Oprah on stage with a wheelbarrow of 67 pounds of fat to represent her weight loss, in 1988.
Content Warning: Fat-shaming, thinspo, symptoms of eating disorders, and racism are discussed in this post, and in links featured at the end.
There is a growing national conversation about fatness and wellness. Recently, several acclaimed journalists, comedians, and intellectuals have addressed how they, and others, view their fatness. A majority of Americans are either fat or obese, so this is a dialogue we need to have. As a politico, reality television fan, and “health nut,” I’ve always been interested in how the obesity epidemic affects individuals, and how the government and educational system fail to address the obstacles that disadvantaged people face. Reality TV has contributed to much of my understanding, so my education is far from complete. I don’t have any intimate experiences to share that relate to this post. However, as an educator and citizen I’m keen on learning how to be more sensitive to others’ issues and needs.
I’m privileged to have always been thin and appeared “in shape” to others. This is a result of genetics (a UCLA study found that “fat genes” have the largest influence on if a person will gain weight) and my college athlete mother, who forced me to keep trying sports until I found one I liked. That took a long time. My mother also took nutritional guidelines seriously and avoided preservatives. Fortunately, we never struggled to afford or access nutritional food. These habits, of exercising frequently and prioritizing a whole-foods diet, are simply part of my life now.
Consequently, I have few insights to share as related to these articles and podcast. But they’re all incredibly important in the ongoing dialogue about fat shaming and the diet culture we live in. Links and synopses are below.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner, soon to be a features writer and staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, wrote this article in early August.
She writes on Weight Watchers’ and Oprah’s evolution as facets of the diet industry in the context of the current self love and body acceptance movement. When Jean Nidetch founded Weight Watchers in 1963 in Queens, New York, “things seemed clearer: It was bad to be fat, and it was good to be thin, and fat people wanted to be thin, and thin people wanted to help them get there.” Oprah has oscillated between Nidetch’s policy of admonishing fatness and loving her fatness over the years, depending on her current diet and her mindset. Most famously, she wheeled 67 pounds of fat onto her studio stage in 1988 to illustrate her pride in succeeding at losing weight. Oprah had its highest ratings ever for this episode.
Brodesser- Akner interviews the lifestyle mogul, who currently balances accepting herself and practicing eating with “consciousness and awareness.” The author struggles with this; like Oprah, she’s tried every diet in the book. Most recently, Brodesser-Akner attended an intuitive eating class, which met once a week. Each week, the food became more tempting. The participants graduated from rolling a raisin in their mouths, deliberating if they’re hungry enough to eat it, to cheese, cake, then candy. Brodesser-Akner cried during every exercise. Each time, she questioned her self-worth: she’s an accomplished writer, mother, contributor to society. Why does she have to practice how to eat a raisin?
The journalist quizzes Oprah on how she can diet if she loves herself. Ever the soul-searcher, Oprah implores Brodesser-Akner to do what’s best for her. Weight Watcher’s newest reincarnation targets those struggling between losing weight and loving themselves. There is now a Weight Watchers social media app to reach out to members that feel isolated because of their insecurity or diet, and its program has a new meditation component. The rhetoric focuses on a better you instead of a new you; the Chief Science Officer at the company calls dieting “modifying your eating” and a fat person is “person with overweight.” Brodesser-Akner asks all the food science and obesity experts she met while writing this article if fat is inherently bad, or if it can be neutral. She concludes that the answer is still up for debate.
This American Life dedicated an episode to fat shaming and the body acceptance movement in June 2016. Writer Lindy West, comedian Elna Baker, and feminist author Roxane Gay appeared.
West has written a book, Shrill, on her life as a fat person. She jokes about “coming out as fat” to get ahead of the “joke,” gossip and harassment, much like LGBT people do. West tells host Ira Glass that we are conditioned to think that fat “is not a permanent state. You’re just a thin person who’s failing consistently your whole life.” Every person has the potential to wheel their shed pounds of fat onto a public stage with pride.
Glass calls West “overweight.” West corrects him, as “the problem with the word ‘overweight’ is it implies there is a right weight for people.” There’s a connotation here that even the most uneducated people can visually ascertain a person’s health, and that it’s a defining characteristic. When I describe someone, even a stranger, who is fat to others, I use “overweight” in my list of traits. No longer. I shouldn’t describe someone by their weight at all, in fact.
West has been fat for nearly her whole life. Meanwhile, Elna Baker, writer and comedian, divides her life into two phases: fat Elna and thin Elna. People treated thin Elna much differently. Most notably, men she kissed no longer asked her to keep their romantic encounter a secret. How… chivalrous. As thin Elna, she briefly dated a man whom she had met as fat Elna. He thought they hadn’t met each other before. He found fat Elna utterly forgettable- but she remembered him. The relationship didn’t last. “Thin Elna” finds it hard to trust people- do her friends really like her for her or her conventional attractiveness? Namely, her thinness? When men approached her, Elna felt replaceable. She’s just another skinny woman in a social setting: “[she] could’ve been anyone.”
Elna divulges that her newlywed husband of two weeks -who has only known her as thin- confessed, “I think the real you is skinny you.” Like fat Elna was itching to shed off the fat and extra skin, to wheel her fat onto stage and reveal her authentic self. Thin Elna is Elna 2.0, ready to emerge. She’s new, better, skinner, healthier. More real. Happier. Elna struggles with her husband’s idea, namely because she knew her husband would not have dated her if they had met when she was fat. Their chemistry is contingent on her thinness. Their relationship is somewhat superficial. She tries to engage him in this devastating conversation and he deflects every single time.
fashion stores. At the highest level, where Gay is, “you can’t really even find stores that can accommodate you” for clothing. The scientific term for Gay’s height to weight ratio is “super morbid obesity,” which is coldly dehumanizing. Gay is also black. This just makes her “lower on the totem pole of dignity,” and her impressive height means many white people mistake her for a man. This mislabeling has a racist slant: “black people know what I am.”
Roxane Gay’s height, race and weight create a cocktail of stereotypes. When she files in the priority lane at the airport, others tell her it’s the first-class lane. The assumption: a really fat and tall black woman can’t be wealthy enough to afford first-class. Gay loves the fat acceptance movement, but she’s “not there yet when it comes to not caring about what other people think.” She’s not okay with it, and she doesn’t want to pretend to be. Like Brodesser-Akner, she appreciates the movement from afar, but has yet to fully partake in it herself. They both feel it would be inauthentic to join the movement without fully embodying its sentiment.
Two months ago, celebrity academic Anne Helen Petersen released an excerpt of the Melissa McCarthy chapter from her new book, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman, on The Huffington Post.
Melissa McCarthy is the third-highest paid female actress in Hollywood, and her roles are grounded in her fatness. In Gilmore Girls, McCarthy is Lorelai Gilmore’s best friend and business partner Sookie. Through this role, McCarthy’s acting career took off. In Bridesmaids and Ghostbusters McCarthy plays some of the funniest characters, and both movies depend on her slapstick and physical comedy. McCarthy’s starring role in the half-hour comedy Mike and Molly, though, a CBS
show that ran from 2010 to 2016, is most integral to media representation of fat actors and actresses. This sitcom of two fat people in love ran on cable television for six years!
The actress generally plays sexual and alpha characters on screen, but she’s more demure than her roles would suggest when promoting her projects. Sure, she has her own fashion line for plus-size women, and is very active in its development, but she appears to avoid talking about her body at length. This is a feat for any successful actress. I literally typed “Melissa McCarthy fat/body 2017” and into GoodSearch (a search engine that donates a penny to your chosen charity for every search you do). My inexpert search resulted in 0 interviews with McCarthy talking about her body image this year.
How subversive: McCarthy does not engage in discussing her most defining characteristic in our diet culture. While not outspoken on this topic, her silence says something itself. Remarks Petersen, “McCarthy’s success, like Roseanne’s before her and Schumer’s beside her, suggests that audiences do like unruly women ― unruly in size, unruly in behavior, unruly in the way they control their projects.”
Additional Reading and Listening
- Whitney Thore, now star of TLC’s My Big Fat Fabulous Life, discusses in this TEDxGreensboro lecture how she dealt with fat shaming, both by herself and others, while growing up and how she empowered herself.
- (Content Warning: This next article discusses sexism, eating disorders, fat shaming, and it describes the nutritional value of certain foods) Emily Contois’ article examines Weight Watcher’s gendered marketing techniques. Example: Weight Watchers advertises that men can eat “real food” and lose weight, implying that women’s “diet food” isn’t real enough for men.
- Taffy Brodesser-Akner speaks on The New York Times‘ ‘The Daily’ Podcast about America’s evolution of weight loss and diet culture.
- The New York Times Magazine readers respond to Brodesser-Akner’s article and share their own conflict of balancing weight loss and self love.