A couple of weeks ago the Sunday Magazine Section of The New York Times (1 January 2012, pp. 22//49) ran an article called “The Fat Trap” by Tara Parker-Pope – a piece I should think would be deeply depressing to the millions who are thinking about losing weight tomorrow, who are trying to lose weight today, and now have tried to lose weight countless yesterdays.
The article made me think of a fat, unhappy friend.
In her lifetime she has lost hundreds of pounds.
In grammar school she was the kid others picked on because she was so much more visible on the playground. These trials of childhood and early teens carved scars like scimitars into her fragile psyche and convinced her the happy fat person is a figment of the thin woman’s stereotyped thinking.
Cruelty towards the fat becomes less crude as they grow older, but it is all the more psychologically devastating for the protean forms that it assumes. Take a simple thing like dating. Fat eyes are as appreciative of male beauty and fat brains as capable of romantic fantasy as those of fashionably slim rivals. In the quiet hours of the night when she tries to understand why this body so repulsive to the world at large must be hers, rejection becomes companion, sole friend, and constant supporter.
In the teens proper begins the serious dieting, the roller coaster of fad diets and binge junking, the yoyo world of anorectic starvation, gross satiety and purging, the hopelessness of daily denial for some distantly future and seemingly impossible payoff. At the same time the fattie incorporates and makes her very own the loathing and ridicule of peers and elders. Complete disorientation regarding foe and friend follows swiftly and serves further to isolate.
It is a documented fact that fat adults, all other things being equal, pay for their obesity in many ways. In business they are passed over for promotions that (one might think) should be based on ability, not physical appearance. In the amatory arena, their experiences are all too often intensified continuations of earlier heartbreak. Even a relatively simple task like buying clothes can take on a nightmarish quality when nothing fits, the clerks snicker or turn down their mouths in disapproving disgust (not so she notices, of course, but she knows!), even a seam may split when she tries a desperate fake to fit a size too small.
Why is this?
Fat is not intrinsically revolting. This attitude towards fat is (as the modern intellectuals assert about so many phenomena) a social construct. Nor has fat, in many eras and many cultures (think Rubens nudes!), conveyed the intensely negative overtones that it does in today’s atmosphere of cranked-up puritanism and the highly selective intolerances of contemporary Western society. Our society’s view of fat says a great deal about us.
Fat is the result of eating too much, which is a result of not exercising control over food intake. And self-control is today a highly valued characteristic, and any index of its lack is immediately suspect. But we all lack certain controls. Some people toke up, do lines, booze, gamble, play around, chisel, and give themselves over to other types of uncontrolled behavior, some legal and some not. Of all its forms, only eating leaves a visible, unmistakable and inescapable sign on the perpetrator, almost a kind of scarlet “F” for fat, branding the ‘gluttony’.
The fat one becomes a useful scapegoat, and we transfer onto her (or him) all the self-hate and self-revulsion that we feel, but rarely admit to ourselves, for our own particular variety of compulsive behavior. But in its underlying dynamic, hers is no different from the one that drives us.
Next time we think those ugly thoughts about that fat person we see or meet – thoughts and attitudes, I might add, that are no longer considered, as they once were, acceptable about blacks, gays, or the differently-abled, for example – let us dwell first on our own many ineffable perfections!