We tend to avoid mirrors after we see that the number on the scale has ticked upward. Even if your body hasn’t visibly changed in shape, numbers seem like an immutable fact. There is a certain pressure surrounding the scale, which breeds an obsession with everyone else’s numbers. Then come the diets, the reluctant exercise, the low-fat shakes, and, sometimes, unfortunately, the eating disorders. We assume that others share our self-hatred and we make self-deprecating quips about our least favorite body parts or how our clothes don’t fit like they once did. This self-deprecation rears its ugly head in Pamela Ribon and Cat Farris’ My Boyfriend Is a Bear.
My Boyfriend is a Bear is about Nora, a woman in her twenties who loves sewing clothes, going out with gal pals, and her cat. There’s just one thing: like any typical woman in her twenties nowadays, she hasn’t had the best luck with men. Everyone in her life is baffled when she meets her new boyfriend, who is, as the title suggests, an actual black bear.
As one can imagine, living with a black bear is tricky. Nora and her boyfriend face the common issues of real life couples, such as bitter friends trying to ruin their happiness, the death of loved ones, and disappointment with their careers. One thing that normal couples don’t face, however, is hibernation season. As it looms ever closer, Nora and Bear’s relationship fluctuates and they bicker about small things. “Oh hey, her body looks like mine,” your reviewer thought about Nora’s love handles as Nora and Bear had a tiff about how to keep his coffee in a tin.
One panel later, Nora fat-shames herself.
Fat-shaming and body diversity are issues not discussed enough in comics circles. Even though there’s systemic hate toward fat bodies and scientifically proven oppression toward overweight people, it falls behind in priority compared to racism, sexism, and homophobia. While there have been efforts toward including more people of color, women, and queer people in comics, there has been less pressure on artists to draw more diverse body types.
Generally, Farris’ art is the all-star of the book. Her layouts are fun, her characters humorous even when the book’s pacing is off, and her direction is clear. When Nora gets drunk with her friends early in the book, there’s an admirable homage to Picasso as her friends’ faces get increasingly more abstract as the sequence goes on. Farris is undeniably a very talented artist.
However, there is something to be said about the derogatory phrase Ribon uses to put down Nora’s body: “fat ass.” Not only does Farris still draw Nora as mostly skinny, the character is shown to have a small butt. There’s a squeamishness to the image, as if Farris didn’t want to depict an actual fat person.
Yes, there is realism in Nora hating her body. Yes, the larger societal problem of us hating fat people and ourselves isn’t going to be solved through a single comedic comic. However, we need to start confronting media that is complicit in inflicting this damage, even if it’s just one panel in an otherwise decent comic. It’s time to be aware of all types of representation and what statements are made from its presence or lack thereof. Fat people often don’t see themselves in comics, and when they do, there’s an astoundingly high possibility that they will be made into a clown or insulted by either the narration or other characters. What does it say about the creators of such media to continue these patterns? What does it say about us if we let it slide?
My Boyfriend is a Bear doesn’t try to make a statement. It is a rare cis female-centered comic, and it even tries to be inclusive, considering Nora’s black, bisexual, polyamorous friend, Carly. But inclusivity is a philosophy meant to push media into reflecting real life. Fat people are real. They are human. And it’s time to start treating them that way.