I started to write “Some Women are Fat” but that’s not the main issue. More men are becoming weight conscious, but for women fat phobia is a way of life. “This Is Us” has won an Emmy in part for including the lifetime pain of a large woman in its story line. More prevalent are shows like “The Biggest Loser”, featuring weighty men and women abusing themselves, often gaining the weight back because of their underlying medical problem.
The reality is that the medical community may not want to admit they don’t have an answer to all the fat conditions. They are as myriad and individual as the people struggling with fat. One doctor told a candidate surgery was the only way to reset her metabolism. Really? The big secret is that bariatric surgery does not reliably produce weight loss.
Recently the role of our manufactured food industry has been recognized, but still the billion dollar diet industry rolls on. Women are assured the more they measure, the more they will never measure up with the appropriate body. Ads for “health” are masks for the real goal of damaging campaigns to be thin. Healthy lab results do nothing to lessen this concern. Separate BMI standards for men and women have been adopted, but this does not affect the incessant demand or psychic damage of the thin mandate.
When did this shaming addiction develop? As with most irrational slurs, the word “fat” targets a condition that cannot be changed quickly or ever, such as skin color, height, freckles or limps. It leaves the target feeling helplessly humiliated, condemned for not being able to change spots. Unlike the public outcry around Trump’s mocking a disabled reporter, fat shaming seems to an American responsibility. It’s acceptable hate speech.
“Fat” is hurled at women who are not, anorexic models who the show’s director wants to degrade or dominate. Women who are size zero worry about becoming a 2. I knew a petite woman who weighed 125 whose doctor told her to lose weight as an answer to her symptoms, which were eventually diagnosed as fibromyalgia. Women know that, no matter what their health complaint, the response from their health care provider will too often be a clichéd “lose weight”.
How did America get so fat phobic? I call it the Janus face reaction to the women’s movement reflected by media. The weight of a women’s body can be code for “don’t go too far”, “don’t get too free” or “don’t be you”. Here’s my reasoning.
Before women entered the workforce in great numbers, they were more isolated in smaller domestic cells. Their move into the public arena coincided with the explosion of visual media: television. While weighty women may have been criticized one on one, their scale numbers did not become the key to a broadcast empire and defacto public measure of their worth.
As more women gained visibility and opportunity, some in power felt they were losing the leverage they had. Birth control allowed women more reproductive freedom, so their bodies became independent agents.
A patriarchical society interpreted this to mean women’s bodies were fair game for cheap shots. Always ambivalent about the power of sexuality, America is both fascinated and frightened of women’s bodies. Verbally attacking them was a free and ubiquitous way to re-enforce mental and emotional shackles.
My mother believed that the chief job of a woman was to be thin for a man. The infamous dictate was to never “let yourself go”. “Thin” equaled worthy, healthy, attractive, and unconsciously supremely able to be “managed”.
Puberty meant that my body became a hot topic, and my mother colluded with the culture in passing her anxiety along to me. As a young girl, I interpreted changes to my body as getting fat because, well, breasts and hips that grow are adding fatty tissue. A woman’s body retains fat as a survival inheritance. It is no coincidence that anorexia and puberty onset coincide for young girls.
Every culture focuses on changes in a girl’s body, but also acknowledges boy’s, because of the impact on the community. An Inuit proverb proclaims “a fat woman is a quilt for the winter”. In some cultures large women are draped with beautiful clothing and jewelry, prized for perceived fecundity, their bodies a center of positive not shaming attention. They have celebratory and communal rites of passage for pubescent girls, but they don’t make them media targets.
In American culture, these changes can become a psychic death penalty. A young girl developing breasts and hips becomes the green light for a public feeding frenzy.
Pregnancy extends the franchise others feel to comment on or even publically touch women’s bodies. A woman who might not say “she’s fat, isn’t she?” to a non-pregnant woman will not hesitate to warn the future mom not to gain too much.
Besides the deep physical need to feel larger and thus more powerful than his mate, some men may subliminally need women to be smaller so they are weaker and more easy to dominate. To lose control of this power may be deeply and instinctively threatening for too many.
The experience of small and larger women needing help report getting different responses from men. Often when a large woman says she feels bad, she might be told to “buck up”. A smaller woman may more often gets a sympathetic response and an offer of help.
Women’s bodies are high stakes: they are the source of survival and the next generation. Male soldiers have shared with me how hard it is to have women soldiers in combat with them. Some feel they must be protect her; others feel she becomes fair game or resent her invading the male purview of war.
All sorts of previous attempts to speak positively about larger women are thin disguises: “ample”, “substantial”, “big boned” are just some of the well- meaning descriptors. Alexander McCall Smith writes about his heroine, Precious Ramotswe, as “traditionally built”, which is gentle and non-condemning, and he does not equate her worth with her weight. He understands weight should not be code for saying a woman’s body is her most important or essential value.
So culturally in America, fat is the women’s original sin. She is too heavy to carry, takes up too much space, needs too many resources, and generally limits some men’s ability to feel powerful.
I propose another approach. Let’s stop invading and shaming women by speaking only or primarily about their size. Her body is not our public domain. There’s so much more to her than what meets our eyes.