As much as the conversation about body image has spread to men, society saves its most vicious scorn for women.
I think it was sixth grade when a tougher kid made me do the “truffle shuffle,” in the gym locker room. The shuffle originates from The Goonies movie where a chubby kid shakes his belly for the amusement of others. It wasn’t the first time I was asked to reproduce the effect, although most often I didn’t mind. On that day, I was tired of it so I refused. The other kid got in my face, while other kids jeered, so I relented and shook my flab. A minute later, I started crying like an oversized baby, letting tears drip down my face in shame. The kids in the locker room were horrified by my outburst, and they all offered sincere apologies. It was only one of many indignities in the life of a fatty.
I’m a fat guy. But this isn’t about me. As much as the conversation about body image has spread to men, society saves its most vicious scorn for women. As I’ve ambled from fatness to fitness and back again in a constant rearguard, bloat action, I can’t help but notice how much easier my life has been than the many women who share my struggle.
I’ve been with a group of men and heard them mock fat women on far more than one occasion. I play along or stay silent or look at my shoes. I’m chickenshit that way. I’m not the only fat guy to take comfort in my male privilege, but by doing so I help no one. To be a fat woman is to live in a constant state of cruelty, as the beginning and end of all ridicule.
“Fat chicks” are always the punch line. So the joke goes, they are like mopeds—“fun to ride but you never want to be seen on one.” They are the butt of fraternity humor. I have watched many wonderful women in my life suffer from this gender imbalance, even as those same women are the most kind and giving people I know. My sister, Jen, is the perfect example. “I spent $1,000 a month on a personal trainer and nutritionist. I worked out a couple hours a day six days a week. My health markers were better than most of my skinny peers but I was still considered clinically obese,” she said. “I also feel that fat is the first thing someone notices about me, but that is probably due to constant ‘fat shaming’ that comes through the media 24/7.” It’s a sad irony she is one of the most decent people I know, yet she struggles to make up for some imagined societal crime.
A recent study of “Biggest Loser” contestants shows just how hard it is to stay thin, once you’ve been fat. With so much growth in weight problems in our country, it’s insane to chalk it up as just some “individual failing” because it’s a problem shared by a growing percentage of our fellow Americans. Something else is at work here, but whatever it is, I don’t care about the “why.” I’m just baffled at how we can treat large women so badly.
Criticism of fat people, in general, is couched in the outdated language of moral failings. As a society, we’ve decided—correctly—not to judge people by their sexual preferences, marital status, or various personal proclivities, but we refuse to extend understanding or kindness to the overweight or obese. We need “willpower.” We’re just weak. That might be true, but fat people are no more flawed than anyone else in my experience. I’m sure there are a few beautiful, perfect, always happy, and never unemployed people out there, but I’ve never met any.
As much as America detests large women, they seem to worship fat guys. There are so many beloved fat men, half a dozen just named John—Goodman, Belushi, and Candy, for example. Fat guys are allowed to be powerful and even sexy, like Tony Soprano, who was both. If America were to carve Mount Rushmore over again, it would have to feature Peter Griffin and Homer Simpson. It should be a fat, blue collar, white slob on the face of the one dollar bill.
When it comes to women, it all seems couched in sex. Men seem to demand women meet standards of beauty that men are totally unwilling to meet themselves. Conventional wisdom implies that large women are less sexually desirable, unless you have a “fetish.” While the most unattractive, fat, and unemployed man still feels like he has a God-given right to nail the homecoming queen. Peter and Homer, Jackie Gleason and James Gandolfini are all fat guys with hot wives. Every love interest in a Kevin James movie is a supermodel, and few people find it odd, while large women who date thin men are the subject of endless commentary.
My friend, Telaina, is a larger lady who is married to a rather skinny marathon runner. One day, as she was changing at the gym, a thin woman sought her out to express disbelief that Telaina managed to land such a fit husband. It’s even more ugly and ironic that it happened just after a workout. Even when you are trying to get fit, you aren’t safe from cruelty.
The “normals” insist they’re just worried about our “health.” Let me point out that fat is not always indicative of health. Studies show there are some sickly skinny folks and some fit fat people. A person’s looks never tell the whole story.
At one time, fat was a symbol of virility and power, when people were often emaciated by scarcity and poverty. In those days, fat was sexy. Today’s constant hand wringing over fat is just another tired fad in the objectification of women. They have been told at every point in history that their worth is tied directly to sex appeal. And, the requirement is that women spend time and energy primping for men. It’s never about the feature itself, it’s all about changing up the criteria so that women can never stop striving for male attention.
Some of the cruelest criticisms come from other women. I hate to give her any more attention, but Nicole Arbour has parlayed a willingness to be an asshole into some kind of Internet fame. Her biggest crime isn’t being mean, it’s that she lacks anything resembling thought or originality. I don’t mind a good insult or put down, but it has to be good, and her taunts are no better than schoolyard chants. Even sadder is that she’s obsessed with her own sex appeal. She puts down women (and all fat people), and at the same time harms the cause of women by flaunting her own appearance as her greatest, and perhaps only, asset.
I always cheer when I read about women pushing back in essays against this acceptable form of bigotry. I also think that large fellows like me have a duty to point out the disparity in treatment between fat men and women. It’s a crime how easy it is to lob insults at large women—and people in general. It’s a daily tragedy how hard some wonderful women have to work to just feel appreciated.
Edwin Lyngar graduated from Antioch University in 2010 with his MFA in creative writing and also holds an MA in Writing from the University of Nevada, Reno. His essays have appeared in Salon, Alternet, the Bellingham Review and others. Follow him on twitter @Edwin_Lyngar.