Spider Robinson is one of my all-time favorite authors. His work is comfort reading for me, a teddybear in wood pulp. At some of the lowest points in my life, when I was seriously considering suicide, his books helped hold me together and keep me going. His stories were very formative for me, too. I started reading them at about age twelve. He introduced me to a lot of things that are now pretty important in my life: complex puns, sex positivity, consensual nonmonogamy, ethical kink, the idea that a fat woman could be sexy, and, upon reading one particular description of a beautiful woman, the awareness of my own bisexuality.
If you’re not familiar with Spider, he writes science fiction that is, fundamentally, about people caring about one another. His best known works are the connected Callahan’s books (the Callahan’s Place books, Lady Sally’s House books, Mary’s Place books, and The Place books, for a total of eight and a half novels and/or short story collections), about a bunch of barflies and sex workers out to save the world with the help of some time travelers from the far future, who spend most of their time telling terrible jokes, drinking, having sex, and caring a lot about each other and total strangers; and the Stardancer Trilogy he wrote with his wife Jeanne (sadly, now dead, and lost to us), about zero gee dance,* telepathy, and immortality.
I mentioned above that Spider’s work was the first place I encountered the idea that a fat woman could be sexy. At thirteen, when I first read Callahan’s Secret (the third Callahan’s Place book), I was already obese, and already indoctrinated into the idea that that meant I would never be really desirable. I’d never heard of Fat Admirers. But there at the beginning of Secret, Jake Stonebender, our narrator for the past thirteen stories, reveals that he finds fat women incredibly sexy, as he meets a naked fat lady on the roof of the bar. In the course of a couple of pages, he eloquently describes everything that he finds beautiful about her body,** and at the same time delivers the frankest and most forthright discussion of anti-fat bigotry I would see for at least another decade.
What you would probably have said if you’d seen her, naked or clothed, is, “Handsome woman; she could be beautiful if she lost the weight.” You would probably have gallantly tried to avoid looking at, let alone commenting on her body — you almost certainly would not have drunk the site of it the way I did.
. . . She had big glorious saggy tits, and what are sometimes affectionately called “love handles,” (that is, the people who use the term sometimes mean it affectionately) and a round belly and thighs that would jiggle when she walked.
She looked, in short, much like half the mature women in this sorry culture, and she would have opened the nose of most of the heterosexual males who ever lived. Praxiteles, Titian, Rubens, Rodin, any of the great ones would have reached for their tools, if not their work utensils, at the sight of her.
You know: a whale. A hippo. I’m telling ya, Morty, this broad was two hunnert pounds if she was a friggin’ ounce, no shit. One of America’s millions of rejects, forever barred from The Good Life, too sunk in sloth or genetic degeneracy to torture herself into the semblance of an undernourished adolescent male. A pig. No character, no willpower, no self-discipline, no self-respect, certainly no sex appeal. A lifelong figure of fun, doomed to be jolly, member of the only minority group that “comedians” can still get away with viciously assaulting.
I could tell I was beginning to get an erection.
(Just in case it isn’t clear from this selection, that second-to-last paragraph is Jake talking about society’s opinions, not his own.) (Also, dammit, no, fatties are far from the only group “comedians” still “viciously assault” and get away with it.)
Seriously. No one had ever laid out the implicit messages that society kept feeding me so explicitly before. And seeing it set out before me like that, and rejected out of hand as cruel nonsense, gave me permission to start rejecting those messages early. Oh, not entirely — I’m not entirely free of them today, like every other fat activist I know — but it was a seed planted in the back of my head, one that helped give me the strength to resist and break out of dieting, to learn to believe that some people really did find me beautiful and sexy, to acknowledge that I was not weak, that I could have self-respect and self-esteem and be fat.
The naked fat lady’s name is Mary, and she is, among other things, a blacksmith. She and Jake’s next love, Zoey, are both warm, wonderful, brave, strong-willed, talented people, and beautiful representations of fat women.
As I said, this whole scene introducing Mary appears at the beginning of Callahan’s Secret, in a story called “The Blacksmith’s Tale”. These days, you can most easily find it in the omnibus volume The Callahan Chronicles. Just before it, then, is the last story from Time Travelers Strictly Cash, “MirroR/Rirrom, Off the Wall,” which unfortunately contains the following passage:
Glandular cases aside, the only genuine cure for fat is not to be a hog. Your method would encourage fat people to keep on being hogs — so, they’ll keep on being fat people, regardless of what they happen to weigh. You’d know one anywhere.
(The “method” suggested was bringing fattening food items over from a mirror-image universe, because the reversed molecules would not be digested by the body. Like sucralose, more or less.)
*sigh* Oh, Spider. Why did you have to put that in there? You couldn’t have found some other example of the character trying to cheat using the reversed molecule? Did you have to call us all hogs, and say all of us are fat (except “glandular cases”) because we overeat, and that that character trait stands out more than our size?
It depresses the fuck out of me. When I’m reading, I skip that bit. Right now, though, I’m listening to the audiobook, which is less convenient to skip through. I grit my teeth and get through it, knowing that Mary’s first appearance is right around the corner, and that it will warm my heart again.
But that bit in “Mirror” is still there.
I firmly believe that we all enjoy problematic things, but that it is our responsibility to acknowledge and accept the problematic aspects of them, and to talk about them when they need to be talked about. No matter how much I enjoy Supernatural, the show is deeply fucked up in all kinds of ways, so much so that the structural misogyny of the show is almost incidental (almost) to the rest of it. No matter how much you enjoy Buffy, parts of it are deeply fucked up, like the entire story of the first Slayer, and the incredible whiteness of Buffy’s world.
There are other problems with Spider’s work, and I generally see and acknowledge them. But this is the one that always hits me like a punch in the gut.
*Jeanne was a dancer, and part of the same ill-fated program as Christa McAuliffe. She had planned to go to space to work on creating zero gee dance. Before she got her ride up, the program died with Challenger and McAuliffe, so she and Spider wrote those books, and they are beautiful.
**With, alas, some of the real-women-have-curves, skinny-women-look-like-boys language that I know, with the maturity I have now, to be pretty awful, but at the time it was very affirming for me. What? I was barely a teen. It gave me hope.