representation on book covers, the situation would change.

  16. Kathleen says:

    Thank you for your honesty and for bringing this issue to my attention in terms of the book covers…it is the whole whitewashing thing all over again but in a different format. Book publishers need to wake up and realize that we want to read books whose covers match their content!
    .-= Kathleen´s last blog ..What Kind of Future Might This Book Portend? =-.

  17. Catherine says:

    This is something I have been thinking about in recent weeks, as I have been making notes/outlining my NaNo project this year (yes, I know it’s a long way away), and its protagonist is a plus-sized teen girl. She started off as my size (and I’m a fair bit over the recommended weight for my height), but as my planning has progressed – and during my hunt for a “face” to cast her as – she’s actually gotten bigger than initially planned. She’s just as brave and determined and intelligent as she was before; it’d be sad if the only way people could advertise her awesome on a book cover was by making her skinnier than she is.

    (The other thing that I noticed while looking around for Gabby-related stuff was that American sizings are weird.)
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..March Madness Writing Challenge! =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Catherine – I don’t really think that authors have much control over the cover art of their books, unfortunately. I think that’s part of the problem – they know the characters better than anyone – why shouldn’t they have a say in the cover?

      • Catherine says:

        No, they don’t have much control over it. Sometimes they are listened to (“hey, s/he’s actually Asian/black/fat/brunette” “Okay then, we’ll fix that”) and sometimes they aren’t. Authors might not know what best font or layout etc. they used, but they sure as anything know when something so important is simply not right, and they should be listened to regarding that.
        .-= Catherine´s last blog ..March Madness Writing Challenge! =-.

  18. Allie says:

    This is such a great post! Thank you so much for adding your perspective to the issue. I noticed Jennifer Weiner commenting on this on Facebook the other day. I haven’t read the EW article, but it has attracted a lot of attention.
    .-= Allie´s last blog ..Don’t Look Back . . . =-.

  19. Melissa
    Twitter: avidreader12

    This is a great post! Thanks so much for sharing. I saw that feature in EW too and I was really glad they pointed that out. It’s so frustrating to see a picture of a skinny woman on a book that’s all about an obese made character realizing her weight does not define who she is. Ugh! Stupid publishers. Thanks for blogging about it and allowing us to see a bit more about who you are, not your physical attributes, but the sincere person who is so much more than that!
    .-= Melissa´s last blog ..Book Reviews =-.

  20. Aarti says:

    This is my first visit to your blog, but it won’t be my last. What a wonderful post!

    One book that springs to mind for me is How to Buy a Love of Reading. There is no girl on the cover, and I didn’t particularly like the story, but I liked the protagonist, who is an overweight girl. Not sure if that is a glowing recommendation, but she was very real and kind and strong.

    I think the overweight thing is an issue across the board- in books, in magazines, in movies, in everything. It just seeps into our consciousness and makes every girl just feel miserable and imperfect, when really, everyone looks good at a different weight. Not everyone looks good skinny- a lot of people look sick or wan. And I think it’s something people need to look at consciously, just like the race thing. I know it’s a business, but it’s not JUST a business. I feel there should be a moral responsibility, too. If we let younger kids have all sorts of people in different shapes and colors in their books, why can’t we show adults the same respect?
    .-= Aarti´s last blog ..With Reverent Hands: The Last Temptation of Christ =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Aarti -thanks so much for stopping by – I’ve been a reader of your blog for a long time! and I already have How to Buy a Love of Reading on my wish list, but didn’t realize the protagonist was overweight. I agree – just because the publishing industry is out to make money doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a responsibility to portray people accurately.

  21. Anna says:

    I’ve always had weight issues, and like you, I’ve been reluctant to post photos of myself on my blog and elsewhere. So I hear where you’re coming from. I’ve wondered the same thing about book covers…and the media in general. There’s so much emphasis on beauty, and the media’s idea of beauty and my idea of beauty are two different things.
    .-= Anna´s last blog ..Review: The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Anna – I agree – beauty is not defined by size or appearance. I’ve met so many beautiful people online and I have no idea what they look like!

  22. Debbie
    Twitter: debworldofbooks

    I also wrote about this article. I feel like you. I am way overweight so I hate putting pictures of myself online. I also feel much more self conscious about myself even though online most people have no clue what I look like.

    I know a lot of people say they rather see a realistic book cover but I truly wonder if any one of these books did portray say a 200 or 300lb woman how many people would pick it up unless they had already heard something good about the book. It’s like magazine covers. I think people are naturally drawn to slimmer, attractive images. I’ve even read that overweight people tend to get paid a little lower than those who are not overweight because subconsciously people judge them differently. It’s sucks but that is the stereotype most of us were brought up with.
    .-= Debbie´s last blog ..Circle of Friends Book V: Heather by L. Diane Wolfe =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Debbie – I agree – it stinks. But how will people ever change their flawed thinking if we don’t try to portray people as more realistically? I don’t know what the answer is – I just know it bugs me. 🙂

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  24. Carrie, this is a fantastic post — thank you for sharing your thoughts on this issue. I’m also bothered by this: I was so disappointed that Kevin Spacey was chosen to portray the main character in The Shipping News, who was a much bigger man. What I don’t get, in the case of the book covers that you posted above, is if they don’t want to show a plus-size character on the cover, why not use some other image? The Wife’s Tale looks like it has a kid on its cover! And the cover of Life in the Fat Lane is just ridiculous and harmful to teens.

    I also hesitate to post photos of myself on my blog because I’m overweight.

    I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to comment on this post!
    .-= avisannschild´s last blog ..Conscience Point by Erica Abeel (a review) =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Avis – This post has seemed to hit a nerve for a lot of people – I just hope the publisher’s sit up and take notice.

  25. CelticLady

    Carrie, this is a great post. I also am overweight and have been for mostof my life. I was thin in highschool but not the thin that is the norm for girls now. I have curves in all the right places. First hubby came along and so did the weight problem. He went out the door and after having my son, I lost a lot of weight, back to the curves. New hubby came along and 2 more children and the added weight. Just could not get rid of it. I have been on a standstill for the last few years, I do not lose but I do not gain either. Being overweight has cause some health issues, diabetes and stress on the joints. Unfortunately I would love to be on a program but I have such pain issues from the degenerative joint disease and arthritis that moving around has become quite difficult. I have had 2 spinal fusions, double carpal tunnel surgery. A scope done on my right knee and surgery on the left knee consisted of removing cartilage, 3 scopes to clean out the arthritis, a partial knee replacement, a total knee replacement and on the April 20th I am having a revision or replacement of the replacement from before. I also have a Labral tear in my right hip which there isn’t much they can do right now so will most likely need a total hip done. I am still having pain from the neck and have lower back pain. One of my daughters has said “Dear Mr. Frankenstein, I want my Mom back”. So to sum all that up is is extremely difficult to do the exercise needed to assist in weight loss. I commend you Carrie for telling your story, it makes it easier forthe rest of us to admit to our shortcomings. I thing it is terrible the image that young women and girls have to be to be popular. Thin is not in as far as I am concerned a healthy weight yes but not skeletal. Good luck to you and everyone else that is struggling with issues pertaining to their bodies. We all have to support each other and try to do what is right for us. The question about the book covers, simply put is way off. These publisher need to look past the dollar sign and put on the covers the correct immage that should be portrayed. I will get off my soapbox now…..
    .-= CelticLady´s last blog ..Another Review and Giveaway =-.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      CelticLady – thanks so much for your honest comment! I know exactly where you’re coming from – the issues of weight problems goes so much deeper for people than simply, “eat less, exercise more.” I wish you luck in your journey. 🙂

  26. Kiley says:

    I’m almost 300lbs and my legs look almost that good.
    Honestly though, I agree entirely about all the book covers.

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