That backhanded “compliment” I’ve received many times — and so have countless women who do not fit the “acceptable” size norm. It’s a hideous insult, but it’s spewed by well-meaning people who just cannot accept that below the neck you might be seen as attractive by anyone.
Melissa McEwan over at Shakesville has written a terribly blunt, frank, and necessary piece, Fatsronauts 101. She calls it “a series in which I address assumptions and stereotypes about fat people that treat us as a monolith and are used to dehumanize and marginalize us.”
Lord knows fat bias continues to be tossed as an acceptable insult this days; on this very blog, the zaftig Maggie Gallagher, an epic homophobe-for-a-paycheck for the National Organization for Marriage, is the recipient by readers and folks on my Facebook of one fat joke after another. You’d think people could find enough vile things about the woman to discuss before going after her fatness — especially since this blogmistress is hardly svelte, but there you have it.
If she’s a cow, then what am I? Melissa:
“You have such a pretty face.” This is probably the most common iteration of a theme that essentially boils down, in all its variations, to: “There is something vaguely attractive about you despite your hideous fat body.” These sorts of “compliments” implicitly acknowledge the “conventional wisdom” that fat bodies are gross and unattractive, but one part of that body might not make strangers want to barf! It’s a strategy often employed by fat-haters who fancy themselves tasked with the responsibility of bestowing upon wretched fatties the gift of self-esteem via the rhetorical equivalent of salvaging a diamond from pig slop.
This sort of salvage-complimenting is deeply harmful, because it’s embedded with the message that our bodies are the pig slop—which salvage-complimenters treat as so axiomatic that they don’t understand why their “compliments” aren’t well-received. (Also because these “compliments” are deeply narcissistic, and don’t really serve to compliment fat people, but to display the salvage-complimenters’ imagined magnanimity. They are very confused when they are not rewarded for their “kindness” to fat people.) Salvage-complimenting works on the premise that fat is ugly, and identifying attractiveness in fat people is something you do out of the goodness of your heart, not because fat people are actually attractive.
This not only feeds the narrative that fat people can’t be viewed as attractive by “normal” people, but also feeds the narrative that anyone who finds a fat person comprehensively attractive is “not normal.”
In the LGBT community this pervasive fatphobia is rampant among gay men (the bear community excepted); I’ve received numerous comments about the travails of being a single gay man who is not hard-bodied enough to feel attractive, and eating disorders and excessive gym rattery are not uncommon.
I’m not big on the whole “fat is great” tip; I think it’s possible to be overweight and healthy — I was quite active before fibromyalgia (and now rheumatoid arthritis) took their toll in the last couple of years, but for the obese, it can be a risk to your health to have those extra pounds on. That said, once you are fat, the issue of losing it and keeping it of becomes almost a herculean task. We spend billions losing weight (only to gain it back), always pursuing an unrealistic body standard. The few who do keep it off have to be committed, almost obsessively, to watching every ounce of food they consume and how much they work out to burn it off. The level of hypervigilence it requires is perilously like adopting a socially and medically approved eating disorder. The key, no one tells you since it’s too late in most cases, is not to become overweight in the first place (see the NYT, “The Fat Trap,” by Tara Parker-Pope) .
So is the answer continued vilification of fat people?
But back to Melissa’s piece — it’s brave to publicly take on the pathological hatred we as a culture have against fat. This is not writing meant to make you feel uncomfortable, to examine the biases you’ve bought into. Our society deems that “fat and ‘objectively attractive’ are mutually exclusive concepts.” Among the well-worn toxic narratives/myths she touches upon:
- Women of color can “get away with” curves, or are “allowed” to be fat, in a way white women cannot.
- Men of color like fat women, in a way white men don’t.
- Gay/bi women can themselves be fat, and also love fat women, in a way straight women cannot.
- White men who prefer fat women are fetishists.
- To be attracted to fat women is “deviant.”
- No one is attracted to both thin people and fat people.
- Only fat people are attracted to fat people.
How many of the above have you bought into? How do you assess someone who doesn’t fit the appearance of your average underfed celebrity? And if your preferences fall outside of the norm, are you in for a world of social hurt? Yep.
Men, especially thin men, who partner with fat women risk being bullied by their peers, being questioned and criticized about their choices by family, being professionally disadvantaged by employers, and in other ways negatively judged, because fat attraction is seen as deviant, and because a straight man’s worth is still valued in large part by the “quality” of the woman he dangles off his arm like a trophy.
When it comes to obsessing about my own appearance, I can’t say I throw caution to the wind; while some women of size think they are fine in a bikini or a tube top; this chick’s not going there. I guess I fall somewhere between the “fully fashion liberated” fat person and a fat-shamed assimilationist hiding in a tent dress, for lack of a better term. I’m short (5’3″), and, thanks to my mom’s side of the family, I have an oversized rack, top-heavy with short legs, quite Hobbit-like. This is what I have to work with. I don’t sit around hating myself or avoid having my photo taken (geez, I might have the most pix of myself with fellow Netroots attendees out there!)
But just stop with the “you have such a pretty face” nonsense. Never mind the out-and-out cruelty:
I’ll never forget the first time that I was on CNN; it was via satellite in an uneventful discussion with Amanda Carpenter of Town Hall in some blogger segment about the 2008 Republican Presidential primary. Neither of us screamed or got overwrought, one of the things that the host (Tony Harris) kept trying to get us to do. I was about 35 lbs heavier at that time than I am now. Anyway, over at my friend Mike Rogers’s now-defunct BlogActive, one commenter lamented that “Spaulding needs to lay off of the cheeseburgers” and moaned “why the progressive side can’t have better-looking people on the air.”
Actually, I don’t like cheeseburgers, but alas, I didn’t know my burger consumption had anything to do with my intellect, whatever. But did reading that sh*t hurt? Yeah, but that’s why I like doing radio.
And it goes without saying that people compliment you on weight loss regardless of how it is accomplished. I lost over 35 lbs over the course of a year or so because of chronic, debilitating pain, yet people were telling me how good I looked. Even as I started losing my hair, getting quite pale, the strain of pain showing in my eyes. I guess the weight loss trumps all. That’s simply sick. Can we heal ourselves of this?
* What is the fashion today? (My Facebook series of fashion shots)
* What the weight-loss industrial complex doesn’t want you to know – those pounds won’t stay off (but you can still dream)