It’s a Glandular Problem! Body Image and Writing
As is sometimes the case, I will engage with my fellows over interesting topics of worldly happenings. Sometimes I learn something new. Sometimes I annoy Derek with questions about transgenderism. And sometimes my sister direct me to something I had already known but she was just discovering. Last week, this was fat apologists. I suppose I should preface this with the typical “trigger warnings.” This is an unnecessarily political tinged rant about body image and societal perceptions. If you have strong feelings on the matter, then great! So do I. I simply feel sorry for you if they do not align.
I’ll just lay it out right now – modern western society is facing an epidemic of obesity. We’ve developed a culture obsessed with both extremes of harmful expectations for people’s appearances. A 2014 study found that two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese(1). That is, simply put, ludicrous. Because I often work best with benchmarks, there are 212 million people in America alone who are overweight or obese. That’s almost six time the entire population of Canada. This is an issue. Near every class on health, nutrition and psychology state this. It is not something I would consider up for debate given my background in science and the need for studies and statistics to demonstrate one’s point. There are no benefits to being obese and a long laundry list of detriments that make any other position for a rational person impossible to hold. It is near impossible to live in western society and not know someone who is overweight or obese. If you’re in North America, you know these people.
Now, this isn’t to say that there are some issues with these classifications. But, for the vast majority of people, these issues are not really worth noting. Technically, I am overweight according to the BMI. So our measurements aren’t perfect. My sister is overweight and she’s one of the most active people I know. The standardization of a scale will inevitably create some wonky results given the natural variance in our society. Now, my sister’s lifelong struggles has given me quite a bit of first hand experience people face with body images. I am sympathetic to their plight and I recognize a lot of the difficulties they have to face.
I am, by no means, condoning the idea that “fat shaming” is anything but unhelpful. The general idea is that by ridiculing and making fat people feel bad about themselves will somehow promote and encourage them to lose weight. This does not hold up to any scientific scrutiny. It would be like ridiculing schizophrenics and making fun of them for being crazy without actually offering them some suitable help (if we’re going the route of unhelpful comparisons). Encouragement, support and education demonstrate far more effective results than shaming. So, I will agree with the sentiment that insulting fat people because they’re fat is not the way to encourage improvement.
But, you’ll notice I’m focused on getting healthier. I am not a fat apologist and the blog my sister directed to my attention was one such thing. Here was a “social justice warrior” railing against the prevalence of thin privilege within our literary media. Heroes are, near universally, young and athletic or thin. Fat people are often characters of ridicule or villains. This blog went on a bit of a tirade about the injustice of it all and how they, as a fat person, are more than just a lot of extra pounds. Of course, this tirade reached humorous proportions when, near they end, they started claiming pride in their size and turning into the same cognitive gymnastics that people perform in order to justify their problems instead of taking the harder approach of trying to address them.
Now, there is a thing to be said for falling into standard literary cliches. It is an overtired trope that the jolly fat sidekick be used as comedic relief. I have no issue with authors putting more effort into their character building than automatically making their main lead a muscle bound marine if the story doesn’t call for it. Granted, the vast majority of fantasy is, inevitably, going to feature thin or athletic protagonists. How can it not? I suppose you could feature a fantastical world where obese people are capable of physical feats impossible in the real world due to their lack of fitness. As someone with a focus on creating fictional worlds, however, I feel this breach of verisimilitude and ignoring basic common sense is going to put a lot of strain on your audience’s suspension of disbelief. When writing stories about daring knights and wild sword fights, is anyone really going to expect an overweight hero capable of holding their own?
Of course, bodies come in many shapes and sizes. One can be strong and healthy and still have a wide variety of appearances. In fact, I’d maintain that if you were shooting for historical accuracy, it’s quite unlikely you’d have well defined muscular individuals. Classic warriors would likely be closer to Andre the Giant than Gerard Butler’s King Leonidas since, last I checked, there aren’t a lot of medieval weight lifting clubs.
I, personally, would welcome a wider representation in our fictional characters. Body shape can and does make just as effective a characteristic for an individual as any other property. I’ve posted my Bannock short story and the antagonist, Nikolai, is fat. However, this isn’t presented as a negative but as a sign of his success for he inhabits a frontier world where most people are too poor to maintain a healthy diet. His ability to have survived long enough to a point where he can indulge in a more sedentary lifestyle is a testament to his ruthlessness and strength than a point of shame.
Likewise, another antagonist is a rather lean and muscular man met later on in the story. His fitnesses stems from a philosophical approach where mind and body are meant to be tuned and focused in order to bring prosperity to oneself. Care of the body represents the care of one’s soul so having him both able and capable of maintaining a fit form is likewise a sign of power and control. I have two wildly different shaped antagonists but both these lend a sense of strength and control to their character. Likewise, the overabundance of thinness in my protagonist cast is a reflection of the difficult lifestyle they led and a sign of the trials they face – not an aspect meant to be celebrated and held up as ideal.
However, I want to end on one very particular point and that is refuting the typical fat apologist stance of denying the importance of health. Though I was unable to find Kait’s original blog, I did come across thisisthinprivilege.tumblr.com in my research. Specifically, I want to address their arguments over health and the denial of the obesity epidemic. No words but their own, I feel, best highlight the ridiculousness these people take:
“Let me make it completely clear from the outset that I do not believe ‘health,’ however defined, is a reasonable measure to determine whether or not someone deserves respect, civil rights, and fair treatment. If you have a problem with how health markets apportion your premiums or where your taxes go, then by all means, rage against the system. But do not think for a minute your assholish behavior towards people you imagine use more than their ‘fair share’ is justified.”
Ok, fair enough. I’ve already addressed that shaming a person does not actually help them get better. There are more supportive ways to encourage someone to become healthier and treating people with respect regardless of their station in life is always admirable. People should lose respect due to their actions and beliefs. Which, coincidentally, is what happens next!
“In fact, I’ll go further and state that in my opinion the modern conception of ‘health’ is bullshit. It’s an ever-changing, largely arbitrary definition that seems to serve a single purpose: to blame modern ills on so-called ‘unhealthy’ people then define so-called ‘unhealthy’ people as unpopular social ‘deviants’ like fat people, poor people, and the disabled. The philosophy of vaunting the modern notion of ‘health’ to some kind of societal/moral imperative is called healthism.”
Wow, I’m sure this individual has a lot of research and knowledge on the subject of health, nutrition and medicine to back up their opinion that the modern conception is bullshit. Oh wait, no, they don’t and they’re basically now just making up a bunch of nonsense in order to feel better about themselves. I understand how difficult it can be for people to lose weight. As I mentioned, my sister has struggled with it all her life. For the vast majority of us, it is impossible to actually reach the idealized bodies presented by the media. There’s really two ways you can approach this truth: either you strive for achieving health in what is reasonable for your own body or you can bury your head in the sand and come up with bullshit arguments for why health is bad you don’t need to do anything about it. In case it might have not been clear enough, health is a thing and we should strive to be healthy for a number of reasons: it reduces risk for serious diseases, lengthens your lifespan, puts less strain on those closest to you and makes you feel better being the chief amongst them.
“Perhaps there are those of you who ask: What about when someone’s so fat it’s medically unhealthy, shouldn’t you tell them to lose weight, out of friendly/familial concern? – Hell no. Why would your friends be a better witness to your experience than you are? If they are, then don’t you have bigger presumed problems than your weight? Why would they know what’s healthy for you, better than you do? Again, if they do, don’t you have bigger presumed problems than your weight? How in the world could you possibly avoid hearing, in our current cultural climate, that fat people should ‘lose weight for their health’? Treat people with respect. Don’t infantilize or condescend to them. This is Adult Interaction 101, here.”
Can you imagine what would be someone’s reaction if we changed obesity to some other health problem. Let’s pretend you are friends or family to someone with a drug problem. Basically, this individual is arguing you shouldn’t strive for them to seek help because you can’t “possibly” know what’s good for them. Except, there’s reams and reams of research this individual has blindly dismissed because they simply don’t want to believe in it. I’m sorry, when science disagrees with you and all you have to back up your position is a really flawed argument on… I don’t even know what… then I think it’s pretty clear when someone has ceased engaging in rational discourse and is not looking for empathy but excuses. That’s my grief with fat apologists. We have a very real, definable and measurable problem but because it’s too difficult to address, acknowledge and change we’re going to try and promote lies and misinformation so we can ignore and dismiss a real issue with very serious consequences. All so we can feel fleeting joy over an issue which ultimately affects the afflicted more than anyone else. It’s in unhealthy people’s best interest to get healthy but these people would rather work against their own self interest because it’s seemingly easier to create a false issue like thin privilege than actually improve.
And it is that “choice” which is quite reasonable to shame.
1. Ogden C. L., Carroll, M. D., Kit, B.K., & Flegal K. M. (2014). Prevalence of childhood and adult obesity in the United States, 2011-2012. Journal of the American Medical Association, 311(8), 806-814.