On Obesity: Fat Chicks And Fat "Porn" As Entertainment

Today in the debate over America's waistline: an ambitious overview of the social issues at stake written by a reporter who had bariatric surgery, and a filmmaker's "fat chicks manifesto." And both are interested in the attitudes around being big.

Atlantic writer Marc Ambinder is in a unique position to write about the topic — he regularly covers politics for the magazine, but he also had bariatric surgery a year ago and has since lost a third of his weight and gotten rid of his diabetes. There isn't a tremendous amount of new ground covered here if you've been following these debates, but Ambinder does strike the delicate balance between raising concerns about obesity's public and personal health repercussions, and staying away from fat-shaming. He also does a good job of clearly noting his class privilege — the money to sink into diet and exercise solutions, and then to have a $30,000 surgery not covered by insurance — and contrasting it with an analysis of the sociopolitical factors that contribute to childhood obesity in various low-income groups.

One thing is clear: the current pop culture discourse around weight isn't helping, as Ambinder writes:

Unfortunately, our culture reinforces this anxiety by turning obesity into pornography. This is not surprising. Obesity has become not just a scientific fad of sorts, generating intense research, curiosity, and public concern, but also a commercial gold mine that draws on the same kind of audiences that used to go to circus carnivals a century ago to peer at freakishly obese men and women.

He cites TLC's obesity programming blocks, as well as The Biggest Loser, Dance Your Ass Off, and More To Love, all of which impart the message, Ambinder says, that "fat people are funny." But obesity is a public health crisis! And fat people should know that and get better, right? Nope:

The impact of "fat porn" on fat people is counterproductive. It's true that stigma can restrain obesity rates. Researchers speculate, for example, that black men are less likely than black women to become obese, in part because within the black community they would face a higher stigma. In general, overweight young people tend to be socially marginalized. But there is little evidence that increasing stigma actually reduces obesity rates. And plenty of evidence shows that stigma makes fat people more likely to feel depressed, to experience stress, to receive poorer medical care, to experience discrimination in the workplace, to go on eating binges, and to duck exercise.

It's that stigma that filmmaker Raymond deFelitta tapped into when he made City Island, the film starring Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies that's about to go wide. In a story on Salon, deFelitta describes what led him to write the plotline of Garcia's son falling in love with larger women. It started, he said, because he was looking for something that could still shock in a demystified world:

The obese are the last openly discriminated-against group in our country. In looking for a secret that the young man can be ashamed to keep, I continually ran up against the "been there seen that" problem: What secrets do today's youth actually keep?

Some of what deFelitta says is a little unnuanced, to put it charitably — he clearly loves saying the phrase "fat chicks" for shock effect, and he blurs the line between fat acceptance and fat fetishization. But it's interesting nonetheless to hear about how difficult it was to put render dream of a confident overweight woman onscreen a reality:

Our casting breakdown people didn't seem to quite comprehend the severity of our desire for fatness. When I wrote the word "obese" in my script, it somehow got translated to "overweight" to the breakdown service. As a result, we were deluged with photos of women who were, like, 170 pounds. As I poured through them in dismay, I realized that a Hollywood casting director's idea of obese and what I was writing about were about 200 pounds apart. When I told them that I needed to see people much, MUCH larger, they answered:

"Oh. But you don't really want to cast somebody that fat, do you?"

He did, in fact, and he eventually found the lovely and confident Carrie Baker Reynolds, whom we spoke to at the film's New York premiere. DeFelitta goes on to throw out an even wilder dream:

Maybe the supersized will begin to appear in movies and literature not as object lessons in what not to become or as simple comic relief, but as people who are simply that ... people.

His film didn't do a perfect job of accomplishing that, but it's a noble aspiration and a good start.

My Fat Chick Manifesto [Salon]
Beating Obesity [Atlantic]

Earlier: On Playing A Plus-Sized Love Interest