Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Chewing the Fat: Caricaturing the Mildly or Morbidly Obese

This poor girl's discomfort at being caricatured sadly turned
her into an internet meme. That, and she got a lousy
caricature, too. 
Well here's a topic I can, ahem, really sink my teeth into. Unlike my post about racial features, I can speak completely openly here and offer a helpful (I hope) insider's perspective. I'm a bit of a fatty myself. I can talk to other fatties without feeling self-conscious. And sometimes my own fat ass lets me get away with stuff that might not fly if it was coming from a size 4 caricature artist. 

And it's nearing the end of the holidays, when most of America probably feels like fatties--so it's the perfect time to dissect some approaches (both psychological and anatomical) to handling your standard overweight caricature patron.


This is what 9 out of 10 customers ask for when they sit down. "Take twenty pounds off!" (or fifty, or a hundred and fifty) is such a common quip that I get happily surprised when I DON'T hear it within the first ten seconds of a drawing. And I used to try and follow that directive, way back as a beginner caricature artist. Now I think doing so is a huge mistake. I think people who ask me to "draw them skinny" don't actually mean it. I've come to translate that plea to mean "please don't draw my fatness in a mean way that picks on me."

Let me tell you a little secret: fat people know they are fat. They see it every damn day, on the bathroom scale, in their oversized pants, in the photos on Facebook, in their reflection in shop windows, and in their shadow on a sunny day. You are not going to blindside them with a stunning diagnosis if you represent their mass in the caricature. They know.

What they are hoping is that you won't pick on them for it. And, like so many other aspects of live caricature, that can be a fine line. And it can depend on the relationship you can form with the model over that several minutes they sit for you. 
In an alternate universe . . .

I'm going to sound like I'm putting a gender spin on this, because I'm talking mainly about fat women. They are, in my experience, the ones more sensitive about weight. Fat guys have been laughing at fat caricatures of themselves for ages, and I generally don't ever have problems navigating how I should handle drawing them. Fat guys often do live up to that "jolly" archetype, and--whether by conditioning or biology, who knows?--they seem pretty okay with being chided about their mass. Look at how many sitcom couples feature a svelte, tiny-waisted wife paired with a rotund husband: Fred and Wilma, The Honeymooners, Peter and Lois Griffin, Homer and Marge, Kevin Arnold and any woman he's ever shared screen time with. The list goes on and on. I cannot, however, think of one popular sitcom that features a husband that's in shape but an overweight female as his mate. Not one. Guys find it more acceptable to chide their male friends over weight--when a fat guy sits down for a caricature, half the time his buddies are encouraging me to get all his rolls and blubber in the picture. No female friends do this to their overweight bff's, not ever. A woman's worth is still consciously tied to her figure, and that creates baggage that we, as caricature artists, have to sometimes help people handle.

"Fat" versus "Curvy"

So let's say you get a woman sitting for you who is nervous about her girth and mentions it to you, asking you to draw her skinny. There's a few ways to approach this problem. I have seen a spectrum of approaches, like one artist who grumpily told a woman "Look, if you're fat, I'm gonna draw you fat." He ended up not working at the booth long, as the woman took her fat butt right to mall management and complained. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, the eager-to-please artist that indeed, draws a glamorous female with no chins, cheeks, or arm fat, and feels like a sellout during the entire process but is resigned to the fact that the customer is the boss.

Lord knows I've gone wrong in my approach. My first year drawing caricatures at Excalibur, which favored a front-view style as opposed to all my years drawing profiles, I was indeed stymied by how to softly (or harshly) represent a chubby face that had no discernible chin line. I guess I was feeling particularly brave one night--this was probably right after a caricature convention--and decided to go rogue and not cut any corners when a portly gal sat for me. She had a chin that popped out of a flat wall of neck flesh due to her extra weight, and I just took a deep breath and drew it. I may have even exaggerated it. Straight lines from ear to shoulder, pretty much. Well, I turned it around, hoping for the best but expecting the worst, and she simply looked surprised for a moment, then paid me, and even chuckled a bit. Her friend, however, was quietly livid, and as they left she bent down and said angrily in my ear "I hope you know that that's going straight into the trash!" Well, all right then. A moment of regret, but it struck me that it wasn't the fat woman, but her friend, who was upset. And she had paid me, it was not rejected. As I said, fat people know they're fat.

As is my typical standby, I rely on humor these days to try and lighten the mood. I don't want to resort to slimming generic-cature, but I also don't want people getting angry every time I draw a double chin. Let's talk about words. They are important. First off, I try to banish the term "double chin" when talking to a customer, it's just a phrase so laden with hatred and ugliness--no sensitive female is going to take well to an artist saying "I'm going to include your double-chin,"but you can get away with saying "You have a soft chin, and I'm going to include that--if I put harsh angles there instead you would look like an anorexic or a bodybuilder." If someone says "make me skinnier!" as they sit down, I hold up the blank paper and say well, if you hold it this way (turning the paper at an angle) you can be as skinny as you want!

There are a huge array of words that mean fat but are nicer on the ears than "fat." I have worked a few into my repertoire: curvy, bodacious, zaftig, Ruebenesque, curvaceous, bountiful, and on and on. You can make up words as long as you say them with attitude and a friendly, even flirty way. A young lady who sits down and says "Don't draw me fat!" can suddenly giggle with delight and even shed a bit of self-consciousness if an artist responds with "Girl, don't even worry, you are boom-shaka-laka and I am going to do that justice!"

And then, by golly, do it justice. Caricature master Glenn Ferguson did a tutorial a few years back for ISCA trade magazine "Exaggerated Features" on how to capture large people in a retail-friendly way. His tips and tricks were very valuable--like throwing a shoulder up in a flirty pose (to make a large woman look seductive and playful rather than just a lifeless mound) or getting an expression just right so that the eye isn't immediately drawn to what the patron sees as flaws (double chin, chubby cheeks, etc.) but instead gets hit with the whole effect of "wow, that's me!" I wish I could link directly to his tutorial, but I'm afraid you'll have to search it out in the archives--it's bee a while!
She laughed, and laughed, and laughed, and then caught her breath,
then laughed some more. 

One pose I long ago stole from Robert and have used a few times to great effect, plays on a woman's size relative to her boyfriend. This pose requires an overweight, busty gal (preferably wearing a low-cut top already) and a smaller fellow, not only smaller in mass but also shorter than his mate. You definitely want to ask if they have a sense of humor before you go for it. But oh my goodness, does it go over well. 

As a fat gal myself, I do have a few arrows in my quiver that not everyone can use. I have shared bits and pieces of what eventually has become this blog post with fat patrons as I drew them, and it has seemed like it made a difference in their thinking here and there. As a member of that club, sometimes I can talk more freely with them and not make them feel offended or picked on. When they ask for weight to be taken off, I can even jokingly say "Why? Are you telling me fat people aren't sexy???" and put on a look of feigned offense, and they laugh along with me.

My Big Fat Caricatures

What exactly defines "picking on" someone for their weight? Well, I've been drawn literally hundreds of times. And I can tell you of a few instances that pushed my buttons--and a few instances that made me delight in how my proportions were drawn. Mind you, I am a far throw from the average caricature patron. I am a longtime caricature artist. Just like Lutefisk is a smelly, repulsive thing to most people but regarded as a delightful delicacy by some Norwegians, so are actual, exaggerated-yet-accurate caricatures delightful to my palate but certainly too strong for the average booth visitor.

I have been rankled by artists (usually inexperienced ones) completely altering my body type in a drawing, making a point of tacking on a size-zero, bikini-clad body on what was supposed to be a caricature of my face but instead looked very thinned down. My gut reaction to this type of treatment is "Really? You think that I think I look like this?" I'm fat, not delusional, just draw what you see, please. My intellect is insulted, my mental bravado--and I take far more pride in my intellect than my waist size. It also sends a message that what the artist sees (a fat girl) is so repulsive, so awful, that it must be lied about. Oh, the horror! My fat must be censored! The other extreme is when someone ignores all other features and just draws a cookie-cutter version of a fat person that may or may not resemble me. That simply strikes me as lazy. I am fat in my own particular way (a pear shape, thank you very much), and no decent caricature artist should just lump every plus-sized model into some category of "fat person" and draw a generic swelled-up body shape. No one likes to be stereotyped. Deciding that I am a fat person and that's all that's necessary to get my likeness is also insulting; it implies that you cannot look beyond it, or even at it in order to draw it correctly!
Whaaaa ha ha ha ha ha ho ho ho ho.

So, what caricatures have I thought captured my heft well, and also been pleasing to me? A couple years ago at an ISCA con, the aforementioned Glenn Ferguson drew me and Robert in that scene from Return of the Jedi, with "the bikini" and all. But, unlike the dreaded "generic bikini body" I mentioned above, Glenn put in every roll, every crease, and every little pooch of fat, I swear, exactly as I have it. It kind of creeped me out--made me wonder if he had the room next to ours and there maybe was a pinhole allowing him to get a full view of me as I showered. But seriously, this just shows Glenn's attention to figure drawing for many many years, and his ability to render fat (no cooking pun intended). This drawing isn't just of a random fat body, this drawing is of my fat body. You can see the hips jut out disproportionately, how the gravity affects the rolls, how the chin still exists but has extra weight on it, how the metal of the brass bikini cup weighs down on the flesh like soft bread dough. I better stop now, I may be turning some of you on.  

Fastest fat on the track.
Another favorite was one a few years back drawn by Lar DeSouza. I was into roller derby at the time (and made quite an effective blocker just because I was hard to get around), and Lar drew me barreling through the house on my skates with a teeny tiny helmet and flamey-red pony tails. The elegance here is in the line and form, neither of which is heavily rendered. He has my mass, yes, but in such a dynamic way! What's not to love here? He pulled off the same thing Fantasia animators did when they made hippos delightful to watch as they danced in tutus . . . it's all about line and form. There is not one shape in this drawing that is not pleasing to the eye. Do they all add up to a fat girl? Yes. But is it still fun to look at? Absolutely. Lar is the master of whimsical form, elegant chubbiness, and perfect line quality. I have tried to learn as much as I can from him over the years.  

The next drawing I'm going to crow about isn't of me. My best friend of many, many years was overweight herself. A bit more than me. Growing up as a budding cartoonist, I drew my friends a lot. And I had SUCH a hard time drawing her. I was her BFF, and remember, girls don't comfortably chide each other about their weight. It curdled my blood to even consider drawing my best friend in a way that would upset her. So I thinned her down each and every time, focusing instead on her blue eyes, her wavy blonde hair, her anything-but-fatness. It never looked like her. Go figure. Then, in 1990 (our senior year of high school), she and our friend Andy got a caricature done at the newly opened Excalibur casino. And damn, it looked JUST LIKE HER. The artist included that dreaded double chin, yes, but it looked like her, nailed her cheeky smile and laid-back attitude, and she loved it. I studied that picture, it amazed me. At sixteen, I did not have the acuity to see how fatness can be drawn softly rather than rudely, so this caricature was like a magic trick to me. She kept that picture over the years, as people do, and we found it again when we cleaned out her house. My friend died from complications of gastric-bypass surgery in 2008. When we uncovered her caricature, I saw by the signature that the artist was Steve Thomason--a brilliant live retail caricature artist that managed Excalibur for many years and had trained Robert when he hired on as a rookie in 1992. I even took a seminar from Steve Thomason about ten years ago, right before he moved out of Vegas, and it proved an eye-opening three hours of instruction. It's a small world. This drawing is now doubly special to me, even though I only have a color xerox of it (Andy, the fellow in the caricature, called dibs on the original). And if Steve had chosen to generic-ature our friend Kari and thin her down into a blah version that bore little or no resemblance? Well, had he done that, this drawing would have been worthless. 

Reality Acceptance versus "Fat Acceptance"

Public health officials lament that we, as a culture, are becoming too accepting of fatness. We are "glamorizing" an unhealthy lifestyle and what it looks like. No question, there are some outliers on the bell curve of humanity that take pride in their girth. Some are extremely attracted to extreme proportions, and fetish pornography featuring ladies over 400 lbs is certainly not a new development. (But really, what isn't there fetish pornography about these days?) A more mainstream concern is the shift in America (and other developed countries) to reflect the ever-widening "average" waistband of their citizens. Advertising and manufacturers have, in their effort to cater to the widest demographic (no pun intended) "normalized" a larger body size. Clothing sported by waif models on the runway is mass-produced in sizes 3X and 4X for the herds of obese women shopping at Torrid, Lane Bryant, or even Walmart. Larger-sized females are sometimes portrayed as "more real" or "powerful" in media images or cinema. Mike & Molly are on the airwaves portraying an increasingly "typical" middle-class American couple.

Poor Barbie has been used left and right for statements for and against
different (or even impossible) body types.

I seriously doubt America is on the verge of undergoing a radical aesthetic change and making plus-size the new fashion. Just google "fat acceptance is" and the suggested ends to that query are "is stupid," "is wrong," and "is retarded."

What sets apart fatness from other features is that it's an outward reflection of something actually WRONG. Unlike race, or sexual orientation, or nose length, or freckles, or eye color, one's fatness is not simply a part of a person's set identity. It's an unhealthy condition, and we fatties are responsible for our fat--we are wearing our sins on our hips and chins. One can parse tons of data on genetic propensity, poverty correlation, and glandular issues, but the bottom line is that no one is born fat. And studies are showing that there really isn't a "fit fat" . . . If you're overweight or obese, it WILL impact your health negatively, the question is just how soon. I'm all about encouraging patrons to "own their face" and take pride in every feature they were born with, every wrinkly they earned . . . but how can we encourage anyone to take pride in what is, unquestionably, a preventable unhealthy state?

No matter how many gentle words I use, or how much spin I put on drawing a woman's sexy curves, I don't think overweight patrons walk away with their caricature saying "Yeah! I look awesome fat! I'm going to stay fat forever!" And I have to scowl at some of the finger-wagging opinion pieces I've come across that say the appearance of "glamorized" fat people in magazines, or likable fat characters on TV or in movies, is somehow going to make people be okay with their fatness. As if showing fat people will make America continue to get fat, and our health will all suffer, and the world will end. This view assumes that when people become fat we also become stupid. It also assumes that covering up a problem, ignoring a problem, or vilifying and picking on someone for having a problem will help them defeat that problem. It tends to have the opposite effect. 

Rather, when I draw people I like to assume they are in touch with reality (despite what they say to the contrary, like "draw me skinny," or "draw me with hair" or whatnot). I also like to think that if I can pull off a picture that captures them, with their body size as it is but in an elegant, fun-to-look-at sort of way, it might open them up to having a sense of humor about themselves, their appearance, and even their fatness. And sometimes issues that seem insurmountable can get cut down to size with a little dose of reality and a little bit of humor. And a sexy tilt of the shoulder never hurts, too. 


  1. Again, way too pithy and full of insight. This would be impossible to tweet.
    I disagree with your deliberately inflammatory conclusion that fatness is a reflection of something that is actually wrong. There is no objective fatness, but there are differing levels of fitness. Thin and fat are subjective labels. Very few of us are at the optimal fitness level, and almost all of us fall short of what we would like to look like, even if we do learn to be happy in our own skin. You make it sound like you think not being at that optimal fitness level is wrong, and the fatter you are, the more wrong you are. Or the more is wrong with you. And, IMNSHO, that is just plain wrong.

  2. Hi Mike,
    Always a pleasure to hear your views on my interminably long blog posts. ;-) I wasn't intending to be inflammatory, and I suppose my word choice of "wrong" could have been better. True, everyone is on a spectrum of optimum health on one side to--well--dead, on the other. My intention was to make it clear that I'm not deluded into thinking there "isn't anything wrong" with being overweight in terms of health. There is. And the first thing any doctor writes down when I enter a doctor's office is "patient is obese." As well they should, as that's a condition worth noting and considering when looking at possible health concerns.

  3. Love your Blogs. How can I subscribe??

  4. 25 years ago, when I first started drawing caricatures professionally, Charlie Fulton told me to draw fat people "cute". He said go ahead and give the ladies their curves, but notch in their waists; and for the men, make the shoulders inordinately broad so that even with a big tummy, they have a cute, masculine look. All of my work is event work, and Charlie was right-- people love to look cute, or masculine, or curvy, and they do not freak out about their chub. I think it's just sort of a respect thing in my tiny corner of our industry-- i respect everyone i draw and they get that. I've been derided for drawing "cutie-catures", but that's okay. I fit well in my little space in our economy, and have made a good living for my family. And people like that the drawings are kind.

  5. Thank you for this! I'm not young,(will be 60 soon)but am FINALLY working on a lifelong dream to be a caricaturist. I'm also rotund and NEVER had the guts to get a caricature of myself because I was afraid the artist would use my fat to mock me. So...I want to be sensitive to others, but also realistic. All that to say, this post was both helpful and encouraging. And...after reading other comments, I wanted to say that I didn't think you were making commentary on the "rightness or wrongness" of being fat...just how to deal with it as an artist when someone asks you to draw them skinny. So...thanks for all the truth and insight. WRITE ON!!! :-D) <---That's me and my "soft" chin. heh heh

    1. Nice to hear, Martha, and welcome to our ranks. (I'm finally taking a look at comments and cleaning up some of the spam that's found its way onto my blog--pleasure to see there were some actual readers in the past year and not just troll bots. Maybe I'll dust off the old keyboard and do a few more posts in 2019...