Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Fat as metaphor

Meowser's comment on an earlier post got me thinking. She wrote:
"Whenever I see/hear anyone complaining about fat people walking around, or at the gym (where we're just piddling around and slowing things down for the buff crowd, you see, no fat person could possibly be getting an actual workout there), or dancing, or riding around on bikes, it totally gives the lie to the "unhealthy! unhealthy! diabetes! diabetes!" meme. Because people like that would totally rather we stay home and stuff our fat faces where they can't see us, rather than actually move around. I believe my mother cares about my health. I don't think some random stranger who doesn't know me really gives a damn if I'm "healthy" or not, and in fact, it would really piss them off no end if I had numbers proving that, apart from my weight, there is nothing wrong with me.'

I've been thinking as fat-as-a-symbol, the way it's most often used: as a metaphor for imperialism, greed, overconsumption, etc. Meowser's comment makes me wonder if it's also used as a symbol for questioning authority. Do fat people stick in the craw of the entitled thin establishment because we're not following the rules? Because we aren't doing whatever it takes to get thin, and stay thin? Do we piss them off because we're perceived as thumbing our noses at the authority figures?

I find it interesting that in a time of such extreme individualism, this is one area where being quirky, or not fitting the mold, is perceived as being unacceptable. We've become such a tolerant society in so many other ways. Though I know we have a long way to go on racism, still we've come a long way. When I was in college I was at the center of a near race riot, caused in part by my dating a black man and by the reactions of both whites and blacks on campus. That wouldn't happen today, not even in the deep south. The kind of anti-Semitism I bumped into as a child wouldn't be tolerated today, either.

So what is it about fat that gets people so riled up? Maybe fat people challenge, by our very existence, the marketing economy we can't escape. We're not buying into the pills, creams, products, etc. that are supposed to make us thin. (Though God knows many of us *have* bought those things, in the millions.) Maybe it's that fat people are perceived as not buying into the marketing imperatives about aesthetics, which are used to sell everything to everyone, from cars to cereal. We're not good consumers in the broadest sense of the word.

I wonder.

11 comments:

Katy said...

I wonder if there isn't the tiniest amount of jealousy behind the veneer of scorn directed at "fat" people. Someone who puts all their time and energy into being "thin" and "healthy," sacrificing pleasure and joy and one's natural body to fit an ideal would be pretty threatened by someone who appears to have refused to recognize that ideal. Jealous as well--"I put all that time into this body, I've lost so much for it, but if other people aren't trying to attain it then how do I know it's a valuable achievement?"

On a personal level, from an eating disordered perspective, I found myself not long ago in the grocery store staring at an obese man in line in front of me, with foods I'd never eat, and I was jealous of his fatness because it means that he's been "allowed" to eat but I'm not.

I tend to agree that the war against fat isn't really completely about health or appearance...it wouldn't be laced with so much vitriol if it was. It's just hard to pin down the REAL issue.

mary said...

questioning authority? Definitely! You aren't LISTENING to us. We told you what you need to do and you aren't being good. Oh my.

In all honesty I don't tend to think of me as my weight. If I did I'd still be stuck in the days in which a thinner woman looked back at me in the mirror. I KNOW who I am on the inside, a wild and free woman, which makes me somewhat bad by those standards that want us all to stand tall, conform, and behave.
You can see what others can't Harriet. When you hear prejudice you have empathy where another learns to copy and becomes intolerant and rigid in their beliefs. Sad life for them! Your's will be far richer.

Anonymous said...

Individualism in this culture is a code-word for "Me!Me!Me!" Meaning it's in some ways the essence of capitalism, looking out for only yourself and no one else.

I have never experienced a cultural push to be your own person. Conformity is extremely important, you don't want people THINKING for themselves, you want them CARING only about themselves.

So let's get away from fat as a metaphor for a moment and look at what thin is a metaphor for these days. Thin equals self-control, self-discipline, caring, perhaps even obessively, about how your own individual body is shaped and sized. It also satisfies our Puritanical streak, after all, isn't a considered a Puritanical virture to deprive yourself of pleasure?

So I do think there's a tremendous anger on the part of the establishment that they're screaming "FAT IS BAD! FAT IS UGLY! FAT IS WRONG! STOP BEING FAT IT BRINGS US DOWN AS A NATION...AAAARGH! and yet, somehow they're not even making a dent in people's weight. When the ruling class yell "JUMP!" the proper response from the smelly, unwashed masses is suppose to be "How high, sir?" If we respond to the anti-fat hysteria by giving them the finger and then enjoying some Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream, isn't that, from their perspective, an act of downright insubordination?

As for fat being a metaphor for greed, it made some sense over 100 years ago when the peasants were skinny and sickly from near starvation and the rich were healthy and round. But these days everyone knows that poor people are heavier than rich people. It's a bogus metaphor and those who use it damn well know it. But liberals can't say "Those stinkin' poor people are so stupid about eating and they look so gross and fat, and people overseas are going to look at them and think we're all unattractive!"

They know they can't get away with putting it that way. So they simply whine about fat asses being some kind of representation of our overconsumption as a nation and actually argue that's why we've lost so much standing in the world! I'd aruge that it has a lot more to do with our imperialist quest to take over the oil reserves in the Middle East. But that's another post.

There's much going on and many reasons the ruling classes have been selling fat people as public enemy numero uno. But don't buy into it. My ass, be it thin or fat (and it's been both, many times!) is nobody's effin metaphor!

Lisa R. said...

If I'm fat and you're not, it must mean I have something you don't -- therefore giving rise to all kinds of feelings: jealousy, envy, scarcity, denial, inferiority, etc. These irrational, fleeting feelings then erupt in all manner of expression: disgust, reprisal, defensiveness, hostility, rage, admonishment, etc. Makes no sense, but then yes it does.

Also, if I am fat, I am a reminder to the thin person of what could happen to them, or of from whence they came. And if I'm NOT miserable about being fat, then the reminder is way too painful and fear-inducing.

Meowser said...

If we respond to the anti-fat hysteria by giving them the finger and then enjoying some Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream, isn't that, from their perspective, an act of downright insubordination?

Yes...but we don't have to eat a damn thing for that finger to be considered an act of insubordination. Just not becoming permanently thin, even if we try and try and try until we get a brain hemorrhage, is insubordinate enough.

Especially for women. I keep thinking about that story about how the average goal weight for the average woman has gone up three pounds although she now wants to lose three pounds more than she used to -- the one where they decided that meant we were all just fine with our fat asses the way they were -- and how that story, which talked about women averaging 160 pounds, was illustrated with a photo of a woman who might have weighed three times that amount, spilling out of her chair. That photo was meant to inflame the reader, to make him/her think, "How DARE they! How DARE those hideously obese bitches think they're okay the way they are and keep eating! How DARE they!" I don't think a photo of a similarly proportioned man would have had the same effect, do you?

(N.B. If you are reading this and you do weigh 580 pounds, please understand that I am not calling you "hideous," I am saying that the photo was taken and utilized in such a way to provoke that response.)

Thanks for the shout-out, Harriet!

carrie said...

I think there are two levels of thought I have on this.

1) You can't be thin if there is no fat. It's a comparison kind of thing. In order for thin people to feel thin, there have to be fat people around. That's part of the reason I found anorexia intoxicating- I felt "successful." People told me so. It's been hard to give up that aspect of my behavior because I've lost those complements on my so-called stellar eating and exercise habits.

2) When I was deep in the anorexia and would be at a restaurant, munching on my plain lettuce salad, I would watch people eating bacon cheeseburgers. I was disgusted by the fact of eating (which was a direct result of the anorexia- I wasn't before and am not now), but I was insanely jealous. They're eating something with fat AND carbs? They're enjoying it? They're not running to the bathroom afterwards and barfing it up? I have to struggle to be ridiculously thin, and there your fat ass goes eating and living and being happy. How freaking unfair is that?

Being who you are- personally, physiologically, everything- is a threat to society. People have a lot invested in your conformity.

I'm glad that all of us are learning to be ourselves and finding others who (gasp!) like that.

Carrie

JL said...

Many years ago, I read the book "Fat is a Feminist Issue" where, as I recall, Susie Orbach makes the point that fat women offend by being fat because women are valued primarily as sex objects. A fat woman is therefore rejecting that prescribed role. 30+ years later, how many fat women are on TV, for instance, compared to men? And how many are young? Since age negates our sex appeal anyway, in the conventional wisdom, there's less expectation that we be thin as we age. I was struck by how absolutely invisible I came to feel being both fat and middle aged.

I suspect that some of the media hysteria against obesity also reflects the members of the media themselves and the pressure they undoubtedly receive to be thin. These days even print media are all over the tube. And those women who are broadcast reporters who are plumper are the respected veterans. Presumably it's their expertise that is cancelling out their fat, or again, as they are older, there may be less pressure for them to be thin. Will it be their fat or their age that drives them off the air? Could Barbara Walters be Barbara Walters if she couldn't still don the occasional red carpet evening gown looking like she fits in?

Or perhaps the fat phobic are just phobic in general as this BBC article suggests: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/6921882.stm The problem with their premise of fat prejudice being rooted in evolution because fat=disease is that fat has at some times in history obviously been considered mate-worthy. Perhaps even revered. Venus of Willendorf, anyone? :)

JL

Harriet Brown said...

Thanks, all, for the intelligent commentary. This is what I love about blogging.

Jealousy, fear, disgust, longing, resentment--these all come into play. It's just hard to sort it all out. Fat and thin. Bad and good. Naughty and nice. It seems women have always been defined by dichotomie, at least by the patriarchy. And obviously we still live in a patriarchy--we still haven't had a woman president. (And the few serious female candidates have been defined by--of course--the size of their hips.)

It's nasty out there sometimes. I'm glad to have this community.

beakergirl said...

I think a certain amount of is IS jealousy. Sort of a "how DARE she get to 'enjoy' food" (because, of course, all fat people love to eat) "when I have to DEPRIVE myself to look this good! Shouldn't she have the same goals I do, and be as miserable as I am?"

Some of my thinner friends make comments all the time about people we both know who are fatter than I am - like about how so-and-so should "shape up" his diet, or how she's "surely headed for diabetes and heart disease." And when I call them on it, they either go, "Oh, but you're not as heavy as he is!" (really? wanna compare weights?) or "But you're ACTIVE!"

I don't care what justification you make - you shouldn't go talking about people behind their backs and making prescriptions for them.

peggynature said...

Hi Harriet,

Just to let you know this post was plagiarized in the BBM fiasco.

Link to the cached page.

Harriet said...

That's just plain weird! What's the BBM fiasco?