Fat representation in romance has increased in recent years: consider the works of Jasmine Guillory, Talia Hibbert, and Rebekah Weatherspoon. Still, plus-size protagonists are relatively uncommon in the genre, and some authors and editors say there is still much work to be done.
Patience Bloom, senior editor at Harlequin, has been with the publisher for 24 years and concedes that the move toward body diversity has been slow going. “But now we have to keep up with the pace [of body-positive submissions],” she says. Her acquisition How to Fake a Wedding Date (Harlequin Desire, June), Karen Booth’s third Little Black Book of Secrets, is “a steamy romance that fans of the brother’s-best-friend and fake-dating tropes will want to snap up,” per PW’s review.
It also features a plus-size main character, socialite Alexandra Gold. “We can see how much readers love these books, so we push ourselves,” Bloom says. “How can we do it even more?”
PW spoke with editors and authors who are answering that question with their new and forthcoming releases.
Bodies of work
Several titles focus on acceptance and appreciation. In Set on You (Berkley), Amy Lea’s recent debut, plus-size fitness influencer Crystal Chen finds positivity and power in the gym, until fit firefighter Scott Ritchie hogs her favorite equipment and generally upends her chill. Sparks fly and the pair find strength in each other, but a viral photograph and vicious trolls test their mettle. “Lea’s prose is clear, witty, and powerful,” PW’s review said, “delivering an ode to all those who struggle with self-acceptance.”
In Danielle Jackson’s debut, The Accidental Pin-Up (Berkley, July), boudoir photographer Cassie Harris, a proud plus-size Black woman, finds herself not behind the camera but in front of it. “I’ve always wanted to be accepted for me and not how I looked, but that isn’t the world we live in,” Jackson says. “Romance is escapist, but it’s important to be able to see our real selves in it. There’s always a line in a romance, ‘He rested his hand on the curve of her hip.’ What if that curve of the hip was larger? He can 100% be attracted to that. We see that sort of attraction every day in real life.”
PW’s review welcomed the sentiment: “A glamorous cast of bold, driven women—and the men who learn to love them—makes this romance a treat.”
When Life Gives You Vampires (Sourcebooks Casablanca, Oct.), Gloria Duke’s debut, follows Lily Baines, who awakens one morning from uneasy dreams to find herself transformed into a vampire. Tristin, her paramour, didn’t mean to bite her, but what’s done is done; the pair do battle with slayers and with Lily’s mother, whose romance and diet advice are not at all appreciated. Lily struggles with her size, but as a vampire she will have to live with the body she has for eternity, the author explains.
“Years ago, a character like Lily in a romance novel would’ve had a makeover and the guy would decide that he now sees all of her good qualities and fall in love with her,” Duke says. “But Lily doesn’t get a makeover, because it’s not about changing her—it’s about changing the way she thinks about herself.”
Many of the authors PW spoke with lamented the lack of fat male protagonists in romance. “There have been some really good conversations on Twitter about what we do with the concept of desirability and what happens in a community when we say we’re attempting to turn the patriarchy’s view of women,” says Jodie Slaughter, author of Bet on It (Griffin, July). “There’s something to be said about the communal fantasy of being a person who’s not seen as desirable by society’s standards. It’s important that we keep examining what it is that we like about this particular trope of a fat cishet women with a thin or muscular or tall man.” (For our q&a with Slaughter, see “Big Love”)
Olivia Dade, whose romances include Spoiler Alert and All the Feels, has been outspoken about why fat representation in romance matters to her as a reader and as a writer. She features a fat hero in Ship Wrecked (Avon, Nov.): Peter, a “thick-thighed, sexy Viking of a man” and an actor who once had a one-night stand with fellow actor Maria. When they reconnect on set years later, Dade deploys a bounty of romance tropes: forced proximity, second chance, slow burn, and friends-to-lovers.
Size does matter
In some books, the main characters’ size is secondary or inconsequential to the plot, though their body diversity is apparent on the cover and in the text. Can’t Resist Her by Kianna Alexander (Montlake, July) finds Summer Graves and Aiko Holt both living in their hometown of Austin, Tex., 15 years after one passionate kiss in high school. The women are at odds: Aiko, an architect, is a determined developer; Summer sees her efforts as gentrification. “Even in their arguments, Summer and Aiko are an easy couple to root for,” PW’s review said. “Readers will hope to see both of them achieve their goals.”
Allison Avery, the female protagonist in Jenny L. Howe’s The Make-up Test (St. Martin’s, Sept.), is a striving literature PhD student. In a romance-worthy coincidence, she and her ex-boyfriend, Colin Benjamin, are assigned to TA for the same professor. Allison and Colin match wit and lit, until a family emergency and a sexy Scrabble game make them rethink their competition. The word fat comes up often in the book; Allison sees reclaiming the word as an important step toward changing how the world perceives her and fatness in general: “Fat was only an ugly word if you let it be,” the character says.
After Hours on Milagro Street by Angelina Lopez (Carina Trade, July), which PW’s starred review called a “passionate, un-put-downable rivals-to-lovers romance,” launches the author’s Milagro Street series. Alejandra “Alex” Torres has moved home to Kansas to revitalize her grandmother’s bar, a local landmark. Jeremiah Post, the sexy professor upstairs, hopes to turn the bar into a museum instead.
Kerri Buckley, executive editor at Carina Press, singles out Lopez for the way she writes sex. “This book is off the charts: it’s like five chilies or whatever system you want to use,” she says. “Alex’s body, and Jeremiah’s appreciation for her body, play very heavily into those sex scenes. He revels in her soft stomach and he acknowledges the strength in her thick thighs, and he loves her giant ass. He’s just gone for her physically in a way that is so gorgeous and gives insight into the dynamics of their relationship.”
Like Bloom at Harlequin, Buckley is cautiously hopeful about the future of fat-positive romance. “We’re still up against a very white and thin and heteronormative landscape, but the industry is trying hard to change that,” she says. “It’s not going to change overnight, or in a year, or even probably in the next couple of years—but we have to keep moving forward.”
Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the name of Angelina Lopez's new series.
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