Monthly Archives: June 2011

How do I dehumanize you, let me count the ways …

Lynne Murray says,

In April I saw the river of short comments on Twitter marked by the hash tag #thingsfatpeoplearetold.

Brian started the topic, which garnered 2000 original tweets in 48 hours, and he rounded up some responses to it in this post and in a guest post on Shakespeare’s Sister he summed up the experience:

I started the hashtag with some posts of ironic fat shaming but my attempts to exaggerate for effect were betrayed by the true hostility fat people are subjected to in the name of our own good.  As outlandish as I was, people really do think fat people should be denied clothing and jobs lest we think it’s okay to be fat.  After me, the meme took off with a stream of tragic and all too real attacks that fat people endure regularly.  After the first day, I collected some of the posts for my blog, but it was really overwhelming.  The life of a fat person is full of indignities and it was all too easy to catalog them but so difficult to be confronted with these truths.

The hostility fat people experience is extreme.  One woman spoke about being on an operating table for a C-section and having a surgeon mock her fat, suggesting they get rid of it while they’ve got her open.  Another spoke of sitting in an ambulance while a police officer refused to believe she was raped.  Others were told they should be happy to have been sexually assaulted.  We heard about how transgender persons were belittled for being too fat to pass.  We heard about fat people who were sick and were denied treatment until they lost weight.  Fat mothers were told they were selfish for being fat because they would orphan their children.  Or that their children would never love them.  Or that they’d just ruin their children’s lives so maybe the baby should just die in the womb.  People who were told they would die before their 21st birthday (or 30th, or 40th, as the needs of the threat demanded).  It is very difficult to read.

Reactions to this tidal wave of sharing were all over the map. Outrage at the abuse, encouragement to reaffirm self-esteem, and calls to solidarity in the face of this tremendous hostility.

My first thought was how feminist consciousness raising sessions of the 1960s and ’70s were inspired by the way Mao’s revolutionary army gathered together the women in Chinese villages in the 1950s to talk about how they had been treated — rapes, beatings, literally being sold as concubines.  The slogan was, “Speak bitterness to recall bitterness. Speak pain to recall pain.”

With that said, I have to honestly confess my own reaction to the #thingsfatpeoplearetold tweets, though I’m not proud of it.

I couldn’t bear to read them.

Partly this is due to how much of a word person I am and how limited my resources are.  Libraries are not available even by mail due to mobility issues and funds for purchasing books, magazines or even cable television are just are not there for me.  So I have been more dependent on the internet and broadcast television than I would like.  The internet gives a measure of freedom to tailor content, but even with constant exercise of the mute button, broadcast television provides almost more doses of socially sanctioned fat hatred than I can endure.  One way I protect my sanity by only consuming small amounts of toxic attitude when I can control the source.  So I could only take “things people say to fat people” in very tiny sips.

I was almost not going to write about it when I ran into a Big Fat Blog piece describing an instance of Fat Prejudice Examined that actually made me feel exhilarated.  I thought about why looking at this artwork, so deftly skewering prejudice made me feel so good and I decided to couple the two subjects.

A photo of the energizing artwork was captioned by the Portland Press Herald:  Rachel Herrick’s “The Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies,” a multimedia installation at the Maine College of Art. The self-deprecatory piece plays off the “Back to Nature” exhibits at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.



As described in the Herald article:

The most impressive, ambitious and unusual work in the show is Rachel Herrick’s “Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies.”  It’s a one-room taxidermy-style installation not unlike the “Back to Nature” vignettes that have charmed generations at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.

Herrick has a professional hand.  Everything in her “Obeast” piece is top-notch, from the phenomenal taxidermy-style, life-size Obeast on her grassy pedestal, to the wall images mapping the evolution of the Obeast from a walrus, to the glossy museum brochure and the slick informational kiosk complete with artifacts and videos.  (The “museum’s” terrific website is part of the work:

Because the Obeast is an obese young woman, I was mortified when I first saw the installation, because I could have been looking at one the most offensive works of art I had ever seen.  I hadn’t seen the name and did not know that the artist was a woman.  I can’t remember the last time my moral sensibilities had been so thoroughly challenged.

Through the photography and the videos, however, it became clear the Obeast is the artist herself — an obese woman who looks exactly like her self-portraits in the “museum.”

Allergic to self-pity, Herrick subtly relates that obese Americans have to deal with people who routinely confuse physical largess with diminished mental capacities. Part of the joke is that Herrick plays no heavy-handed card, and leaves bigots to twist in the wind of ignorance — never the wiser despite her razor-sharp educational and informational professionalism.

Did I mention I am a word person?  I have to say that I stand in awe of how this art installation manages to demonstrate why the word “obese” is SO offensive, without ever saying so.

Then the droll website (Museum for Obeast Conservation) literally “MOCS” the element of condescending superiority that sometimes accompanies the most well-intentioned efforts to rescue ANYTHING.  The Obeasts in the YouTube videos are referred to as “it” even when the obeastologists are determining whether it is male or female before fitting it with a tracking collar.  This demonstrates so clearly the cultural perception of the “otherness” of fat people that makes outright hostility so acceptable.

What can I say?  I’ll attempt to explain my reactions this way.  To me, pure, undiluted prejudice is like raw sewage, it is very hard to be around; while prejudice transmuted into art is like fertilizer, it makes things grow.,

Re/Considering Uncle Tom

Laurie says:

This month is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a major figure in the abolitionist and other social change movements of her day.



Harriet Beecher Stowe (June 14, 1811 – July 1, 1896) was a American Abolitionist and author. Her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin(1852) depicted life for African Americans under slavery; it reached millions as a novel and play, and became influential in the US and the United Kingdom. It energized anti-slavery forces in the American North, while provoking widespread anger in the South. She wrote more than 20 books, including novels, three travel memoirs, and collections of articles and letters. She was influential both for her writings and her public stands on {social issues} of the day.

I read about her in high school, but the major influence on my opinion of her was James Baldwin’s critical  pairing of her with Richard Wright in the essay Everybody’s Protest Novel in Notes of a Native Son. Baldwin castigates her for being too sentimental, and for portraying black slaves as praying to a white God so as to be cleansed/whitened. Equally, he repudiate Richard Wright’s book Native Son for portraying Bigger Thomas as an angry black man – he views that as an example of stigmatizing categorization.

I changed my mind (much as I have always admired Baldwin) after learning a lot more about the history and context of her work, and reading the book again myself.

Except for an oddly deprecatory first paragraph, David Reynolds has written an excellent timely essay in the NY Times on Rescuing the Real Uncle Tom.

…driven by a passionate hatred of slavery, she found time to write “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which became the most influential novel in American history and a catalyst for radical change both at home and abroad.

Today, of course, the book has a decidedly different reputation, thanks to the popular image of its titular character, Uncle Tom — whose name has become a byword for a spineless sellout, a black man who betrays his race.

And we tend to think of the novel itself as an old-fashioned, rather lachrymose affair that features the deaths of an obsequious enslaved black man and his blond, angelic child-friend, Little Eva.

But this view is egregiously inaccurate: the original Uncle Tom was physically strong and morally courageous, an inspiration for blacks and other oppressed people worldwide. In other words, Uncle Tom was anything but an “Uncle Tom.”

Indeed, that’s why in the mid-19th century Southerners savagely attacked “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as a dangerously subversive book, while Northern reformers — especially blacks — often praised it. The ex-slave Frederick Douglass affirmed that no one had done more for the progress of African-Americans than Stowe.

The book was enormously popular in the North during the 1850s and helped solidify support behind the antislavery movement. As the black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois later wrote, “Thus to a frail overburdened Yankee woman with a steadfast moral purpose we Americans, both black and white, owe our gratitude for the freedom and the union that exist today in these United States.”

The book stoked fires overseas, too. In Russia it influenced the 1861 emancipation of the serfs and later inspired Vladimir Lenin, who recalled it as his favorite book in childhood. It was the first American novel to be translated and published in China, and it fueled antislavery causes in Cuba and Brazil.

At the heart of the book’s progressive appeal was the character of Uncle Tom himself: a muscular, dignified man in his 40s who is notable precisely because he does not betray his race; one reason he passes up a chance to escape from his plantation is that he doesn’t want to put his fellow slaves in danger. And he is finally killed because he refuses to tell his master where two runaway slaves are hiding.

It’s worth reading the whole essay. And if there is time in your life for it, it’s definitely worth reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin.