Rants & Raves

By Lynne Murray

[From an essay published in April 1999 in Oooo Baby Baby Magazine.]

Editor Maureen Parke was kind enough to ask me to submit some occasional meditations on how fat people are portrayed, so I thought I would start by talking about how we are not portrayed. Although the statistics are that over 51% of Americans are over the insurance companies' suggested weights for their height, if you were to look at television, motion pictures, and magazines you would conclude that most of us are either lean or outright skinny with only an occasional slightly heavyset person.

In Internet size acceptance groups, there is a kind of an informal media watch. Whenever a fat actor is featured in an upcoming drama or a recurring television commercial, the person who first sees or hears of it, will give the rest of us a "heads up." If the image is size-positive or negative, the more activist group members will send appropriate letters and e-mail to the network or producer. I was reminded of this when l watched a documentary about the early years of television. A black woman about my own age (50-something) said that she remembered in the 1950s and 60s when a black person appeared on television someone in the family would say, "Come look!" and they would gather round to observe this rarity—actual recognition of their existence on network television.

To be invisible because of race or ethnicity is not quite the same thing as being invisible because of size. Others have pointed out that the vast (silent) majority of people who are fat enough to be discriminated against, take the burden of guilt and buy into the myth that fat is a moral failure of will for which we deserve to be punished until we attain that mythical state of grace called "normal" weight.

We see very few fat people in film and television because the implicit assumption is that we are suffering from a willful, self-imposed sickness, as evidenced by our very appearance. Fat is seen as a visible manifestation of an abnormal state (and our Puritanical roots tend to suggest to us that we must have gotten to this awful condition through gluttony, sloth or some other horrendous sin).

The fact that for at least 95% of those of us who are fat, permanent weight loss down to so-called normal levels is impossible has not registered on the national consciousness. The reason for that is no mystery. It would condemn over half of our population to a permanent state of failure (or possibly sin, if you buy the whole fat = gluttonous-and-slothful argument).

Crippling beliefs die hard, especially when reinforced by a media full-court press and a majority of other citizens, fat and thin, who share those beliefs.

When I look at television and movies I do see a connection between the degree to which any group demonstrates self-awareness, cultural pride and political power and the degree to which those media portray that group with care.

We don't yet have a scary, militant Fat Panthers wing to intimidate the powers that be into dealing with the moderate activists. If we decide to start one, the incomparable plus sized actress Camryn Manheim from ABC's The Practice would be my nomination for President with 250-pound martial artist Sammo Hung from CBS's Martial Law for Minister of Defense [regrettably now cancelled] and, of course, Marilyn Wann, of FAT!SO? fame, would be Minister of Education.

When I start throwing around words like "The Panthers" please understand I am a 60s survivor and I deeply respect those who lost their lives in the long struggle for social justice in this country. There were actual martyrs in that cause—people who gave up everything so that others could become full participants in American society. I am also aware that that journey is far from over.

What the people reading this article probably already know and others in this culture are only gradually learning, is that people are dying daily from fat bigotry and from ignorance about the dangers of weight loss surgery, damaging diets and even suicide to avoid the constant mental and in some cases physical, battering of being an acceptable target who "deserves" abuse so that he or she will he motivated to change in a way that it is not possible to change.

Worse yet, concern about a person's weight is a convenient stick that bigots can use with great self-righteousness to beat up "deserving" victims, be they co-workers, friends, loved ones or total strangers in the supermarket. Calling someone "fat" is a simpleminded schoolyard abuse tactic that can last someone a lifetime.

Standing up to bullies is hard, exhausting work that can also last a lifetime. Most of us who begin to fight that fight will also frequently find that our "inner bully" will arise from time to time to chime in with all those self-damaging ideas we have learned from infancy. For a moment the diet-of-the-week will seem plausible and we will entertain a hope that we can magically join the "normal ones" and not have to fight these bloody and inconclusive battles.

My own experience with this inner bully is that if you silence it often enough, it eventually pops up less often. Although if you ever want to understand why someone would have trouble entertaining the idea of fat acceptance, your own inner bully will be happy to stand up and recite chapter and verse about "will power" and "just a few simple changes that will revolutionize your life." When you hear the real message behind the snake oil pitch, the inner bully/diet huckster starts to look more and more like someone who is selling a watch that will break the instant you put it on.

What it boils down to is fat people's bodies and lives are regarded as less worthwhile than the bodies and lives of non-fat people. If desperation and self-hatred drive us to extreme measures and we die attempting to escape being the target of abuse, then our deaths often provoke a shrug and the unspoken thought, "better dead than fat."

The atrocity treatment of the body of 500-pound Patricia Mullen at the hands (and feet) of the Chicago Police Department demonstrates that hatred of fat people has nothing to do with "health." It has everything to do with the evil that humans are capable of once they have decided a fellow human is "not our kind." The fact that these officers received no serious punishment speaks to how widespread is the desire of mainstream America to distance itself from the rights of supersized people to simple human decency.

Back in those idealistic 1960s, when martyrs were all around us, I gave some thought to the question of just exactly what principles I would die for. Now, being older and less romantically morbid, I suspect that martyrs are often crowned post-mortem after having unluckily strayed into the wrong place at the wrong time. I am also more and more convinced that living in the world and encouraging others can be equally useful. I do however know now with every fiber and fat cell of my being that I will not die or damage myself in any way because of someone's misguided idea of what I should weigh. And it is my fervent hope that this conviction is contagious.


© Lynne Murray