That J.K. Rowling Quote

The world is messed up you are fineA quote by J.K. Rowling (author of the Harry Potter series of books among others) has been making the rounds on social media again, and a number of people have asked me to discuss it.  The quote goes:

I mean, is ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’ or ‘cruel’?

I have mixed feelings about this.  First of all, I’m thrilled that an author with the fame and popularity of Rowling is speaking out about this, I’m grateful. We need more people like this speaking out. A lot of the people who e-mailed me about the quote mentioned that there was something about it that made them uncomfortable, but they couldn’t put their finger on it.

For me, it’s about the fact that the quote makes it seem like being “fat” is comparable to being “cruel.”  That is not the case – fat is a body size, and cruelty is a behavior that hurts others.  Also, in my own Size Acceptance work I hope to do a little better than my body being not “the worst thing” I can be. I’ll pass on the battle cry “We’re fat but at least we don’t stab people!”

Part of the issue is that this is actually part of a much longer statement (for which she may someday win an award for best use of the phrase “gust of stinking chihuahua flatulence”) which begins

“Fat’ is usually the first insult a girl throws at another girl when she wants to hurt her.

And is immediately followed by the part of the quote that gets passed around. It is significant because it gives us context – as I understand it she is saying that all of the things on her list are insults that girls throw at one another.  The bigger problem isn’t the quote, it’s the fact that body size is used as an insult because weight-based prejudice is highly developed in girls (in some cases very much on purpose) which is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Without the context it looks like Ms. Rowling thinks that the behavior of being cruel is comparable to having a fat body – to be clear I don’t think that’s what she was trying to say, but it’s the end result when the full statement gets truncated.

While I really enjoyed the Harry Potter books, this idea that fat people are bad/mean/lazy people does seem to come through in her writing.  I  think it’s particularly important for her to speak out about this since the fat characters in her books (though not all of them) tend to be bad people.  It’s possible that it’s a coincidence, or that it’s just my reading of it – others  may not feel the same way. Either way, I would love to see her write more positive fat characters.

Speaking out against the use of fat as an insult is important and I appreciate those who do so, including J.K. Rowling.

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22 thoughts on “That J.K. Rowling Quote

  1. I think the problem is the quote “Is it really *the worst* thing” – it implicates that being fat is somehow wrong (or bad), but that there are *worse* things that can go wrong with a person. I’m not sure, if she intendet it this way, but it’s a nice example of maybe good intentions going wrong with a careless phrase.
    Had she said “Is being fat really a bad thing? What about beeing cruel…” the whole thing would have changed, wouldn’t it?
    I liked her character Neville though – as the typical “fat kid”, he develops into the real hero of the piece. The HP books have many flaws, but this was one of the good bits, I thought. 😉
    Love Ela

  2. I don’t like it because she makes Harry’s cousin, fat, greedy and lazy. Then if I remember right Harry turns him and/or his aunt into a pig(s)

    So for me that is a huge nail in the “Don’t like” coffin.

    1. Harry’s cousin is lazy and greedy, and also fat. But Harry is not the one who gives him a pig tail. That would be Hagrid who does that, and Hagrid is hardly thin, but a good character. And Mrs. Weasley is far from lazy or greedy, but also fat.

      No doubt some of the language is problematic, and some of it makes me cringe when I read it now… but to be fair, she has positive fat characters, too. And negative thin ones.

      1. I haven’t read it since I was in grade 5 which was oh 13ish years ago now. That is really all I remember other then I really really hate the books.

    2. FWIW, Hagrid actually gave Dudley a pig’s tail, rather than turning him into a pig, after Dudley helped himself to Harry’s birthday cake uninvited.

      Not arguing with you, just clarifying. 🙂

  3. I think her books have problematic language about body sizes of all types, honestly. While yes, there are more issues with Dudley and Uncle Vernon, it’s not limited to just her fat characters.

    I am a HUGE fan of the books (I read the twice last year), but she doesn’t discriminate in terms of how she critically refers to body size. Aunt Petunia, for example, is described as “thin and blonde and has nearly twice the usual amount of neck.” Her thinness is frequently referred to, and she is in some ways an even less likable character than her fat husband. She’s petty, resentful, spiteful and jealous.

    And Mrs. Weasley is fat, and she’s a wonderful character. Also, as Ela said, Neville is another character who is fat, but becomes a major hero. Harry is frequently described in less than flattering terms himself, in fact.

    When I first read these books, I was not part of Size Acceptance, let alone FA. As I read them now, I cringe at times and wish she’d have used different language. But also, I understand she’s attempting to create vivid images. I don’t think she intends to be insulting to any body type in particular; but rather she’s attempting to describe the characters in as vivid detail as possible. But unfortunately, maybe particularly given the general viewpoint of so many where fat people are concerned, and where body image in general is concerned, her remarks about the characters are problematic, regardless of whether or not she intended for her words to be disparaging to all people of the body types she describes.

    If anything, I think the take away message – if one considers the way she describes various characters, both fat and thin – can be one of “bad people come in all shapes and sizes, and so do good people.” But I also understand how it doesn’t necessarily read that way to everyone, and furthermore because fat = bad is a much more dominant message than thin = bad, I can understand why the language related to fat characters is more problematic.

  4. Okay, now I’m torn, because I never thought of the HP books that way. I know Harry’s relatives that are mean and cruel are fat (well, some… his aunt was awful and skinny), but I always just attributed that to the theme about how he was being generally starved at their house, which was as much as anything a metaphor for his emotional growth.

    Plus, as mentioned above, it turned out that Neville, the chubby kid, turned out to be badass. And then most of the worst bad people *weren’t* fat. So, yeah, I’m ambivalent.

    As for the quote, I always took it as “So, with so many things that are actually wrong with people, *fat* is what you come up with for an insult? That’s dumb, and not even an insult.” Maybe I’m giving her too much benefit of the doubt because I really like her… I don’t know.

  5. I’d never seen this quote before, but I have to say I really dislike it. It seems to me very clear that she’s taking “fat” as a BEHAVIOR, just the way being “vindictive,” or “cruel,” or any of the rest of her list are behaviors. This seems to me just another slight twist on the tired old “you-choose-to-be-fat” theme; one could paraphrase the quote as “Among all the reprehensible behaviors out there, is fat (aka gluttony and laziness) really the worst? Isn’t cruelty an even worse behavior?”

    So, though I thought the books were okay, count me very much NOT a fan of this quote.

  6. I’ve begun to notice lately how often ‘bad’ characters are fat. It’s off-putting. I get even more annoyed when I look up the author and the picture shows a fat person.

    Then I remind myself that they are a product of our culture. The same culture that insists books for women must have a huge romance subplot, which also irritates me at time.

    It takes time and effort to change a culture. Just noticing these problems is a good start.

  7. I could be wrong, but I read it as calling the person using “fat” as an insult ridiculous. As in implying that it’s idiotic for a person to think that fat is worse than all the other adjectives mentioned, not that Rowling would think that herself.

  8. The quote (better in context but still not great) is a problem for me because it isn’t “stop using fat as an insult.” I’m done accepting anything less than “people of all body types should be given equal respect.” This “fat is an insult but why is it the first insult, there are other insults” bullshit is not a body positive statement. When I first read this quote in your post, my thought was “well, the fat shaming in the Harry Potter books angered me.”

  9. I don’t think her fat characters are always bad, in fact Neville Longbottom is described as chubby on the books and its kind of the hero at the end of the saga.
    Also Voldemort -while he is the evil in person- he is skinny as well as -i´ve noticed- most of Harry Potter’s villains are.
    I think its very important for the fat community to have a spoke person as famous as she is, we should embrace it!

  10. I think this quote in its entirety has a good message that to the unilluminated in body bias, can have some real resonance. And can serve as a rebuttal to horrible comments/trolls. Perhaps it would instead of creating backlash make the person think twice.
    I don’t know if J.K Rowling thought that her comment would be analysed so repeatedly, but perhaps she would have re worded it had she thought as much.

    As a HP fanatic as a teenager, I really loved the descriptions of characters of all sizes to bolster my own imagination – I truly think there are equal representation of all body sizes as good and evil. And as a fat teen I loved Mrs Weasley for being so similar to my own mother, and experiences of mothers, soft and huggable around the edges with a will of iron. I felt that Neville was also a wonderful and relatable character.

    (PS. love this blog. Cheers Emily, a dietitian in rural South Australia.)

  11. I think the reason she chose to put “fat” up against traits like vanity and cruelty serves to reinforce that fat is not a ppersonality trait – though some treat it as such. I think the whole idea is that your size and your appearance in general are not what makes you who you are. It’s your kindness or generosity or quick wit that embody your actual self. If a person has flaws, it’s in this arena, hence cruel, vindictive, etc. Fat is not a flaw; it’s just another type of body.

  12. Just read the quote… Now waiting for the thin folks to cry about discrimination in 3…. 2…. 1….

    My good deed for most days is to preach SA on the forum of a woman’s magazine. I’ll never run out of headdesky things there…

  13. I don’t have much to say about Rowling’s quote in particular, it seems to have been analysed here quite well already. However I’d like to address the discussion of fat characters/body acceptance in the HP novels. I have to say that Rowling’s representation of fatness in the books is one of the things about them that make me most uncomfortable. Obviously Vernon and Dudley are fat and awful, but a lot of people here are indicating that they think the inclusion of heavy individuals with positive characteristics balances this out. I have to disagree.

    Firstly, you’ll note that I used the more euphemistic ‘heavy’ when describing good fat characters. That was intentional. Look at the language Rowling employs to describe these characters; Mrs. Weasley is ‘plump’, Neville ’round’ and Hagrid and Madame Maxime are ‘large’ (due to their half-giant status). You compare that to the lavish descriptions of Vernon and Dudley’s weight (I believe in book 3 we hear that Dudley is ‘wider than he was tall’).

    Another way you can compare the way fat is depicted differently for the good and bad characters is how Rowling uses that trait as a part of characterisation. ‘Plump’ Mrs. Weasley fits a trope of a warm, soft, matron/motherly figure. Her weight evokes her nourishing food and comfort. ‘Round’ and ‘chubby’ Neville gives a sense of a young, awkward boy, still with a little puppy fat, who might be easy prey for a bully. As Neville gets older and more traditionally heroic (~books 5-7) we find his weight is no longer mentioned. (I think it may be impede that his work with he DA has made him fitter and therefore thinner?) Hagrid and Madame Maxime are ‘large’ because of their heritage, and although their exact size changes with every description they are presumably roughly in proportion with someone of average weight.

    All in all these are not particularly progressive depictions of fat individuals, but they are worlds better than what the Dursleys get. Making Vernon and Dudley fat is explicitly for the purpose of demonstrating how greedy and lazy they are. We hear about how Dudley doesn’t want to move between the fridge and the TV, about how they never exercise, about how they are only fat because of their massive overeating. Further, their fatness, rather than their abuse/bullying, is often what they end up getting punished for/with. When Dudley tries to eat some of Harry’s birthday cake (after having nothing to eat all day except one bag of crisps) Hagrid gives him a pig’s tail and makes fun of his size. In PoA Harry again gets cake while Dudley is forced onto an extreme ‘grapefruit only’ diet. When Dudley eats one of the twins’ WWW sweets he again gets transfigured against his will and without warning. Aunt Marge’s vile treatment of Harry results in her ‘blowing up’ (i.e. becoming even fatter).

    I just don’t think any of that can be mitigated by ‘Neville had a round face.’

      1. I agree. When the HP books came out I had never heard of Size Acceptance and bought into a lot of fat hatred myself, but even so I was VERY uncomfortable with how Dudley’s weight and appearance (he has “little piggy eyes”) are used as indications that he’s greedy, lazy, and stupid. I admit I haven’t read the books for years, but I don’t remember them as being *at all* positive about differences in body size.

        (As a professor, I was also deeply bothered by the casual acceptance of plagiarism and cheating as no big deal — Hermione routinel does Harry and Ron’s homework for them, which would get all three of them expelled in the real world! And I was bothered by the strict gender stereotyping in, for instance, the Weazley household. But those are all other issues.)

        1. Oof, the treatment of Dudley is really problematic – especially in the scene with Hagrid.

          After all, Dudley may have eaten someone else’s cake – but that wasn’t what Hagrid was yelling about. Rather, he yelled about the parents being disrespectful to *his* hero, and turned around and turned his anger on their *kid*. The reader knows Dudley is greedy, lazy, and cruel, and taking Harry’s food has history and context that makes it a problem, and maybe he deserves some chastisement… so they never notice, never, that Hagrid *didn’t* know that.

          He got angry at parents, he attacked a kid, he showed no remorse because said kid may have been taking someone else’s food (and was a kid, and hungry, and really that by itself isn’t worth a punishment needing surgery to correct). And was, yanno, visibly fat, so Hagrid could snicker about the kid being pig-like without remorse, without anyone realizing what he did was not justified by what he knew.

          And I do say “may”, because I recall that version, but also remember recently seeing a version where the cake wasn’t mentioned. Might be movie vs book, or different editions, or a pared down excerpt, but that is an extra layer of not-good.

          And in general, the books tended to substitute appearance or other bodily circumstances in for personality or other character choices in a way that makes my ears pin back.

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