One of the great joys of romance novels is their fundamental optimism. They reassure us that obstacles—everything from lingering childhood hurts to zombie apocalypses—can be overcome. That love can find us even under the most unlikely, humdrum, or harrowing circumstances. That happy endings are still possible, even in a very imperfect world filled with very imperfect people.
I’ve read romances since the age of seven or so, shortly after my mother pointed out the stack of dog-eared books in her closet and declared them off-limits. The next time I found myself unsupervised in the vicinity of her bedroom, of course, there was no stopping me. I basically dove headfirst into that pile of paperbacks.
I emerged transformed.
It was the early 1980s, and my mom was apparently really into pirates back then. So the stories featured plenty of buccaneers kidnapping spunky heiresses, as well as a few industrialists seducing naïve yet spunky virgins, and several cowboys wooing lonely—but spunky—young widows.
As it turned out, I loved almost all those books, regardless of their settings and plots, for a reason that only became clear to me far later: As a kid growing up in fraught family circumstances, I needed the reassurance that romances offered. I craved happy endings. And from the moment I reached the final page of that first forbidden novel, I never looked back. I became a lifelong romance reader before I even understood what all the persistent throbbing was about.
Around that same age, I also became undeniably fat. Which would have been hard enough, because the world is not especially kind to fat kids—but I was also grappling with what it meant to have a father who considered fatness to be a source of shame and fat people unattractive, best hidden far from the public eye.
So there I was, a fat girl soon to grow into a fat woman, struggling to believe that I was still loveable in my bigger body. Desperate to be told that someday in my future, I could be fat and be wanted, I could be fat and be adored, and I could be fat and have my own happy ending with someone far, far different from my father. And what genre could be better suited to offer that type of comfort than romance?
Only it didn’t, except on very—very—rare occasions.
Fat people rarely showed up on the pages of the romances I read, and when they did, it wasn’t often a pleasant reading experience. Mostly, they served as side characters. Often greedy or evil. Generally lazy or figures of mockery. Sometimes comic relief, because who could take their humanity seriously or consider them believable objects of desire?
There were basically no fat male main characters, and the vanishingly few fat female main characters almost always appeared in stories that somehow revolved about their weight and/or food. Their books, which I acquired and jealously hoarded, had titles like Just Desserts or A Whole Lotta Woman, because fatness couldn’t simply be incidental to the plot. No, it had to be A Big Deal. An obstacle to overcome or an issue to grapple with, more important than any other aspect of the characters’ lives. They couldn’t simply fall in love like everyone else.
It usually hurt to read those books. But at least it was a reflection of myself on the page, however distorted.
In general, though, people with bodies like mine were simply…absent. As if we lived in a world filled only with thin people, or as if happy endings were fundamentally incompatible with fatness.
I read thousands upon thousands of romances before the rise of self-publishing, and taken as an aggregate, the unspoken message was unmistakable. Unless you were thin, you didn’t get romance or a happy ending. Love might overcome any number of obstacles, but not fatness. And if you weren’t white, cishet, abled, or Christian either…well, good luck to you.
When self-publishing began, marginalized authors of all sorts kicked open doors long shut to them and wrote their own romances, featuring people who looked and lived and loved like them. For the first time, I was able to regularly see some version of myself finding happiness on the page, and the experience transformed me as fundamentally as that initial paperback in my mother’s closet, because words are powerful. Representation is powerful. Especially when stories that allow joy and love for marginalized people are still far too rare.
I was fortunate enough to begin writing romances after some space had already been cleared in the genre for authors like me who wrote fat characters like mine, both in self-publishing and traditional publishing. Nevertheless, writing about people with fat bodies falling in love still feels revolutionary and revelatory to me each time. It feels like an affirmation of myself and my own worth, and it feels like a hopeful offering to everyone struggling with body image issues.
It also feels like a long-belated message to me as a child, sitting in my mother’s closet, looking for myself in book after book after book. Seven years old. Fat. Lonely. Already uncertain of my lovability. Bound for a future of rapid weight loss and even more rapid weight gain and an intimate familiarity with both the diet industry and disordered eating.
I wish I could tunnel through time and space, hold my younger self, and tell her what she needed so badly to hear: That in time, she would be desired and loved. That there was nothing wrong with her. That someday, she’d see herself in so many stories, including ones she herself wrote.
I’d hand her a loaded e-reader and a towering stack of paperbacks, and I’d explain to her how seeing a version of herself loved on page would make it easier to love herself.
That girl is gone forever. I can’t reach her. But it is absolutely my intent and my privilege to write stories that would have changed her world and her conception of herself.
It’s the best I can do for her.
I think—I hope—she’d be proud.