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Last week I gave a talk before a local theatre’s production of Neil LaBute’s play "Fat Pig." The play revolves around a workplace romance between a conventionally attractive (read: slim) man and a fat woman.
In today’s society this plot represents an informal taboo vaguely similar to that explored 40 years ago in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, when the suave but very black Sidney Poitier shocked the very white Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn by showing up as their daughter’s dinner date.
My talk involved points I’ve made hundreds times over the past few years, to audiences ranging in size from a dozen high school students to a few million TV viewers.
I spoke about how the definition of "overweight" used by our public health authorities is a bunch of completely unscientific garbage, created by pharmaceutical companies eager to push the next generation of diet drugs through the regulatory pipeline.
I described the absurdity of various widely held ideas about weight: that we know how to make people thinner (we don’t); that haranguing people about their weight is doing them a favor (it isn’t); and that the reason there are fat kids in America is that fat kids haven’t been informed that it’s considered desirable in this culture to be thin.
This last bit of rampant insanity, which is at the center of the government’s current response to the panic over "childhood obesity," makes about as much sense as arguing that poor people are poor because they haven’t been informed it’s considered desirable in this culture to be rich.
Anyway, my favorite part of these talks is usually the question-and-answer period, which gives people in the audience a chance to relate their own experiences.
On this occasion, the most memorable comment was made by a young woman, who spoke of becoming extremely ill and losing a good bit of weight as a result, and then getting complimented by people who had never noticed she was sick, but now noticed she was thin.
I’ve heard some variation on this story many times, and, even for someone who has spent years dealing with our social craziness over body size, it never fails to produce a certain sense of shock and awe.
"How did you do it?" people are asked (meaning how did they lose weight), when the true answer is "I got cancer" or "I became deeply depressed after my spouse left me" or "I haven’t been able to enjoy food since my child died."
Unfortunately, fat people — or people who have been fat — are socialized to always be apologetic when other people ask them wildly inappropriate questions about their bodies, so it’s rare that the questioners get what they deserve in these situations, which is a frank answer.
On this occasion, the young woman’s story of illness and the reactions she got to it drove home the extent to which our culture’s worship of emaciated female bodies is driven by a hatred of life, health, food and pleasure — that is, by a kind of logic of self-mortification similar to that practiced by medieval flagellants, but without the excuse that sort of behavior is pleasing to God.
At the end of the evening I tried to suggest that the best way to combat this madness is through individual acts of rebellion.
Get angry at the lies that bombard us 24 hours a day about what’s supposedly wrong with our bodies.
Get angry about a culture that’s dedicated to making people try to fix things about themselves that aren’t broken.
Eat a doughnut and tell a food fascist it tasted pretty damn good. Light a copy of Vogue on fire.
The revolution starts one body at a time.
(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)