|From "Four Books on Human Proportion," by Albrecht Durer, Morgan Library.
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.