Thursday, January 24, 2008

A little question of semantics

When I showed my daughter the NYT piece on the fatosphere the other day, her only comment was, "But you're not fat."

What she meant, of course, was "You're not that fat."

Put me next to, say, Ellen Pompano, and I certainly look fat. Put me next to someone who weighs 400 pounds and I don't look fat. Or I don't look as fat.

Fat and thin are words that exist mainly in relation to each other. At the extremes of each range we can certainly identify them correctly. But in the vast middle, our judgment becomes much more relative.

Semantics plays a role in the current anti-obesity hysteria. For starters, the definitions and rules changed in 1998, when the cutoff for overweight was lowered from 27.3 to 25 on the BMI chart. Bingo--instant overnight overweight for millions.

As Paul Campos has pointed out in The New Republic, the way we talk about fat and thin, oveweight and obese and underweight, is something of a shell game.

Fat qua fat is not the problem. Because, after all, we all have fat on our bodies. What's more, we need fat. Without it, your body doesn't work well and your brain sure as hell doesn't work right. I've seen the evidence up close and personal, and it's not pretty.

Think about it the next time you find yourself saying, "But I'm so fat!" or the next time you look in the mirror. Come back and tell me how it changed your perception.

6 comments:

Gloom Raider said...

This kind of relativism also applies to clothing sizes, which doesn't seem to get talked about a lot.

On a day last summer, I went to a thrift store. The clothes I bought, i.e. the ones that fit me best at that moment, ranged from size 4 to size 11. Yet it's easy to find magazine covers where someone "dropped 4 dress sizes!" Heck, my shopping day proves you can do that by changing brands!

thoughtracer said...

Waving back, Harriet, from right here in Madison! -- thoughtracer

Shauna GM said...

I've always been really interested in the idea of gender as a social construct, or race as a social construct. I wonder if one can think of the fat/thin spectrum in the same way. While there are certain biological underpinnings to fatness (just as there are for race and gender), by far most of our perceptions are defined by our society.

Of course, as soon as one thinks of fatness as a social construct, one thinks of performing fatness and thinness. I wonder how one would perform fat. Certainly people constantly try to perform thin.

Harriet said...

Clothing sizes, you are too right. I have items in my wardrobe right now ranging from small to extra-large. Good thing my self-image doesn't come on a label.

shauna, interesting idea. Performing thin and fat. Of course we do that all the time. I want to think on this some more.

littlem said...

It's one of the things that makes me want to make evil faces at people, because I'm "too fat" in L.A., and frequently in NYC, but "too skinny" in the Midwest and Southeast.

Glap.

However (and someone may have already said this)there is another way – in our absolutist, binary, Calvinist food-as-sin, non-critical-thinking culture – that we semantically divide the “fat” and “not fat” people.

Because FAT, when the negative attributes associated with it are never challenged, and therefore internalized, equals:
- lazy
- sloppy
- having no dress sense
- having little self-esteem
- shoveling Doritos/doughnuts/McD’s/junk food of the hour
- not worthy of even basic human dignity or respect

So frequently – although I don’t think it happened in this instance, as open as you and your daughter are on the dialogue, Harriet – when a friend protests “you’re not fat” it’s because that person doesn’t – or doesn’t want to – associate any of those negative characteristics with YOU.

Since “fat” AUTOMATICALLY EQUALS those negative things – if the person hasn’t critically parsed their thoughts on the matter – and you’re NOT those things, you CAN’T BE “FAT”.

Just another way “fat people” – no matter what size that’s defined as this season, since, as you’ve pointed out, that marker can and will move -- are dehumanized in our culture, ‘cause fat equals doubleplusungood.

(OK, so I read too much Orwell as a little nerdy kidlet.)

Otherwise their heads will asplodey.

Harriet said...

So, littlem, it's like a faulty logic problem.

I get it!