I recently gave my three-year-old daughter her first Barbie doll. Part of me felt guilty, since Barbies are associated with body image issues. I’ve thought about it in depth, and I’ve realized that I don’t hate my body because I played with Barbies as a kid. I never thought an eleven-inch-tall toy with rubber hands, plastic boobs, and oddly shaped feet was a practical model for how I was supposed to look. What really had an effect on my self-esteem was all the Stephen King books I read, starting at age ten. Stephen King just plain hates fat people, women in particular.
Take Christine, which was my first King novel. Dennis, the protagonist, describes in great detail how wonderful his girlfriend Leigh is, mostly because of her appearance: “She turned back to me, and I was struck by her beauty again, calm and undemanding except for those high, arrogant cheekbones…” He goes on about her grace and her breath like a rainforest and her perfect body. This is contrasted by a scene in the book when Dennis and his friend Arnie, who owns Christine, have an unpleasant encounter after Christine dies in a strange neighborhood: “a young woman waddled down toward us from her house…She was in dire need of Weight Watchers.” She complains in a less than intelligent manner about how Arnie needs to move his car, and is mean to her two dimwitted, junk-food-eating children. It’s not a pretty picture.
King’s writing is saturated with such characters. It’s also never that they’re just fat; they have terrible hygiene, too, and are usually not the sharpest tool in the shed. Every so often, he presents a character who is fat but also likable, like Gert in Rose Madder. She’s a funny, confident person who teaches self-defense to battered women. And at one point she incapacitates the villain by sitting on him. (And then peeing on him—what did I say about hygiene?)
Don’t get me wrong. I still feel nostalgia when I read those books (and I do occasionally still read them). I’ll never forget how the last time an adult read to me as a child was my late father reading to me from The Tommyknockers. I don’t blame King for all of my body issues. Other factors include the media, being teased in school, and low self-esteem all around. In the end, I’m okay with Layla playing with Barbies as long as she knows that Barbie is no more realistic than her anthropomorphic panda doll or her battery-operated Elmo guitar. If she wants to read Stephen King later down the road, I’ll have to sit her down and explain that he has a narrow vision of what is beautiful. And also that he has no room to talk because he looks like a turtle.