Dudley Dursley and The Over-Indulged Fat Child Straw Man
Today, I want to address a straw man* that is often implicitly invoked in media and pop culture references to the so-called childhood “obesity” epidemic.** To do this, I’m going to be using examples from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, but I assure you there won’t be any plot-relatedspoilers; I’m just going to be talking about basic characterization using examples from the first three books. (I’ll also be assuming some very basic knowledge about Harry Potter to save us all a lot of time and space. If you need more info, Google is your friend).
In the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (yes, I am reading the British versions), we are introduced to Harry’s aunt and uncle, Petunia and Vernon Dursley, and his cousin, Dudley Dursley. It is Dudley’s birthday, and thus begins the most vivid description of Dudley so far. He has received many gifts, and one is a bike. Rowling writes: “Exactly why Dudley wanted a racing bike was a mystery to Harry, as Dudley was very fat and hated exercise.” Dudley begins counting his presents and the following exchange ensues:
‘Thirty-six,’ he said, looking up at his mother and father. ‘That’s two less than last year.’
‘Darling, you haven’t counted Auntie Marge’s present, see, it’s here under this big one from Mummy and Daddy.’
‘All right, thrity-seven then,’ said Dudley, going red in the face. Harry, who could see a huge Dudley tantrum coming on, began wolfing down his bacon as fast as possible in case Dudley turned the table over.
Aunt Petunia obviously scented danger too, because she said quickly, ‘And we’ll buy you another two presents while we’re out today. How’s that, popkin? Two more presents. Is that all right?’
Dudley thought for a moment. It looked like hard work. Finally he said slowly, ‘So I’ll have thirty … thirty …’
‘Thirty-nine, sweetums,’ said Aunt Petunia.
‘Oh.’ Dudly sat down heavily and grabbed the nearest parcel. ‘All right then.’
Uncle Vernon chuckled.
‘Little tyke wants his money’s worth, just like his father. Atta boy, Dudley!’ He ruffled Dudley’s hair.
Rowling, here, shows herself to be a master of the “show, don’t tell” rule of writing. This is good writing in the sense that it paints a very vivid image of these characters. While the writing may be good, the fatphobia dripping from it is extremely offensive.
Now, obviously, this is caricature. Those of us who’ve read the entire Harry Potter Series are aware that some of Rowling’s characters are complex and realistically written, and others are basically caricatures. But for a caricature to be efficient, it has to exaggerate a feature that is actually present. Caricatures of President Obama show a large, toothy grin and sometimes squinted eyes. Reverse this and the caricature wouldn’t make any sense, because Obama does have a large, toothy grin, even if not quite as large as the caricatures show, and his eyes often squint when he smiles.
So, even though Rowling is clearly providing us with caricatures in these characters, the exaggerations she makes while describing the Dursleys are built on assumptions about fatness that are actually widely believed. If they weren’t, these caricatures just wouldn’t make any sense. These assumptions are:
1) fat children don’t enjoy physical play such as riding bikes (they “hate exercise”), are self-indulgent, are immature (throwing tantrums at 11 years old) and are stupid.
2) parents of fat children are over-indulgent, spoiling their children, and completely oblivious to both their children’s character shortcomings and their children’s fatness.
If the assumption is that fat children and their parents are oblivious and/or stupid, then Rowling’s caricature makes sense. It also makes sense how parents and children are depicted in the media and pop culture. It makes sense why my local news station keeps repeating the same insipid “weight loss advice” (Eat less! Exercise more!) day after day, week after week, year after year. It makes sense that parents of five-year olds who are deemed to be obese would be sent warning letters by their childrens’ school, as if they hadn’t noticed their child is fat. It makes sense that schools would put kids on weight loss programs. It makes sense that “health experts” in the UK would call for the removal of fat children from their home.
But in reality, fat doesn’t equal stupid, and these measures are ridiculously unnecessary (not to mention dehumanizing, bigoted, hateful, human rights violations). Lots of kids are active and some kids are lazy, and weight doesn’t actually tell us whether a child is active or lazy. In fact, many of us who grew up fat played outdoors frequently, ate normally, and were still fat. We were subjected to ongoing harassment not only from random strangers or other kids at school but people in our very families—our grandparents, our aunts and uncles, our parents. Parents of fat kids are aware that their kids are fat. And they’re more often than not trying to restrict their fat kids’ eating, rather than indulging it like the Dursleys. Fat kids don’t get to live a single day without being reminded that they are fat, and that fat is unacceptable.
Heck, I can’t even read one Harry Potter book without being reminded just how fat Dudley is and how we are supposed to consider that as one of many reasons to hate him. Whenever Dudley gets mentioned, we hear about how he’s “waddling” towards Harry, hitching up his trousers as they slip down his “fat bottom,” he’s “lolling around eating ice creams” and helping himself to “a fourth piece of pie.” We hear about his “porky shoulder,” his “many chins,” the watch on his “fat wrist.” Rowling’s description of Dudley is much more akin to what fat kids actually experience the world thinking of them. Fat kids are not over-indulged, selfish, stupid, ugly brutes in need of a nanny state to come in and save them from themselves and their ostensibly stupid parents. Fat kids are abused in their families, at their schools, by society at large.
I’ll be honest, I’m having a hard time finding the good news here. This is not just bad news, this is terrible news. This is systemic, social child abuse. It is ugly, it is dark, it is death. Where is the life? Maybe you can help me out with this. So far what I’m coming up with as the good news here is that it’s not true. The good news is that it is in fact a lie, and that there are people out there, like Sandy Swarc, Marilyn Wann, Paul Campos, Linda Bacon, and other writers, speakers, health care professionals, and bloggers spreading the truth. The truth may be stifled, quiet, not well-known, but it’s being spoken. People are speaking truth into the lies being told about fat kids and our parents. The truth-speakers are crying out in the wilderness, brining a message of hope, that fat is not deadly, that fat children are just as unique and precious as thin children, and that all children deserve opportunities to play, to enjoy their food, and to understand that they are whole, fully human, and loved regardless of their size.
* Straw woman? Straw person? Straw child? I tend to like to use non-gendered terms as much as possible, but in this case I’m not sure degendering the term “straw man” will still convey my point. I’m afraid it would just be confusing :)
** I am putting “obesity” in scare quotes because of serious issues with its actual ability to tell us anything of use except that insurance companies and doctors like to have a reason to justify their anti-fat prejudices. I will probably talk about the serious problems with the obesity construct eventually, but it’s not really a high priority for me right now. If you’d like to do some digging of your own, I suggest starting with Paul Campos’ The Obesity Myth or Junkfood Science (scroll down the right hand column to find her Junkfood Science Obesity Paradox Series)