Fattest Woman in the World: Looking Behind the News Story

Debbie says:

Donna Simpson has, to say the least, an odd ambition. She wants to become the fattest woman in the world, and she’s (please pardon the pun) busting her ass to get there.

Donna Simpson in underwear

A 42-year-old New Jersey mom is on track to weigh in as the world’s fattest woman. Donna Simpson is determined to double her size by eating piles of junk food, the Daily Mail reported yesterday.

Simpson is already in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the largest mom. It took 30 hospital staff to deliver her daughter in a high-risk cesarean in 2007. At the time she weighed about 530 pounds. (She has other children.)

These days, Simpson is eating 12,000 calories a day in an effort to weigh in at 1,000 pounds. “To fund the massive $750 weekly food shop, she runs a website where men pay her to watch her eat fast food,” the Daily Mail reported.

The question at issue in both the San Francisco and London papers is: should she be allowed to keep her children?

First, let’s separate a few things out: I don’t believe that what she’s doing is likely to be “healthy” (whatever that word means) for her, either physically or emotionally. I think that junk food is bad for almost everyone, except in moderation. I think it’s a bad idea to build your life around eating anything, and especially processed junk. At the same time, I don’t see any reason to demonize Donna Simpson, especially without examining the context.

As far as her kids are concerned, in effectively all nonabusive circumstances, mothers should be allowed to keep their children. The urge to take her kids away from her should not be about her weight. Neither article says anything about the children: how old are they? are they healthy? is she feeding them? does she hit them? do they go to school? is there another parent, and what does that person think? are any of the kids old enough to express an opinion, and if so, what do they say?

Important as the safety and health of her real children is, bringing them into the story is a classic diversion tactic: let’s look away from what’s really happening, and look at the mythical children instead. (By not telling us anything about her real children, and especially by not letting them speak for themselves, the newspapers are turning them into mythical, fetishized children.)

When we consider the possibility that this story may not be about weight, other issues jump off the screen:

Getting yourself into the Guinness Book of World Records–for anything–is a classic way to bring interest and attention into a “life of quiet desperation,” or even a life of boredom and mundane troubles. In our Warhol world, where nearly everyone either has been or wants to be famous for 15 minutes, the Book of World Records is tailor-made to fill that need. You don’t have to gain weight, you can try for “loudest burp” or “furthest eye popper,” “most pierced,” etc., etc. How about “most balloon sculptures made in an hour”?

What about the men who are supporting Simpson’s eating by paying to watch her eat on the Internet? What about the social context in which she has this goal? According to one story, she was making 2,000 pounds (about $3,000) a month in 2008 and $750/week would be about the same now: roughly what I take home for 35 hours of highly specialized office work a week–and I get no notoriety. If she has an “extreme–practically unbelievable–… relationship with food,” what do these men have? Could she even have this ambition if she didn’t live in a society that has an “extreme–practically unbelievable–relationship with food”? She didn’t come up with this idea in a vacuum.

Women who try to starve themselves–and succeed–are not news and have not been news for centuries. Also, we know with complete conviction and certainty that ceasing to eat will kill you and, despite our maniacal hatred of fat, we cannot be so sure about Simpson’s path. She could continue at her same level of health for decades, which cannot be said of committed anorexics. And no one pays to watch a woman, or a teenage girl, starve on the Internet.

This opens up more questions: would Simpson be doing this if it couldn’t get her into the Book of World Records, or some similar recognition? Would she be doing it if no one was paying her to do it?

When my friend Patti (who sent me the link) was discussing it with me, she asked what I thought Simpson would do if the junk-food money well ran dry. Would she find another source for so much food? My reaction was that I don’t know her, so I can’t say. The way I imagine her, she would find some other way to get into the Guinness Book of World Records, or to get webcam attention on the Internet. I don’t think it’s about the weight.

Oh, and one more thing about her and her children: if we aren’t up in arms about taking children away from severe anorexics (those who live long enough to have children) or the person with the largest collection of airplane sick bags, let’s leave Donna Simpson alone.

8 thoughts on “Fattest Woman in the World: Looking Behind the News Story

  1. My potential counter-argument would be that the person who has the most airsick bags is probably not intentionally creating a physical impediment to taking care of her children. If she succeeds in her endeavor, she’ll likely be unable to walk.

    I’m not necessarily arguing that her children should be taken from her, just pointing out that there are obvious differences in the circumstances.

  2. Patti, yes and …

    While I cannot personally comprehend choosing a path that leads to inability to walk, I also know that plenty of people who can’t walk are fine parents. And my whole attitude towards choosing what we call “disability” was permanently skewed when I read Geek Love just about 20 years ago (not a book about fat).

    I still need to know a lot more about the kids and their lives before I can begin to make a guess about whether she’s bad for them.

  3. For some reason this brings to mind a NAAFA convention keynote speaker (sorry I forget his name) the lead attorney who represented Marlene Corrigan, charged with felony child endangerment and contributing to the death of her child, Christina Corrigan, mainly based on the 13-year-old’s weight of 680 pounds.

    No internal autopsy was performed, even though the mother requested it, so no scientifically valid cause of death was ever ascertained. The pathologist did take pictures during his 10-minute external “autopsy.” The defense attorney, who had been a prosecuting attorney, did not ask for a jury trial and negotiated with the prosecution to have the charge reduced to a misdemeanor.

    He said a jury could be expected to be much more hostile than a judge would to the mother of a very fat child. What he said in his speech to the NAAFA group was, “When I was prosecuting a case, I would have simply showed the autopsy photos to the jury and they would have convicted the mother based on the size of the child.”

    In other words, no defense is possible in the public eye to the crime of being extremely fat or “allowing” one’s child to be extremely fat. Sondra Solovay discusses the case in detail in Tipping the Scales of Justice.

  4. While, like you, I would want a lot more info before forming any opinion as to whether she’s a competent parent, I think the “men pay to watch her eat” aspect is a significant factor driving that question. If she was mainstream-pretty and supporting her children by stripping for the webcam audience, we’d hear a similar outcry from at least some of the same people. And if that mainstream-pretty mother was doing something less mainstream than stripping, the outcry would be more widespread.

    1. Nolly, another yes and …

      A huge number of strippers and other sex workers are supporting their kids with their work, whether they’re working on the Internet or in strip clubs, or wherever. I think there’s a lot more averting of eyes than there is outcry. Which is part of why I think the “draw attention” piece of Donna Simpson’s story is a key piece.

  5. The drawing-attention is a factor, but also the perceived kinkiness of what she’s doing. Lots of factors working together here.

  6. My potential counter-argument would be that the person who has the most airsick bags is probably not intentionally creating a physical impediment to taking care of her children. If she succeeds in her endeavor, she’ll likely be unable to walk.

    I’m not necessarily arguing that her children should be taken from her, just pointing out that there are obvious differences in the circumstances.

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