27 pages • 54 minutes readAndre Dubus II
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“The Fat Girl” is a short story by Andre Dubus II that was originally published in his 1977 collection Adultery and Other Choices. Dubus was an American writer of short stories and essays from Louisiana. “The Fat Girl” chronicles nearly two decades in protagonist Louise’s life, spanning childhood to motherhood. The story explores Louise’s issues with body image, food and dieting, secrecy, gender roles, and relationships.
This guide is based on the version of the text from the anthology American Short Story Masterpieces (1987), edited by Tom Jenks and Raymond Carver.
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Content Warning: The source material deals with disordered eating and body shaming.
For most of the story, a close third-person narrator describes events in past tense. The story opens when Louise is 16 and a drunk boy forcefully kisses her at a barbecue. The narrator notes that Louise’s father is thin and kind, and that he often kisses her as well.
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The story then flashes back to when Louise was nine, when “it” all began. Her mother instructs Louise to limit what she eats to remain slim and appealing to boys. Louise’s mother is thin and pretty, eats very little, and smokes. She claims that Louise has inherited her slow metabolism, but Louise is more interested in the pale blond hair they share. Louise’s brother, whose name is not given, is allowed to eat sandwiches and potato chips, but Louise must eat whatever her mother eats.
The scant meals Louise’s mother prepares do not satisfy Louise’s hunger, and Louise does not plan on being interested in boys for at least five years. She begins secretly preparing peanut butter sandwiches while her mother is busy and then eating them in private places such as the bathroom or outside. Louise’s father is gone during the daytime because he is a successful lawyer, but in the evenings, he encourages Louise’s mother to let her eat more because she is a growing child. However, the mother becomes cross and does not agree to this. Although the father displays physical affection for Louise, the mother does not.
In high school, Louise has two friends named Joan and Marjorie, both of whom are thin. Louise’s behavior of eating food secretly has escalated, and she now eats sandwiches as well as a plethora of candy bars in a “ritual of deceit and pleasure” (159). Louise has grown fat, but nobody ever sees her eat much, so people assume that is just her body’s natural state.
After high school, Joan and Marjorie become wrapped up in romantic endeavors with men and grow apart from Louise. Louise moves to Massachusetts to attend an all-girls’ college so she will not have to deal with boys. She continues eating candy in secret but hides it in her drawer rather than her closet. Louise often hates her body, but she loves her hair.
Louise has one friend at college, Carrie, who is also her roommate all four years. Like Louise’s friends from high school, Carrie is thin. The two girls often stay up late talking. One night, Carrie tells Louise that she recently smelled Louise eating chocolate in her bed and says that she wishes Louise would eat in front of Carrie whenever she feels like it. Louise can’t decide what to say but eventually tells Carrie the chocolate is in the drawer and that she can have some whenever she wants.
During summer breaks, Louise returns to her childhood home in Louisiana, which she dislikes because she feels her weight disappoints her mother, her family, and her acquaintances. The only person Louise enjoys seeing is her father. She and Carrie exchange letters over the summer. The last summer before graduation, Carrie gets a serious boyfriend. When they return to school, Carrie tells Louise that she wants her to experience love as well and asks if she would be willing to go on a diet with Carrie’s help. She gives Louise one day to eat whatever she wants before starting her diet. For the first time since she was nine, Louise eats what she wants in public. Nobody seems to notice or care, and Louise feels that there is a lesson in this that lies beyond her grasp.
Carrie begins preparing all of Louise’s meals in their dorm room using an electric skillet. The meals are scant, such as one scrambled egg with black coffee or a piece of meat with lettuce. When Carrie goes to the dining hall to eat, Louise exercises by walking around campus for 30 minutes. Carrie also buys a scale and begins logging Louise’s weight each day in a notebook, starting with the day she began the diet and weighed 184 pounds. Louise’s hunger makes her anxious, queasy, and distracted during classes, but she feels that she can get through it with Carrie by her side. She starts smoking cigarettes like Carrie and her mother.
When Louise visits her parents for Christmas, she weighs 155 pounds. Her mother and other relatives are pleased and impressed, but her father is concerned about her smoking. Louise continues working toward the goal of 115 pounds that Carrie set for her, but she begins to feel that she is no longer herself and that hunger has stolen her soul. By the time she completes college, Louise weighs 113 pounds. Her mother is overjoyed, takes her shopping, and hires a professional photographer to take her picture. Louise gets a job “of no consequence, to give herself something to do” (167).
Louise soon begins dating a young lawyer named Richard who works at her father’s law firm. They eventually marry, and Carrie flies in to be the maid of honor. Richard is thin despite eating large amounts of unhealthy foods, which Louise cooks for him, but Louise continues to limit what she eats. For five years, Richard makes a lot of money and cultivates a fancy lifestyle, complete with vacations to the Bahamas, Mexico, and Paris, where Louise conceives a child as planned.
Louise is initially frightened when her body begins to grow from pregnancy. Richard asks her to quit smoking, and she does. She starts eating more snacks, which Richard tries to discourage. For a while, Louise thinks she is just gaining weight because she is pregnant, but then she realizes she is not dieting like she used to. She begins buying candy bars at the store and eating them alone on the drive home. She also begins eating pie in front of Richard, which he shames her for, reminding her that it will soon be swimsuit season. Louise resumes hiding candy, this time in her underwear drawer, to eat secretly.
Louise gives birth to a son. Louise enjoys both her baby and being celibate for a while after giving birth. She openly snacks throughout the day and eats what Richard eats at dinner, which he resents. She also starts smoking again. However, she still does not eat the candy bars in front of him. When Louise’s parents come to visit, her mother scolds her about her weight, while her father is affectionate toward both Louise and the baby.
The period of required celibacy ends, but Louise and Richard do not resume having sex. Richard continues to shame Louise for eating and gaining weight. She tells him she never knew how cruel he was. Louise puts her scale away and stops weighing herself. Richard picks fights with Louise every day about her weight, but the subject of the fight does not concern her, and she does not engage much during these arguments. Louise thinks that Richard’s anger about her weight says more about who he is than who she is.
The narration switches to present tense during a scene where Richard is angry, raises his voice at Louise, and wakes the baby. Louise goes to get the baby from his crib and brings him to the living room, where she comforts him. Richard pleads with her to go on a diet, but she thinks about how much she hated it last time. She thinks about how she will get a candy bar when she puts her son back to bed. She realizes that Richard will probably leave her soon; the thought has been “in his eyes” all summer (172).
She calmly carries her baby to his crib and kisses him goodnight before getting a candy bar from her drawer. Although she knows Richard is waiting for her downstairs, she is so happy thinking about him leaving that she is surprised to see him still standing there in the living room as she unwraps the candy bar.
By Andre Dubus II