Thursday, May 29, 2014

On fat people

From "Four Books on Human Proportion," by Albrecht Durer, Morgan Library. 
    When I wrote yesterday's column about waiting four hours in line at the revered Chicago sausage stand Hot Doug's, I faced a quandary. The most arresting thing I saw in that time was a 250-pound woman directly in front of me. She grew tired of standing and, along with her equally zaftig friend, sat on the sidewalk. When the line moved, rather than take the effort of standing up again, her friend sort of scootched her butt forward while she crawled on her knees. It was unsettling enough to be among a throng of hundreds waiting for hours to buy expensive albeit well-wrought fast food. To see these woman wriggling  toward the door demanded to be remarked upon. It came out like this:
      Two quite hefty women in front of us tire of standing and sit. But the line keeps moving so, not wanting to stand up, one scoots. The other crawls, on her knees, on the sidewalk. I almost suggest that instead of loading up on duck fat fries they consider checking themselves into a hospital. But that seems, oh, hostile. 
     I've been doing this writing thing long enough to know when I've sailed into fraught waters. I wanted to use the f-word to describe the women. But "fat" is so harsh; "hefty" seemed kinder while still conveying what needed to be conveyed.
     Still, I was not surprised when my editor came into the office. 
     "You know you're going to hear that this is fat shaming?" she sighed. I said that I did, and made my case. If I were drawing attention to a person's physique vis a vis nothing, I would agree that it was objectionable. Or if I were making some kind of general comment about overweight people. But we were in line to buy deeply fattening food, and these particular women, too out-of-shape to stand for long periods, were crawling. An awful image, really, and I was merely describing what I saw before my eyes and what I thought about it. Yes, I did include my unkind thought, but also both pointed out that I didn't actually say it—that would be cruel—and labeled the thought as "hostile." Kindness is nice, but not mandatory, not all the time.  Life isn't kindergarten. 
     We talked a bit. She decided it could go in. I was glad. While you don't want to offend people gratuitously, you also don't want your goal to become minimizing complaint for its own sake. Too many writers do that already. It's a recipe for toothlessness. 
     Another editor, on the copy desk, flagged the passage, and it was talked about some more. (Geez, we're starting to sound like the Tribune). The paragraph stayed and, to be honest, reaction was minimal. Far fewer comments than when I suggested earlier in the spring that being a prostitute is a degraded way to make a living. A handful of people—three, maybe four—commented on Twitter. One did mention the buzz phrase "fat shaming" and another called the piece "unkind" and "boring," a column of "hate." A few echoed her.
    So no harm, no foul. "Boring" stung, but then, turnabout is fair play. Still, I was left brooding about the whole issue of fat acceptance. Was I singling out people and focusing on their differences, hurtfully? Did it matter that these were women? Somehow it seemed to; perhaps because women are more vulnerable on this issue. Men just don't seem to care as much.  Still, it focusing on an attribute that might otherwise be ignored. Would I point out a gay man, oh, fussing stereotypically over a toy poodle? Is judging people by their weight bigotry or mere aesthetics? Or passing fashion? Fat people were considered elegant in the 19th century and desirable previously--such as the drawings above, done by Albrecht Durer in the early 1500s, trying to assemble the ideal woman out of various body parts. In times of scarcity, flesh showed that you had wealth, that you were healthy, fertile. 
     Over the past 50 years, however, the general streamlining and athleticism of modern life has served up a far more svelte ideal, and while there have been bold attempts to change
that—the Dove soap ads featuring "real size women" come to mind—Durer's perfect woman is not going to show up on the cover of Vogue anytime soon, though some percentage of people no doubt prefer it.
     I could see the argument that fat people are just further down the ladder of acceptance that gays are steadily climbing. Gays were once easily mocked and marginalized, fat people still are. But just as gays pushed and gained their proper place, so fat folk will too, one happy day, particularly as more and more Americans become overweight. Obesity could be considered a blend of genes and lifestyle not so different from sexual orientation, drawing attention to it no different than mocking somebody's lisp. 
     I can also see the counter argument, that while being black or being gay do not detract from your ability to, oh, be a postal carrier or a fire fighter, being 500 pounds certainly might. There is a difference. People are allowed to form moral judgments, and if I see a 350- pound man I am permitted to wonder what he was thinking when he reached 300.  Fatness is seen as less acceptable a criticism because it is so general—if I mentioned that somebody has liver lips, I would not hear from the League of Liver Lipped Persons. But there are an awful lot of fat people.
     Are we allowed to describe how people look? Or it is akin to suggesting somebody in a wheelchair can't be a store clerk? Is it intruding on a person's private space with unwelcome judgments and condemnations? Does it matter if the person is unidentified?
     The issue seems squarely on the back burner. Maybe for that very reason--because, for most people, it is something personal, not public. They live with themselves and form their own accommodations. The spectrum of what people find attractive is so broad that it hardly matters what the general demands of fashion are. Most people, fat thin or in between, are deeply unattractive to most everybody else anyway—that occurs to me almost every day when I walk through the train station at the end of the day and see my fellow gray-faced commuters hauling their sorry selves home. Which is fine, because they don't have to be attractive to everyone else—they still find a loved one to embrace them for who they are.
     Acceptance cuts both ways. My gut tells me that those few who were worked up about my description of the crawling ladies might have an issue accepting themselves. All the fat people I heard from were testy, as if that helped their case.  Maybe I didn't hear too many complaints about my piece because most fat people are comfortable enough with their condition that they don't have to go to war over perceived slights. That's a kind of confidence. I have a big head and a big nose and a big ass, and if any of these qualities were pointed out by a writer describing another person in another context, I know I wouldn't take to Twitter to denounce that writer for drawing attention to our deficiencies or, more precisely, excesses. They are what they are, and there isn't a lot I can do about the first two and the last, well, I've grown accustomed to it. 


  1. Great read. Too many people get "opportunistically offended" these days.


  2. Really? I found it uncomfortable and unpleasant.

  3. Nice work stirring the pot. So to speak.

    1. Thanks Bill. Though I consider it "thinking about stuff."

  4. "If I see a 350 pound man I am permitted to wonder what he was thinking when he reached 300."

    He was thinking, "I'm hopeless and it's much too late."

    -- MrJM

  5. "I could see from the photo that the author was merely defending the home team."

    Don't you think it's kind of, oh, hostile to be dismissing someone's opinion merely because they happen to fit the group you're talking about? By trying to fit that person into your little box of pre-conceived notions about fat people and about women in general, you missed a really important point: every single one of us, fat or not, is a different person. Some of us won't care what someone on the Internet says about us--and good on those people, really. Some of us have been hurt with (and by) words for their entire lives, and so we suffer from being dismissed and stereotyped by other people, on the Internet or not.

    For example, I happen to be a fat 25-year-old woman. But my problems with standing have nothing to do with my weight and everything to do with an injury that I am having surgery on. You wouldn't know that just by looking at me, though--the knee brace is under the maxi dress I am wearing. So you would go on your merry life assuming that I'm too fat and too out of shape to stand in line... meanwhile, I climbed a 30-foot pole onto a platform yesterday to participate in a high-ropes course. Don't judge a book by its cover, sir.

    1. Yes, I do, and took that line out -- these posts are works in progress that I continually edit.

    2. As an editor, my question on the inclusion of the detail is this: Was it necessary? Many people standing for three hours might sit down, regardless of size. Great detail - someone sliding along on the great hot dog dance marathon.

      For some people, though, food is an addiction. You wrote a book on the struggles with your own addiction. Would you ask someone with liver cancer what they were thinking when their skin started to turn yellow, whether they should have stopped drinking? If those two women read your book, or they wrote one for you to read, what "moral judgment" would the three of you form about each other? To borrow a line from the jacket, obesity affects millions. You can't fix millions, but you can help a person or two. And if you can't do that, leave 'em alone.

    3. We do need to judge at times.

  6. Steinberg, do you have beady eyes and a shock of pink hair like the other trolls?

    1. No, beautiful green eyes. And I'm not a troll, because trolls don't get paid.

  7. I don't judge, because it's so easy and incorrect to blame excessive weight on overeating or eating the wrong foods, not always. But, I do believe excessive weight becomes a disability, robbing the person of mobility and the ability to perform certain tasks and enjoy some activities. Not to mention devastating health problems. Yes, those women tired and sat down, even crawled. Do you think they enjoyed it?

  8. Two years ago, I was admitted to an Illinois hospital with an infection in my leg.
    The infection required an IV in my arm so that powerful medicines could kill the infection.

    Without a little extra fat, I could have died as the infection was about to enter my blood stream, according to the hospital's physician.

    Needless, I've since sworn-off the Chicago diet and embraced exercise wholeheartedly. But I know that each person is on an individual life's journey. I don't judge because I don't know what is behind a "hefty" person's size: maybe a medical condition, or maybe some other reason that, if known, would break my heart. Or maybe, in the most of American traditions, that "hefty" person is exercising a right to be her/himself and enjoys a great hotdog.

    So what? As I told someone who was recently released from prison: Be kind, be peaceful. And I told this ex-con that not so much as a prescription, but to remind myself. As a Chicagoan, I've been told that I have a chiseled jaw and good looks.

    So what? if I have an ugly personality and a hefty amount of scorn and ridicule for my fellow travelers on this globe.

    Let it be. And get the neon relish. I was more offended that about the goose liver hotdog. Sounds cruel, but then I'm sure Charlotte's Web isn't how most pigs are factory-farm raised.


  9. I like the image of a fat person crawling to get the thing that makes him fat and shortens his life. It can be a metaphor for things in all of our lives.

  10. Lots of people are overweight. I'm overweight. Too much meat and potatoes, too much beer. If you don't want to be overweight, the thing to do is to eat less, eat differently, and exercise daily. If that doesn't work, eat yet less, eat yet better, and exercise yet more. Some people are more prone to being overweight than others, but they could probably not be overweight at all if they did what was necessary, eating and exercise-wise. That's what I think about my own extra pounds. If I did what was necessary, they would go away. I just have to get around to it, along with all those other things I've been meaning to do. If you don't mind being overweight, well great. Many people do, though. Probably most people, I'm guessing. I do. A little bit, because I'm still just a little bit overweight (though on a bad trajectory and, rather absurdly, near-"obese" according to the government BMI-based definition). I get that there are folks who not only don't mind fat on others, but even prefer it. And others for whom it's just not an issue worth serious attention. And we needn't be moralistic about it. But we would probably be generally happier and healthier if we, as a group, including myself, did a better job watching our figure, as they used to say.

    1. Or as happened to a relative of mine, check for a thyroid problem too.

  11. Writing from Florence Italy I note that the Rennaissance ideal of feminine beauty would today be considered plump but ot obese, in other words, quite normal. Male beauty was somewhat idealized, being more finely miscled -- think "David" than the average bloke.


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