We probably both are. As women (and men) of the late 20th century and early 21st our eyes are trained to see the sylphs sold to us by the cadaver Anna Wintour on down, she, by the way, a woman more responsible for eating disorders than anyone else on the planet. Not to mention our crippled feet.
But recently body image is changing – and a bit of flesh, enough, a handful is now seen as perfectly ok, if not preferable.
Most “science” now says slightly overweight is healthier than underweight or even what is now classed as normal, vis the Body Mass Index. The Kardashians have trained us to see outsize curves as desirable, which means that we have widened our definition of beauty to include body types of races, other than northern Europeans. Which is a good thing.
But fat, obesity, the way out of range? This is still seen as toxic, if not dangerous. And of course, in real terms, it is. Obesity shaves 9 years off your lifespan, multiple studies affirm. One hardly needs to enumerate the risks, but knees, hips, heart, stroke, cancer, all risks are increased. The obese are universally seen as weak, as figures of mockery, dangerous to themselves, inevitably to depend on others to live out their lives.
Never mind all that, said Roxane Gay, whose memoir of being 534 pounds, Hunger, A Memoir of (My) Body, broke the spell. Gay, from a disciplined, accomplished black family was gang-raped at 12, the gang led by the boy she thought was her friend. At which point she started eating and did not stop.
Gay points out that for her, and for generations of black women, and doubtless, white, overeating suppressed pain. Poverty, abandonment, single motherhood, struggle all resulted in over-eating anything that would change your emotional state, and that preferably cheap. Therefore sugar and saturated fat. And of course the food industry’s shameful use of toxic addictive oils and sugars increases the likelihood of illness.
Leaving aside the culture of addiction, Gay and painter Jenny Saville (see above), want to view what we call obesity as acceptable, normal and even beautiful. They charge it is our prejudiced eye that sees the tryptyich above as ugly. Gay sees “society” as contradictory.
“As a woman, as a fat woman, I am not supposed to take up space. And yet, as a feminist, I am encouraged to believe I can take up space.”
If I run into someone who is 400 pounds, that’s pretty much all I am going to think about. In fact, my insurance agent weighs up around those numbers, and I delay leaving her desk because I am so interested. It may be trauma, weird hormones, an accident which led her to her fate, but I wonder at her, her stamina, her insistence on being present, her cheerfulness. I find myself admiring her. I suspect she might be spiritually advanced. She is literally wearing her cross. And I do find her beautiful.
Here’s my point. Most over-eating is about state change. Excess flesh is a protection against emotions you don’t want to feel. Food delivers satiation. You don’t need as much from people. In fact, you can even protect them, because you aren’t as vulnerable as they are. And, importantly, with the extra calories, you can push yourself to acquire at least some of the prizes the world values.
But mostly, it’s cultural.
Look at our recreation. It’s all vicious and violent. Current women’s fiction ramps up terror for vulnerable women to the max. Adrenalin or limbic level capture is massively addictive, therefore successful, so there is almost nothing gentle left to watch or read. Come home from work, exhausted from the competitive fury the marketplace now demands, binge violence and fear. Drug yourself to sleep with Diet Coke, popcorn and chips. Get up and do it all over again.
The sexual landscape is equally vile. Sex has turned entirely extractive and sexual abuse of even the smallest of children is hardly worth a shrug. Trafficked women live miserable enslaved lives in every city and town. And the news cycle reliably delivers fresh outrages perpetrated by members of our extra-special-people class. This week we discovered the FBI refused to investigate Larry Nassar who abused hundreds of members of the US Olympic gymnastics team. We learned that the 15 year old Alanis Morrisette was repeatedly abused by her music producers.
No one wants to have sex with someone obese.
The old culture told women and men to toughen up, to conquer their demons, work towards a unified goal. The world they created was relatively crime free, solvent, riot-free, sexually ordered, family-focused and was moving to extend those benefits to marginal groups. The new culture is immoral by those standards. People are shot in the street while eating dinner at an outside cafe. Business and government are staffed by criminals, actually working against us. People are told to indulge, celebrate their weakness, especially if they can use it to stick it to the man.
The results? Women (and men) who are obese are telling us their story before they open their mouths or laptop. The culture we have created is a sewer, and they need all the protection they can get.