The Fat Girl

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The Fat Girl

Andre Dubus 1977

Author Biography

Plot Summary




Historical Context

Critical Overview



Further Reading

In his lifetime, Andre Dubus was lauded for his highly realistic and captivating portraits of ordinary Americans. Honored throughout his long career by numerous and prestigious awards, his stories were often included in the pantheon of best American short stories.

His important role in the literary community was demonstrated in the late 1980s, after he was struck by a car while helping stranded motorists. The accident led to the loss of his leg and confinement in a wheelchair. In the ensuing years, Dubus came to see this accident as a transcendent experience, one that broadened his capacity for understanding human suffering and forgiveness.

“The Fat Girl,” a story that was included in Dubus’s 1978 collection Adultery and Other Choices, has been deemed one of his best short stories. Many reviewers praised his depiction of a young woman, Louise, torn between conflicting desires. Her plight has a universal quality in her quest for self-love and understanding.

Author Biography

Born into a middle-class Southern family, Andre Dubus was born on August 11,1936 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He attended a Roman Catholic high school, and throughout his career he credited his lifelong Catholicism for his strong compassion for others. In fact, when asked how he would describe his writings, Dubus answered, “Catholic.”

After attending a state college and earning a bachelor’s degree in English, Dubus joined the Marine Corps. At the age of nineteen, he began writing short stories; in 1963, he resigned his military commission to enter the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. Also that year, Dubus’ first story, “The Intruder,” was published.

After receiving his M.F.A., Dubus and his wife and children moved to Massachusetts, where he taught modern fiction and creative writing at Bradford College. He held this job until 1984. During his years as a professor, Dubus published his first novel, The Lieutenant, as well several collections of short fictions and novellas.

In 1970 his work was included for the first time in Best American Short Stories. Throughout the decade, he continued to garner a number of impressive reviews and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and inclusion in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. In 1977 he wrote “The Fat Girl,” considered to be one of his more significant short stories.

By the late 1980s, Dubus was widely considered to be an important contemporary writer, and his stories were studied in college literature classes.

In 1986, while helping a stranded motorist on a Massachusetts highway, Dubus was hit by car. His injuries led to the amputation of one leg and his permanent confinement in a wheelchair. In 1991 he wrote an account of the accident called Broken Vessels.

For several years after the accident, Dubus was unable to write fiction. The support of fellow American writers, such as Ann Beattie, E. L. Doctorow, and John Irving, helped Dubus during this difficult period. In the years afterwards, he came to see the accident as a transcendent experience that made him a more empathetic person and allowed him greater understanding of human suffering and forgiveness.

When he returned to fiction writing, his work again garnered impressive awards, including the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. Dubus died in 1999 of a heart attack.

Plot Summary

“The Fat Girl” chronicles the story of a young woman named Louise as she searches for love and self-acceptance. As a young, fat girl, she feels like she is not accepted by friends and family. Her mother encourages her to watch what she eats, but Louise develops the habit of sneaking fattening foods, such as peanut butter or candy bars, at a young age.

Louise continues to binge in private when she goes away to college. Carrie, her roommate and only friend, encourages Louise to give up this habit. When the two young women are seniors in college, Carrie suggests that Louise go on a diet.

For the rest of the year, Louise follows a very strict diet to lose weight. As a result, she grows irritable and she feels hungry all the time; but she also loses seventy pounds. When Louise goes home for Christmas vacation, her mother cannot believe how much weight she has lost.

Louise returns home to Louisiana after college. Her mother takes her shopping for clothes to fit her new, slender body. She meets a young lawyer, Richard, who works at her father’s firm; they get married the following spring. As a housewife, Louise fixes heavy meals for her husband, but she does not eat them herself.

Richard and Louise enjoy many material advantages: they have a nice house; a boat; and they take several lavish vacations. Despite all these comforts, Louise sometimes feels as if her life is out of balance.

In the fifth year of their marriage, Louise gets pregnant. However, she is afraid of getting fat again. She tells Richard of her childhood and adolescence as a fat girl, but he dismisses her fears. Louise feels alienated from him and the life she has made for herself.

While pregnant, Louise begins to snack at parties and eat sweets and the dinners that she prepares for Richard. Even more telling, she begins to hide candy from her husband. After her baby is born, Louise continues to eat. Richard criticizes her weight gain and loses sexual interest in her. One night after Richard cruelly ridicules her, Louise weighs herself at 162 pounds.

That summer, Louise stops going on boat rides with Richard and their friends. Instead she spends her time with her young son. Every day, she and Richard quarrel. Richard believes they are arguing about her weight, but Louise feels they are arguing about much more serious issues.

One night Richard is angry. He pleads with her to go on a diet and even claims that he will eat the same foods as she does in order to help her lose weight. Yet Louise realizes that he has no real compassion for her; he just doesn’t want to be embarrassed by her weight gain anymore.

She puts the baby to bed and gets a candy bar, which she plans to eat in front of Richard. She knows that he will leave her soon. When she comes back downstairs, she is surprised to find that Richard is still there.



Carrie is Louise’s college friend and roommate. She has an unhappy home life—her parents fight and will likely divorce—and she is prone to fits of depression. Carrie urges Louise to go on a diet, and she does everything in her power to help Louise. She proves to be a compassionate and understanding friend.


Joan is one of Louise’s high school friends.


Louise is the protagonist of the story. As a young girl, she gains weight and remains overweight until college. Under pressure from her mother, Louise soon develops the habit of eating secretly, a habit that she considers to be “insular and destructive.”

At college, Louise becomes good friends with her roommate, Carrie. With Carrie’s support, Louise sheds seventy pounds in her senior year in college. Yet with the weight loss, Louise feels like she is shedding more than fat—she is losing part of who she is.

Louise maintains her new body for several years, long enough to marry a young lawyer and have a baby. The emptiness of her life prompts Louise to overeat again. This time, however, she does not eat in secret. She accepts—and wants Richard to accept—that she is a fat girl. Soon, she has regained much of the weight she lost years ago. Even though this means she may lose Richard, she feels she has regained her identity.

Louise’s Father

Louise’s father is an affectionate, tolerant man. He accepts her for who she is. He defends Louise and argues with her mother about what she should be allowed to eat.

Louise’s Mother

Louise’s mother is the first person who warns Louise about her weight. She believes that her daughter needs to eat less than her brother and father in order to stay thin. A slender, attractive woman, Louise’s mother puts a lot of emphasis on physical appearance. When Louise finally loses all the weight, she calls her daughter beautiful.


Marjorie is one of Louise’s high school friends.


Richard is Louise’s husband. He is a young, energetic lawyer who works in Louise’s father’s firm. He wants the finer things in life: a big house, a boat, vacations abroad, and a beautiful wife.

Richard is unaware of his wife’s past struggles with her weight. When she tries to share her fears with him, he is unable to empathize with her; he only sees what he wants to see. As Louise gains weight, he criticizes her and loses sexual interest. He volunteers to go on a diet with her, but Louise doesn’t feel that he truly loves her. At the end of the story, Louise is certain that Richard will soon leave her.



The theme of identity is perhaps the most important aspect of “The Fat Girl.” Since the age of nine, when Louise began to overeat, people identify her by her weight. Her mother unsuccessfully tried to reinforce in Louise the idea that other people—particularly boys—would respond to her physical presence, not the girl inside.

Louise’s most defining characteristic seems to be her habit of eating food secretly. She deems it a “ritual of deceit and pleasure,” yet at the same time she realizes it was a “vice that was insular and destructive.” Louise’s self-perception demonstrates that by the time she is in high school, she identifies herself by what she eats and how much she weighs.

At times, Louise tries to forge an identity for herself that is not based on her weight. She acknowledges that she likes other parts of her body— her eyes, lips, nose, chin, and hair. Louise’s list alludes to her “tender soul” and her “good heart,” but does not actually enumerate these as among her positive characteristics. This demonstrates that by the time she is in college, when she makes this list, Louise believes that her identity is intrinsically linked to her physical appearance.

Louise also equates the loss of seventy pounds with losing her identity. “She felt that somehow she had lost more than pounds of fat; that some time during her dieting she had lost herself too.” At this point, Louise’s seems spiritually lost, noting that “her soul... was in some rootless flight.”

Despite her inner doubts, Louise embraces her new lifestyle, for it opens up new possibilities— such as marriage. Indeed, when she returns home after college, she meets and marries a young lawyer named Richard.

However, Louise has not lost the sense of her “fat self.” She tries to communicate with Richard, to make him understand what her life was like before she lost all the weight. However, he cannot understand.

By the end of the story, when Louise begins to gain weight, she feels herself couched within “layers of flesh and spirit.” She reverts to what she perceives to be her true identity—the fat girl.

Change and Transformation

Change and transformation are important themes in the story. When Louise goes to college, she goes on a diet and loses seventy pounds with the help of her friend Carrie. Carrie’s acceptance of Louise establishes a solid friendship between the women.

With the tremendous weight loss comes a dramatic change in how people perceive her. Louise’s mother calls the new, thin Louise “so beautiful,” while family and friends congratulate her. Yet there is also change in Louise’s attitude and demeanor. She becomes cranky and ill-tempered, even snapping at Carrie.

However, Louise’s weight loss also leads to a greater life change—her marriage to Richard. When she becomes pregnant, however, she loses the hard-earned control she gained during college. Soon, she has started to transform back into “the fat girl.”

With this transformation Louise realizes that her husband will leave her, because he is embarrassed, frustrated, and alienated by her weight gain. Yet this realization does not seem to bother her; instead, she seems to welcome the change because she believes being fat will return her sense of identity and security.


The friendship between Carrie and Louise is essential to the story. They forge a close bond, one based on mutual loneliness and dissatisfaction. The girls live together for four years at college, writing letters over the summer and joyfully reuniting in the fall. It is Carrie’s support and compassion that enables Louise to undergo the arduous process of losing weight.

Carrie wants Louise to lose weight because she worries about what her friend’s life will be like after graduation, not because she finds anything intrinsically wrong with Louise’s weight. Carrie doesn’t want her friend’s weight to hinder her happiness in life.

Topics for Further Study

  • By the time Dubus wrote “The Fat Girl,” the concept of the ideal American family was changing. Increasing numbers of women exerted their independence by working outside of the home. In response to the women’s liberation movement, however, some women urged a return to more traditional family values. Do you think that Louise accurately represents a woman of her generation and time period? Why or why not?
  • Does the Louisiana setting of the story matter? Why or why not? Do you think the fact that Louise goes to Massachusetts for college has any significance? Why or why not?
  • Find out more about binge eating. How prevalent is this practice and how is it linked with other disorders, especially bulimia? What does the prevalence of eating disorders in the United States say about contemporary society?
  • Conduct research to find out why the number of overweight Americans is on the rise. What health risks do overweight people have?
  • Dubus abruptly shifts to the present tense for his presentation of the story’s final scene. What affect does this shift have on you? Rewrite the scene in the past tense and compare the two versions. Which is the more effective? Why?

The importance of this friendship is made clear after Louise begins to get fat again. As she grows larger, her friends do not support her and make her feel uncomfortable. More importantly, she sees none of Carrie’s love and compassion in Richard’s face, which makes her realize that her marriage is based on superficiality, not on true love.



“The Fat Girl” is told chronologically and covers a period of seventeen years, which is unusual for a short story. However, Dubus deftly handles this span of time and gives readers a full sense of Louise’s life.

Steve Yarborough considers “The Fat Girl” a “compressed novel”—or a story in which years or even decades are compressed into one paragraph. Dubus alternates between summary sections—still filled with vivid details—and scene sections. The summary sections allow Dubus to give the reader all the necessary information, while the shorter scenes hone in on key points in Louise’s life.

Point of View

The point of view of “The Fat Girl” is the third-person omniscient perspective. This means that the narration relates what Louise, as well as some of the other characters, think and feel. The primary focus, however, is on Louise.

The story never explicitly expresses a great deal of Louise’s inner life. The reader must infer much of why Louise takes certain actions, such as going on the diet or allowing herself to regain the weight. Though Louise’s reflections are few, they are important, and they relate her overwhelming sense of loss of self. By the end of the story, the focus on Louise makes it clear that she believes she should be loved for herself, not for what she looks like.


“The Fat Girl” is not an experimental story, yet at its end, the tense abruptly switches to the present tense from the past tense. This shift makes the story more vivid, grounding it in Louise’s present reality. Instead of remaining simply a story about something that has already happened, the reader realizes that the conflict—between Louise and society—is still going on and that Louise is currently in the process of regaining her own identity.


The setting of the “The Fat Girl” is a small Louisiana town. This town guarantees that Louise will not escape the scrutiny of her community. When Louise is fat, their eyes register disappointment; “their eyes would tell her she was still fat Louise, who had been fat as long as they could remember, who had gone to college and returned as fat as ever.”

After Louise slims down, however, they look at her with pride and give her a true sense of belonging. Louise becomes friends with some of her former childhood acquaintances, but none of them seem to remember her when she was fat. Such a detail demonstrates their constant judgment of Louise. The people from home embrace her because she is thin, not because she is Louise.

Historical Context

The Carter Years

Jimmy Carter was elected to the presidency in 1976. His administration faced immediate challenges: the American economy was in flirting with recession and the country was on the brink of an energy crisis. Despite Carter’s efforts, inflation and unemployment increased and the economy further stagnated. The energy crisis, which led to a sharp rise in the price of imported oil, only deepened the country’s economic problems.

In foreign affairs, Carter called for a new commitment to human rights, using diplomatic and economic pressure on countries that violated the rights of their citizens. Some American diplomats opposed Carter’s policy, warning that U.S. interference in other country’s domestic affairs might lead to international tensions.

Carter’s biggest victory in international affairs was his assistance in negotiating the Camp David Accords, a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Carter’s greatest failure was his inability to free fifty-three American hostages who had been seized by Iranian militants in Tehran, the capital of Iran. These hostages were held for 444 days before their eventual release in 1981.

The Women’s Movement

In the 1970s, the women’s movement made significant progress. The National Organization for Women, a women’s rights group, was formed in 1966. Throughout the 1970s, more and more women joined the organization to gain equal rights for women.

The National Women’s Political Caucus, founded in 1971 with the help of feminist Gloria Steinem, encouraged women to run for political office. It was believed that women in public office would support women’s issues, such as equal pay for equal work, domestic abuse legislation, sexual harassment law, and pro-choice protections. Steinem also founded a new magazine for women, Ms..

In 1972, Congress passed the Education Amendments Act, which outlawed sexual discrimination in higher education. Many all-male educational institutions began to allow women to enroll, and many universities established women’s studies courses.

One great failure of the women’s right movement was the inability to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, a constitutional amendment barring discrimination on the basis of sex. Although Congress passed the ERA in 1972, not enough states ratified the bill, therefore it never became a law.

While many women supported the women’s movement, some middle-class women felt that it devalued the family and condemned women who chose to be homemakers. These women also believed the women’s movement threatened traditional family life. Other women who felt alienated by the women’s movement included working-class women and women of color. These women felt that the leaders of the women’s movement addressed issues more important to privileged white women.

A Changing American Population

American society experienced significant changes in the 1970s: the birthrate was dropping sharply to an average of two births per woman; the divorce rate continued to rise; and Americans moved around more than they had in the past. Throughout the 1970s, a growing number of Americans moved from the North and the East to the South and the West. Population grew in states such as California, Texas, and Florida.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1970s: In 1978, there are 1,130,000 divorces among the American population—or 5.2 divorces for every 1,000 Americans. This number reflects an increasing divorce rate from past eras.

    Today: In 1990 there were 4.7 divorces for every 1,000 Americans—or 1,182,000 total divorces among the American population. If this trend continues, younger Americans marrying for the first time have a 40-50 percent chance of divorcing in their lifetime. By the mid-1990s, around eighteen million Americans have gone through a divorce.

  • 1970s: Around five percent of all children and adolescents are overweight. Approximately 25% of American adults, and 27% of all American women, are overweight.

    Today: Studies show that one of three American adults aged twenty through seventy-four (fifty-eight million people) are overweight. This number has increased over the past decade. Eleven percent of all children and adolescents (4.7 million children) are overweight.

  • 1970s: The diet industry earns ten billion dollars in 1970.

    1990s: By the mid-1990s, the diet industry generates revenue of $33 billion. Two-thirds of all high school students claim to be on a diet, but only twenty percent of these teenagers are actually overweight. Fifty percent of all American women are on a diet at any one time.

  • 1970s: In 1978, there are thirty-eight million working women in America. Of these women, twenty-one million are married with a spouse present.

    Today: In the early part of the decade, just over forty-six million women are employed, out of a total workforce of 130 million. Seventy-one percent of married women hold jobs outside of the home.

  • 1970s: In 1976, approximately one percent of female high school and college students suffer or have suffered from the eating disorders anorexia and bulimia.

    Today: Anorexia nervosa afflicts approximately three percent of all teenagers. The number of bulimics, however, has increased faster than the number of anorexics; between three percent and ten percent of all women in college suffer from bulimia at some time during their college career. Only ten percent of teenagers with eating disorders are boys.

Critical Overview

“The Fat Girl” was published in 1977 as part of Dubus’s short story collection Adultery, and Other Choices. It has become one of Dubus’s best-known works.

Throughout Dubus’s career, critics have praised his writing for his sensitive treatment of topical issues, such as abortion, infidelity, drugs, racism, and eating disorders. In fact, his stories have included characters like single mothers, divorced husbands, and abused wives.

Many of Dubus’s stories focus on the turbulence of male-female relationships. Edith Milton, writing for the New Republic, viewed Adultery, and Other Choices as an exploration of the relationships between men and women. “I can think of no one,” she writes, “who has drawn a more precise map of that no-man’s land between the sexes than he has in this collection.”

Other reviewers lauded the collection for its deft portrayals of the individual’s search for identity. For example, J. N. Baker of Newsweek asserted that Dubus examined this familiar theme with “fresh perception and style.”

Mary Soete, writing for Library Journal, also noted Dubus’s knack for picking significant moments in the lives of his characters. “He presents moments of necessity and choice,” she wrote, “in the inner lives of his men and women with precision, truth, and love.”

Frances Taliaferro, who called Dubus a “skillful and temperate writer,” acknowledged that Adultery, and Other Choices “takes some getting used to,” but that “Dubus invites us into a world of quiet melodies. Gradually the ear learns to hear them.” Taliaferro particularly liked Dubus’s depiction of small-town America.

With his story entitled “The Fat Girl,” Dubus raised complex issues of body image and identity. Critics generally praised the story. Milton asserts that Louise emerges “triumphantly human” in her understanding that anyone who truly loved her would find her true self underneath her layers of fat.

Baker also deemed the story as “the collections’ exquisite prize.” This reviewer saw Louise’s actions at the end as an example of her “rebellious resolution” against the “charade of her existence.”

Anatole Broyard, writing for the New York Times, also considered “The Fat Girl” to be the most successful story in the collection. He alludes to Louise’s loss of identity when he writes that when thin, Louise is “only a mannequin of other people’s expectations.”

Steve Yarborough, writing in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, further discussed the story in terms of its narrative style, not its emotional content. Yarborough maintains that “The Fat Girl” was one of the “notable stories” in Dubus’s “compressed novels.” He writes,

The compressed novel seems to be the ideal form for Dubus. ... It allows him to probe . . . deeply into the characters . . . and . . . forge a dramatic narrative, something the shorter, ‘formless’ stories do not do.


Rena Korb

Korb has a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide

variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, she discusses Louise’s search for her identity.

In 1986 Andre Dubus, who for the past decade had so perceptively wrote of the “moment of truth” in the lives of ordinary Americans, was himself caught in just such a pivotal moment. Dubus, who had been driving on a Massachusetts highway, stopped to help a distressed car. While in the road, he was struck by an oncoming car, and his subsequent injuries led to the loss of one leg and his confinement to a wheelchair.

He came to view the accident, in the words of scholar James E. Devlin, “as a transcendent experience that has allowed him to understand more deeply the nature of human suffering, forgiveness, and love.”

Certainly Dubus’s “philosophy” seemed to be present in his later writing; for instance, the deeply moving “A Father’s Story” chronicles the story of a man who helps his daughter flee the scene of a hit-and-run and his subsequent attempts to find comfort through religious ritual.

What Do I Read Next?

  • AndreDubus’s “AFather’sStory” (1983)chronicles the story of a man who helps his daughter escape from the scene of a hit-and-run accident.
  • Dubus’s work has often been compared to the stories of Raymond Carver, another realistic contemporary writer. In “Where I’m Calling From” (1981), Carver tells the story of a man searching for meaning in life.
  • “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” (1981), by Tobias Wolff, depicts a professor’s attempts to regain her identity and her independence.
  • Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” (1927) is considered a classic short story. It focuses on the relationship of an American couple waiting for a train in Spain.
  • Life Size (1992), a novel by Jenefer Shute, narrates the story of a young woman who has been hospitalized for anorexia. The novel switches between the past and the present, detailing the woman’s recovery while showing the factors that led to her eating disorder.

Readers and critics of his pre-accident body of work, however, still find these same qualities; in fact, they seem to be intrinsic to Dubus. In his depiction of common Americans, Dubus realistically evokes their problems, pain, and efforts to find peace. He delves into the core of humanity and emerges with a key kernel of truth.

“The Fat Girl,” first published in 1977 and one of Dubus’s most well-known pieces of short fiction, demonstrates what Devlin has called Dubus’s attempt to “impose order on chaos.” The protagonist, Louise, is one such character trying to impose such order on her life. In “The Fat Girl,” Louise is unable to find societal acceptance until she loses more than seventy pounds.

However, her attempt to change her life does not last; some five years after her marriage to a handsome, ambitious lawyer, Louise’s food cravings return. As she piles on the pounds, she pushes her husband further and further away.

Though Louise is successful in severing her relationship with a man who seems too intent on physical appearances, she fails overall. Instead of finding a new meaning for her life, she reverts to the one that sustained her throughout her childhood— the solitary pleasures of food, which she herself once called “a vice that was insular and destructive.”

Louise’s odyssey begins when she is only a little girl. Her mother, warning that “in five years you’ll be in high school and if you’re fat the boys won’t like you,” won’t let Louise eat potato chips and deserts. Louise compensates for this denial through secret bingeing.

From a young age, Louise defines herself through her weight and the food she eats. The girlfriends she chooses are always thin, because she didn’t want anyone looking at herself and a friend ‘“to see two fat girls.’”

At college, she doesn’t eat much in the cafeteria because not eating in public “had become as habitual as good manners.” She attends a school for girls back East so she won’t have to “contend with” boys. Yet Louise understands it is not only boys who judge her based on her appearance. She knows that at her new school “she would get not attention” from her teachers and fellow students. By the time she is a young adult, Louise too readily understands the way people look right through her.

Carrie is the first person who perceives Louise’s weight as an obstacle that will keep her from enjoying life. Carrie’s acceptance of Louise for who she is, not what she looks like, is demonstrated when she asks Louise to eat in front of her instead of secretly. Even when she urges Louise to diet, it is not because she has a problem with Louise’s weight; rather, she worries for Louise’s future.

For Louise, however, losing seventy pounds seems to change her personality too. She finds that she becomes irritable when “all her life she had never been afflicted by ill temper.” After losing close to forty pounds, she still “did not feel strong, she did not feel she was committed to and within reach of achieving a valuable goal.” Instead, she felt she “had lost more than pounds of fat; that some time during her dieting she had lost herself too.”

With her new habits and eating routines, Louise gives up every vestige of her former life. She eats sparse meals—dinner is a piece of meat and lettuce and breakfast is an egg and black coffee—instead of candy bars and other sweets. She no longer eats secretly; instead, Carrie monitors every piece of food that goes in Louise’s mouth.

In fact, Louise’s body—one which “she liked most when she was unaware of it”—becomes common property. It is shared with Carrie, who charts Louise’s progress via the scale. Everyone she knows comments on it: her parents, friends, and acquaintances. They all seem to be more comfortable and accepting of the new Louise. After she returns home from college, she becomes friends with people she knew as a child “and even they did not seem to remember her when she was fat.” The overarching message is that Louise, the fat girl, is a person unworthy of knowing and loving; but Louise, the slender young woman, is acceptable.

Louise’s relationship with Carrie is also affected by the diet. Since Carrie is monitoring the diet, Carrie is not only Louise’s friend but also her enemy. Louise speaks sharply to Carrie, and she snaps at her about lettuce. In this way their relationship becomes permeated with talk of food. Louise later recalls her final year in college, the diet year, as “the worst year of her life.”

The diet year is underscored by her feeling that “she was going to another country or becoming a citizen of a new one.” This country seems to be populated by Louise’s relatives and acquaintances, and at first Louise loves “the applause in their eyes.”

Her transformation is officially established by her marriage to Richard. At times during her marriage, Louise tries to embrace her new identity. On the plane returning from Europe, “she thought of the accumulated warmth and pelt of her marriage, and how by slimming her body she had bought into the pleasures of the nation.” At this point, Louise is

“Whether or not she regains weight for any of these reasons—whether she is simply meant to be fat, or is gluttonous, or wants to drive Richard away, or even wants to find her own self--the fact remains that in giving herself up to food, Louise finds peace again.”

equating her slenderness with her ability to fit into society and thus partake of all it has to offer—a large lakefront house, expensive vacations, a boat.

Yet these are only possessions, and Louise’s “moments of triumph were sparse.” Sometimes she “was suddenly assaulted by the feeling that she had taken the wrong train and arrived at a place where no one knew her, and where she ought not to be.” This sentence is immediately followed up by a scene between Louise and Richard, in bed, where she talks to him about having been fat. Such positioning seems to indicate that part of the feeling of being in the wrong place stems from her relationship with Richard—perhaps he is the wrong man for her.

Indeed, the narration states:

she knew the story meant very little to him. . . She felt as though she was trying to tell a foreign lover about her life in the United States, and if only she could command the language he would know and love all of her and she would feel complete.

Louise’s desire for completeness and for reconnecting with her own soul, which had gotten lost “in some rootless flight” during her diet years, leads her to regain the weight she so arduously took off. Part of Louise’s transformation back into a “fat girl” may stem from the fact that she has become a mother. During her childhood, Louise’s mother made her daughter feel unworthy and unattractive because of her weight.

When Louise becomes a mother, she is gratified that her son responds to her despite “the folds of fat at her waist.” Perhaps Louise sees an opportunity to find someone who will love her for what she is and what she looks like. Louise also may feel that she doesn’t want her own child to grow up as she did: judged and criticized.

As Louise derives pleasure from eating and she regains the weight, she also retreats back to her solitary world. She knows that her weight gain and her refusal to try and lose weight will make Richard leave her. The words, “[i]t has been in his eyes all summer,” implies that Louise not only expects his rejection, but will be relieved by it. In this way, she will discover his true feelings for her.

All her life, no one really has seen Louise except for Carrie. Although her father’s eyes were filled with “the lights of love,” they were also filled with “pity.” His attempts to defend Louise to her mother are ineffectual and contribute to Louise’s secret bingeing.

To her mother, Louise has been a constant source of disappointment. The only time her mother approves of Louise is after she has dieted to a slender 113 pounds. Her mother “cried and hugged her and said again and again: You’re beautiful.”

Richard seems to care little about the woman inside and only covets her slender exterior. ‘“Have you looked at yourself?”’ he asks Louise after she has gained back fifty pounds. Louise finds none of Carrie’s “compassion and determination and love” in her husband, even after he volunteers to diet with her.

Readers have grappled with why Louise regains weight. Anatole Broyard, in the New York Times, says that Louise “has dieted away her appetite for life, that, in some way, her fatness was part of her essence and now she is only a mannequin of other people’s expectations.”

Edith Milton contends in the New Republic that “fat is what she is, and... any love worth the name can find her under the blubber.”

J. N. Baker for Newsweek calls out the “charade of her existence,” which “inspires a rebellious resolution.”

Whether or not she regains weight for any of these reasons—whether she is simply meant to be fat, or is gluttonous, or wants to drive Richard away, or even wants to find her own self—the fact remains that in giving herself up to food, Louise finds peace again.

“She knows Richard is waiting,” the story ends, “but she feels his departure so happily that, when she enters the living room, unwrapping the candy, she is surprised to see him standing there.” So order for Louise comes with a tall price—the retreat back into the world of childhood, where food could satisfy all her basic needs. It is up to the reader to decide, then, if Louise is a success or a failure.

Source: Rena Korb, for Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2000.

Liz Brent

Brent has a Ph.D. in American Culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema. In the following essay, Brent discusses themes of identity and spirituality in Dubus ‘s story.

Dubus’s short story “The Fat Girl” is about a young woman, Louise, who, from the age of nine, is seen by everyone around her as a “fat girl.” In order to get around her mother’s insistence that she diet, Louise develops the habit of sneaking food which she secretly eats in her bedroom or in the bathroom.

When Louise is in college, her best (and only) friend Carrie puts her on a strict diet, as a result of which she loses some seventy pounds over the course of a year. When she was considered a “fat girl,” Louise felt she could never even dream of being asked out by a man; but once she has lost weight she dates and marries Richard, a young man who works in her father’s business.

However, when Louise becomes pregnant, she begins to revert back to her old eating habits and quickly gains weight. After the baby is born, she continues to overeat. Her husband becomes increasingly angered by her weight gain until, at the end of the story, she defiantly eats a piece of pie and then a candy bar in front of him, almost relieved with his inevitable departure from her life.

Louise’s struggle with being a “fat girl” is characterized by her struggles with her sense of identity. Early in life, Louise is convinced that it is her God-ordained fate, or destiny, to be a “fat girl.” Fate being a concept born of religious conviction, Louise believes that “God had made her that way.” She imagines that her two high school friends, both of them thin, would always remember her as “a girl whose hapless body was destined to be fat.”

As Louise’s sense of herself includes the firm belief that it is her God-ordained destiny to be a “fat girl,” the practice of eating takes on religious implications. Eating for Louise is repeatedly referred to as a “ritual”—a term normally used to describe a sacred spiritual practice; for instance, “her creeping to the kitchen when she was nine became, in high school, a ritual of deceit and pleasure.”

When Carrie puts her on a diet, this new regimen of eating replaces her old “ritual”: “That was her ritual and her diet for the rest of the year, Carrie alternating fish and chicken breasts with the steaks for dinner, and every day was nearly as bad as the first.”

Nonetheless, Louise’s old eating “ritual” battles for prominence over her new “ritual” of eating: “... those first weeks of the diet .. . she was the pawn of an irascibility which still, conditioned to her ritual as she was, could at any moment take command of her.”

Louis’s struggle with her eating “ritual” and her identity as a “fat girl” are further expressed in spiritual terms, through reference to her “soul,” and her “spirit,” as well as to demons and morality. When Carrie first puts Louise on a diet, her struggle with hunger is described as a battle for her soul:

In all her life she had never been afflicted by ill temper and she looked upon it now as a demon which, along with hunger, was taking possession of her soul.

However, Louise also considers the diet as inherently “immoral.” At one point, Louise lashes out at Carrie, complaining of her hatred of lettuce; Louise concludes that, ‘“We shouldn’t even buy it, it’s immoral.’” This again suggests that Louise’s accustomed “ritual” of eating takes on spiritual, religious implications—as if it were a veritable sacrament for her to eat as she always has.

Flying back to school after the Christmas vacation of her first year dieting, Louise is struck by the sense that, in the course of the diet, her very “soul” has been lost, her “spirit collapsed,” and she likens the loss of her old eating habits to “lost virtues.” From the airplane,

She looked down at the earth far below, and it seemed to her that her soul, like her body aboard the plane, was in some rootless flight. She neither knew its destination nor where it had departed from; it was on some passage she could not even define.

For Louise, the struggle with eating and not eating, gaining and losing weight, is also a struggle with her sense of identity. From the age of nine, she

“It is as if ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’ are one and the same for Louise, as if gaining weight were, for her, equivalent to feeding her spirit, just as losing weight feels to her like draining her spirit.”

identifies herself as a “fat girl.” When she loses the weight, she loses part of herself.

The day before embarking on her college diet, Louise is told to spend one day eating “as though it were the last day of her life.” In some sense, Louise does experience this as the last day of her life; the loss of self begins immediately the next day with the loss of her eating “ritual.”

When, after months of dieting, her weight plateaus, she is quick to suggest that maybe that weight is who she is—not just some arbitrary number that can be changed at will:

During the next few weeks she lost weight more slowly and once for eight days Carrie’s daily recording stayed at a hundred and thirty-six. Louise woke in the morning thinking of one hundred and thirty-six and then she stood on the scales and they echoed her. She became obsessed with that number, and there wasn’t a day when she didn’t say it aloud, and through the days and nights the number stayed in her mind, and if a teacher had spoken those digits in a classroom she would have opened her mouth to speak. What if that’s me, she said to Carrie. I mean what if a hundred and thirty-six is my real weight and I just can’t lose anymore. Walking hand-in-hand with her despair was a longing for this to be true, and that longing angered her and wearied her, and every day she was gloomy (emphasis mine).

While everyone around her views body weight as a fluid and malleable thing that may be altered at will, Louise struggles for a stable sense of identity, which includes a stable weight.

Louise’s struggle for a stable sense of identity is also conceptualized in terms of national identity. When, after her first year of dieting, Louise’s mother buys her new clothes and hires a photographer to document Louise’s weight loss, Louise expresses her sense of alienation in terms of feeling like a foreigner in a foreign country: “The new clothes and the photographer made her feel she was going to another country or becoming a citizen of a new one.”

When she meets Richard, Louise once again expresses herself in terms that suggest that only by losing weight is she able to become a legitimate citizen of her own country: “... she thought of the accumulated warmth and pelf of her marriage, and how by slimming her body she had bought into the pleasures of the nation.”

At the same time, Louise still feels out of place in the world, as if being thin were not her desired, or legitimate, “destination” in life:

But there were times, with her friends, or with Richard, or alone in the house, when she was suddenly assaulted by the feeling that she had taken the wrong train and arrived at a place where no one knew her, and where she ought not to be.

In trying to explain to her husband what it was like to be a “fat girl,” Louise again expresses her frustration in failing to adequately communicate her experience in terms of national identity, as she feels like a foreigner in her own body and her own life: “She felt as though she were trying to tell a foreign lover about her life in the United States, and if only she could command the language he would know and love all of her and she would feel complete.”

After having her baby, Louise returns to her old “rituals” of eating; her return to these rituals feels like a return of her “spirit.” As her husband criticizes her weight gain, Louise “remained calm within layers of flesh and spirit, and watched his frustration, his impotence.” It is as if “flesh” and “spirit” are one and the same for Louise, as if gaining weight were, for her, equivalent to feeding her spirit, just as losing weight feels to her like draining her spirit.

In the final moments of the story, Louise becomes resigned to the knowledge that Richard will soon leave her because of her weight gain. In holding the baby to her body, Louise again equates her body with her soul, as she “carries the boy to his crib, feels him against her large breasts, feels that his sleeping body touches her soul.”

Source: Liz Brent, for Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2000.

Sarah Madsen Hardy

Madsen Hardy has a doctorate in English literature and is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, she discurses Louise’s evolving attitude toward her weight in the context of fat acceptance.’

“Her name was Louise.” So opens Andre Dubus’s short story “The Fat Girl.” But before readers even learn the protagonist’s name, they have already learned the most important aspect of her identity from the story’s title. The frank adjective “fat” is a powerful label. The story outlines how Louise negotiates this identity, focusing on her relationships with her parents, female friends, and men. Louise sees herself as a fat person in a double way—in terms of her own, private self-image, which includes self-love and pleasure, and in terms of how others see her, which centers on pity, worry, and disgust. Even when she succeeds in losing weight, fatness remains a dominant part of how she sees herself. Louise’s struggle to come to terms with her identity as a fat girl reflects a larger cultural debate about the way obesity should be understood and dealt with.

As a nation, Americans are obsessed with weight and are chronically fat. According to medical researchers at the 1998 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), “obesity is a public health epidemic and should be treated like one” reports Maggie Fox, who covered the conference for Reuters. Medical experts see obesity as an illness rather than a personal issue, attributing to it a host of health risks running from diabetes to heart disease. Despite evidence that obesity is largely attributable to genetics, research has shown that most Americans associate thinness not only with beauty, but with character and virtue as well. Fat people are often perceived as unattractive and asexual. Furthermore, they are often held responsible for their condition and labeled as undisciplined, lazy, even stupid. American culture stigmatizes fat people to the point that obesity often has stronger detrimental effects on their social and emotional lives than it does on their physical health.

According to fat-acceptance advocacy groups such as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), in light of such discriminatory attitudes, obesity should be seen primarily as a human rights issue, not a medical one. They advocate for fat people who are routinely subjected to discrimination in employment, housing, and other arenas. They oppose weight-loss diet programs (which, NAAFA claims, have a collective 95-98 percent failure rate over a three-year period), speaking out against a diet industry that funds obesity research and exploits fat peoples’ psyches and pocket-books. Fat-acceptance advocates claim that it is years of off-and-on dieting, not obesity in itself, that leads to health problems among the fat.

Perhaps the most important part of NAAFA’s mission, however, is to offer social and emotional support for fat people, many of whom are depressed and isolated. Because the mainstream culture looks so unfavorably on obesity, they strive to create a subculture where it’s okay to be fat, offering fat-friendly social events, pen pals, and dating services. One recent internet search retrieved over seventy fat-acceptance groups, as well as a range of online magazines such as Abundance Magazine, BBTeen E-zine, Fat?So!, Big Times and Fat and Fabulous, which address issues including health, fashion, romance, and sex in the fat person’s life. Such forums help foster self-acceptance and social ties among the obese.

In “The Fat Girl” Louise vacillates between a mainstream perspective—seeing her weight as a weakness and the source of her problems—and an accepting one—seeing it as no more than an incidental aspect of who she is. From a young age she seems to understand that “she was fat because she was Louise. Because God had made her that way.” But she is the only fat person in the story (at one point she explains, “I was always thinking what people saw when they looked at me and I didn’t want them seeing two fat girls”) so she also internalizes the ideas about fatness that thin people tend to have. Describing this double perspective on her weight, Louise says, “When I was alone I didn’t mind being fat, but then I’d have to leave the house again and then I didn’t want to look like me.”

The thin people in the story—with the notable exception of Louise’s father—cannot imagine simply accepting her for who she is. They assume that Louise’s weight is preventing her from leading a happy, fulfilled life. From a young age Louise is encouraged to lose weight for the specific purpose of attracting the opposite sex. “If you’re fat the boys won’t like you; they won’t ask you out,” Louise’s mother tells her bluntly. But Louise does not find this very powerful incentive. Her single sexual experience, being kissed by a drunk boy, is not pleasurable or affirming: “He jammed his tongue into her mouth.” By contrast, she takes such great pleasure in eating that Dubus describes it in sexual terms. Likening the chocolate that Louise keeps hidden in her drawer to “lewd photographs,” he describes how Louise “thought of the waiting candy

“As a thin, beautiful woman Louise must live in denial of her physical and emotional appetites, suffering a dislocated sense that those around her do not know who she really is. . . . It is not until she gains weight back and loses Richard’s love that she begins to see others’ intolerance toward her weight as their problem or weakness rather than hers.”

with near lust.” The candy seems to offer her the solace of love that is otherwise missing from her life. According to this way of thinking, Louise would stop lusting for candy when she finally found a fulfilling love relationship, which would therefore make it possible for her to give up food and be forever thin.

This is, indeed, what her friend Carrie seems to believe when she encourages Louise to go on a diet. Thin, chronically depressed Carrie has recently fallen in love for the first time. As she rides the bus from her boyfriend’s place back to the dorm room she shares with Louise, she starts worrying about Louise’s prospects for the future. “I was thinking about when we graduate. What you’re going to do. What’s to become of you. I want you to be loved the way I love you. Louise, if I help you, really help you, will you go on a diet?” The context of Carrie’s concern suggests that she believes that Louise will be alone—without friends and also without the chance to find romantic love—if she doesn’t lose weight.

While Carrie’s response to Louise’s weight is based on concern and sympathy, and her mother’s response is more judgmental and hostile, both of them tie happiness and love—and, significantly, the love of men—to being thin. But, as the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that what makes Louise unhappy, angry, and resentful is being hungry, not being fat. When, with Carrie’s help, Louise sheds enough weight to no longer be seen as a fat girl by those around her (including her new husband, Richard), her new attractiveness and social acceptance do not bring her real happiness. “She felt that somehow she had lost more than pounds of fat; that some time during her dieting she had lost herself too.” She later reflects on the year of dieting as “the worst year of her life.”

As a thin, beautiful woman Louise must live in denial of her physical and emotional appetites, suffering a dislocated sense that those around her do not know who she really is. She occasionally feels “cunning” and “triumphant,” but “there were times, with her friends, or with Richard, or alone in the house, when she was suddenly assaulted by the feeling that she had taken the wrong train and arrived at a place where no one knew her, and where she ought not be.” It is not until she gains weight back and loses Richard’s love that she begins to see others’ intolerance toward her weight as their problem or weakness rather than hers. She has feelings of happiness and fulfillment when she is eating and nurturing her infant son. She is not heartbroken to lose Richard, whom she understands as crippled in his incapacity to love her truly, as herself, the way God made her.

Since Louise has never had a social network to support her in accepting her size, where does this emerging sense of self-esteem and self-acceptance come from? Throughout the story, Dubus describes Louise’s father as somewhat weak but loving. He offers her love unconditionally and “kissed her often.” He is the only character in the story that encourages her to eat and the only one to express ambivalence when she eventually loses weight, commenting, “But now there’s less of you to love.” Though he too pities her, he is the one figure from whom she receives a message that she is lovable just as she is, as a fat girl.

Another origin of Louise’s eventual self-acceptance is the fat actresses with whom she was fascinated as a teenager. These women, who had “broad and profound faces,” reflect for Louise an alternative affirmative vision of herself and her future—one that doesn’t involve dieting, self-denial, and transformation. She imagines that “they were fat because they chose to be.” In our thin-worshipping culture, this is a radical idea. “And she was certain of something else too: she could see it in their faces—they did not eat secretly.” They are not ashamed of who they are. By the end of the story, Louise, too, is finally able to eat openly and without shame, despite her mother’s silent disapproval and her husband’s resentful rejection. “She is remained calm within layers of flesh and spirit,” Dubus writes, suggesting that Louise’s body and soul are at last in harmony. She is free to feed her hungers and this—rather than the approval of the thin mainstream—is what brings her true happiness and peace.

Source: Sarah Madsen Hardy for Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2000.


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Broyard, Anatole, “Some Good Moments,” in The New York Times Book Review, November 20, 1977, p. 14.

Devlin, James E., “Andre Dubus,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 130, Gale, 1993, pp. 142–49.

Milton, Edith, Review of Adultery and Other Choices, in The New Republic, February 4, 1978, p. 33.

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Yarbrough, Steve, “Andre Dubus: From Detached Incident to Compressed Novel,” in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, Fall, 1986, pp. 19–27.

Further Reading

Dubus, Andre, Meditations from a Movable Chair, Thorndike, MN: Thorndike Press, 1999

A collection of Dubus’s essays.

Kennedy, Thomas E., Andre Dubus: A Study of the Short Fiction, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.

Critical study of Dubus’s most important short stories.

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The Fat Girl

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