Somewhere in between (one might even say “sandwiched”) recaps of The Daily Show and discussions of exactly how victimized we should all be feeling by Anthony Weiner’s penis, Salon managed to publish an interesting article this week on, among other things, the implications of a common type of personal narrative, the weight loss story.
As you might have guessed from the title, “I Choose to be Fat,” Laura Bogart’s piece is an affirmation of the author’s body type and an exploration of the cultural bias to constantly view the obese through the lens of weight management. Some of us might not think of shows like The Biggest Loser, or A&E’s delightfully trashy Biggest Loser/Intervention hybrid, Heavy, as being overtly fat-shaming (look at all those determined, hard working, sympathetic fat people!), especially when compared to the other ways the overweight are characterized in popular fiction (variations on Jabba the Hutt, or Melissa McCarthy) but would we be as accepting of a heartwarming reality show centered around gay conversion therapy? Or how about a team-style competition in which Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper use tough love and unrelenting stick-to-itiveness to train a bunch of Japanese people to pronounce the letter “r?” It’s apparently okay to insist that fat people dramatically alter themselves to meet societal norms because we have a general consensus that being fat is an undesirable thing to do, but part of what informs that consensus is the image, perpetuated by these shows in the first place, of fat people being made miserable by their bodies (and by our reactions too their bodies).*
And yet, I don’t actually think that shame is what weight loss narratives are really about. In a culture in which a majority of people are overweight and, to quote Bogart, “not interested in sacrifices,” there has to be more to the appeal of this type of story than reinforcing stereotypes. We are a nation of Honeys Boo Boo, fat and unrealistically proud of ourselves; we’re not going to watch something that tells us we should do better.
At their core, I think these are stories about control, and they use weight loss as a medium because it’s concrete, visual, and relatively quick. Life happens to us the same way that fat happens to us: confusingly, and seemingly without our awareness or consent. Life is stolen bicycles and infected ingrown hairs and riding a train to work, thinking about how you were supposed to be a supermodel zoologist who is friends with Bono, and then a homeless man throws up in your lap. (It is also the gentle laughter of children and the first sip of an ice cold beer on a summer afternoon, but mostly it is the thing on the train). In the face of this, we tell each other the story of the man or the woman around whose waistline some unwanted life-things had accumulated, and who, through sheer force of will and a few crunches, was able to wrest from the universe some small amount of control over it all. It beats the hell out of reading The Secret.
*I would also like to point out that many people do not have the luxury of choosing their obesity; they just happen to live in a country in which food manufacturers have more lobbyists than the poor.