Content warning: The content linked to in this post, and to a lesser extent in this post itself, explicitly discusses body image, eating disorders, and fat-shaming.
We all “know,” culturally, that being fat is bad. But what does that mean, exactly? How do we know that? And what are the social effects of women being the primary focus of that moral judgment?
Recently I listened to a rerun of This American Life called “Tell Me I’m Fat.” I’ll run through my reactions and then link to other resources at the end.
This episode is a great example of This American Life doing what it does best – presenting several stories related to a particular theme in a style that combines journalism and anthropology. The stories in “Tell Me I’m Fat” are some of the most engaging I’ve heard on this show. They interrogate our politics, society, and humanity. It’s definitely worth a listen.
Prologue and Act 1: Lindy West
In the Prologue and Act 1, Lindy West tells the story of her coming to grips with being fat and how that played out in her job as a journalist and her relationship with her boss, Dan Savage. I think she brings up a lot of interesting thoughts, including her critique of the perception in our culture that being fat is okay as long as you’re trying to “fix” it. In other words, it’s not okay for a fat person to just be happy the way they are.
The ensuing discussion about weight and health is an old one, at least for me — but, in case there’s still doubt in your mind: Yes, it is possible to be fat and healthy at the same time, and cultural assumptions that equate being fat with being unhealthy are often inaccurate and have consequences for the way big people are treated within the health care system (see the slam in the references below).
In the interview with West, we are asked to question several assumptions in quick succession. “Where do you get your confidence?” is one of the questions West is most frequently asked. Because self-confidence is such an issue in general, and in our society it is an even more difficult battle if you are “too” big, the mystery is apparent and the question is a reasonable one. But to me, this question suggests that on some level, even if it’s unconscious, the assumption is that she doesn’t really deserve to feel confident. I can glean this in part from my own personal experiences as someone who has internalized that idea about herself.
In another part of the interview, West points out the problem with term “overweight,” as it implies that there is a “normal” or “correct” weight and people can be categorized (and therefore judged) accordingly. I liked that she pointed this out, and I think it’s a good way of showing how these categories are socially constructed. Maybe by some medical metric there is such a thing as “over” weight, but who gets to delineate those boundaries, and based on what criteria?
As Roxane Gay writes in her book Hunger, “In truth, many medical designations are arbitrary. It is worth noting that in 1998, medical professionals, under the direction of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, lowered the BMI threshold for ‘normal’ bodies to below 25 and, in doing so, doubled the number of obese Americans. One of their reasons for lowering the cutoff: ‘A round number like 25 would be easy for people to remember.'”
I think this should draw our attention to the fact that even measures of “health” are contrived, despite efforts to make them neutral or objective. For one thing, correlations can be misleading (correlation is not causation, after all). Several health problems, like diabetes, can cause weight gain (rather than the other way around). This obscures the real health consequences of weight when weight itself is seen as a problem instead of the underlying health issue itself.
On top of that, West says, “If you were concerned about my health, you’d also be concerned about my mental health” – alluding to the depression and anxiety that can result from public shaming, as well as conditions such as body dysmorphic disorder. People who fat-shame in the name of health rarely seem to care about the mental health effects of social pressures and stigma. To paraphrase West: “You don’t know what I eat or how much I exercise, or whether I’m actually healthy, and quite frankly my health is none of your business.” The upshot, though, is that when people pull the “health” card, it usually is not about health at all. It’s simply an expression of their socially programmed aversion to fatness on aesthetic or moral grounds.
Another thing that West said that struck me was “I take up a lot of space.” West means it literally, and says it in humor, but it made me think of Penny’s book and Gay’s book – where physically taking up space seems to have some deeper connotations about taking up political and social space. There appears to be a relationship between social/political space and physical space in the way women unconsciously understand their permission to exist. So this statement – “I take up a lot of space” – made me think about that, and made me recall my own complicated understandings of taking up different kinds of space. There is also a moment in the Netflix documentary Knock Down the House that made me think of this – when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is practicing a speech to herself and recites the mantra, “I need to take up space… I am here.” To me, it’s a very interesting aspect of what it means to grow up girl in America.
One of the things I found really striking in this part of the podcast was when West talked about a change she went through as a result of Leonard Nimoy’s book (around 12:30 in the podcast). It is worth listening to, because it illustrates the extent to which cultural standards of beauty are constructed. The changes she went through, as she contemplated Nimoy’s book and body positive Tumblrs, weren’t just conceptual; they re-wired her brain. She said she could feel it happening; she had decided – “what if I found [fat rolls] objectively beautiful?” And her brain, as she put it, “was changing shape”; she was deliberately changing the way her brain made her see beauty. (For a racially charged version of this, see this episode of Invisibilia).
Perhaps the sentiment that stuck with me most in Act 1 of this episode is: “You know what’s shameful? A complete lack of empathy.” And I think that’s key to understanding why not only a general aversion to fatness persists, but also the impulse to denigrate or morally shame those considered “fat” (whatever that even means).
Act 2: Elna Baker
This story touched me the most out of all five acts in this episode, because, I think, I sympathized and empathized with Elna’s story the most; even if my own experiences have been far less medical and not nearly as severe.
Elna tells the story of how when she was fat, she did not believe she was actually treated any differently than anyone else. She was happy, and didn’t believe people were shallow enough to judge her for the way she looked. When she lost weight and became thin, however, she likened her experience to the SNL skit where Eddie Murphy masquerades as a white man and sees the difference in how people treat him: everything changed.
She says that her motivations for becoming thin were to get a job and to find love, and she is able to give us a unique and stark point of view on how that worked out for her since she went from “fat” to “thin” in such a short period of time (about six months). She gives us a first-hand account of the differences in social experiences between being fat and being thin as a young woman in America.
There are several moving stories she tells throughout this journey, but the one that really gave me all kinds of complicated emotions was the conversation she recorded with her husband shortly after they were married.
Here is an excerpt. Ellipses indicate places where I redacted dialogue. Please listen to the original story in Act 2 to get the whole picture!
Elna: You would never have been attracted to me before. You know that makes me really sad? …
Mark: You mean you married someone that wouldn’t have been attracted to you?
Elna: You wouldn’t have loved me. You would never have talked — I mean you would have talked to me, we would have been friends. But you wouldn’t have ever dated me, ever. … That’s true, right?
Mark: What do you mean?
Elna: It’s true.
Mark: That I wouldn’t have dated fat Elna? … I don’t know. Probably not. … I’ve always said I think the real you is the skinny you.
Elna: That’s stupid! …
Elna narrating: This argument over which is the real me, old Elna or new Elna, goes on for days. … Here we are in the car. Mark explains that he doesn’t think I became comfortable with myself until I was thin. …
Elna, to Mark: It wasn’t like me in a fat suit. It was me. That’s what I was. So I wasn’t like, oh, this feels really big and uncomfortable. It just was me as a human. I was just a human. It was me.
If you only listen to one Act from this episode, listen to this one.
This Act covers so many issues all at once, and while it doesn’t explicitly unpack them, I think they are there to be unpacked and they are highly relevant.
Here are three other thought-provoking quotes from Elna in Act 2 (ellipses mean redactions):
“As New Elna, I once went on a date with a cute guy who said to me, ‘I know this is going to sound mean, but I just can’t tolerate fat people,’ and then took my hand for the very first time. And I held his hand. I said nothing. I didn’t tell him about Old Elna. We went for a walk. I went out with him again. It’s sad that New Elna gets everything Old Elna wanted, because I think Old Elna was a better person than New Elna. … New Elna didn’t have to be a good person. I just had to be thin. It made the world seem so bleak, like – ‘This is the system? Really?’ It made me less hopeful about people. When guys came on to me, it didn’t feel like it was about me. I could be anyone. It made it hard to trust people.”
“I was happy when I was overweight. I had no idea I should be sad. I was free before. I had trained myself not to care what people thought, and I’d done a good job of it. … I just was. That’s the person I sold out to become this person.”
“As New Elna, I threw out all my pictures of Old Elna and all the pictures in my parents’ photo albums too, because I didn’t want people to see them. And when I looked at those photos, they made me feel bad, because in the pictures, I looked happy. And I’d look at them and think, ‘you’re so stupid to think that you’re happy.'”
There are a lot of things going on there, I think, and it goes beyond simple explanations of individual self-confidence. Elna’s story gives us a useful basis for talking about broader cultural influences on the way many women in the US see themselves. (And this doesn’t even touch on the complexities added when one has to think about race or transgender identities.)
Renoir, The Bathers, 1918-19
Act 3: Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay brings several more nuanced perspectives to all of these discussions. She makes an important distinction between “Lane Bryant” fat and socially debilitating fat, and she brings the topic of race into the discussion.
This Act is only 5 minutes long, and personally I would have liked to hear more of her analysis about knowledge and discourse and power and the way terms like “super morbidly obese” have an effect on both health care professionals and the people that term is meant to apply to.
But Gay’s book Hunger covers it all, and you should definitely read it. You can also watch her TED Talk “Bad Feminist.”
Act 4: Christian weight loss movement
In Act 4, reporter Daniel Engber tells the story of a Christian university that used students’ weight as a barometer for how dedicated they were to their religious education. The university was subject to a lot of criticism for its tactics – like measuring students by placing them in water tanks to see how much water they displaced. They also suspended students who were deemed too heavy according to their standards – but, as Engber rightly points out, this concern with weight was not at odds with the broader American culture; it was just more explicit.
Act 4 quotes John F. Kennedy, who said: “There is nothing, I think, more unfortunate than having soft, chubby, fat looking children, who go to watch their school play basketball every Saturday and regard that as their week’s exercise” (this quote can be accessed here). With my “liberal” 21st century glasses on, I find that quote quite surprising and insensitive.
This segment was interesting for me because I didn’t realize that there was a religious component to the moralization of weight.
Sidebar: Coincidentally, I recently heard about this in another podcast – the always excellent Ologies (which I highly recommend), in an episode called “Food Anthropology (FEASTS) with Katherine Spiers.” It’s worth listening to that whole episode purely because it’s super interesting and tells the story of the origins of green bean casserole. But for the purposes of this topic, the Christian influence in the American diet and weight loss obsession can be found at the above link at 14:12–15:28. The host Alie Ward quotes a Presbyterian minister from the 19th century: “Moral women should follow a plain, abstinent diet devoid of spices and indulgences, lest it lead to civil disorder.” Alie rightly, I think, says “a.k.a. being able to kick the ass of the patriarchy, is what I’m assuming.”
I always assumed the moralizing over fatness, even if it did seem to be gendered, was primarily to do with more general moralizing over health issues with roots in relatively recent history. But this brief interlude in this episode of Ologies made me realize that it might run deeper than that; there might be some set of collective moral norms that have been passed down via Puritan and/or other religious influences, which dictate dietary and bodily ideals for women and tie them directly to literal moral imperatives.
The Upshot and Discussion Questions:
I think this podcast (and the sources I’ve referenced) can be used for a lot of different educational purposes; it challenges norms, and it covers a disparate series of stories with the same theme in a way that opens up space for a lot of questions.
Throughout all these stories, what links them is this focusing on weight or diet at the expense of more worthy causes to spend time, money, and energy on – particularly for women. What could we accomplish if we spent our time and money on other things?
Here are some discussion questions that come to mind:
- All the main stories focus on women, women’s stories, and/or women’s weight. Why do you think that is? Is it a coincidence? Or is there something about the American experience of the politics of fat that is particularly female?
- Which story did you find most compelling? Why?
- What can we as a society do to curb the stigmatization of being “heavy”?
- Where should the line be drawn between what is “normal” and what is not?
- Is it fair to scorn people for being unhealthy in some ways but not others (or at all)? Can we assume anything about a person’s health by visually assessing their weight? Are we really concerned about others’ health when we talk about weight, or is something else causing us to comment on it?
- Is beauty culturally subjective? How do you know?
- Why do you think our society is so concerned with how people look, and why does it almost always overshadow everything else about them; like if they are kind, or intelligent? Does this affect women more than it does men, in your opinion? Why/why not? Does it affect people of color in different ways than white people? How?
Links and Resources Related to this Podcast:
The Body is Not an Apology
The Get: “The Body Is Not An Apology”
Invisibilia: “A Very Offensive Rom-Com”
Code Switch: “Pretty Hurts”
Articles and Books:
David Engerman, “American Knowledge and Global Power” and
Michel Foucault, The Order of Things
(how categories, like BMI or the calorie, are socially constructed and value-laden)
Roxane Gay, Hunger
Caroline Knapp, Appetites: Why Women Want
Don Kulick and Anne Meneley (eds.), Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession
Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things
Lindy West, Shrill