Category Archives: fiction

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.

Turning the Princess Narrative Sideways

Lynne Murray and Debbie say:

Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, blogs about her struggle with the creeping princess contagion:

When I first started writing about the Disney Princesses, people assumed my beef was with the girl waiting around to be rescued by the handsome prince. But honestly? I don’t get that passive vibe from little girls playing princess or from the merchandise sold  them. For instance: how often do you see a prince doll at Toys’R’Us?

No, today’s princess is not about romance: it’s more about entitlement. I call it “girlz power” because when you see that “z” (as in Bratz, Moxie Girlz, Ty Girlz, Disney Girlz) you know you’ve got trouble.  Girlz power  sells self-absorption as the equivalent of self confidence and tells girls that female empowerment, identity, independence should be expressed through narcissism and commercialism.

Orenstein is halfway on to something here, but she doesn’t take it far enough. “Girlz” is a commoditized and commercialized version of “grrrls,” as in riot grrrls (and it’s not hard to find “riot girlz” in uncommodified contexts on Google). The motivation behind the new spelling was to break the old associations with the word “girls” (at that time, more about passive romance than about privilege and entitlement) and to create a new identity:

Young women involved in underground music scenes took advantage of this to articulate their feminist thoughts and desires through creating punk-rock fanzines and forming garage bands. The political model of collage-based, photocopied handbills and booklets was already used by the punk movement as a way to activate underground music, leftist politics and alternative (to mainstream) sub-cultures. Many women found that while they identified with a larger, music-oriented subculture, they often had little to no voice in their local scenes, so they took it upon themselves to represent their own interests by making their own fanzines, music and art.

The insidious ability of capitalism to take any radical idea, commoditize it and thus defang it, then came into play. It’s easy to imagine a board room conversation in which the (mostly male) executives decide that “grrrls” looks a little violent, but “girlz” has almost the same power and is catchy besides. And fewer people will mis-spell it. And it makes trademarking easier than trademarking something with “girls” in the title.

Thus, young women’s rage gets silently transformed into profit-making ventures which build, encourage and reward, as Orenstein says, “narcissism and commercialism.”

So what’s left for a parent to do?

I’ve mentioned here before that I’m not a graphically gifted person but still remember standing in a tiny little crafts store in Fairbanks, Alaska in the 1950s asking my parents to buy me a Paint by Number kit. The store owner said, “You could just get paints and paint your own picture.” At the time my father pointed out that the store sold local artists’ work and I think he guessed that  the Paint by Numbers fad probably drove the owner and probably the other artists up the wall.

Even though I now paint pictures with words, this moment having a grownup suggest personal creativity over slavish imitation, influenced me. Adult intervention and encouragement can make a difference.

Aya de Leon presents a strategy in this interview by shosho at Mothership Hackermoms, describing a creative way to confront the overwhelmingly pervasive princess myths.

Last year, when my daughter was not quite two, we loved to go to this Salvadoran restaurant that had plenty of toys and books for families with toddlers.

As I sat on the couch by the kids’ table, my daughter handed me a board book about the size of my palm:  Disney’s Snow White.  The classic story was cut down to just eight pages, but it was the usual gist:  Sweet princess, evil queen, apple, sleeping forever, kiss from the prince.  You know the drill.  This was before my daughter could even say the word princess.  I was in charge.  I had the power to define her world.  Maybe that’s why, without a shred of defeat, I just offered up an alternative freestyle narrative to the pictures.

As the restaurant activities bustled around us, it was as if my daughter and I were in a little bubble of our own. I looked at the first picture, and tried to imagine a caption where the princess was a badass instead of a sweet young thing.  I took a breath, and said the first thing that came to my mind: “Snow White was an animal rights activist…”  With no one to contradict me, my daughter accepted my version and we turned the page.

With each new photo, I freestyled an alternative storyline.

De Leon’s freestyle Snow White narrative and a few other empowered princess stories can be read here. They made me laugh–and think! And they apply equally well to fighting the someday-my-prince-will-come narrative and the I-deserve-the-most-expensive-accessories narrative.

Clearly, parents who have daughters enthralled with the princess myths are involved in a serious cultural wrestling match with commercial giants. De Leon is up to the struggle. Here’s her conclusion about the power of personal intervention:

I can’t help but believe that re-writing the Disney stories aloud will help my daughter become a freestyler herself.  I just want to encourage her in the business of making up the lyrics to her own life.

Yes, one day my daughter will learn to read and she will watch television shows and movies.  But she won’t have me co-signing on each of those insane messages, she won’t have me passively accepting the narrative like a kiss on a sleeping woman’s lips.

Thanks to Natalie Boero, author of Killer Fat: Media, Medicine, and Morals in the American “Obesity Epidemic,” for the pointer to the de Leon post.