Tag Archives: Natalie Boero

Killer Fat: A Review

Lynne Murray says:

I love the cover of Killer Fat: Media, Medicine and Morals in the American “Obesity Epidemic” because it graphically illustrates the current perception of fatness and fat people as Monsters That Threaten Life As We Know It.

book cover: people running scared down a city street

More in a moment on the cover, how it happened and how it reflects some of the issues in the book. Meanwhile, I just love how it reflects the widespread belief that Evil Fat Cells are going to sneak down in the night and strangle their victims, no doubt with a hideous laugh.

Boero begins with a distressing quote from a weight bigot wearing the cloak of scientific authority without actually bothering to take real science into account, U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona, who states: “Obesity is the terror within… [It] is eroding our society.”

Media and diet industry scaremongers trumpet the idea of fat as unhealthy in itself. Indeed, as Ragen Chastain at Dances with Fat reports:

[In 2012], the American Medical Association charged its Council on Science and Public Health with studying whether or not obesity should be considered a disease. Today they ignored that council’s recommendation … [and] the AMA declared body size … to be a disease. No actual health measurements necessary, just a quick ratio of your weight and your height and they’ve got you diagnosed.

Most of the people Boero interviewed about diets, and even gastric bypass surgery, simply wanted to be allowed to rejoin the human race and stop being seen as hopeless failures. As one woman said, she wanted “to blend in, to be one of the crowd, you know?”

Boero attended Weight Watchers and Overeaters Anonymous and interviewed participants in each group. She also attended informational seminars on bariatric surgery, One woman admitted that she had no health problems at all when she had the surgery, though she confidently expected them based on no evidence but the commonly accepted prejudice. “[A]t the rate I was going it was just a matter of time before I had high blood pressure, diabetes, and all that good stuff.”

As Boero says:

Although it may seem odd to do major intestinal surgery on healthy fat people, it is the risk assumed to be inherent in obesity that becomes the justification for such surgeries. It is taken for granted by surgeons and patients alike that though obese persons may not have any obesity-related health problems at the time of surgery, it is a virtual certainty that without the surgery they would develop them.

Doctors pushing weight-loss surgery on healthy patients now invent “future” health categories such as “pre-arthritic” and “pre-hypertensive” in order to help them qualify for surgery.

For most of the people I talked to … a more elusive desire to be normal matched or outmatched all other reasons for having weight loss surgery.” Boero says. She notes that marketers of weight surgery openly play on the discrimination faced by fat people. One brochure captions diagrams of the surgical procedures with the words: “Patients no longer face the social stigma or the many indignities attached to obesity.”

In a chapter on post-surgery experiences, Boero touches on how the culture’s exclusion of fat women from being perceived as objects of sexual desire (while simultaneously situating us as sexually insatiable, easily seduced and manipulated) makes it easier to market gastric bypass surgery .

Unsurprisingly, when weight loss surgery goes wrong, the patient is inevitably blamed (when it “succeeds,” the medical team gets the credit). As one woman put it, “No one seems to want to talk to you when you are a WLS failure. They only want to hear the good things.”

The most heartbreaking moment in the book for me was what Boero calls, “the single most telling statement I heard throughout my research.” A weight-loss surgery survivor told a convention audience, “my surgery didn’t fail me. I failed my surgery.”

In suggesting that she could “fail” a surgical procedure, this woman gets to the heart of the individualizing and normative nature of disciplinary power. …

Though surgeons and weight-loss surgery advocates cite well-known statistics on the high failure rate of traditional diets as a justification for weight-loss surgery, when patients are two or more years post-op and their bodies have adjusted to the caloric restriction inherent in most weight-loss surgeries, it is exactly such traditional dieting that is required to maintain weight lost through surgery.

Many post-op WLS patients re join Weight Watchers or resort to prescription diet pills, anorexia and bulimia in an effort to maintain weight loss. Where oh where is the tidal wave of malpractice suits?

Boero’s publication experience with Rutgers University Press was a refreshing contrast. She said that she refused to accept any of the suggested conventional images.

I went back to my editor and told him I was out of ideas but I knew that I DID NOT want food, headless fat people, tape measures, scales, utensils, etc. on the cover in any way. He went to the Rutgers art department and they found the stock image the current cover is based on and with a little editing (I believe there was a spaceship in the original image) they arrived at what you see.

Applause for Boero and her editor at Rutgers University Press for digging deeper into central cultural metaphor the book explores–how deeply certain myths have turned fat and fat people into monsters onto which every evil can be projected.

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.