Friday, July 8, 2011

The Big Fat Deal

Walk into any grocery store, pharmacy, bookstore, or any place in America that sells magazines and you will undoubtedly be confronted with covers containing one or more of the following:  celebrity beauty secrets; walk off the fat; a new you right now; perfect skin; look and feel your hottest; eat what you want (and still lose weight!); five secrets to killer abs; feel great in your own skin; how not to look fat in a bathing suit; the steak and pasta diet; sexy made simple; get gorgeous; love your shape; never diet again; six weeks to thin.  At some point, you have to stop and ask yourself:  why?  Why is it important that I have Heidi Klum’s legs, Beyonce’s booty, Cameron Diaz’s waist, and Scarlett Johannson’s boobs?  And perhaps more importantly:  what will I sacrifice to get it?

Out of the other tumults of the 1960s, emerged the National Association to Aid Fat Americans (NAAFA).  Marketing fat as a feminist issue, NAAFA, still prominent today, does its best to promote fat acceptance in a body-obsessed culture.  NAAFA argues that fat is the last remaining acceptable prejudice.  It’s not something you hear a lot about, though.  It doesn’t have its own primetime time slot like Thintervention with Jackie Warner; it doesn’t have glossy ads in magazines, like Alli, Xpheydrine, or TrimSpa; it doesn’t have commercials that urge you to call go-to advocates like Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers.  In terms of American popular media, it doesn’t have anything.  Except across the board accessibility.  Look at NAAFA’s slogan:  “We come in all sizes…understand it.  Support it.  Accept it.”  Substitute “sizes” for race, gender, sexual orientations, nationalities, religion, abilities, ages…get the drift?  Fat acceptance isn’t such a far cry from other acceptances America deems “civil rights.”  Yet, Michigan is the only state that provides protection weight discrimination in the workplace and there are a measly six cities with the same law.  In this age of exponential political correctness, it seems almost silly for a law like that to be required, but the really silly part is that it’s necessary.
Fat is one of America’s last remaining acceptable prejudices.  Sometimes people aren’t even aware of their own participation in the bigotry.  Fat, school-aged children get the message that nothing about them is beautiful or healthy from peers and from adults who make it a point to put up signs about healthy body types, chronic diseases resulting from obesity, the long list of things that are wrong with being fat.

Let me tell you from personal experience that being fat is not an easy feat. I never went to fat camp, but in an attempt to get me off the couch one summer, my mother sent me to Bible Camp instead.  Maybe it was some sort of lose weight for Jesus thing, I don’t know.  I had a supportive home, but school was a different story. I didn’t get to be pretty or flirted with; I got to be smart and comic relief.  I was less of a person and more of an object of ridicule.  The Fat Lady at the freak show, live and on display.  From fashion to food and everywhere in between, it’s a daily battle with society and with yourself to be fat in America.  After umpteen years hearing the commercials for diet pills and weight loss plans, seeing doctors that tell you your BMI is too high, potential dates taking one look at your thighs and never calling again, rude comments, and constant self-scrutiny, being fat can make you sick and tired.  (And not for any physical reasons either!)  This zine will trace the history of pop culture body image in America by looking at mainstream media portrayals of fat people, fat and gender, fat fashion, and the socioeconomic implications of being fat in America.  Positive images of fat people are few and far between, leaving much of the fat population grossly underrepresented.  Even with new scientific studies concerning the genetics of fat, the idea that fat people lack willpower and control, and live lazy, sedentary lives is still highly perpetuated in American culture.  As far as body image and body acceptance goes, the American mainstream media is a great source for hyper-partisan horseshit.  If you don’t believe anything else I say in this zine, believe this one thing:  being fat is harder for fat people than it is for skinny people.

Stepping off the heels of the Fat Acceptance movement came the next association to aid fat Americans.  They didn’t stage any “fat-ins” or burn diet books as NAAFA had in 1967.  They used their brains, their fire, and their technology.  Fat people – mostly women – across the globe began fashioning zines and blogs in order to promote fat acceptance.  The blogs are easy enough to find via Google, but all the Fat Advocacy zines I’ve found require special order.

Zines, underground literature with roots in fan-fiction, began in the 1980s.  Fanzines, as they were originally called, evolved into zines as aficionados or people with high interest in other subjects began to appropriate the genre.  Zines spit in the face of publishing hierarchies, offering their creators free space to write whatever the hell they wanted to write; no editing it down, no cleaning it up.  Fat Advocacy isn’t a well-known subject, but it is hotly contested.  Although body positive campaigns – like Dove’s campaign for real beauty, love your body day, and eating disorder awareness month – are widely accepted and thought upon favorably, Fat Advocacy is the black sheep of the body positive family.  For myriad reasons, the idea that an individual can be fat AND healthy at the same seems preposterous to Americans.  But “with 30% of American adults considered obese and as many as 50 million of us on some sort of diet--usually unsuccessfully--at any one time, perhaps we ought to be asking ourselves whether we're going about things all wrong.”[i]  After all, it’s not the size of your jeans or the number on your scale that’s eventually going to kill you.  It’s your lifestyle.  Unfortunately in America, being heavy is synonymous with leading an unfavorable lifestyle.  People will most likely incorrectly assume based on appearances that a heavy person eats fast food/junk food on a regular basis and doesn’t get enough exercise, and thusly that the thin person eats well and exercises on a regular basis.  Logically, any thinking person can put two and two together and notice the fault in that reasoning, but the equating of fat and laziness/powerlessness/failure is so intrinsic in our thinking as a culture that most people wouldn’t think to reconsider.

Both thin and fat are fetishized in America, the first being the fetish of idealized beauty and the second being a kinky, freak fetish of the absurd.  From representation in mainstream media to representations in pornography, the curious folly that is fat people is constantly open to subjugation, degradation, and the ridicule of a culture obsessed with wiping obesity off the map.  America has created a veritable War on Obesity, using the media in many ways – both subtle and overt – as a cruise missile aimed at anyone whose body doesn’t exist at or near the idealized standard.

Women are particularly ridiculed, because fat, too, is gendered:  “When soft and fat, it connotes the maternal and aggravates our tangled imaginative relation to issues of consumption […].  When vast and hard – the gigantic – it connotes patriarchal masculinity:  a way of symbolizing power and its abuses” 2.  Hence the emergence of Fat Advocacy zines, designed by and targeted for fat women who are tired of “fat” being negative terminology and are seeking to reclaim the word.

Throughout my pioneer zine, expect to find the word “fat” used frequently.  Anticipate discomfort and seek to understand where it’s coming from.  Fat is a multi-faceted discussion and cannot adequately be argued via medical, beauty, class targeting, media, historical, or sexual jargon.  Rather, fat and its implications – the language, the feelings, the associations – need to be looked at as a cause and result of all these factors.  And then we need to throw all those factors out the window as we realize that what we are doing is scientifically justifying a prejudice.

Anna Macias Aguayo, “Can You Be Fat and Healthy?” Time Magazine, (29 May 2005), article/0,9171,1066937-1,00.html#ixzz16cLfTzhG2 Laura Kipnis, “Life in the Fat Lane,” Bound and Gagged, (New York, NY:  Grove Press, 1996), p. 120.

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