You just couldn't leave well enough alone, could you?
Your response to Fat Lover was good, and I was in agreement with the subsequent letter written by Fat in Seattle, which thanked you for not dumping all over fat people in your reply to Fat Lover. But you really blew it in your response to her letter, when you launched into your "you bring this all on yourselves" diatribe.
Just to set the record straight: I personally am not asking you, or anyone else, to "pretend fat people aren't responsible for being fat people in order to make fat people feel better about being fat people." A lot of us are responsible, a lot of us are not. Like everything else in life, it is rarely that simple. So what? The point is, it's none of your damn business how or why I got fat.
What you think of me is none of my business. So keep your goddamned unasked-for opinions to yourself. --A Former Fan
Uh, gee, in most advice columns, the author responds to the letters he or she receives--and everybody who writes in is, or should be, aware of this. So, really, AFF, my goddamned opinion on the "fat issue" was asked for and, considering the stacks of letters from angry fat people, is much in demand.
As you point out, problems are rarely simple. But as a reasonable, non-fat-phobic person (really, I am), I find the "fat is complex, it just happens, nothin' can be done, ain't nobody's fault" arguments troubling. For instance: According to a 1996 Harris poll, three out of four adults in the United States are overweight--not to be confused with obese--compared with one in five 20 years ago (using the Metropolitan Life insurance tables as a reference). How exactly did this happen? Did the explosion of desk jobs, fast-food franchises, videocassette recorders, and gourmet ice cream have anything to do with this development, or did it happen by accident? And does thinking about why we, as a society, got so suddenly and collectively fat make one a bigot?
Maybe it does. In order to make amends, and in a real departure for me, I'm going to let the "abused" party here have the last word on this issue. Ladies and gentlemen, the proverbial fat lady, singing:
As you may recall, you kindly permitted me to quote some material from one of your columns for my recently released book The Invisible Woman: Confronting Weight Prejudice in America. I thought your attitude toward fat women as being sexually authentic was a breath of fresh air, given the otherwise abysmally ignorant and usually cruel cultural stereotypes on this subject. Imagine my disappointment when I turned to your first column of 1997 and saw you blatting out the same old mindless saws about "the vast majority" of fat people being "responsible for their weight problems." Precisely what am I supposed to be taking responsibility for? For being unhealthy? I'm not. Ironically, one of the few places I can get credit for behaving in a healthy fashion is at my doctor's office. For being a lazy, gluttonous slob? I'm not. I seriously doubt that I could have spent four years working full-time, commuting two hours a day, maintaining a regular, moderate exercise program, and writing a book in my spare time if I spent all my time lying around and eating. Now if you want to say that people should take responsibility for lousy health habits, fine, but understand that you'll have to include many millions of thin people in that category as well as leave out a lot of fat people who are doing the best they can with the cards they've been dealt.
After four years of research on the subject, I promise you there is a substantial amount of serious controversy in the medical and scientific communities when it comes to the weight issue. Any responsible scientist will tell you that it is considerably more complex than a matter of calories in versus calories out, and that science is nowhere near understanding precisely why some people can stuff their faces all day, never exercise, and remain thin, while others gain weight very easily and remain fat no matter what they do. So, with all due respect, may I suggest that you stick to your area of expertise and refrain from making blanket statements that suggest that the "vast majority" of fat people are one and the same person, with identical habits.
While you seem to understand that the gay male body ideal and the straight female body ideal both do a lot of damage in terms of eating disorders, you fail to make the connection that it is precisely because healthy eating and exercise patterns usually aren't enough to achieve those ideals that eating disorders have become so pervasive. Sure, I could force myself to eat a semi-starvation diet and work out two to three hours a day; I might even start sticking my finger down my throat, but would it be natural or healthy? No, but that's what it would take to make me a size-eight woman deserving of respect in this fat-hating society.
And you're making a large mistake if you think that only people who weigh 300 pounds and up are labeled as fat these days. As I've been out and about promoting my book, I hear constantly from women of all sizes about the emotional and psychological abuse they are exposed to just because they don't weigh what they did when they were 14 years old. Even women who look to be wearing anywhere from a size six to a size ten tell me about their "loved ones" haranguing them should they gain as little as five or ten pounds.
The crux of the matter is that there's a lot of lazy thinking, fear, and issues around conformity, social status, sexual validation, etc which get tangled up with the question of whether or not fat people are in fact intentionally flouting nature's laws. But remember, the prejudice begins with the supposition that "they" eat/drink/walk/talk/look/ worship/think/live/love so very differently from "us" that "we" are entitled to abuse them at will.
In weight prejudice, the abuse begins with the assumption that all, or most, fat people are alike, and are all pigs. In homophobia, it begins with the assumption that all, or most, gay people are alike, and are all perverts. But I doubt you appreciate it when homophobes suggest that they'll accept you as a homosexual if you promise never to act on your sexuality, or that the kind of sex you have is cheap and meaningless because it's not the "right" kind of sex, designed to make babies. Similarly, I don't appreciate it when weight bigots tell me I'm not entitled to eat certain kinds of food, or enjoy life in general, or that I should make myself miserable, sick, or obsessed so that I can look like them. Whether or not I am comfortable with being fat (and that's a job and a half in a society like ours), what I do or put in my mouth is still "nobody's fucking business" but my own, just as it's nobody's business what you choose to put in any orifice of your body.
--W. Charisse Goodman
Send questions to Savage Love, Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611.