Understanding the Need for Body Diversity in Comics

NOTE: The usage of the words "fat" and "thin" in this editorial are not pejorative.

The characterizations of fat bodies in pop culture have long been relegated to a punch line, an undateable friend, an object lesson or a villain lost to excess. Fat has been an obstacle to overcome, where a fat person begins a story as something less than, something incomplete, something that must change in order to receive the same experiences other bodies are given freely. Characters are allowed to be fat as long as they are trying to become thin, or as long as they provide some sort of entertainment to others. They are rarely established as objects of desire, as heroes, as people we can admire. Fat bodies generally aren't allowed to have the same power as thin ones, lacking the cultural capital to stand on their own as the star of a story worth telling.

Comics, in particular, have a major deficit in all kinds of body diversity, but notably in showcasing fat characters as people of value. And that's a miss. Stories are a place where we can learn compassion, where we can break down the phobias, where we can get a different view of humanity. They are a way we communicate the common struggles groups of people experience. By failing to include a range of body types, creators are effectively saying they don't see them; that they are unappealing and deserve to be left out. They can only exist if they play by certain rules, or take up an inconsequential amount of space -- they can't be superheroes because no hero could ever be fat. They can't be femme fatales because they aren't sexy. But those limited perceptions, dictating what a body can't be because of its appearance? It's time for those to change. Comics can idealize, but why are ideals so narrow? We say that comics are for everyone and that means everyone should be able to see themselves in a book -- while not every book needs to meet the needs of every person, we shouldn't be left wandering aisles at our LCS asking, "But where am I?"

The experiences of a fat body are complicated -- I am fat, and have been for most of my life. I've been expected to comply with traditional beauty standards, given substandard treatment due to my appearance, had assumptions made about my health and abilities because of my body. I have been told I'm not allowed to fully accept myself because of my weight. I've been told I should not expect the same life experiences as thin people, including healthy love, sex and the ability to find stylish clothing. It's completely acceptable to discriminate against fat bodies, to shame them, to attempt to control them in their perceived absence of self-control, or to use them as a scapegoat for failure. My body, a fat woman's body, is everyone's business, and I am constantly expected to receive other people's advice on it. The most transgressive thing I can possibly do as a fat woman is to love myself, thoroughly and without apologies. That sort of struggle, and others like it, aren't so dissimilar from origin stories of superheroes coming to terms with their power.

It wasn't until recently that I found multiple mainstream comics where I could relate to a character's body type. In the past few years, I've seen more positive body diversity than ever before. While, yes, there have been fat characters in past comics, the important thing to me is seeing that diversity in mainstream, widely accessible books people don't have to hunt for. It's about seeing characters that are more than a safe fat stereotype. It's about comics with diverse bodies being visible in stores, on shelves, and in previews.

So here are some of my favorite characters who are giving me hope that body diversity will become more prominent, validating readers who have missed seeing themselves included for far too long. Their creators have challenged stereotypes, defied expectations, and opened up a world of storytelling for fans to connect to -- with hopefully more to come.

Amie from "Power Up" (BOOM! Studios)

by Kate Leth and Matt Cummings

The adorable, chubby Amie is a normal girl with a boring retail job who becomes imbued with magical-girl powers, but without the sameness of the classic thin, white, magical girls we're used to. Amie's body is never part of the storyline, nor is it a topic of discussion. Leth and Cummings normalize all different body types without having them be their sole identifying factor.

Violet and Dee from "Rat Queens" (Image Comics)

by Kurtis Wiebe and Tess Fowler

Violet is a thick, sturdy, bearded warrior with a sexy orc boyfriend and a huge ax. Dee is a powerful priestess with robust thighs and natural looking pear shape. "Rat Queens" gets so many things right about women, but particularly the variety of shapes our bodies come in. The Queen's weights are never a subject of the story -- they are too busy getting laid, mixing it up and saving Palisades. A strong community of cosplayers sprung up around the book practically overnight, including a burlesque troupe that pays homage to the badass babes -- yet another reason why showcasing a variety of bodies is meaningful.

Penny Rolle from "Bitch Planet" (Image Comics)

by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro

When Penny asked, "Where'm I s'posed to put my tits?!" in "Bitch Planet" #1 while examining her insufficient uniform, I burst into actual tears and insane laughter. I am not a woman of color, nor have I ever been incarcerated, but in that moment I related to her so deeply that none of that mattered. Like the other protagonists of "Bitch Planet," Penny is non-compliant. She is unrepentantly fat, righteously angry, and unswayed by her captors' attempts to infuse her with body shame. De Landro draws her with angles, asymmetric curves, slopes and evidence of gravity -- her body is realistically fat, not safe and benign. She is aggressive, she demands to take up space, and it's impossible to look away from her.

Wuvable Oaf from "Wuvable Oaf" (Fantagraphics Books)

by Ed Luce

Oaf is a large, hairy gay man who is obsessed with cats, Morrissey and metal. He's also endearingly naive about the ways of love, and although many men desire him sexually (he's a prototypical bear in the parlance of the scene), Oaf is really looking for romance. His body is fetishized at times, made fun of at other times, and is something Oaf vacillates between loving and apologizing for. The struggle with his body image is relatable -- while he wants to be desired, he longs for it to be sincere and not just based on the archetype he represents.

Zephyr from the upcoming "Faith" (Valiant Entertainment)

by Jody Houser and Francis Portella

The first images from this upcoming series show Faith Herbert, teenage reporter, as her radiant alter ego, Zephyr. When this book was announced, I immediately whooped with joy. She looks like women I know! She has large calves, a visible tummy outline and round cheeks! Her body is drawn so lovingly that I have to believe the team on this series cares about giving her a fully developed story. I cannot wait to read it.

Kingpin from "Marvel's Daredevil" on Netflix

Portrayed by Vincent D'Onofrio

I know I was focusing on printed comics, but I was so impressed with Vincent D'Onofrio's portrayal of Wilson Fisk that I had to include it. So rarely do we see characters who are fat, attractive and respected. This Fisk is handsome, almost fastidiously so, paying close attention to stylish grooming. In other stories, conforming to societal norms can help a character make up for having an "unacceptable" body; their adherence to one set of expectations can still give them a place in society. He is not defined nor limited by his body -- in fact, the size of his body is used to convey menace and strength as well as sexuality.

Other notable mentions:

"This One Summer" by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki (First Second); "Zodiac Starforce" by Kevin Panetta and Paulina Ganucheau (Dark Horse Comics); "Jem and the Holograms" by Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell (IDW Publishing); and "Steven Universe," created by Rebecca Sugar (Cartoon Network, comic published by BOOM! Studios).

Avatar: The Last Airbender -- Imbalance
Avatar: The Last Airbender - Imbalance Reveals the Origin of [SPOILER]

More in Comics