Rants & Raves
THE STATE OF THE F-WORD: THREE LETTERS THAT STILL SHOCK
By Lynne Murray
The word "Fat" is close enough to an insult that it catches the attention in a title. But what it conveys beyond that is a little more complicated. When the word Fat pops up, should we laugh, be afraid, angry or guilty? Through the magic of media firestorm, fatness is now looked on as a killer disease, a moral failing and a safe target for ridicule by all and sundry. Is it infectious? Can you catch it by reading this essay?
Fat is like a killer clown that may honk a horn at you. It may paint tears on its face as if asking for pity and then bonk you with a rubber chicken when you come near. Worse yet, Fat may suddenly leap out of your closet and strangle you in your bed at night.
No wonder we keep a nervous eye on the F-word, because there's no telling what it will do next.
I did a search online looking for books published in the last year or two with the word Fat in the title. I also had a vague idea to look at movie titles, but that was a very short search. When you exclude "fat-burning" workout videos—and I do—there's a grand total of three recent movies: Fat Albert, a brooding French film called Fat Girl, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Wendy Shankar puts it well when she says, "...My Big Fat Greek Wedding became one of the most profitable films of all time—even though there was nothing fat about it but the title. (You tell me, would it have made the same impact if it was called My Big Greek Wedding?)" A Fat Girl's Guide to Life, by Wendy Shankar.
Sometimes the F-word is an attention-getter pure and simple. For example, Autobiography of a Fat Bride: True Tales of a Pretend Adulthood, by Laurie Notaro. The excerpt I read had too high of a hostility-to-laughter ratio for me to want to pursue the book, but H. Cota (who did enjoy the book) points out:
A glance at the photo on the back and inside the back cover reveals that Notaro is neither ugly nor fat. [*Note] So this whole schtick is apparently just a device she uses for laughs. H. Cota, review on amazon.com.
[*LM note. The word "ugly" does not appear in the title Autobiography of a Fat Bride. But I don't think too many people would argue with Cota that the F-word is commonly used as a synonym for both "Ugly" and "Deserving of Ridicule."]
Jokes and insults around fat have wounded many, many people, and even killed some vulnerable young women who took "better dead than fat" literally and succumbed to anorexia. That is part of the reason so many mainstream books with size-accepting themes shy away from the F-word. Potential readers are insult-weary and skittish.
I myself have used the F-word sparingly, mainly to avoid hurting people who are already wounded.
I also don't like to have to cope with the intoxicating effects on mean-spirited people, who sometimes go Looney Tunes (forgive the psychiatric jargon) when they hear a fat person use the dreaded word. I have witnessed them lose all inhibitions and common courtesy, "Oh, I can call you fat? You're not insulted or anything? I mean, of course you are fat, but you really don't mind if I say so? How fat are you anyway? So and so is pretty fat—how fat do you think she is? Don't you think that's too fat?"
This is the point at which it may become necessary to walk away. I recently had such an encounter and dealt with it by spreading out my arms to invade the person's space and saying, "Gee, how fat is so and so? Maybe we can figure it out. On one end of the spectrum we have a world champion Sumo wrestler, on the other hand anorexic model Kate Moss. Where does so and so fit along this continuum?" In the event, the person shut up—my heavily sarcastic tone may have helped. But terminating the conversation or "accidentally" spilling liquid in his/her general vicinity were back up strategies.
Clearly there are many bumps along the road to taking the sting out of the word Fat by using it as a simple description. Most people agree that it can still be an insult. If you feel energetic enough to educate them, that's your decision, but in many cases, there's quite a lot of mental deadwood to chop through.
The message delivered now when we see the F-word in a title, is that book will either offer some kind of nifty new method to destroy fat and make the author rich, or that the book is out on the edge in some way—humorous, political or social.
My rough survey shows 80-90% of books with Fat in the title were diet books bent on its elimination—Slash the Fat, Flush the Fat, Burn the Fat, you get the idea.
One or two in ten books were either handbooks for self-esteem like Fat Chicks Rule, or serious discussions of the cultural and social phenomenon, like Fatland and Fat Politics (gotta read those).
Recent Fat fiction titles from 2004-6 (discussed in detail in another essay):
Conversations with the Fat Girl by Liza Palmer
Fat Chance by Deborah Blumenthal
The Fat Friend by Julie Edison
Fat, White Vampire Blues by Andrew Fox
Bride of Fat White Vampire by Andrew Fox
Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher
Where Fat Girls Haven't Gone by Staci Backauskas
Noted for the title only—
Size 12 is Not Fat, A Heather Wills Mystery by Meg Cabot (2006)—from the description the heroine is indeed a size 12, and no, that's not fat. In fact size 14 is average.
Chicken Fat Drawings, Sketches, Cartoons and Doodles by Will Elder (2006)
A collection of sketchbook drawings by the famous MAD magazine co-creator and elder statesman of comic art. Elder coined the term "chicken fat" to describe the myriad background gags crammed into his stories for MAD, Panic, Little Annie Fanny, etc. "It's the part of the chicken soup that is bad for you, yet gives the soup its delicious flavor," he once explained.
As charming as that statement is—and it truly is warm and gentle in a kindly uncle sort of way—it still hits the nerve of why the F-word packs such a negative punch. Demon Fat—the common delusion about the evilness of fat in any way shape or form these days is all those three words: "bad for you."
Fat, The Anthropology of an Obsession, Don Kulick & Anne Meneley (editors)
This book is a multi-cultural antidote to the "demon fat" concept. An entertaining collection of writings by anthropologists about fat in different cultures they have studied. The topics are as diverse as tales of fat-sucking vampires in the Peruvian Andes, the politics of Spam in Hawaii, and the sanctity of extra virgin olive oil in Italy. All the essays were fascinating and accessible.
Fat Boys, A Slim Book, by Sandor L. Gilman
I wanted to like this book; so few books on fat are about and for the men. I ended up being unable to closely read it, because the author seemed to me to be dredging up contempt and hatred toward fat men in every culture everywhere in every era, world without end. Someone else who could stand to read it closely might have a different impression.
Fat Chicks Rule: A Guide to Living in a Thin-Centric World, by Lara Frater
I loved this book (and not just because my Josephine Fuller books were listed in the "fat fiction" section! Fat Chicks Rule is positive, empowering and a fun read.
Frater also has a great web log at http://fatchicksrule.blogs.com/fat_chicks_rule/
Fat Girl: a True Story, Judith Moore
Moore is an eloquent writer and a poet, and her prose reflects her skill. I had the same problem with her book that a reviewer noted, "Moore unflinchingly leads us backward into a heartbreaking childhood marked by obesity, parental abuse, sexual assault, and the expected schoolyard bullying. What makes Fat Girl especially harrowing, though, is Moore's obvious self-loathing and her eagerness to share it with us. Kim Hughes, review posted on Amazon.com.
Narrators of first-person claptrap like what you read in Fat Girl often greet the reader at the door with hugs and kisses. I don't. I do not endear myself to you. I don't put on airs. I am not that pleasant. The older I get the less pleasant I am. If you have never been fat, you may find me and my story repugnant. There's not much I can do about this... What people do want to write about is weight loss and how to lose it. They want to write about self-esteem and how to gain it.
Online at http://www.vachss.com/media/righteous/why_fat_girl_moore.html
I plead guilty to being one who writes about self-esteem and how to gain it. Some people may be exorcised by speaking bitterness. I am not trying to shut anyone up about this—it's totally valid. But after awhile one needs to learn to acknowledge and then let go of the bitter thoughts, before they poison the heart—literally. No matter how accurately observed and honestly reported, self-loathing remains a bottomless pit—easier to fall into than to climb out of. Every body responds better when treated with respect.
A Fat Girl's Guide to Life, Wendy Shankar
This was an empowering book—sassy, funny, insightful and useful. I laughed aloud at some of her jokes, which is always a valuable experience. I also enjoyed her bracing common sense.
Fat Girls and Lawn Chairs, Cheryl Peck
A collection of humorous essays.
Fat Politics: The Real Story behind America's Obesity Epidemic, J. Eric Oliver (I'll review this one at a later date)
Fat, Stupid, Ugly: One Woman's Courage to Survive, Debrah Constance, J.I. Kleinberg, (foreword by Penny Marshall).
An amazing story of survival of abuse and tragic early life. Constance, who was named California's Woman of the Year in 1994, founded A Place Called Home, a youth center in South-Central Los Angeles, and found happiness in her personal life as well.
There were a few books that used the word fat, and are not diet books... (or in one case, not exactly a diet book).
The Fat Ladies Club, a series of guides to pregnancy and early motherhood.
Diary of a Fat Man, by Paul Jefferies, is a sort of diet diary that I only mention in order to compare his use of the F-word to Wendy McClure's avoidance of it in her much funnier (and deeper) I Am Not the New Me. Even McClure's online weight loss journal that makes up the core of the book was called http://www.poundy.com. I have mixed emotions about Wendy McClure's book because of how wrapped up with Weight Watchers she is and it is. But she and her publisher knew that her primarily female audience would be turned off by the word Fat in the title.
I'll conclude with a series of books that are sort of off topic—and yet...
My search turned up a several books on Fat Quarter Quilting—done with quarter yard pieces. "Fat quarters, a very popular cut of fabric, are used to complete all projects," one book description reads, while another calls Fat Quarter Quilts, "the hottest thing in quilting today. They're small, stylish and easy to complete in a night or a weekend." Alright!
My fabric skills are extremely primitive (reattaching buttons, basically) so I didn't delve more deeply than that. Maybe it's just seeing the words "fat" and "popular" together in the same sentence that makes me feel a little better. However, I just loved that the F-word appeared to have no negative connotations for the quilters.
Now there's a role model for the neutral use of a dangerous word.
© Lynne Murray