As a fat person, I’m not sure what I dislike more: no fat representation in media, or fat representation in media. Because whenever it happens, it’s almost always as a comic relief, a glutton, a character who is defined by always eating. Their fatness is only the “acceptable” kind, a little chub around the midsection, some minor flabbiness in the arms. A character, especially a woman, will only be allowed to be fat if they’re the villain, when the fatness is shorthand for their avarice and greed. So when I first saw the mentions of writer and artist Synecdoche’s Plus-Sized Elf, I wasn’t exactly hopeful, and the front cover—a slightly chubby elf girl stuffing herself with French fries—didn’t help. But Seven Seas has shown that they’re capable of releases of thoughtful, sensitive rep with licenses like My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, The Bride Was a Boy, and Claudine. So while I didn’t expect it to be great, I thought it might at least not be terrible.
I had set the bar so low, and yet Plus-Sized Elf dives so far underneath my expectations, I need radar to find it.
The volume starts with a few pages waxing about how high-calorie junk food is making everyone fat. While the globalization of Japan has had a direct impact on their obesity rates, it’s a tired and extremely reductive view that doesn’t demonstrate any real understanding of the issue. It then immediately segues into Naoe, the main character, who introduces himself, his boss Ino, and his boss’s oversized tits and ass. It is with irony that I note that the only character that appears to actually be fat is also the one that seems completely comfortable with her weight and self-image.
Naoe’s first customer (and entry into the quasi-harem) is Elfuda, an elf (yes, that is her name). Elfuda is seeking to lose weight because the portal to the world she came from only allows you in if you’re the same weight you were before, which is possibly one of the stupidest and most contrived plot devices I’ve ever seen. Naoe begins by doing a massage, which either the author or translator may have conflated with chiropractic therapy, because massages generally don’t make your bones crack.
Upon learning that she has developed an addiction to French fries, Naoe decides on the spot that he is now a dietician, and tells her to stop cold turkey, which as we all know, works so well for all addicts. Despite the fact that this guy has no fucking clue what he’s doing, Elfuda manages to lose the weight in one month, which means she was likely only about five or so pounds “overweight” to begin with. She goes home, only to return to the clinic a week later, more fries in hand, to diet a second time, setting up the yo-yo diet that anyone who has ever tried to lose weight knows very well.
Most actual dietitians would see this as a failure and try to address the root causes of the addiction, recommending lifestyle changes, as well as diet and exercise. Naoe, with all the confidence of a mediocre white man, has decided that not only is this a success, he should focus on helping other mystical visitors lose their weight. The story goes downhill from there, in multiple ways. Each of the new girls who are introduced are never more than a little overweight, and the stocky Japanese oni doesn’t appear to actually be fat.
Over and over, Naoe places all the blame for the women’s weight on them. The convenience store worker who doesn’t have time to exercise? So lazy! The werewolf who gets food from passersby and complains about it being high-calorie? How ungrateful! It also gets progressively more dirty and objectifying.
The dark elf shows how her raiments don’t fit by presenting her ass and letting her thong pop off. The chapter with the oni is entirely inside a hot springs, with some of the most uncreative crotch-censoring I’ve seen. The plant woman with bad posture gets put in a bondage corset (which is even called out as such). And the werewolf—when Naoe jokingly treats her like a dog and asks her to beg—is compelled to beg in a pose that is straight up a sex pose: crouching with legs spread, crotch and breasts presented, even wetting herself. Even the bonus story has a tanuki that gets completely naked for no reason other than to present yet another view of a female body.
And that’s all the women ever are in this manga: bodies.
Manga in general is pretty bad about making beautiful women objects of lust, but Plus-Sized Elf takes it one denigrating step further. These women are not even allowed to be beautiful, but are told how their bodies aren’t good enough, and it’s all their fault. It’s all the worst stereotypes about fat (“fat”) people combined with all the pornish two-dimensionalism of a manga that doesn’t even have the courage to just be hentai. At least the hentai wouldn’t be clinging to a veneer of plausibility and plot, and would just admit straight out that they just want to fuck chubby girls. The (male, presumed straight) author didn’t even bother to do research on actual fat bodies and dieting, and just keeps regurgitating the same (often completely false) propaganda every fat person has ever heard from the day they start to look at least a little unacceptably shaped.
This story is clearly not for me. It’s for every straight man, like the author, who has a fetish for love handles and making women feel inferior. But it is about me: about my body, about my stretch marks and flabby arms, about my diet studies and doctor visits, and about every piece of the same bullshit I hear online whenever I talk about my weight.
Fat people aren’t your object d’fetish, we’re not your plot device, and we’re certainly not your excuse to spin a story when you have no fucking clue what you are talking about.
I usually try to find something positive to say about everything I review, so here’s the good things I found in Plus-Sized Elf: the exercises given are real, though nothing you couldn’t find within five minutes of Googling. And the fishmonger/mermaid has some great puns, which is a compliment to the translator. But really, that’s about it. The bog-standard art, the mildly snappy dialogue—none of it is light fast enough to escape the black hole of fetishization that the whole story rides on.
Representation matters, but only if the representation isn’t the same harmful stereotypes that contribute nothing but further othering. Pieces like this only further reinforce the idea that all fat people must be lazy and chowing down constantly, which in turn prompts other lazy authors to write works like Plus-Sized Elf.
I haven’t wanted to burn a book since eleventh-grade English and The Scarlet Letter, but for Plus-Sized Elf, I might revisit the idea.