I’ve been reminded again that there is still one safe prejudice left: fat.
It’s no longer socially acceptable to make derogatory comments or joke about race, religion, disability, height or whatever – but fat, sure, have at it.
This all came home to me again recently when watching the wonderful HBO miniseries “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,” which is based on Alexander McCall Smith’s charming and gentle books that are as much a love affair with the country of Botswana as they are about the exploits of a female detective.
The heroine runs a detective agency in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, and solves crimes using her intelligence, intuition and understanding of people. No “CSI” here.
She is, as the character herself puts it, “a woman of traditional African build.” Heavyset. When she eats a pastry, she does so in public and without shame. She is comfortable within herself. Yet when other characters have something negative to say about her, it’s about her body. They call her, to her face, a “bed breaker,” or say she needs a large engagement ring because a small one would not look good on a fat woman.
Nobody ever calls them on that. Here, fiction mirrors real life, where nobody calls people out for insensitive remarks about girth.
We remain preoccupied with it, all of us, and not just for health reasons. We are just damn mean on the subject, and we get away with it. We delight in the magazines’ post-baby-weight photos of celebrities. We scoff at the notion that a fat woman can be sensual. And as long as fat people stick to the role of funny sidekick, gal pal or evil gangster, they’re acceptable in books and film – but certainly not as the hero.
We make fun, we stare and we comment. I know about this because I am a fat woman. My picture here shows me as I am today, but not that many years ago and for a good portion of my adult life, I weighed 300-plus pounds. And even though the outward fat is gone, I still see the world through the eyes of a fat woman. That doesn’t change.
Our society has rather unrealistic standards about what we consider fat (like a size 10, for Pete’s sake). How to define what’s fat and what’s not is probably the subject for another time, but it’s kind of like pornography – you may not have a good definition for it, but you know it when you see it.
Not that I haven’t used it to my advantage. When my sons were very young, I worked as a freelance writer, as I do now. I remember a particular story I was doing for a magazine about a public official who was under fire. I interviewed a number of people who worked for him before calling him for an interview. He was not happy – as a matter of fact, he was kind of belligerent – but he agreed to talk to me, warning me he had consulted with his attorney and would be taping the conversation. Fine by me.
When I opened the door to his office and he saw fat me in person for the first time, there was a look on his face. Relief. It was as if his pores sighed as he concluded: No danger here, no serious journalist present.
I wasn’t offended; I’d seen the look before. So in the few seconds it took me to walk across the room, I mentally changed my interview strategy. I proceeded professionally, but I deliberately asked some of my questions in a less polished manner than I would have ordinarily. And then when I was ready, I hit him hard. Did you do this? Did you do that? How do you respond to this allegation?
Yes, I rope-a-doped him. Now, in truth, he was a tough interview and never really let his guard down. But he did relax just a little, and that was enough.
Speaking of relaxing – yes, surely, we do need to relax a little in our hypersensitivity about things. After all, some religious (and other) jokes really can be funny. Lawyers tell the best lawyer jokes. What separates the good from the bad and the ugly is whether the comment or joke is mean-spirited or not. It’s back to that knowing-it-when-you-see-it thing.
And lawyers, Christians and Jews, blondes, stutterers, bald people, the hearing impaired, et al. – they know the difference.
But please, stop the derisive open season on fat people. It may be the last safe prejudice, but it’s still wrong.
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