For her first kindergarten self-portrait, Crystal Maldonado drew herself with blond hair, blue eyes, and peachy skin—like Michelle Tanner from Full House.
In real life, Maldonado was brown, chubby, and had big, bouncy curls. She was growing up and attending school in a largely white suburb in Connecticut in the early 2000s, a time when reality makeover shows like The Biggest Loser and The Swan were gaining popularity. She craved representation—to see herself reflected in other girls her age—so she grew up and wrote the books her younger self always needed. Her debut novel, Fat Chance, Charlie Vega, centres a fat, brown protagonist in her own coming-of-age story. She wanted fat girls to know that they deserve to be the main character, to experience their own adventure, and have their own love story.
“I never got to see any fat characters, or fat brown characters, be the person in the story who gets to be loved on, desired, and who gets to have the adventure and figure themselves out. The characters who shared those identities with me were often the best friend or side character, or just a small part of the friend circle, if at all,” Maldonado tells Refinery29 Somos.
Max, who is actually 17-year-old Kat Sanchez, is a quiet and sarcastic personality living in Bakersfield, California. She goes to bad house parties, navigates the awkwardness of dealing with her best friend Hari’s unrequited love, and is overall not having the greatest school year. But Kat thrives when she steps into her Max persona: sharing gorgeous photos, networking with famous influencers, and making a real friend in a follower named Elena. The closer Elena and “Max” get, the more Kat feels pressured to keep up the façade. Eventually, one of “Max’s” posts goes viral, and it gets back to the person Kat has been stealing photos from. She has to figure out how she’ll untangle herself from this fake world, and the lies she made to protect it, without hurting the people closest to her.
Here, Maldonado talks with Refinery29 Somos about fatness, comparison struggles, and being gentle with yourself. No Filter and Other Lies is available where books are sold.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What parts of your journey are you pouring into Kat’s story? What were the most difficult parts of your own story to revisit when writing her character?
Oh, that's a really good question. If we're thinking about Charlie Vega's story as this book that really centers Latinaness and fatness, then Kat’s story is the other side of that coin. She’s going on this big adventure of self discovery and finding her place in the world. She just so happens to be fat and Latina. Obviously, your identity affects everything you do. But Charlie's story is so focused on how her body interacts with the world and how the world interacts with her body. She has these really intense feelings around her identity. Meanwhile, Kat’s just trying to get some love on Instagram and get some appreciation for who she is, get some love for her art, and really dive into figuring out her sexuality. She's got this really complicated family set-up that makes her feel like nobody is like her. Those end up being the top things that really drive her to do this very cringeworthy thing where she steals her friend’s pictures and builds a whole new life. She feels so pressured to not be herself, and she wants to take a break from who she is.
I feel like I could relate to her so much in that feeling of just like, is anything I do ever going to be enough? Is it ever gonna feel like enough? Not just for society, but for myself. Am I ever going to feel like I'm enough for me? And I think those are the questions at the centre of Kat Sanchez’s story. These really big existential questions where she feels like she can't be her full self. But also, who is her full self? And we all feel like that sometimes, right? We're like, “I don't know if I can be me, but also who am I? What am I doing? What does the future look like?” There are all these big questions all at once.
You mentioned this story won’t be as centered on fatness as much as your last book. What role will it play in Kat’s story?
She definitely acknowledges that she’s fat, and it’s part of why she thinks she’s not getting any love on Instagram. She’s thinking, ‘“I’m a fat Puerto Rican girl living in this tiny town, with this really boring life.” But she’s also like, “I’m cute! I just think the world is rude about how cute I am.” There’s this deep-seeded need for her to get this external validation. She’s chasing a feeling of belonging, and it’s not going to come from Instagram. She’s going to learn that the hard way.
Let’s talk about the word “fat.” There’s definitely a stigma around fatness in Latinx circles. A lot of us grew up thinking of the word as disrespectful, like a slur, something we should never say out loud and especially not to someone’s face. But you unapologetically describe yourself and your characters as fat. What’s been your journey with owning the word and shedding the shame around it?
It’s a three-letter word that’s so offensive, right? People are taken aback when they hear it. Even in interviews—like you actually said, “let’s talk about the word fat.” I've had people ask, “can we talk about the title,” and I know they're asking about the word “fat,” and they don't want to say it because they don't want to be rude.
I didn't start calling myself fat until I was maybe in my late 20s. There was so much pain that was still attached to it and so much stigma. It is known as an insult, and it's never known as anything but that. And then there's also the way the word is weaponised against you when you have a fat body. The No. 1 insult I've gotten throughout my life was, “oh, well, you're fat.” As far as insults go, “fat” and “ugly” are the first people go for. It's an easy way to tear someone down. So I thought, wouldn't it be great if we could, like, reclaim this word a little bit?
A lot of the body positivity and fat acceptance movement surrounds this idea of reclaiming that term and making it something void of emotion. It doesn't need to have all of that weight—no pun intended. Suddenly, it just becomes a descriptor, the same way we would use the word “short” to describe a person’s height or the term “curly” to describe hair. We can just use the term “fat” to describe a body. And I loved that idea. I know when I started to call myself fat, it just felt like I was reclaiming this thing, this ugly word that had been used against me negatively for all of my life. And now it didn't have any power.
Do you feel like you grew and healed along with Kat while writing her story?
Even though Kat’s story is not so much about the identity of herself, I think a lot of the healing that happens with her is surrounding family and loving and appreciating the life that you have. It’s about not constantly checking other people's lives out and comparing yourself to them. And that is something that I struggled with for the longest time. That was part of why I wanted to write this, especially with the growth of social media. I love social media, but it can be really toxic. Sometimes you're scrolling through, and it's just hard to see people you love have things that you want. Suddenly, you're feeling jealous of these people who you're normally rooting for. I think that social media can amplify that feeling of “why not me.” It's so, so hard to remember that you have all of these wonderful things going on in your life, too. It's just that you're seeing these great things from someone else's life.
Your books seem like a love letter to brown, fat teenage girls. And so, from Kat’s story, what’s the redemptive message you want to leave your readers with?
I like that I have the opportunity to be able to write to teenagers and to tell them how much they matter. From Kat’s story, I think that's like the central thing. You matter, and you're important, and you don't have to have it all figured out. It's all part of the journey, and you're gonna figure out what works for you. It might be slow, and sometimes it might be messy, but that's OK.
And another part of this is that Kat obviously does something not great, right? She makes a mistake very publicly and on a platform we all use every day. So I hope that, when readers pick up this book and read her story, that they’re still rooting for her. And in the same vein, I hope we extend that same forgiveness to ourselves. We’re so hard on ourselves, especially when we're teenagers. So if they can find it in their hearts to root for Kat, I hope that they can extend that same kind of grace to themselves when they make a mistake.