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Big, Fat Blog Post

jfwright's picture

In reading "Culture as a Disability," the opening section about "The Country of the Blind" made me think about something I'm looking at for my thesis, which in part discusses sizeism (e.g., the way in which thin people tend to be privileged over "fat" people, whatever that means to anybody reading this). In "The Country of the Blind," fourteen generations of congenitally blind people are able to adapt their environment to meet their needs; in Eli Clare's definition, they would have "impairment" (maybe?) but not "disability."

But, what happens when something that isn't an impairment becomes a disability? I'm talking about weight. More specifically, the characteristic that's been fairly arbitrarily defined as "fatness." In some ways, it isn't a disability: people who have been classified as fat are able to hold jobs; they are able to have families. But, it IS an impairment: people whose bodies measure over a certain amount may not be able to comfortably use public transportation; desks, chairs, benches, booths are made for a certain waist size; people constantly ask them, "is that <<insert food item here>> healthy? Do you really need another one?"; and they may be treated unfairly by medical professionals, who are likely to assume that their weight is the root cause of many medical issues. For example, I met one person went to the doctor with knee pain. They were told that the knee pain would go away if they lost 50 pounds. 50 pounds and a lot of mental anguish later, the knee pain persisted; it turned out that this person's kneecaps were inverted. However, no one had even suggested an x-ray; it took months of unecessary pain for the doctors to consider any other cause but this person's weight. A doctor I used to work for advocated telling his "fat" patients that if they did not lose weight, they would never be able to find someone to love them. His rationale was, if he could not convince them to lose weight for health reasons, he may as well "go for something convincing." (I know that these stories don't represent all doctors, and I've made some pretty broad claims. I can expand upon any of the assertions I've set out in person, but it would take up a lot of space in a blog post. Admittedly, I've got a lot of anecdotal evidence, but it's pretty consistent.)

Part of my thesis involves examining media representations of fatness; I've been focusing in on television shows targeted towards young adults, such as FOX's "Glee," and the short-lived ABC Family series "Huge." Both of these shows have representations of "fat," female high-school students. Glee's character, Lauren Zises, is powerful and funny: although she is confident and is not afraid to pursue the quarterback of the football team, her character is frequently the butt of some pretty harsh fat jokes. The power of her character invokes making her into the "supercrip" of fat people: teens are encouraged to look up to her as a fat person who has found love (sound familiar?), and remains confident in her body. Another character whose weight is scrutinized on "Glee" is Mercedes Jones, a girl with a booming voice and a huge degree of self-confidence. However, in a single episode, the viewer watches Mercedes struggle with her weight; she stops eating while trying to squeeze into a cheerleading uniform. Later, she is portrayed as the driving force behind convincing the high school to bring back its tater tots after they have been taken away. Mercedes is usually portrayed without a love interest; while the show thrives on the relationship drama that exists between other characters, Mercedes' character is hardly ever romantically involved with a boy. She gets paired up with a gay male teen for duets and dance partnerships; although she stays happy and is eventually given a boyfriend (in the last moments of the most recent season), her character is mostly desexualized. (I'm pretty sure she has some fleeting affairs, but her love life is not as consistently focused on as the other characters'; if someone wants to correct me on this, I'd appreciate it.) While these characters are interesting and well-rounded, their bodies are brought back into the spotlight just often enough to remind the viewer that these are the show's "fat" girls. The ways in which their bodies are exploited for the sake of the show, the way in which these characters' size seems a natural thing to hang storylines on, and the way in which their size is portrayed as something to overcome, certainly seems to point to weight as a disablility.

"Huge" shows even more direct biases. Set at a fat-camp, in the first episode, the norms are laid out: one girl warns another girl who has found a boy to date that Camp Victory "isn't like the real world. You could have any guy you want here." She goes on to explain that the playing field as been leveled since everyone is overweight. However, all of the characters are caricatures: the only character who is comfortable with her body, Will, is portrayed as a nasty, overzealous girl who aims to "gain weight" at the camp. Although she says that "me and my fat are buddies" and that she "refuse[s] to hate her body because society tells [her] that [she] should," the viewer sees that, underneath the bluster, she, too, just wants to be "normal." The thinnest girl at the camp, Amber, is portrayed as the most popular, and in the opening credits, is shown with the title "perfect body." By the end of the series, she finds a thin boyfriend. The show depicts her hanging images of models around her bed, and calling them "thinspiration," but does not touch on the fact that "thinspiration" (or "thinspo") is a term used in pro-ana (pro-anorexic) and other pro-eating disorder communities as something that girls work up to: if only they can starve themselves for a little longer, they may look like a given model, actress, or other girl with disordered eating. Will sabotages other girls' diets by selling candy and other junk food, and shrinks a pair of Amber's shorts because she thinks it will be funny. The show's message is fairly clear: girls who seem comfortable with their weight are just lying, and if you starve yourself, you will eventually get what you want.

With these sorts of messages targetted towards teenagers, how could "fatness" not be seen as a disability? I know that these are not images of real life, but art reflects life: even in supposedly idealized situations, people who are depicted as "fat" are still people with something to overcome. In terms of criticism, I've found a fair bit on "Glee"'s portrayals, but fairly little on "Huge": a Huffington Post article said the following (
"Everyone at Camp Victory is overweight - okay fat - and they are not freaks. It is their new normal, for the summer, anyway. And, if we, the audience, are uncomfortable with viewing rolls of fat, we ought get over it fast."

I think that quote says quite a bit. We talked about how feeling discomfort breeds growth, but why would a viewer be uncomfortable? What does he/she/they see when they turn on "Huge?" "Glee"? Does he/she/they see a reflection of their own attitudes and discomforts around people of a given size? Or, do they just not like seeing them?