Rants & Raves
GREEN ONIONS, YELLOW ONIONS, SELF-ESTEEM & MURDER
By Lynne Murray
[This piece appeared in FAT!SO? #5, The zine for people who don't apologize for their size]
My new motto is Self-Esteem Through Murder, but I should explain that I'm a mystery writer, so the killing is theoretical. In fact, I'm the kind of wimp who keeps a glass jar and cardboard around to rescue bugs that wander into my bathtub.
I do write murder mysteries. (They don't always get published, but that's a whole different rant-don't get me started.) My first mystery, Termination Interview, published in 1988, had a heroine who was, like most fictional female sleuths, very athletic. I modeled her appearance after a Wonder Woman type Aikido practitioner acquaintance (except for the nose ring). I figured a mystery heroine would have to be very muscular in order to fight off bad guys.
There was a fat character in that book and I had a hard time describing her. I spent literally hours on one sentence and never quite said what I wanted to say. What I ended up with was this: "She wore the kind of fat fashion-boutique clothing that earnestly strives to make a yellow onion look like a green onion and succeeds in producing a stuffed pepper look."
I couldn't seem to keep my fat character from coming out self-hating, spineless and actually kind of tragic.
Then I read a mystery by a favorite author. (I won't name names.) She had her private eye hesitate to get into a rickety elevator with a fat, old woman "who weighed more than 200 pounds" because the heroine was afraid the elevator couldn't handle the weight. I tell you I threw that book against the wall. As a woman well over 200 pounds I was enraged. Logically, we know that even small elevators are tested to hold more than 1,000 pounds. But we're not talking about objective pounds. We're talking about prejudice.
The depth of my rage told me I needed to write about that very thing—a woman who admits to weighing more than 200 pounds and feeling good about herself. There was, however, a little problem. I was a long way from feeling good about myself and had trouble imagining someone like me who truly did. Even if I had met someone like that, it felt very taboo to talk about it. It was comparatively easy to project myself into the head of a crime-fighting Amazon. It was much more of a stretch to see a fat woman (like me) not as a sniveling victim but as a capable, beautiful, central figure who has life and death adventures.
I had to take time off from this artistic dilemma when my husband's chronic illness put him in a coma, then out again, then back in. It became very clear that he would die soon. He was a thin person and very easygoing. During the early phases of his illness he had always been able to demonstrate that he was as smart as the doctors and they treated him with respect.
But once he couldn't speak for himself it was up to me to make sure his wishes were carried out. I ended up doing a few months of hard time at the VA Hospital, dealing with doctors who were frequently unsympathetic and often manipulative. I noticed that doctors first expected to roll right over me like a tank. When I stood up, talked back and demonstrated that I had read the same literature they had, we would talk. When I still wouldn't agree with what they wanted, they were shocked and unbelieving. Later I realized that middle-aged, fat, cheaply-dressed woman equaled pushover in their minds. Once they took me out of the pushover box, they put me squarely in the troublemaker box. I didn't much care whether they ended up respecting me or not. I got what I wanted and what my husband needed so that he could die with friends nearby.
During the year after he died, I tried to understand some of what I had seen as it related t me and to other large people. It began to dawn on me that (a) a lot of people underestimate fat people, and (b) that doesn't have to stop a fat person from getting what they want, no matter what anyone thinks, or does, or says.
With that in mind, I picked up my manuscript again.
I did decide that my fat heroine would be able to dress better than I can afford to. One friend suggested she should be successful at some career. This was also difficult for me to imagine. Not so much the fat woman being a success part—it was the success being okay and not obnoxious part. Okay, so I have this little problem with authority. Finally, I decided to envision a fat woman who was a success in an empowering way for both herself and others.
There were other roadblocks to imagining this character. I wish I could tell you I first became effective, successful and well-dressed and then wrote about it. But hell, the fellow who created Superman probably never leaped a tall building in his life. Yet, I'd be willing to bet that he believed in truth, justice and the American Way. You do your best.
Eventually the character spoke to me. She told me how to start. "My name is Josephine Fuller and I've never weighed less than 200 pounds in my adult life-not counting the chip on my shoulder." Once I knew who she was, she could have adventures. Also I finally realized what I had wanted to say about onions was this: "A yellow onion is beautiful in its own round, tight skin. Why can't we let it shine as it is, and not try to turn it into a green onion?"
It took several years to know how to write that sentence.
© Lynne Murray