Wednesday, March 7, 2012

My 400-pound pet peeve

I just read this interesting New Yorker piece (linked from about Hurricane Katrina:

Maybe none of you know this (mostly because you're not reading my blog), but one of my dissertation chapters was going to be about fatness and Hurricane Katrina, so I tend to read things I stumble across about Hurricane Katrina.  This may sound like a stretch to you, a whole chapter about fat and one particular event in U.S. history, but it was meant to be deployed as a space and place to talk about larger issues of size, race, class, and identity/community formation (among other things), and of how fatness was used (and, more importantly, not used) to discuss the event, the aftermath, and what it symbolized about U.S. society.  It would have served as a great prelude to my last chapter, on geographies, nationalities, and fatness.

Since the dissertation was never finished, I suppose what I was going to do is irrelevant, but I share it anyway.  The reason I want to talk about this linked article does link to the dissertation chapter in a rather loose way.  Specifically what I'd like to speak about is this early sentence from Katherine Boo's piece: "On the evening of September 3rd, though, a gunshot victim, a four-hundred-pound woman, and a man with a broken spine arrived at the gym simultaneously, joining two hundred other evacuees."  I was excited, here was a journalistic piece that will talk about fatness and Hurricane Katrina!  However, the 'four-hundred-pound woman' never made another appearance in the story, and so I have no idea what happened to this woman.  Did she have to go through what had been mentioned on the less mainstream online sites, that is, wearing plastic bags as clothes because there were none to be had in her size?

If Ms. Boo never planned to write about this woman, why did she make an appearance in the article? Presumably because she was listed alongside individuals with bodily trauma, the reporter sought to portray her as equally traumatized.  However, without supporting details, we have no idea if her weight was impacting her health in such a way that she needed special attention from health-care professionals.  Even if this was the case, Hurricane Katrina did not cause her weight, so her inclusion in this group seems odd.  More likely, Ms. Boo, like many non-fat people, grossly underestimate the health of fat people.  Telling the reader that an individual is 400 pounds says very little about their health, particularly if it is framed in the context of bodily trauma.  More precisely, the bodily trauma that woman was experiencing was a trauma placed on her by a society that refuses to recognize, let alone shape itself to accommodate, fat people.  Sadly, Hurricane Katrina only exacerbated that condition. 

I think the real reason we are told that a 400 pound woman is one of the early arrivals at the shelter has nothing to do with Hurricane Katrina at all.  It is part of that all too familiar trick of making sure 'we' call out and move to the margins any person who does not fit 'our' idea of what a human being should be.  Those 400 pound women must be marked, a permanent 'O' on their written selves, so the rest of the reading public knows that they're reading about someone who is 'less than' and 'other than' themselves.  It happens in all sorts of written work, from newspaper pieces to critical law books, college textbooks and in footnotes to college textbooks.  It also happens to people who weigh both much less, and much more, than the 400-pound woman of this New Yorker piece. 

Why do writers include weights for those who have weights many deem to be 'too much' or 'too little'?  If they don't plan on addressing the topic of weight and body size in their work, then there is no reason to do so.  I have asked one of the former ombudsmans of The Washington Post why body size isn't included in their style guides in ways that seek to minimize this type of othering, in keeping with their policies about race and other characteristics.  Unsurprisingly, I got no reply.  Unless the weight is given for every person mentioned in an article, this kind of selective 'outing' of fat people in writing is bias, and it needs to stop.  I'm tired of seeing bodies like mine treated as freaks of such magnitude that our weight must be hung around our heads even in places where no image of fatness exists, the ultimate shame of daring to live while fat.

I also get angry when I see this happening for people with other bodily traits, like stature, for example.  I also find the practice to be so obviously about policing bodies, that I find it hard to see how otherwise knowledgeable people don't catch it and erase it.  My favorite example of this is found in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (  In a book chock full of cultural studies critiques of all sorts of representations of various identity groups, we find a charming footnote in the entry for Judith Butler's Gender Trouble.  This charming footnote provides basic biographical information on both the drag queen Divine and the director John Waters, queer film collaborators.  Divine is described as a '300-pound drag queen' and Waters is described as a director, with no body weight given. 

One of the reasons I find this so delightfully f-ed up and endemic of the need to stigmatize fat people no matter when and where they dare to show themselves is because it collapses all temporality into one moment.  At the time of this book's publication, Divine had been deceased for many years, so the editors of this book decided that the corporeality of Divine was frozen in time for the periods of his life in which he weighed 300 pounds.  Considering that weight is often a destabilizing status (our weight fluctuates daily, even if only by a few ounces), this fact seems oddly flattening of the varied lived experiences of any person, even a fat one.  Secondly, it rather hilariously presents an image of Divine bursting fully formed, like Athena out of Zeus' head, as a fat drag queen from birth, and that he maintained a stable 300-pound weight for his entire life, from cradle to grave.

Since I think Divine is a god, this image is oddly comforting, even as I recognize the insidious way it seeks to mark an individual with a stable identity while at the same time performing the slight of hand that makes most people think that a fat identity doesn't exist, is in fact impossible, and that we're merely only thin people waiting to be let out of our traumatic fat cages.  A good start would be if writers actually provided some humanity to the fat people they seek to diminish by making them an absent presence in their work.