Rants & Raves

By Lynne Murray

As a fat woman, I have mixed feelings about the spectacle of actors wearing fat suits in motion pictures. However the recent media firestorm of attention about America's "epidemic of obesity" fills me with a rage that is totally undiluted.

Obesity does not qualify as an epidemic—being fat is NOT contagious. However the prejudice spread by this media hysteria IS contagious. It damages people, particularly fat children who frequently are targeted for both harassment due to their weight both at home and at school.

You notice I use the three-letter "F" word. Some people are offended to see the word "fat" unless it is neutralized, as in "low fat" or "non-fat." In other words, "fat" equals "bad" in and of itself. There's a pretty good definition of prejudice for you. As an author and a fat person, I use that "F" word partly in order to begin to defuse some of the hostility that has heaped on what was once a neutral word to describe body size/shape.

Media brainwashing has so conditioned us to look at an unnaturally thin body type as normal, that we don't even know how to look at a truly average weight person—let alone a fat person—without judging them as ugly and possibly diseased.

As a mystery writer, I have made it my life's work to explode the fictional stereotype that fat characters can only be villains, buffoons, or sexless sidekicks. That is just a recasting of the stereotypes from the early years of the century where swarthy ethnic types were automatically suspect and racist remarks were commonplace and good for a laugh.

Seeing Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow wearing a fat suit in the movie Shallow Hal, I was reminded of the book (and eventually movie) Black Like Me. Reporter John Howard Griffin wrote about his journey through the American Deep South in 1959, first as a Caucasian and then after darkening his skin color using a chemical and a sun lamp. He traveled to the same places and received vastly different treatment with darker skin. The book, now a classic taught in schools, is fascinating.

But Griffin could return to his relatively privileged life on the other side of the color line once the experiment was over. Similarly, Gwyneth Paltrow can take off her fat suit and go back to playing romantic leads. Fat actors can't "pass for thin" but thin actors can always pad and then take off the padding.

Hatred of fat is so deep, irrational, and widespread in America, that there was a queasy fascination in the media over the realistic padding that Ms. Paltrow put on to be re-created as a fat person. What disturbed me was an underlying message about how people who are fat (and presumably ugly simply by being fat) have an inner thin-and-beautiful person.

If Ms. Paltrow can get out of her fat suit, why can't the rest of us?

There are quite a few reasons. Genetics—I can't change the color of my brown eyes either, and I'm never going to be taller than five feet, five inches. There's a reason the government makes the diet companies put "Results Not Typical" in their Before and After advertisements—of course those words are nearly invisible at the bottom of the ad.

The diet industry has a vested interest in keeping customers coming back for the Cure of the Month—next month the diet will have a different name, a different window dressing, and that one won't work either. Addiction worked for the tobacco industry. It's good business.

As Americans, we have an underlying belief in striving for self-improvement, and a certain sense that we have never quite done enough. In recent decades we have been socially programmed to hate fat. The body has many uses for fat, only one of which is to store food to help us survive periods of famine. It's truly sad that most researchers only care to study fat in the body in order to eliminate it—that's where the money is.

Prejudice not only toward fat, but also toward anything other than extreme thinness has caused more disease and damage than it ever prevented. Look at the epidemic of eating disorders among girls as young as six, and the occasional suicide of a fat grade school child tormented by peers, with adults either joining in, or looking the other way with the misguided idea that teasing will motivate a child to lose weight.

The fact that schools are now targeting these already harassed overweight children in the name of "health" makes me angrier still. If the school programs were overall fitness and nutrition for all children alike, I would have no argument. But singling out fat kids for official ridicule is pouring gasoline on the bonfire that's destroying these poor kids' already fragile self-esteem.

During the filming of Shallow Hal, Ms. Paltrow ventured out in public wearing her state-of-the-art padding. She commented that her disguise guaranteed that no one recognized her, and also that no one would make eye contact with her. I admit being a little startled by that last comment. Being in the same weight range, I usually manage to get people to make eye contact. But she may have a point.

Ms. Paltrow had had a couple of hundred pounds added to her body weight in the course of three hours in make-up. The shock of going from top-of-the-world beauty to invisible fat person probably undermined her usual confident body language. Most of us grow into our weight over decades.

Over the years of gaining weight, learning to value my body as it is and discovering how to suffer fools as little as possible, I've evolved strategies to get people to see beyond the weight. Part of that is learning to stop noticing (or caring) if someone is either staring or looking away. Another tactic is jumping in and being assertive in order to command people's attention when necessary.

Contrary to the myths, there is no one way to get fat. Some of us have been heavy since childhood. Some have gained weight over years of yo-yo dieting and regaining. Some went through pregnancies that left a souvenir of extra poundage. Others simply gained a few pounds a year while advancing into middle age. Some—but not all—large people may be compulsive overeaters, just as some may be compulsive dieters.

Sometimes it seems the only thing we fat people have in common is that we cannot take off our "fat suits." On the other hand, this burden can bring its own back-handed gift of deeper insight, stronger character, and self-respect that is real because we had to build it on our own. Sometimes we get support from friends and allies, but essentially, to quote an esteemed fat man, Winston Churchill, we build positive self-esteem with our own "blood, sweat, tears and toil."

Ms. Paltrow said with great sensitivity in an Entertainment Tonight interview that she thought wearing a fat suit was a useful experience that most "so-called pretty" girls should try. I agree. It might be eye-opening, depending on the depth of character of the so-called pretty girl involved.

But I have my own, predictably more revolutionary, wishes on that subject. I'd like to see fat girls and guys as well enjoy the kind of acceptance Ms. Paltrow experiences when she is not wearing the fat suit make-up. I'd like people to learn how to look us in the eye, and smile and see our beauty. Prejudice is not so easily defeated, and no amount of wishing will simply make it so. But I wish it anyway.


© Lynne Murray