While riding a nearly-empty train in the evening, Marsha Coupe was attacked by another woman who kicked and punched her repeatedly, leaving her with 40 bruises and one eye swollen shut. The reason given? Coupe took up two seats.
"'You big fat pig' is all Marsha Coupe heard before she was kicked in the face." So begins a BBC article exploring why fat people are so frequently and openly abused — emotionally and, yes, physically. Although the piece is extremely (and somewhat shockingly) sympathetic to fat people, one thing that contributes to fat hatred can be found before it even begins: The traditional headless fatty photo. The BBC's is of a man's naked, hairy torso, spilling out over his jeans, and, as headless fatty photos usually are, it is sure to evoke disgust. Further down in the article, there's a picture of Martha Coupe's battered face, which is unsettling and a bit grainy, but a far more accurate depiction of the article's subject than a disembodied gut — with a tape measure around it, no less. One evokes sympathy for an abused person, and the marginalized group she belongs to. The other dehumanizes a fat person, quite literally reducing him to nothing but a big old gut, and — given the prevalence of anti-fat sentiment outlined in this very article — is likely to make people laugh at best and recoil at worst. People responsible for choosing the images that accompany articles like this (and producing B-roll for TV reports on obesity) really need to think about the messages they're sending — and recognize that they're bigoted shits if that actually is the message they mean to send. (Note: There are some more understandable reasons for choosing such photos, and the one I've chosen here — of longtime fat activist Marilyn Wann — isn't perfect, though I do love it. I'll elaborate on this in comments.)
With that out of my system, let's move on to the text. It's pretty fabulous overall, quoting people who actually know something about size acceptance and citing thoughtful explanations for anti-fat attitudes and abuse. They even get bonus points for not falling into the "it's the last acceptable prejudice!" trap (please see rule 11 if you were thinking of doing that in comments here), while making it clear that it very much is a widely acceptable prejudice, with real consequences for real people.
Some key points:
- "Often the assumption is that overweight people have lost their self-control." Says Fat Is a Feminist Issue author Susie Orbach, "Most people want to be slim, but this perceived physical perfection is difficult to hold on to and they fear losing control of it...They project that fear and unhappiness on to people who are bigger and that often translates into abuse and attacks. It's a way of people disassociating themselves from what they fear the most — getting fat."
- It's based on the simplistic and inaccurate assumption that fatness is always the result of laziness and greed. Psychologist Ros Taylor: "There is true aggression towards overweight people and it comes down to fear and a complete lack of understanding of the issue. People think 'I can control what I put in my mouth so why can't they'. But we're not all the same, we don't all start from the same point."
- The government and media (pick your government and your media; it's certainly as true here as it is in Britain) have created a full-fledged moral panic about fatness. Martha Coupe: "The government and the press have created an atmosphere where people think they have a legitimate right to go up to an overweight person and tell them how to live their lives. To them we are all the anonymous pictures of fat people they see in the papers and are the cause of all society's ills, as well as a drain on the NHS. We deserve what we get. We're not people with feelings." (See? She even told you why headless fatties are problematic!)
- People tend to have unconscious but powerful negative reactions to those they find unattractive. Weight specialist Dr. Ian Campbell: "It's innate in people to dislike what they see as a lack of attractiveness. It makes them think such people are worthy of derision. Very young kids have been shown to have a bias against their overweight peers."
That last point is fine, as far as it goes, but in addition to the fact that our big brains can override kneejerk negative reactions once we recognize that they're irrational (which the article does point out), what we find attractive is certainly dictated in large part by the culture, not just some sort of vaguely defined "innate" characteristics (which it does not). I've seen this slide into a bullshit evo-psych argument far too often. "We want people who look healthy! Fat people look unhealthy! IT'S HARD-WIRED CAN'T CHANGE IT PUT DOWN THE FORK IF YOU DON'T LIKE IT." Yeeeah, except for how any amount of fat equaling ill-health in the collective consciousness is a very recent development. Throughout history, being relatively famine-proof was more likely regarded as a big advantage. Women with pelvises bigger than their heads were almost certainly regarded as more likely to be fertile. And even in fairly recent history, what was widely considered attractive was a hell of a lot different than it is now. Noting that negative reactions to "unattractive people" are not completely within the average person's control — at least until she takes a moment to apply reason — is one thing. Implying that this means we all have an instinctive aversion to fatties is quite another. The idea that fat people are categorically, universally unattractive is a function of fat hatred, not a reasonable explanation for it.
Speaking of which, Elizabeth Bluemle has a terrific post over at Publishers Weekly about fat characters in children's literature, which further elucidates how subtle but unmistakable — and frequent — messages about fatness can turn an irrational prejudice into the prevailing wisdom.
While we have all become accustomed to popular culture's celebration of thin, what I didn't expect is that books - the refuge of the chubby kid, the place where people understand the value of what lies beneath the surface, a land of acceptance and tolerance for difference - would come around to betray their readers. But you can hardly open an [advanced reading copy] these days without coming across one of the following:
* snide comments about a character's weight or about fat in general when they have nothing to do with the plot or theme of the story;
* descriptions of fat used deliberately as shorthand to indicate a character's villainy, isolation, absurdity, and/or repulsiveness;
* books with assumptions about fat people carelessly tossed off as though they are truths rather than opinion.
Right on, Elizabeth Bluemle. It's been a while since I read any children's literature (although Lizzie Skurnick frequently tempts me to revisit old favorites), but I notice this shit in grown-up books all the time — throwaway bits of fat hate, often apparently meant to endear author to reader, because of course everyone finds fat people ridiculous/disgusting/other than fully human, amirite? Jane Fallon's novel Getting Rid of Matthew was completely ruined for me because of that shit. It's couple hundred pages of smart, funny writing that's almost perfectly suited to my taste, and only a couple of lines that felt like she'd slapped me in the face for no obvious reason beyond "hur hur, fatties!" But they did, in fact, feel that way, and that's really not what I'm looking for in a book.
Having read Martha Coupe's story, I guess I can be grateful that I've never actually been slapped, kicked or punched in the face for being fat. But she is far from the only one who has, and we can't pretend that such abuse is somehow separate from the moral panic over obesity, the fiction that looks-based hatred is hard-wired, the way our collective guilt about overconsumption is projected onto fat people, the automatic equation of fatness with laziness and greed, and a million little fat jokes that people "didn't really mean anything by." Of course, that's exactly what the BBC commenters try to do — I only read about a dozen, but most are along the lines of, "Look, it's shameful and illegal to beat someone up, but fat people are still a huge problem for society to solve!"
Be better than that, Jezzies. Be smarter than that. And above all, please be kinder than that. Fat people are not a blight on society; we're human beings. Acting like we're some abstract problem to be solved only contributes to the kind of hatred that left Martha Coupe with a bruised and bloodied face, just because she dared to take up as much space as she needs.