Saturday, November 19, 2011

Unabashed fat

Adipose, from Doctor Who
Early in 2011, the bloggers’ site published a screed about fat people.

It was shortly after I had been approved to blog for the site, but hadn’t written a post yet and I was hitting it often to gauge the type of writers with whom I’d be keeping company. To be fair, the anti-fat-person post wasn’t written by one of their bylined writers -- it was posted in a subsection of the site called “Smartly Anonymous” and the writer -- regular? administrator? guest? who knows? -- was uncredited.

It was a pretty awful post -- prejudiced, intolerant, offensive (want to read it? go here) -- but I understood exactly what it was: bait. Provocative posts drive web traffic, and I’m sure the Smartly folks anticipated an upswing from whatever buzz the post would create. It’s not called Smartly for nothing.

I held back from commenting when I originally read it because I anticipated a firestorm of comments calling out the anonymous writer for the nastiness. But the comments were subdued. Some even sort of agreed. While most took umbrage with the word hate to describe the blogger's sentiment toward fat people, the commenters voiced disgust with the physicality of fat; implied a certain moral turpitude; described laziness, lack of discipline and a whole host of pejoratives as the imagined failures of their fatter brothers and sisters.

After posting two very long-winded comments, I decided I didn’t want to be associated with a site that hosted this sort of content. I haven’t been back, even as a reader, until today when I went there to retrieve the link to the post. 

In the ensuing year I’ve noticed stories about celebrities tossed off of airplanes because they were thought too fat to fit in one seat (read it here); parents who starved their infant because they didn’t want her to grow into an obese child (read it here); how fat trumps race, gender, social or academic skills as a reason kids get bullied (read it here).

What is it about obesity that unleashes the vicious in so many of us?

Images of beauty and ideas about worth are formed by families and peers, cultural norms and societal pressures. Centuries of fine art (and, indeed, ancient and folk art) tell us that the large, fleshy body can be both beautiful and powerful, but since the middle of the 20th century neither perception nor societal norm has favored the corpulent. (For this post I’m going to write only about body size, not the other tyrannies of image society imposes. Read my “You might be a cult member if…” post for an earlier take on some of those.) There are probably academic treatises tracing the whys and wherefores of the shift from fat being okay to anathema, but I’m more interested in noting how we -- consciously and unconsciously -- shore up and entrench this thinking. And how, by doing so, we enable blog posts like the one that drove me away from Smartly.

I should probably stop to disclose that I was a fat child, and a fat adolescent, and although I haven’t been really fat for nearly half of my life now, I’m no slip of a woman either. I inherited a compact, endomorphic solidity from grandmothers on both sides of my family and mostly I’m pretty happy with what that means. But then, I was lucky enough to grow up in Latin America at a time when it was okay, even desirable, to be gordita. I watched my mother and her middle-aged (or older) tías and primas-hermanas and friends out on the dance floor -- all curvy overweight and jiggly parts -- executing killer moves I still can’t quite replicate. They weren’t a bit abashed by their bodies. They were confident and sexy and having fun.

You have to have some hips to shake them, baby.

I’m not an heir to the deep puritanism that underpins the I-hate-fat blog post and hides in some of the comments. Both my Greek and Guatemalan-Mexican sides hold with joyful eating, joyful dancing, joyful celebration and connection to an earth that itself is fat, round and celebratory. Embrace, not renounce, is the motto my ancestral blood pulses.

Still, it wasn’t lost on me that the books I read so voraciously had precious few fat protagonists. In the magazines I leafed through, the movies I watched, the music I listened to -- most aspects of pop culture, in fact -- the fat people were invisible. Nice irony, huh? The embodiment of presence and nowhere to be seen.

Which is more or less the way we want it to be at this moment in history. Think not? Read that blog and its comments again. A surprising number find the sight of a fat person an offense worth excoriation. And underpinning the healthful intentions of our current efforts to eradicate “the epidemic of obesity?” The same desire to erase the obese from our sight.

Understand, I’m not denying the health toll of extreme obesity, only pointing out that we speak of this differently than we do other health trends we’ve obsessed about. I remember when it seemed anorexia and bulimia were on everyone’s lips -- but we spoke about anorexics and bulimics in a much different way than we do the obese. Overachievers as opposed to underachievers. Steely with control as opposed to mushy with lack of it. Intensely intellectual in the sense of choosing mind over body, rather than animalistic. Wouldn’t you rather be thought the first in all of those than the second? How about if someone were using those words to describe your daughter or son? 

I can’t imagine, in those anorexia/bulimia “epidemic” years, that anyone could have written a blog post like the "I might hate you" one at Smartly Anonymous and thought to get away with it, much less elicit the "I hear you" embedded in some of the comments. And yet here we are -- the fat are fair game.

 A number of months ago Kay Holt, one of the editor-publishers of Crossed Genres, asked me to submit a story for an anthology she was planning. The catch, if you want to call it that, was that the protagonist had to be a fat girl or woman. And the fact that she was fat couldn’t be just a passing mention, it had to be integral to -- or at least integrated into -- the story as a whole. I ran through all my banked and half-finished short stories (there are rather a lot of them) and realized I had never written a story with a fat protagonist. Not one.

And I remembered being a fat little girl who read and read and read and never once came across a protagonist who looked even remotely like me.

Invisibility. Even from those who have felt it en carne propria (in their own flesh).

So I sat down and wrote a story.

Fortunately Kay (and Bart Leib, the other editor-publisher of Crossed Genres) liked “La Gorda and the City of Silver” enough to include it in their anthology Fat Girl in a Strange Land, which will be released Feb. 17, 2012. I can’t wait to read all the other stories in the anthology. The little kid in me is pretty much dancing around impatiently, a bit petulant at having to wait.

Is it going to change the way we perceive fat people? Probably not. It is a single small step in a journey that’ll take steps beyond counting. But tell you what, if even one young overweight girl sits down with the book and sees herself represented by one of the protagonists of the 14 stories included in the anthology, it will be enough. 

And then I’ll celebrate -- so very unpuritan of me, don’t you know-- by making all my real, round and uninvisible flesh jiggle in a dance of pure joy.

Update: Ebook advanced review copies of Fat Girl in a Strange Land are available for reviewers! Email if interested.


  1. Beautiful post! I too am looking forward to the anthology (mine's the second story) and when I saw the call for the antho, I thought how wonderful Crossed Genres is bringing attention to a sidelined or more often invisable type of person in speculative fiction. Spec fic is supposed to be a realm that pushes boundaries, but until this antho I never realized that "fat" still needed exploration and visibility. I am proud to be a part of this antho and hope it makes a difference. Cheers.

  2. Fabulous post. I'm here via Bluestocking's blog, and now following via email. I am so excited to know that this anthology is happening, for all the reasons you cite. Yay! And congratulations on the publication.


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