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. 


  1. Most immediately, I notice that our weight is only offered as 100 pound increments. We're 300 or 400 or 600 (as in some sort of tv show I saw listed as the 600-lb woman). To me this means we're in the realm of some sort of magical thinking, associated with these numbers.

    In that essay, I still love, "The Divinity Effect," Eve Sedgwick/Michael Moon describe the experience of fat (or is it queer?) as as painful as 300lbs on high heels. This strikes me as a very different use of the number because it insists on the experience of that person rather than a number that is meant to define singularly his being for us.

  2. Awesome post. I agree. I think that overweight people are judged too much based on their looks. Yes, some of us do have health problems, but not all of those health problems are not caused by their weight. It frustrates me to no end that some doctors especially are "fat phobic" and when you go to see them their pat answer is "loose the weight and it will all be better". I guess that is slightly off topic, huh. I really like your perspective and your voice!

  3. Absolutely. Its the othering of fatness and fat people. It's the same way I remember noticing as a very small girl that people in books were people unless they weren't white - then they were black people. White was the norm - everything else was othered, had to be noted because it was deviant. The exact same thing happens with fat. What I have often struggled with is writing about characters who are fat. Fat has a HUGE impact on my own life and the characters I write carry particles of me - so how much of them is affected by their fat. The stories are not about their fat but my fatness has influenced every aspect of my life so how honest is it to keep it separate? I'm rambling now - great post

  4. Do you feel like this is also because folks are so invested in the "grotesque" imagery of fat folks? I feel like the people who use these four-hundred-pound descriptions probably thought they were creating a vivid image. Again, this is because people's size is seen as the most (or one of the most) important things about them--essential to note.

    People fucking love the image of the such-and-such pound person. I really think people have an attachment to the way that image is supposed to make them feel--whether that is grossed out, sad, pitying, disgusted, overwhelmed, or whatever. Most people, I think, are really fond of this imagery...reductive and problematic as it is.

    I think folks use it not only because they think it's so vivid, but because they are trying to elicit a certain feeling along with it.

  5. I too believe it's a grotesque thing, a sideshow exhibit that everyone MUST see and it's dehumanizing, but that's the whole point. People who do this want to remove themselves from those vivid images (while gawking, studying, then dismissing them with contempt or false concern) so they can sleep at night knowing overweight and obese are not them, others, as Fierce Fotography mentioned..the otherness of the fat ones makes them feel safe and superior.
    To be fair, most people look at anyone and makes judgments but the fat wear their 'sin' on their backs for everyone to see...our scarlet 'O' is our body and we're the easiest to condemn, especially when ridiculing little people, challenged people, gays, etc. is not so cool anymore. People are running out of people to hate that's still socially acceptable.

  6. Thanks everyone for your smart and helpful comments! I wondered about this yesterday on my Facebook page, and it seems a logical corollary to this post: why do most of the articles, both online and off, use olded, fatter pictures of Rush Limbaugh? He is slimmer now than he used to be, and yet we don't often get current images of Rush in the articles, unless they're using a still from the video of him actually making the 'slut' and 'prostitue' comments about Sandra Fluke. It seems to be another example of using fat as shorthand for evil or bad. Since this seems to happen more frquently with people associated with the right (Limbaugh, Chris Christie), it only alienates me even more from 'progressive' movements.

  7. Ugh, in my comment above, it should have said 'older,' not 'olded.'