Rants & Raves
THE FORBIDDEN SUBJECT OF FAT: A VIEW FROM THE TABLOIDS
By Lynne Murray
When I think of the tabloid newspapers, I can't help but think of my late mother. I don't remember how we found that we both enjoyed the supermarket tabloids, but we evolved a kind of ritual where she would buy them and save them up. When I came home to visit, I would read them, with the television as a convenient backdrop, and we would talk about articles in the newspaper.
That comedian, the one who's is so funny on "Hollywood Squares," was seen drunk and abusive in a restaurant.
This celebrity who has everything is secretly struggling with a dread disease.
Rumors of conspiracy and two-headed embryos of every species.
My mother was a small town girl who grew up in Iowa during the Depression of the 1930s. She was outgoing, optimistic and so honest and direct that if she received a few pennies too much in change, she would go back to the store and correct the mistake. My father's career with the military and aerospace took her far away from her home. She didn't have much family alive, and after years of moving frequently, I don't think she was in touch with anyone she had known growing up.
I was one of those children of the 1960s, the baby boom generation, that caused our parents such astonished grief with our rebellion. I moved to San Francisco, and never really came home for more than a few days at a time after that, which caused her considerable pain.
Fortunately, I cleaned up my act considerably from my worst excesses of the late 60s, and my mother and I patched up our differences in the decade before she died. But there were still wide areas where we couldn't communicate. Like any mother, she knew exactly how to make me crazy, and I knew how to hurt her with a word. Fran Leibowitz said it best when she said of course your parents would know how to push your buttons: "They sewed them on."
If I had been raised in a small town and come home to visit, perhaps I would have heard the latest on all the local characters. But being cut off at the root from anything resembling a "village," if you will, the tabloids provided a kind of human context for us to talk.
Instead of those crazy neighbors across the street, we had those crazy celebrities over in Hollywood. My mother lived in Southern California, so Hollywood wasn't that far away. The entertainment industry's celebrities, both Hollywood and international, were names that we both knew at least well enough to gossip about.
The daytime television talk shows have flourished using tabloid shocker material in the 20 years since my mother died—although the tabloids can still catch the eye at the checkout stand, I don't usually buy them.
In fact, in recent years, I have only looked at the tabloids or the talk shows when the subject was fat. Examining people's attitudes toward fat has become my obsession, in a way that the quest for the holy grail of weight loss once was.
True, the tabloids, like their more upscale checkout counter neighbors, have a new bogus miracle diet every issue. But their gossip looks at fat people with an earthy candor that is missing from the "let's cure this illness before swimsuit season" approach taken by mainstream magazines. Predictably they take on the shocked tone of a woman gossiping over her back fence about the neighbors.
"Did you know that Mr. X weighs nearly 800 pounds? He had to go to the hospital and they cut through a wall to get him out."
"Did you hear about that new couple, Mr. & Mrs. Y, that moved to town? She must weigh three times what he does, but they're always holding hands like newlyweds. Do you think he's one of those chubby chasers?"
"Did you hear Mrs. O has lost 40 pounds? She's a changed woman."
"Did you hear Mrs. O is gaining back all that weight she lost? She must be frantic."
"Mr. O just dumped his wife for his secretary; it must be all that weight Mrs. O gained."
The tabloids are the cutting edge as well as the lowest common denominator of American journalism. Oddly enough, they have a lot in common with another unwelcome guest at the media dinner party—the underground zines.
Underground zines such as Marilyn Wann's Fat!So?, Fat Girl, and Nomy Lam's I'm So Fucking Beautiful have carried the message of fat pride where the mainstream media dared not go.
But the tabloids were there first. The talk shows were not far behind.
Many fat people struggling to love themselves and find love—as well as many who admire the larger figure—first learned that they were not alone by reading articles on "Fat Admirers" in the tabloids. Daytime talk shows have carried innumerable such shows.
There is an unavoidable carnival air to these topics whether in tabloid or on television. The lure of the hidden or forbidden hangs around fat people or those who would find them attractive. There is an unspoken suggestion of weirdness that draws the attention like a side-show barker. P.T. Barnum understood it. The idea of "The Fat Lady" as a freak of nature was cultivated, even though many people in the era when such exhibits flourished might have known supersized individuals in "real life." President Taft comes to mind as a supersized citizen from that era.
The mainstream attitude is that fat people have done something wrong, and thus every pound over some hazy boundary mark is considered physical evidence of some mental or even spiritual flaw. Thus a fat person loving or being loved is often considered to be taboo or a kind of strange fetish, sometimes even by those who participate.
Along with the implied small-minded judgment of the fat person, is the kind of unvoiced question concerning sex that goes along with anything slightly out of the anatomical mainstream. This is usually voiced slyly as when the conjoined (so-called "Siamese") twins Chang and Eng retired from P.T. Barnum's circus world to become farmers, marry two women and sire several children each. The several children are always mentioned, leading most people to immediately conjure up titillating sleeping arrangements. That certainly would have been my question—not that I would have been gauche enough to ask it, but even a century ago, people would be thinking about it.
There is controversy in the tabloids, but I find the lowest common denominator to be refreshing in the way it gets the unspoken whispers out into the open. I am not saying it is an admirable side of human nature portrayed there. But sometimes, as in the tabloid gossip sessions my mother and I had, we bond best with others when we let down our hair enough to show our human weaknesses and petty curiosity.
Gossip doesn't bother to pretend to be noble or even consistent. One year it may shake its finger at something—the next year grudgingly accept it—and a few years later even welcome it.
But gossip is like an unflinching mirror that shows us where the boundaries are. And whether we intend to live within them or change them, that is a very useful thing to know.
© Lynne Murray