From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

All the King’s Women: the Fats

Stephen King hates fat people.

Like all fat people, but especially fat women, I have to accept that most of the creators I admire and respect have intractable issues with my body. They feel perfectly entitled to use it as a joke, or as the site of horror and degradation, or a proof of failure, or a metaphor for avarice, sexlessness, and/or evil. I must also prepare myself for interactions where my body is in danger (hospitals, doctors offices, interactions with the law) for the derision and devaluation my body will be afforded, because that hatred seeps through fiction to fact, from joke into policy, and is obvious at every level of public interaction.

The tropes of fat hatred are so deeply embedded in our culture as to be some of the lowest hanging fruit, suitable for the laziest writers looking for the simplest shorthand and not caring whose caricature they are painting for the thousandth unoriginal time. King, one of the most influential and widely read American authors of all time, should be better than this, but he isn’t. He has presented fat bodies in a hateful, derisive light for four decades, and he has not learned to do better in all that time. It’s not one character, in one book. It is his pattern.

Let’s examine the evidence of King’s campaign of fat hatred.

King’s 1986 novel, IT, is a gripping and memorable yet controversial novel about how terror in childhood and adulthood take on different shapes but present the same challenge. The story’s titular villain can take on any shape: werewolf, giant spider, and of course the sewer clown, Pennywise. But King pens page after page of prose frightening the reader about fat women, if there are no other monsters available.

Eddie Kaspbrak is an utterly stock character: the sickly kid. He’s small for his age and skinny. He’s always got an inhaler in his mouth, gasping through imagined asthma at any moment of tension. But his asthma is not the product of his own imagination; it is his mother’s invention.

Eddie needs an inhaler only because his mother is awful. She’s a hypochondriac, and her treatment of her only son verges on Munchausen’s by Proxy. She’s overbearing and overprotective, creating an environment in which Eddie is afraid to make friends or ever find a reason to leave her.

All of this would be enough to make readers hate Mrs. Sonia Kaspbrak, but just in case they don’t see it: she is also fat. Her body is described with utter disgust, in terms of breadth and swelling, how suffocating her massive breasts can be when she crushes Eddie to her large body. Sonia Kaspbrak dies a fat person’s nightmare death; a coronary that causes her body to block the entrance to her home and necessitate showy measures for its removal.

King’s distaste is clear, but he’s not done. When Eddie grows up, he marries a fat girl named Myra. Naturally, she looks just like his mother (in the 2017 two-part film, they are played by the same actress.) Myra is weak and solicitous where Sonia was domineering and rude, but it’s the same story. Myra keeps Eddie from joining a tennis club, from having a healthful life of any kind. They stop having sex for some reason (despite the fact that she was fat when they got married, and fat women have sex all the time) and her size is given as an acceptable and clear answer as to why they have no children. Myra Kaspbrak is a self-hating fat woman, concerned that she cannot perform her job as a chauffeur or fit into any uniform she owns for their limousine service. Her body is described in dehumanizing terms: she’s a horse, she’s a hog. King also loves to describe fat women’s bodies as “swelling like comber-waves in the sea.”

I know that he loves it, because this exact same descriptor comes up again in King’s 1983 short story, “Word Processor of the Gods.” Here, too, a decent guy is saddled with that most terrible of burdens: a fat wife. Here, too, the fat woman is selfish, a screeching harridan, a greedy bitch whom no one could possibly desire. King’s protagonist unmakes the couple’s child and stresses that, in a life where they had no offspring, the wife becomes fatter still, cruelly describing hers as a life where everything goes into her body, but nothing comes out. Lina, the woman in this story, is literally written out of existence by the titular wonder, to be replaced by her thinner sister-in-law, so that the writer in the story can be rid of his own mistakes without guilt or the expense of a divorce.

King’s 1980 short story “The Wedding Gig” lacks the description of fleshly combers, but once again casts a fat woman in the pitiable role: Maureen Scollay is a self-loathing fat bride who takes control of a mafia empire with naked aggression and aplomb during her own wedding reception, but even this does not liberate her from King’s scorn. He ends the story with the darkly hinted rumors that success and grief made Maureen even fatter; the real sin of a murderer and mafia queenpin was and always will be that she was too big for her white dress.

This derision King shows is gendered, but it is not solely applied to all the King’s women. He also clearly hates his fat male characters.

Returning to IT, Ben Hanscom is the fat whipping boy of the doorstopping horror classic. His friends call him “Haystack,” after Kayfabe-era wrestler Haystack Calhoun, who famously tipped the scales at over 600lbs. Ben is subjected to humiliations both large and small for his size, but the worst castigations come from the pen of his creator. Anytime Ben runs, King narrates hot and heavy how much Ben hates the sensation of his bouncing tits and pendulous gut. Whenever Ben considers his crush on Beverly, the ubiquitously desired girl of the Loser’s Club, he must at some point comment on his own undesirable flesh as part of the equation. Everyone, from the evil clown on down, calls Ben “fat boy.” Although he is a brilliant kid, an architect and a poet, a brave fighter against both bullies and monsters, everyone remarks first and last on his body. Ben is shamed and abused into losing weight by a high school P.E. teacher who touches his body with revulsion by way of motivation, serving up yet another terrible lesson on how King feels about fatness and the people who live it.

In King’s 1978 dark fantasy magnum opus The Stand, the great writer’s fat flogging post is Harold Emery Lauder. Harold is also described in dehumanizing terms, his fat communicating his weakness, his lack of character, and his lasciviousness to the reader at a glance. Like many fat characters, Harold is also a coward with bad hygiene and an unevolved sense of self-awareness. King is somewhat kinder to Harold than to Ben; perhaps because the characters in The Stand are facing the drastic reduction of the human population and even the assholes are precious. Harold is brilliant, like Ben. Harold is gifted by the narrative with a beautiful woman as a consolation prize, like Ben.

Fat is feminizing to both characters; their masculinity is held hostage by their own round asses and enlarged breasts. Both of these examples ransom it back by losing the weight. Ben puts himself on a diet and a running regimen designed to get revenge on a cruel gym teacher. His transformation is swift and satisfying; thinness lasts him through adulthood, and he is unfailingly remarked upon in King’s long descriptions as the kind of guy who could take home any woman he wants.

Harold, under conditions of post-apocalyptic privation and unremitting labor, gets thinner, too. He loses his feminine curvature (not to mention his acne) to time spent in the sun, doing archetypally-described honest work. Harold is not truly redeemed; his thinness does not save him from betrayal and a terrible death. But it does allow him to take on a new name and see himself in a new light. He gains what Ben Hanscom calls in his own story “a little dignity and a little peace” by doing the only thing a fat character is allowed to do to become better: losing weight. King works precisely, over the course of a thousand pages, to make the reader first hate Harold, then to pity him, and finally perhaps to love him for a fool who couldn’t be any better than this fate allowed. His weight loss is a concrete and undeniable part of his arc toward something like redemption.

This is an aspirational narrative; fat people in our culture are encouraged toward no other goal quite the way they are goaded toward weight loss. Prodigious and maintained weight loss are applauded with greater fanfare than finishing a PhD or opening a business. Americans love nothing so much as a set of before and after pictures. No other image provides positive proof that an individual can control their own destiny quite like Oprah dragging a wagon full of lard. No moment is as humiliating as when Myra Kaspbrak begs her husband not to leave by promising to stuff him with food. No moment is as triumphant as Ben Hanscom giving the skinny finger to his gym teacher.

No fat woman King has ever written has achieved anything like that moment of triumph. I’m no fan of the moral arc of a fat person becoming better and achieving their dreams primarily via weight loss, but King won’t let any fat female character recover her dignity by even that dreary and predictable means. King’s fat men lose weight and gain our respect. King’s fat women stay fat and get fatter. Their fat defines them, and drags along the classic comorbidities of greed, stupidity, and weakness.

In his 1979 short story “Quitters Inc.,” King devises a system by which women are punished if men gain weight. Under a draconian and 100% successful rehab process for nicotine users, if the new non-smoker gains too much weight in the process of quitting, the organization sends someone to chop off his wife’s little finger. This is a fascinating combination of motivating a male character through the abuse of his female partner (not a fridge, perhaps, but a mini-fridge) and expanding the concept of joint ownership of the body. Throughout King’s work, men are portrayed as the victims of their wives’ weight gain; in “Quitters Inc.,” women are made to suffer in a much more concrete fashion for their husbands’ unruly bodies. There are no couples in the story that feature a husband whose wife is trying to quit smoking; the torture never appears on the other hand. The distribution of guilt for weight gain is always biased in a King story.

The only time Stephen King’s fat women get any relief is in one brief aside in 1980’s Firestarter, when psychic protagonist Andy McGee uses his MK-Ultra powers to convince a group of paying dieters to stop overeating and go on walks; theories of weight loss that they’ve clearly tried before. However, these women lose weight due not to their actions, but to a literal magical intervention of male willpower.

With a career spanning five decades and dozens of books, it’s natural that some of King’s early work feels problematic and dated to audiences now. It is easy to pick a few books from the unenlightened eighties or the clumsy nineties to malign a writer with a long and distinguished career. From Needful Things to Thinner, King’s attitudes reflect terrible times for diet culture and fat acceptance. However, it is harder to read his 2020 release If It Bleeds. King has not learned much since his early days; evidenced in his depiction of a tertiary character, a fat woman whose children are missing in the aftermath of a bombing. Despite her reason for existing in the story as a representative of community distress in the wake of tragedy, King spends more words on how “vastly overweight” she is, how she “billows” as she moves, and most critically, how she “will be very lucky to survive the day without having some sort of cardiac episode,” than on anything else about her. The character recites the names of her missing children, but never her own.

In 2021’s Billy Summers, it’s the same old fatphobic song. King writes corpulent mobsters who waddle and gobble, who have no other characteristics besides fatness and the avarice and incaution he always groups with the fat body. When the eponymous hitman dons a fake silicone belly to bolster a false identity, an accomplice tells him to put on a sweatshirt to cover his assumed bulk. “It’s what fat people do,” she tells him. It makes me want to reach through the page and say: There’s a reason for that, Steve. You’re the reason for that.

Knowing from experience as well as documented research the dangerous medical implications of fatphobia makes me think about where doctors and nurses gain their expectation that every fat person they see is like the ones they know from books: hypertensive, diabetic, and noncompliant. I think about the books these future health care providers might have read long before college and residency. I think about Stephen King, who has lain at the mercy of an army of doctors when he was struck by a van on the side of the road in 1999, breaking his leg and hip, puncturing his lung, and bashing the brain that has brought the world so many wonderful stories. King had the advantage of lying before doctors who thought his life was worth living and his body was worth mending. No one wrote novels for his nurses to read that tell them that he was destroying his body by living in it, that he was mere minutes away from a heart attack and heroic measures would be wasted on him. They worked to save him, because his life was worth saving.

Is mine? If they saw me lying on the table and thought of Myra/Sonia Kaspbrak, newly brought back bigger than life by actress Molly Atkinson in the 2017 adaptation of IT, would they work as hard to save me?

Americans see fat people every day. We know them and love them; we work with them and we know they have sex lives and ambitions, that they do more than hate themselves and heave and cry. After all, we are them. We respond to these stories, to all of King’s stories, because we recognize ourselves and others in them. But if the books we read and the movies we watch make fat bodies into portals to horror or the butt of the joke, do we see ourselves clearly or kindly? Not in the Stephen King literary/cinematic universe. Not in 1974, not in 2021.

Other writers are building better on the foundations of what we grew up reading. Folks like Matt Wallace, Sarah Hollowell, Sarah Gailey, Jennifer Weiner, Kate Stayman-London, Julie Murphy, Roxane Gay, Carmen Maria Machado, Alex Smith, Hilary Monahan, Amy Spalding, Marianne Kirby, Jody Houser, Nalo Hopkinson, Melissa Broder, and many others are writing books and stories where fat people have sex, go on adventures, save the day, and live lives like the ones we recognize. A whole generation of writers who inherited derision and erasure from writers like King will go on fattening that inheritance, making it our own. Writers like King may never notice or reform, and that’s just fine. We do it for each other and for the people like us who need these stories. We do it so that thin old men who hate the fat body aren’t the only ones on the shelf in horror, in fantasy, in science fiction, or anywhere.

Stephen King is a rich and inventive multiverse unto himself, populated by interconnected horrors and wonders that have terrified and electrified millions of readers, myself included. He is a blue-collar everyman white novelist whose fears look familiar to us, because his vision is the one that has always been accepted, just as his body is the kind that must always be protected. But he still writes a fat body—my body—as one of the scariest things in all the many worlds.

Good thing there are other worlds than these.

Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a science fiction author and feminist essayist. Her debut, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, won the 2014 Philip K. Dick award. She is a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. In 2020, she published her first collection, Big Girl, with PM Press, containing the Locus Award-winning novelette, “The Pill.” Elison’s first young adult novel, Find Layla, was published in 2020 by Skyscape. Her thriller, Number One Fan, will be released by Mira Books in 2022. Meg has been published in McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and many other places. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley. You can find her online at megelison.com and on Twitter @megelison.