Thursday, October 28, 2010

The "F Word"

No, it's not what you're thinking. I'm talking about the other one: FAT.

After a vicious, bigoted blog post on Marie Claire's website by one of their freelancers, Maura Kelly, I was so angry that it was as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of my world. Not only had I recommended that my library subscribe to Marie Claire as a casual reading title (because they crank out at least one or two legitimate journalistic articles per month), I'd been mildly gratified a few months ago when they began publishing a regular column about trying to be stylish when you're a plus-size...and then they turned around and published that trash.

Maura Kelly would've been horsewhipped through the streets had her screed been about people of color or those with developmental differences- so why are she and her editors so seemingly shocked at the visceral response to her little jeremiad about people of size?

The irony is that the day this hit the media, before it became a widespread subject of discussion, I'd had a long talk with a colleague about the American obsession with looks. What makes it interesting is that she's from Germany, and her perspective is very different. She marvels at how much emphasis we place on appearance versus substance, and how intellect is devalued in American culture. We talked about old ladies in bikinis on the beaches of Europe, when a girl who wears a size 9 slaps a t-shirt on over her swimsuit in the U.S. to "hide her 'fat rolls'". We wondered why, in the Land of Plenty, self-denial and self-punishment are considered noble...and then Ms. Kelly's little ode to sizeism hit the ether.

I can remember going to New York for a training seminar for a very expensive, grant-funded database several years ago and being mortified when the woman assigned to sit next to me on the flight back to Cincinnati demanded to be seated elsewhere. At the time, I was much smaller than I am now- and I overheard her telling the flight attendant that fat people are disgusting and smelly, and she would vomit if they made her sit next to me. I'd just come from a boutique hotel where my fat, smelly self was staying on the same floor as Gwyneth Paltrow, who never batted an eyelash when I rode the elevator with her a few times- yet some girl in her twenties, which I also was at the time, was too delicate and refined to be trapped next to me on an airplane. People like Maura Kelly exist, and in their zeal to "help" the fat among us realize our hideousness, they aren't subtle about it. In fact, they have the manners of a rabid ferret on crack. Maybe she was afraid I'd sit on her or something. I don't know. I don't care. What I do know is that her mind was as narrow as her ass.

Not long ago, a well-dressed man and his son passed me in Target and I overheard the father make a seriously nasty remark about me. Being a career academic, I'm never far from my business card case, so I whipped one out, walked over, and handed it to him. Clearly printed, immediately below my name, is a single word: "Professor". Despite my lowliness on the Great Chain of Being according to him, I refused to accept it. See, not only am I disgusting and smelly due to my size, I'm also stupid...according to stereotype, that is. Yeah, they made me a full professor because I'm a moron. I just thought I'd share that with this gentleman, right in front of his son (who, by the way, was overweight).

Then there's the double standard: why is it that people aren't offended when a fat male character has a thin, hot girlfriend or wife on TV or in the movies? Oh, wait. Men can be fat...women can't, without censure. I remember bringing this point up to one of my boyfriends in college when he made issue of my weight mid-breakup speech, since I'd just lost eighty pounds on a liquid-fasting diet. I told him he was extremely fat, too, so why was MY weight the issue? He shrugged and said, "I don't know. Guys can be fat; that's just the way it is." When he generously offered that I'd made a good start (EIGHTY POUNDS), I, as my mother is wont to say, "slapped him so hard that his teeth rattled". A couple of years later, when he'd ballooned to almost four hundred pounds, and the girl for whom he'd left me dumped him for someone else, I had no sympathy when he told me she'd made an issue of his weight gain. Hmmm.

Once, when giving a guest lecture to a communications class about "passing" (passing for white), I wrote the following words on the whiteboard before I began: 'twentysomething', 'white', 'librarian', and 'fat'. I asked the class, up front, which of them wasn't true, taking a show of hands for each word. When I got to 'fat', they cringed, and I said, "Oh, come on, guys, it's the other 'F word'- it's only bad if you give it that context!" Of the four words, the one that wasn't true of me was 'white'- my paternal grandmother was Cherokee, although I am very pale-complected and have blue eyes. I've never forgotten how they squirmed, though, when I reached the word fat. Most of them were conditioned to think of it as impolite, if not outright rude (this is, after all, the South). I explained that I'd rather be called fat than obese, a word that conveys an unpleasant, almost greasy texture.

Kelly's excuse, that she has issues with fat people because she's a recovering anorexic, doesn't cut ice with me- particularly because my sister was anorexic as a young adult, as were several of my friends in high school and college. If she has that much hatred in her system, she needs a shrink. Period.

Most of my adult life, I've heard it said that discrimination against fat people is the "last safe prejudice"...maybe it's not as safe as it used to be...

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