Fat and lit

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Wed Feb 5 01:35:13 EST 2003


On Wed, 5 Feb 2003 00:17:30 -0500 (EST), deborah wrote:

>Melissa, you remember what I said about how we meld together our
>registers of what "fat" means, and so end up saying oddly inconsistent
>things that don't make sense?  Well:
>
>|So we nagged him about it afterward, because what we REALLY
>|wanted to see was a VERY large woman who was also clearly an attractive
>|woman.  One of the things the playwright said about it, aside from other
>|casting issues, was that this actress did think she was fat.  That made me
>|just sick inside, because she was a very pretty young woman.
>
>And she can't think she's fat and also think she's pretty?  ;)  (Not
>pretty *even though* she's fat, but pretty *and* fat, or even pretty
>*because* she's fat?)

>I know, I know, that's not what you meant.  But it's what you wrote, and
>therefore -- at some level -- probably what you thought, and that's my
>point.

No, you misunderstand, but it's my fault for not explaining enough.  The
playwright (also the director BTW, and closely involved with the production
and casting of the play) said specifically that SHE didn't think she was
attractive because SHE thought she was fat.  He said something like "you
wouldn't believe some of the things she's said to denigrate her appearance,
and how she doesn't feel very positive about herself sometimes because of
her 'weight problem.'"  At which point we said, "But she's so pretty! How is
that possible?"  It was distressing to me to hear that this attractive girl
would think less of herself merely because she didn't meet some standard of
thinness.

I've seen people who I thought would have been prettier had they not been
fat.  I've also seen people who were pretty and fat.  Pretty *because*
they're fat is more difficult, because that's the prejudice that's harder to
overcome--the preference for thinness.  I usually experience that in the
reverse: this thin person would look SO much better if she were fat.

>Many serial dieters are extremely proud of their physical habits, which
>are appalling for their bodies.  Moreover, society rewards them, while
>it punishes people who are fat, who -- as pointed out in the article I
>linked -- may well be perfectly healthy.

What I'm getting at is that you can't tell by looking who is fat and
unhealthy and who is fat and healthy.  So either you (meaning society and/or
the medical community) criticize the fat/unhealthy people with the intent of
encouraging them to get healthy, and hurt the feelings of those who are just
fine; or you praise those who are fat/healthy and the unhealthy crowd take
it as a sign that they can go on being unhealthy and overweight and all
those other things.  It just seems like a lose/lose situation for everyone.
And studies tend to reinforce this dichotomy by pinpointing one problem or
another so all you see is one side of the truth.  (I'd like to read that
article, BTW, but you'll have to send it to me.)  If society starts
rewarding people who are fat, then the ones who are unhealthily so will feel
vindicated and won't get healthy.  Granted, I don't think constant nagging
or societal guilt is a good way to cure anything.  It certainly didn't work
on my father.  It's just that what I hear you calling for is a reversal of
the status quo rather than a reevaluation.  Maybe that's just because you've
been focusing on the neglected side of the argument, in expressing why the
stereotypes of literature are so harmful.
  
>|I don't know.  This is probably all still unintentionally offensive and I'm
>|an insensitive cad.  I can't presume to know why people weigh what they do.
>|I don't know why I'm at a supposedly normal weight for someone my height,
>|and yet my butt is still the size of Kansas.  I would just like to be able
>|to write about--and read about--people of different weights without having
>|to overcompensate for the stereotype.
>
>Yes, Melissa, you thoughtless, insensitive cad.  ;)  Thin people are
>allowed to talk about weight, by special dispensation of the
>list-mistress, as long as you sacrifice a goat to me, first.

Crap.  I sacrificed my last goat to the God of Winter so we could have some
real snow here.  (It worked, too.)  Can I sacrifice a chicken instead?  My
kids are playing Dungeon Keeper and they love the fact that their Hand of
Evil can smack a chicken into a pile of feathers.

>I think what we're doing is all about creating the ability to read and
>write about people without fretting too much.  First of all, we're all
>reading DWJ, and we've already come up with a plethora of cases in which
>she breaks the stereotypes -- which allow her to occasionally fall into
>the sterotypes.  After all, if you break stereotypes all the time, then
>your characters are *characters*, not types.  But secondly, we're all
>thoughtful readers, which means that we may occasionally come away from
>books like Holes or Hatchet or Folk of the Fringe feeling mildly
>shortchanged that the writers used weight loss and muscle tone as
>shorthand for showing character growth.

I think I'm still fretting.  I was going over that story from _Folk of the
Fringe_ today (putting it into the database, 533 records and it's SO SLOW)
and the fat character who becomes thin does metamorphose as part of showing
her character growth.  But in that case, it isn't lack of imagination.  In
fact, the woman is an admirable, nice character from the beginning.  It
isn't that she becomes better so much that she becomes different.  Losing
all that weight means that she literally as well as figuratively transforms.
Knowing Scott Card, he might have been just as likely to make her a flabby
housewife who gets toned or a skinny woman who becomes fat.  (Knowing that
he worries about his own weight makes me wonder if he wasn't indulging in
some wish-fulfillment there.

Actually, thinking about this has reminded me of some other things.  Like
most skinny people, when I was young I saw myself as the norm and figured
anyone who weighed more than me was fat.  And back when I first read that
story (about ten years ago) I was still under the impression that thin
people were pretty and fat people were just fat.  Just after I read _Folk of
the Fringe_ for the first time, one of my courses was wrapping up: Christian
Fantasy, which was basically an excuse to read fantasy and talk about its
moral underpinnings.  One of our final projects was to read a book and
present a creative, um, presentation on it.  Card's niece Timnah was in the
class and she chose to do _Folk of the Fringe_; her presentation was as the
woman in the story at the end of her journey, when she's a lot thinner.
Seeing Timnah in that role turned a lightbulb on for me; Timnah was a real
cutie and I thought, "Wouldn't she still be cute if she were a hundred
pounds heavier?"  Like, duh.  I had the kind of crush on her that Fiona had
on Polly in _Fire and Hemlock_....

> Surely some fat
>characters (Shine?) should be allowed to be evil, but others (Nan?)
>should be allowed to be happy, successful heroes.  Otherwise it's a
>sadly lacking diversity of characters we get.

But why Shine rather than anyone else?  At what point do you decide that
it's no longer a stereotype?  This is what makes me nervous because it
reminds me of my days as a frivolous feminist literature student.  I could
take literally any gender reference and make it sound like misogyny.  I
think that, while writers (and readers) ought to be aware of the stereotypes
about body weight, they should also be given some benefit of the doubt in
creating what initially seems to be a negative comment about weight.

I was thinking about heroines I'd like to see along these lines, though.
Like a skinny person who becomes fat as an expression of her positive
character growth (NO, not that silly Dickensesque jolly fat person).  Or the
fat heroine who stays fat and is loved by the hero--who doesn't think of her
as either fat or skinny but Just Right.  (The husband in the comic strip
"Rose Is Rose" is like this, although he thinks beauty lies in fatness and
he's always bugging his wife to put on some weight.)  Or the fat hero who's
loved by the beautiful princess.  But I'm always looking for ANY variation
on physical beauty.  We've had "girl who thinks she's ugly because she
doesn't look like anyone else but we readers know she's actually beautiful
because we're enlightened modern people who admire a wide variety of
feminine features."  How about more women like Molly Grue from _The Last
Unicorn_?

Melissa Proffitt
still not making sense to herself

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