“Tonight on News Channel #, new studies on the rising obesity epidemic in America. Can we fight the Battle of the Bulge?”
As the pompous, perfectly over-coiffed news anchor announces the story, we see a parade of bodies waddle across the screen. The fabric of their over-sized polo shirts are darkened with armpit sweat and splotches of dampness across the back. Rolls appear and bounce through unflattering garments, spilling over waistbands. The camera focuses on one individual exiting the subway, the climb up the steps clearly slow and laborious, obviously difficult because of this person’s size. In these images, the surrounding is just as important as the obese person of focus: everyone in the background (the equivalent of – ironically – “extras”) is thin, moving as a blur of energy and health, zooming around as a foil to the obese people and their slow mass.
We are all familiar with these images, the montage of our current cultural crisis. If we had once been ignoring the rising problem of fat in America, every news outlet has now made us aware that we are no longer doing so. No, now we are facing it! We are talking about the culture of fat in America! We are going to beat it! Admitting it is the first step! Or so it would seem.
These newsreels have become so ubiquitous that they may well be stock photos or clips. As the large bodies parade across the screen – confronting us, disgusting us, guilting us – we never see faces. These images are not people; they are objects, reduced to their bodies – actually, reduced to the wrongness of their bodies. They have become public service announcements and media warnings: don’t let this be you! They have become symbols of failure: if this is you, you’ve messed up! Although these images may have beneficent roots in leading our nation to better health, they have become the harmful example for how overweight people should be viewed: as bodies.
Enter Irony. This image-conscious, you-must-be-perfect world, fueled by the media and Hollywood’s insistence (at least by precedent, if no longer by articulated pronouncement) on the perfect body, has received so much criticism for creating and worshipping an unrealistic ideal. This perfect image – especially the woman’s – has been blasted for reducing people just to their bodies, for objectifying them as physical objects instead of complex souls. To combat this, “real people” campaigns (think: Dove) have sprouted. The message of the contrast is this: I don’t have that body, and I am a person of depth and worth! I am more than a body – that ideal one or my own! The cultural battle shifted, the main attack consisting of advocating diversity in body types, of insisting that strength and beauty come only in diversity – skinny, average, or fat. It’s all about a healthy body! is the war cry. (We agree.) But then Irony steps in. She sees the fight against the objectified perfect body, the attack of the Diverse, and she turns Diverse in on itself. Now we must objectify other bodies! Now we must construct not only the Impossibly Right beautiful image but the Horrendously Wrong fat image. The fight against the ideal object has created the condemned object. Bodies, bodies, everywhere in this war – but no people.
This is what we’ve seen for years – talking about fat. But not with fat people.* Not about their struggles. Not about the way these kinds of approaches have made the battle seem more daunting and, in some cases, hopeless.
But is this changing? Can it change? Can we talk about the culture of fat in a way that doesn’t objectify those who are, those who don’t want to be, and those who still must live both in this subculture as well as in the larger American context that often excludes or condemns them?
We don’t want to live in the Culture of Fat. But maybe, if we can all talk about it with respect and civility, maybe we can one day leave.
*Sure, there are documentaries, and I realize that I may be overgeneralizing, but I have not come across** any convincing depictions of an overweight person that aren’t presented as pictures of “otherness” – of struggle and failure – or as a “warning.” The only other thing I can think of is the person who is interviewed sympathetically…because eventually they lose the weight, so it ends up being a happy story that we can all stomach. More on that later.
**Truth be told, I usually avoid these things because I’m scared I’ll identify with them too much and that my illusion of being not-great-but-passable will be shattered.