Content Warnings: Discussions of fatphobia and sizeism in media (not directly present in the manga discussed, but rather in general pop culture), sexism, and queerphobia.
Spoilers for the second volume of She Loves to Cook, and She Loves to Eat
Character designs are one of the most crucial elements in a visual medium, as choices in clothing and hairstyle can be subtle references to cultural expectations and understandings. Body type is one of these indicators, as many protagonists are portrayed with idealized bodies, while antagonists are given “undesirable” bodies. This commonly results in unconscious examples of harmful stereotypical beliefs rooted in ableism, racism, cissexism, sizeism and/or fatphobia.
Fatness, in particular, is commonly used as a shorthand visual cue for a character who has an abhorrent and insatiable appetite whether it be for food, power, sex, or some combination therein. Even secondary characters on the side of the hero(ine)s are not immune to this harsh perception, as their fatness typically makes them the butt of the joke to both the other characters and their creators. In this context, fatness is often something associated with clumsiness and incompetence in comparison to the rest of their group, and these characters can only be worthy of respect after they shed some pounds.
Finding positive examples of representation within any genre is generally frustrating for many plus-sized readers and viewers, but the romance genre is perhaps one of the most disheartening as we typically are not present at all. This harkens back to common perception in various cultural contexts that larger, fatter, bodies are synonymous with being unattractive and undesirable, alongside other negative connotations.
Mainstream manga with romance (sub)plots are no exception to this, with very few stories positively portraying a fat protagonist in the leading role. This is part of why seeing two recent yuri series with plus-sized women in the leading roles was such an unexpected, long-overdue joy. These series are the action-packed, sci-fi-horror-romance SHWD by sono.N and the sweet, grounded, and unquestionably queer positive slice-of-life She Loves to Cook, and She Loves to Eat by Yuzaki Sakaomi. In a media landscape where there are seldom women who have a body type like mine, seeing two very different series, in terms of genre and presentation, showcase plus-sized sapphic women as people worthy of respect and desire, was so impactful for me.
SHWD focuses on the lives and experiences of women working for the titular organization, Special Hazardous Waste Disposal (SHWD), whose goal is to exterminate dangerous bioweapons known as “Dynamis” that were developed in a previous war and now run amok across the globe. Of the four core characters in the series thus far, two of them are considerably buff and have large bodies: Koga Airi and Leone “Leo” Cass. Koga is a newcomer to SHWD and is beginning to learn how to effectively fight the Dynamis to protect those she cares about, and Leo is an old hand at fighting the bioweapons and has a strong personal vendetta against them.
Just the fact that half of the leads are plus-sized women, with very different designs and personalities, serves as a way to normalize and validate the diverse variety of bodies that women have in the world. Furthermore, while SHWD is, at its core, an action series that does not shy away from showcasing the awesome physical strength and prowess of its leads, what is doubly more impressive is the casual ways in which it showcases Koga and Leo’s bodies as attractive. Whether it be through training exercises or after-work bathhouse scenes, the muscles and curves of Koga and Leo are on display in a way that invites the audience to appreciate their bodies with admiration and desire without veering into the fetishistic or voyeuristic gaze.
Another element that makes SHWD unique is the portrayal of Koga’s character in the series. From the first chapter of the manga, Koga insists that even though she has joined a dangerous career, she will not push aside her femininity. True to her word, the chapter ends with her going for an outing with her supervisor Sawada Shino, in a gorgeous kimono that suits her perfectly and makes her look adorable.
The series constantly reinforces that, outside of combat scenarios, Koga is a character who is reassuring and comforting to see, with her near-constant smiles and endearing blushes. She is earnest in her goal of helping others, and always eager to improve her capabilities. Furthermore, the affection and attraction she feels towards Sawada are treated with the same mixture of sweetness and humor as one would expect from a typical office romance manga.
All of these things are standard for your typical manga protagonist, but when applied to a plus-sized sapphic woman the results become extraordinary. In such a fatphobic and sizeist media landscape, seeing a character who had a body type and desires similar to my own be treated like a standard manga protagonist was something I had always hoped to see, but never expected to become a reality. Koga is a protagonist who is valued for who she is and is not subjected to the casual cruelties that women who have bodies like mine face regularly.
Additionally, her feelings of desire are not subjected to the mean-spirited narrative that plus-sized people are unattractive so their romantic interests are all doomed to failure, but instead treated as one of the core feelings that drive her to succeed. Overall, SHWD is a rare delight in a genre where plus-sized women are seldom, if ever, given the chance to shine as leads and be appreciated for both their beauty and strength of character.
She Loves to Cook, and She Loves to Eat
She Loves to Cook, and She Loves to Eat is a slice-of-life series focused on the lives of two women who, as the title implies, meet and bond over their love of cooking and eating large quantities of food. Nomoto Yuki is the protagonist who “loves to cook”, and Kasuga Totoko is the protagonist who “loves to eat.” Their shared love of food develops a strong bond between the women, which has the potential to blossom into a romance.
Upon initially learning about this series, I must admit I was rather hesitant since Kasuga is a plus-sized woman and her defining trait was that she loves eating. There were many different ways this aspect of her character could have been used to reinforce fatphobic stereotypes if handled by a less conscious creator. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised to see that my fears had proven unfounded upon reading the first volume for myself.
The manga never shames Kasuga for having a large appetite, but rather accepts and embraces her joy of enjoying a variety of delicious food. This is showcased by the numerous eating montages we see of her throughout the series and in Nomoto’s joyful expressions of seeing the meals she prepared be so enthusiastically enjoyed. As the series progresses Kasuga and Nomoto begin to share the responsibilities of buying and cooking meals, expanding their dynamic to one of mutual and reciprocal support, where they enjoy preparing food the other woman will love and watching her eat and enjoy the meal.
This aspect of the series is a huge deal for me as a plus-sized woman, as it has taken several years to shake off the feeling of discomfort that comes from being watched while I eat and being perceived as eating “too much”. For many plus-sized people, of any gender, the amount of food we consume tends to be a subject of ridicule and scorn, as many associate our bodies with over-eating, and in a sizeist society where thinness is deemed to be the “healthy” and ideal body-type, being fat is associated with the results of an unhealthy lifestyle. This ignores the myriad of factors that can factor in a person’s body type and the reality that one’s size is not an indicator of an individual’s health. Even so, we find ourselves subjected to unsolicited advice about our health, or fear that we will be judged for simply enjoying food.
This is compounded by sexist double standards surrounding women and food, as She Loves to Cook, and She Loves to Eat effectively demonstrates in the manga’s second volume. In Chapter 12, Kasuga discusses her history with her family, where she became aware from a very young age that her father and brother were prioritized during meals and given larger food portion sizes, while she would receive less and be scolded when she asked for second servings. Additionally, she was expected to help other women prepare the food during family gatherings, while the men got to socialize and consume first. She was constantly hungry and grew conscious that her family’s poor treatment of her resulted in the act of eating food making her feel miserable.
After she identified these feelings, Kasuga vowed to live on her own where she could sort out her food budget and finally get the chance to regularly eat her fill—something that has only improved after Nomoto becomes a part of her life. To read a series that directly addresses the double standards regarding gender and food, and showcases the joys women have when finally eating until they are full, is a delight to witness.
Another element of the series that is extremely important is Nomoto’s unsubtle crush on Kasuga. Nomoto is continually struck by just how cute Kasuga is, and by the second volume blushes thinking about her on a semi-regular basis. Furthermore, when her attraction toward Kasuga causes Nomoto to ask important questions about her sexuality, she never assumes the attraction is a fluke or an exception due to Kasuga’s body type.
As discussed before, this is such a huge departure from what is typically seen in romance media, where plus-sized characters being viewed as desirable are an exception rather than the rule. To see this desire so earnestly and positively showcased is so important in a media landscape that treats people with bodies like my own with such negativity. Overall, She Loves to Cook, and She Loves to Eat lives up to its title in numerous different ways as it highlights the many forms of joy that come from food, and celebrates women of all sizes who eat and cook to their heart’s content.
These series may be two manga in the vast and deep ocean that is romance-focused manga, yuri or otherwise, but the positive impact that they have had on me cannot be overstated. Reading two vastly different series that had plus-sized women in leading roles, who also happened to be sapphic and are desired by other sapphic women, was such a rare and wonderful experience that I honestly never expected in the decades I’ve spent enjoying manga. Their positive and multi-layered depictions of characters who I can recognize myself give me hope for the medium to continue to flourish and showcase a diverse array of body types moving forward. Because frankly, more people who do not fit into the cookie-cutter “perfect” image of “acceptable” bodies deserve to see themselves showcased positively, and I eagerly await reading more of those stories.