Tag Archives: Marilyn Wann

Who’s Afraid of the Willendorf Venus?

Lynne Murray says:

The Willendorf Venus is celebrating this holiday season with a little fat activism in front of a San Francisco store (wisely unnamed in the quotation below) that thought they had a hip/edgy way to package their holiday fat-bashing as an interactive experience.

Marilyn Wann, author of FAT!SO? and creator of the Yay! Scale™, which gives compliments instead of numbers, has used the iconic Willendorf statue before. I still fondly remember the paper doll version with cute outfits to cut out for her to wear.

This time Marilyn once again invoked the goddess for cultural healing, as she writes in an SF Weekly blog post:

Yes, Virginia, there is a fat Santa joke on Valencia Street. And it doesn’t bring good cheer.

It’s in a shop that won’t be identified here: No publicity under the tree for naughty shopkeepers.

Their seasonal window display is a grotesque, larger-than-life, three-dimensional, beer-can-in-brown-paper-bag-accessorized Santa with a lower half shaped like Jabba the Hutt. (Because negative depictions of fat people go with cruel stereotypes about poor/homeless people who have mental illness or substance abuse issues, like rotten egg goes with groggy nog.)

You are a kind-hearted child, Virginia. I see you’re not laughing or rushing to have your photo taken on Santa the Hutt’s lower belly folds. But many of your fellow San Franciscans are.

Marilyn’s fat activist response involved taking ten dollars worth of art supplies and creating a Willendorf Selfie Station:

My friend, artist Mark Obermayr, helped me assemble it and try it out. It worked!

One of the shopkeepers found out about our event on Facebook and posted a defense/non-apology that closed with, “Whatever your opinions may be, we’re not solely motivated to make fun of people.” Thanks!

The shop’s website says they want to “poke fun at holiday excess.” While they sell $168 executive hoodies!?!

In his Facebook comment, the shopkeeper said they weren’t mocking fat people because “Santa isn’t a person.” If you buy that, I’ve got a hoodie to sell you.

This event reminded me of how I gradually became aware of the Venus of Willendorf, at first in passing as a plate in an art history book. Later, she was the target of gratuitous insults, such as the author describing different body types who essentially said that the ancient statute showed a body type that could still be observed in women sitting on sofas, watching TV and eating bon-bons. His suggestion was that (1) only gluttony could explain that degree of fatness, and (2) only “primitive prehistoric” people would find it worthy of sculpting. I have mercifully forgotten that author’s name.

Another visual encounter from the 1980s came in the film The Witches of Eastwick. I didn’t like the film, despite the wonderful actresses, but what I mainly remembered was an image that didn’t find its way onto the internet. I couldn’t find it anywhere, or I’d share it. The film was made from a novel by John Updike, who describes the small statues as:

…little ceramic “bubbies”–faceless, footless little female figures. …miniature women, their vulval cleft boldly dented into the clay with a toothpick or nail file held sideways…

I have no idea whether the bigger version of statues are in the book; Updike’s palpable mysogynistic contempt in the sample available rouses no interest in reading further. But the giant goddess figures in the movie were supposed to be big and scary. They didn’t register for me as an expression of woman power.

Years later I found the Willendorf Venus being used as a positive icon for fat acceptance. My reaction was cautious, gradually warming into respect and affection. It takes time for some of us to let that thought filter into the media-brainwashed, narrow, modern mind–including my own. I was working on reclaiming this goddess when I told a friend that my own figure closely resembled the ancient statue, her instant response was, “Oh, no, you’re not that fat!”

I am, and it isn’t the end of the world. But I won’t lie and say that I now worship this body type just because it might have been worshipped tens of thousands of years ago. I’ve managed to achieve a posture of respect, together with a firm intolerance of disrespect from anyone.

One day at a time.

The Willendorf Venus and her sister statues are all essentially hand-sized, 4-3/8 inches, which would suggest an intimate, possibly even a tactile (although unknowable) relationship with the viewer.

In a 2009 post on the academic blog, Philosophy on the Mesa, Nina Rosenstand, a professor of philosophy at San Diego Mesa College,discusses the Willendorf Venus and other comparable artifacts:

… we need not take sides about patriarchy and Goddess worship to see an additional significance to the little figurine [referring to a comparable but older figurine which had recently been discovered]: As a work of art, which it indisputably is, it speaks to us from across 40,000 years about the human capacity for symbolic thinking: Our language, our gestures, our artifacts, and the very ways we think utilize images and expressions to signify other images and expressions. The little headless figurine is probably intended to symbolize something: maybe Woman as such, maybe Fertility, maybe Mom, or Sweetheart, maybe the Goddess who Gives and Takes Away—we don’t know.  What we do know is that she has meant something—to he or she who carved her, and to the generations who kept her in their tribe. The little statuette has reached out, beyond the lifetime of the artist, to the future—which is what good art does.

And now, on Valencia Street, thanks to Marilyn Wann, the fertility goddesses are reaching out again to turn an offensive Santa fat joke into a tool for change.

Rage Against the Diet ex Machina: Does That Mean I’m Pro-Fat?

Lynne Murray says:

The Greeks had a word for it–deus ex machina. Playwrights who got their characters into an unsolvable predicament would trundle out a piece of stage equipment, a crane or mekhane, to lower actors playing gods onto the stage.

The god characters would then solve the mortals’ problems.

Fat characters in fiction often inspire the author to bring out what I call the diet ex machina. Divine intervention is now considered lazy storytelling, but fat is generally considered so detestable that writers have to work very hard to get most readers to identify with a fat main character. The most popular solution is to diffuse fat hatred by bringing on the Magical Diet Fairy who transforms the fat character into a thin character.

What’s that? Successful dieting in the long term is about as likely as a Greek god coming down to solve our problems? Sadly, that doesn’t figure into the equation.

Of course, there are books with unapologetically fat heroes. I recently collaborated with Peggy Elam at Pearlsong Press to compile an updated version of a comprehensive list celebrating fat friendly fiction. This list is a work in progress. If we’ve missed a book, please leave a comment on the page so we can add it. [If anyone would like a printable one-page list of fat-friendly authors by genre suitable for taking to the bookstore or library, leave a comment here and I’ll send you one.]

When the list was complete, I announced it on Facebook and one of my friends shared the info with her own Facebook friends, adding the warning: “Check it out..whether pro fat or not..some good reading…”

I was a little startled at the “pro fat” phrasing, because it makes it sound as if these books promote fatness. Then I realized that for many people just reading about fat characters at all is disturbing. Putting together an entire list devoted to fat heroes might be interpreted as an invitation to the reader to become fat. Worse yet it might be–horrifically–a suggestion that “it’s okay to be fat.”

By that measurement, yes, I am pro-fat. I’m also in favor of all people to accepting and honoring their bodies unconditionally: fat, thin, disabled, old, young, whatever.

How did I get here? And why do I feel good about it?

I took this path in my writing because I couldn’t tolerate one more fat joke in a novel. Worse yet, the real stories of life-sized humans were not being told in current fiction. I just could no longer stand the lying myths that constituted the only way fat people were represented.

In the field of “quality literature” or “mainstream fiction,” novelists such as Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins, mirror the mainstream myths about fatness and its cures by saying, Julie Orringer’s review offers problem and cure in one sentence: “Edie Middlestein, the novel’s larger-than-life protagonist, is killing herself by overeating, and her family can’t bear to watch.”

A writer can build her reputation by examining and displaying her disgust at extreme obesity (as there is in detailing other ways readers wouldn’t want to be, such as senile dementia) indulging in body negativity as sort of a Biggest Loser body-bashing for intellectuals.

I was surprised and happy when Laurie pointed out the article that prompted this post, “Obesity as Metaphor” by Hannah Rosefield. Rosefield’s piece examines four 2012 books that take very fat characters as their subject. (Some descriptions Rosefield quotes in her article might be triggering for those of us who avoid fat-hateful prose.)

Michael Kimball’s Big Ray, Heft by Liz Moore, The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg, and Erin Lange’s young adult novel Butter all have protagonists who are double or even triple their “healthy” weight. They are super obese, or very nearly so. Super obese is one step beyond morbidly obese; it is the technical term for someone with a body mass index above 50.

Arthur Opp, one of the narrators of Heft, is …  six foot three and somewhere between 500 and 600 pounds. A retired literature professor, Arthur hasn’t left his Brooklyn home in a decade. Edie Middlestein, the Midwestern Jewish matriarch in Attenberg’s multigenerational family saga, weighs 332 pounds and is about to undergo her second obesity-related operation. Butter takes its title from the nickname of its 423-pound, 16-year-old narrator. Sick of being bullied and ignored, Butter decides to step into the limelight and announces his intention to eat himself to death live on the Internet.

These four novels constitute an emerging and very modern genre, one that explores the physicality as well as the psychology and sociology of obesity. They describe what it’s like to move as an obese person, to approach buildings and furniture and vehicles in which you simply don’t fit: how quickly you sweat and tire and lose your breath.

As Rosefield notes and quotes, these authors all include a heaping helping of disgust along with their detailed observations of physical ways in which fat people move, dress, eat, drink and interact.

When an author’s language masks contempt as observation it’s a more covert agenda than the simple “lose the weight, win the boyfriend” fairy tale. But the underlying assumptions come through loud and clear: “Fat is bad. Extreme fatness is very, very bad. All fat is caused by dramatic overeating and laziness and demonstrates  emotional or mental disease. Weight loss is the only path to repairing the damage and living a meaningful life.”

Rosefield provides an unusually insightful examination of the uses of fat as a metaphor:

It’s not surprising that these four novels portray fatness as inherently unhealthy and unattractive. The obese body has to be these things, if it is to function as a metaphor both for the outsider and for economic guilt. In using the obese body in this way, Heft, The Middlesteins, Big Ray, and Butter invoke the conventional obesity discourse — that is, of obesity as undesirable and unnatural, both the cause and the product of psychological distress.

But another discourse exists, one which disputes the terms and the values we apply to fatness. This discourse … rejects the medicalization of fatness, refusing to see it as an illness, or the cause of illness, and objecting to the use of labels such as overweight (over what weight?) and obese.

I was delighted to see Rosefield quote from Marilyn Wann’s foreword to The Fat Studies Reader, concluding the quote with Wann’s diagnosis:

If you believe that thin is inherently beautiful and fat is obviously ugly, then you are not doing fat studies work… You are instead in the realm of advertising, popular media, or the more derivative types of visual art — in other words, propaganda.

Rosefield turns back to the four authors whose novels she is examining. She includes spoilers which I am also including (ha, ha, ha, I don’t care, write a hateful book, suffer a spoiler!):

Kimball, Moore, Attenberg, and Lange probably would not see themselves as writing within the fat-hating, body-shaming discourse that Wann identifies. But their novels make many of the same assumptions. Butter, Edie, and Ray all suffer from obesity-related health problems, which lead to the death of the latter two. It is seen as imperative that all four characters lose weight in order to enjoy a fulfilling and healthy life; all four are unhappy, and eat to compensate for emotional dissatisfaction. Unlike chick lit novels such as Good in Bed, where fat characters have to change their attitude to be comfortable in their bodies, the fat characters here have to change their bodies if they are to be comfortable in the world.

It’s troubling that these novels take such a uniform and conventional approach to obesity. If it is not to become quickly sterile, an obesity-focused literary genre must expand to include examples that show other ways of talking about and being fat.

After reading all this, you might need an antidote; that’s one of the things the fat friendly fiction list linked above is for.

(Thanks to Cheryl sat on Fat Studies Mailing List for the Attenberg article.)