So. Let’s talk about Laras.
The Mistress of the White Tower kitchens is introduced in Chapter 29 of The Dragon Reborn. She is the first significant character who is described as being fat, specifically as being “more than merely stout, with layers of chins.” Despite the chins being lingered on once or twice, Laras’ size is not made to be the subject of ridicule or derision in the narration, and when Nynaeve, in a fit of pique, refers to Laras as “a sour lump of lard,” she is quickly brought down for her judgment of the woman by Siuan.
“You are a fine judge of character, child. You must have done well as the Wisdom of your village. It was Laras who went to Sheriam and demanded to know how long you three are to be kept to the dirtiest and hardest work, without a turn at lighter. She said she would not be a party to breaking any woman’s health or spirit, no matter what I said. A fine judge of character, child.”
Reading this section, I was pleased that the story had, however obliquely, put Nynaeve in her place not only for misjudging Laras’ character (Nynaeve has a history of misplacing her feelings of anger or worry onto other people) but for her choice to equate Laras’ size to (what she saw as) Laras’ inferiority. It seemed like the narrative, in teaching her this lesson, was calling out this fatphobic perspective.
However, the next fat character we encounter in the series is Keille Shaogi, in Chapter 36 of The Shadow Rising, whose fatness is treated very differently by the narration than Laras’ was when we met her.
“Mat looked around, and gave a start. The only woman in sight beside Aviendha and the Maidens was walking up from the second wagon, but she certainly did not match that voice, one of the loveliest he had ever heard. Rand frowned at her and shook his head, and he had cause. A foot shorter than Kadere, she must have weighed as much or more. Rolls of fat nearly hid her dark eyes, disguising whether they were tilted or not, but her nose was a hatchet that dwarfed the peddler’s. In a dress of pale-cream silk stretched tight around her bulk, with a white lace shawl held above her head on elaborate ivory combs thrust into long, coarse black hair, she moved with incongruous lightness, almost like one of the Maidens.
Where Laras’ body is mentioned as being more than stout, Keille’s fatness is dwelt upon here, and it continues through this and later chapters—in Chapter 48 she is casually referred to as “fat Keille,” as though the reader might have forgotten her weight after a few chapters spent away from Rand and his companions and need to be reminded. There is also a distinct judgment against fatness in the suggestion that she is too big for her clothes. But what struck me most of all was the fact that Mat is so perplexed by the idea that she could have a beautiful voice and ugly face, that she could be fat and yet graceful. The description of her “hatchet” nose and coarse hair add to this belief that there is an inappropriate mismatch between her body and her other traits. And to me, it is very clear that this mismatch is meant to be a clue to the reader that Keille is not who she seems.
Even though I have yet to discover the truth behind the peddler’s caravan, I am quite certain that they are Darkfriends, and that at least one of them is one of the Forsaken. There are clues for each of them. Isendre’s overt sexuality—so out of place among her companions—and special interest in Rand, for example. Rand also warns Mat about Keille’s partner, Kadere, pointing out that his expressions never reach his eyes. You always have to watch the eyes, Rand insists, alerting Mat (and therefore the reader) to the fact that Kadere is someone to be wary of.
It is perhaps symbolically significant, then, that Keille’s eyes are described as being nearly hidden behind rolls of fat. But the warning sign for Keille is not a pair of eyes that don’t match her expression, but rather the way her ugliness—of which fatness is the largest part—is pit against the grace and beauty of her voice and bearing. It is harped upon to make sure we pay attention, to arouse our suspicion, and it speaks to a narrative of fatphobia in our society so ingrained that many of us barely notice it.
My working theory is that Keille will turn out to be Lanfear, the world’s most beautiful woman shrouding herself in a disguise of great ugliness now that Rand knows her a little better. I hope that I am mistaken, because it feels like such a cheap trick, but I’ll eat my hat if Keille doesn’t turn out to be a thin woman in disguise.
Laras also returns in The Shadow Rising, and she has caught my attention again as possibly my favorite (or at least tied with Bayle Domon) tertiary character in the series. Although I appreciate how difficult it has been for Min to play the part of Elmindreda, it has been fun to get to know this side of Laras and her adventurous youth. Laras’s fondness for Elmindreda, and for memories of her own youth, is so strong that she’s willing to risk her own safety to help Siuan, someone she has no personal love for.
There is still some fatphobia in the narration about Laras. The word “waddling” is used, and there is a line about how difficult it is to believe that a woman with so many chins could have been a beauty. But I did notice the actual word “fat” is never actually applied to her. The word “stout” is, and her finger is described as being thick, but that loaded, forbidden word is not.
As many fat activists have pointed out, our culture treats “fat” like a dirty word, as though it had some implicit morality attached to it. And here we see that fact in action. Laras—a good and helpful character who supports one of our protagonists in her hour of need—never has the word applied to her. Keille—a cunning and clearly dangerous character who, along with her companions, is certainly a Darkfriend and probably one of the Forsaken—has it applied repeatedly and in such a way that the judgment of that state is quite clear.