Big Brother (by Lionel Shriver) Is Watching Your Weight

Lynne Murray says:

I recently read (and screamed a lot) at a New York Magazine piece,  “Warning: I Will Employ the Word ‘Fat’”, by Lionel Shriver, promoting her novel Big Brother. Shriver is attempting to write not about fat itself, but about how the world sees fat, which she apparently thinks is a fixed point in a universe of shifting appearance:

Rail against it as you might, the concept of physical beauty—thus, alas, also of homeliness—is implanted in early childhood and fortified every day. Coded images of beauty and beastliness bombard us from billboards, films, TV, the Internet. Even as tots, we picked up stray comments about the size of someone’s thighs. We noticed that a dainty moppet got doted on, while the tubby kid was ignored.

Mary Stein at More of Me to Love skewers some of Shriver’s aims and inaccuracies handily:

Lionel states:  “…I did have buck teeth as a child, so I can attest that fat people have not cornered the market on mockery.”

Stein responds:

We never said we did. What we do say is that we face overt and covert discrimination because of our size (and many in our community face discrimination for other reasons simultaneously).

Having been a child of typical size with buck teeth AND ALSO being a Fat person as an adult, I can state that yes, both are mocked, but buck toothed people are not turned down for jobs for which they are qualified, they are not told they will not fit the seats, they are not told they may not participate solely because of their dentia, they are not told to shop elsewhere because there are no clothes that fit their protruding upper ivories, no one inspects their grocery carts or restaurant plates for ‘forbidden’ foods, and there is no national or global campaign (that I am aware of) that blames the rise in demand for and the costs of health care on the ‘overbite epidemic.’

I love Stein’s reaction to Shriver (and appreciate her including my work in her list of fiction with fat positive characters). But I have more to say to Ms. Shriver:

I started screaming when she posed a supposedly rhetorical question:

Would Sam Spade have taken on the dodgy case of the sultry “Miss Wonderly” in The Maltese Falcon if she weighed 300 pounds?

Frankly, I’d like to read that book. Hell, I may write it. Meanwhile, the answer is, “Yes.” If the client had coughed up the cash, Sam Spade and Miles Archer would have taken the case. As Spade put it:

We, we didn’t exactly believe your story, Miss, uh…What is your name, Wonderly or Leblanc?…We didn’t exactly believe your story, Miss O’Shaughnessy; we believed your two hundred dollars…I mean, you paid us more than if you’d been telling us the truth, and enough more to make it all right.

Continuing with her attempt to curry favor with fat activists while simultaneously disrespecting us, Shriver says:

Fat activists who campaign to overthrow the despotism of the diminutive make some sound points. Poking fun at big people is no more acceptable than any other cruelty. One can maintain a serviceable, disease-free body at larger sizes. The projection of interior flaws onto heavy people—that they’re lazy or self-indulgent—is unfair.

That doesn’t stop her from doing it. In her book, she apparently tries to co-opt the shock value of “fat characters” by creating an implausible narrative for a character who gains “hundreds of pounds” in four years as “a form of self-vandalism.”

Disappointed that his career as a jazz pianist in New York has gone south, angry that his nobody sister has suddenly achieved national prominence, Edison has gone on a bender of self-destruction. His overeating is a form of protest, like Tibetan self-immolation—a “suicide by pie.”

Most often, people gain weight rapidly when they start taking certain medications, or as a rebound re-gain from severe food restriction–aka weight cycling, the diet-regain-diet-regain loop. Uh, hundreds of pounds? I dunno.

I have never yet met or heard of anyone who actually, methodically over-ate on purpose in order to gain hundreds of pounds, as social revenge or otherwise. Although such cases may exist, classic, well-documented studies show that gaining weight beyond one’s natural weight (like dieting) is painful, short-lived and very rarely results in very large, long-maintained weight gains.

As Sandy Swarc pointed out in a 2008 post on Junk Food Science (still available as a tremendously useful and relevant archive):

[T]he body has an incredibly complex and sophisticated system to regulate its fat stores. And when those fat levels deviate from the body’s genetic setpoint, compensatory mechanisms kick in to return the body to is normal state without us having a lot of say about the matter.

Decades of sound studies have continued to show that healthy obese people eat and behave no differently than anyone else to explain why their bodies are bigger. It’s not “overeating,” or eating “unhealthy” foods or not enough “healthy” foods, or too little activity, that explains why some of us are fat and others lean.”

The kind of methodical overeating Shriver attributes to her character in Big Brother doesn’t sound plausible; it sounds like the desperate rationalization we often hear from those on the diet-regain rollercoaster.

Shriver is committed to attacking the idea that fat can be positive or attractive for anyone at any time. Forget it, she says, you’re only deluding yourself–focus on “inner beauty.”

“[B]ig is beautiful” is a hard sell. Even if we should find a splendor in amplitude, that doesn’t mean we will or we can. Beth Ditto on the runway may have seemed like a victory for the convex everywhere, but she’s unlikely to inspire little girls to want to grow up to look just like her. To the contrary, nearly half of girls ages 3 to 6 worry about being fat.

With the population getting only heavier, the yawning chasm between the real and the ideal is a formula for widespread discontent. Yet the solution can’t be to artificially fiddle with standards of beauty as if they can be adjusted like the width of the margins in word processing. The solution is to get a grip and put human beauty in perspective.

Worse, Shriver’s fatalism is like telling women before the 1919 passage of the 19th Amendment, “In an ideal world, of course, women would be able to vote, but it’s the law of the land that we can’t. So don’t ask for something that the men, in their wisdom, haven’t decided to give you. Just shut up and accept things as they are.”

I can’t (and I won’t) sit back and passively accept media imposed “standards of beauty.” Ms. Shriver, when you talk about “artificially fiddling” with them, you seem to forget (although you acknowledge it in your article when you talk about the range of female beauty over the last couple of centuries) that standards of beauty are not universal laws, they are belief systems. If three-year-olds are anti-fat, does that make their attitude “natural”? Or have they been taught something noxious? Belief systems can and should expand and change. A great deal of that change comes from the stories we tell.

Wry thanks to Julia McCrossin for pointing out the Shriver article on Facebook.

6 thoughts on “Big Brother (by Lionel Shriver) Is Watching Your Weight

  1. I can think of two *fictional* characters who gain lots of weight deliberately — Mark Vorkosigan, and Nero Wolfe. Both for related reasons, too — to restrain their own physical capabilities (Mark to keep his “killer” persona in check). And nothing is said about how Nero Wolfe did it (though he’s portrayed as a very food-oriented gourmet throughout the series, it’s not suggested he adopted that position specifically to get fat).

    (Fictional characters are, at best, a tangent sparked by the article, of course.)

  2. Mark Vorkosigan did indeed gain weight deliberately and rapidly, but his case does not disprove the case stated. Mark Vorkosigan was forced by the terrorists who raised him as a copy of his clone brother to be as thin as his brother Miles, while he did not have the metabolic damage of the poison gas attack before birth Miles did. So Mark had been severly restricted in his food before, AND he was forcefed at the time. Those actions might have changed and/or damaged his setpoint.

  3. When fiction writers spin a story based on current prejudice, it’s likely to be well-received. I hadn’t heard that about Nero Wolfe or Mark Vorkosigan, but one example, Erle Stanley Gardner’s hard boiled, plus-sized Bertha Cool was variously portrayed as 160-255 pounds with “piggish” eyes and a hostile attitude toward men. She was the owner of her own detective agency and supposedly gained weight on purpose to keep men away. The novels were all narrated by her much-abused employee, Donald Lam.

    Some might argue that a fictional character can do whatever an author decides for whatever reason the author decides. But when authors perpetuate stereotypes, the story suffers and the readers have their prejudices reinforced.

    Joseph Hansen was my role model when I started trying to write about a size positive sleuth.

    In an essay, “Homosexuals: Universal Scapegoats” Hansen describes how he set out to explode the stereotypes about homosexuality that flourished along with racism, sexism and anti-semitism in the so-called “Golden Era” of murder mysteries written in the early to mid-20th century:

    Hansen concludes:
    “When writers fall back on ugly stereotypes, they betray their trust and make an already tough life tougher still. Whether mysteries or not, honest novels allow us for an hour or two to escape the confines of our familiar selves and, in effect, become someone else. Rarely in life can we know a real human being as completely as we come to know good fictional characters. When a writer scrupulously models his characters on the way men and women really are, he opens to his readers the opportunity to widen and deepen their understanding of others and themselves, and this can only make the world a gentler place for us all.”

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