Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change


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When the restaurant chair collapsed underneath me, tumbling me to the floor of the pizza restaurant in full view of a floor-to-ceiling window and thus the entire passing parade, I did not immediately blame the condition of the chair. I blamed myself, for being too fat.

Even as I joined in the laughter — what else could I do, with my skirt up around my waist and my dignity somewhere in the basement — I knew blaming myself was ridiculous.

But public perception is a mighty thing, as are the mores and ethos of the culture. Often I figured that I should have been born of a different tribe, one that valued women based on their heft.

But we are stuck in a world that is cruel to the fat.

There are seven deadly sins: pride, anger, sloth, envy, greed, lust and gluttony. In an on-line poll that asked individuals to name which of the seven “sins” represented their worst failing, lust and anger shared top spot; envy and greed the bottom. Gluttony ranked in the middle with pride and sloth.

The surprise statistic is that gluttony did not rank last. That’s probably due to the fact that the poll was self-selective and not done in public. Who today would admit to be a glutton in public? Who would show such lack of restraint? Consider the grotesqueries of eating contests that never feature women. What woman would enter one? What woman would leave herself open to the charge of public gluttony?

We are merciless in our judgment of others. We can talk all about “fat acceptance” and “inner beauty” and recite all the politically correct terms and smile as if we are agreeing, but inside, you’re judging the woman next to you by her appearance. No? Then explain to me how every study done on success and achievement ranks appearance right up there with brains and education.

Beauty matters. Luckily, beauty is still in the eye of the beholder, an adage that explains why Prince Charles chose Camilla over Diana, clearly the revenge of the middle-aged woman. (Or, as I prefer to believe, the triumph of sense and sensibility over narcissism and neediness.) Regardless of the personal insults leveled at the long-time mistress and now wife of the Prince of Wales about her appearance — “horseface” being the kindest; “rottwieler” being Diana’s chosen sobriquet — Camilla still fell within the parameters of acceptable appearance.

Camilla was homely, not fat. Obesity is the real deadly sin in our world. Is it right? No. Is it fair? Indeed not.

I envy any woman who can accept her looks and her appearance and leave it at that. But here’s the problem: Try as I may, I cannot love myself when I wear as size 18 dress. I cannot like myself when I have no choice but to search out the “above average” departments. And Additionelle and Toni + and Laura Woman aren’t fooling anyone. No euphemism disguises the amount of material needed to make a size 24 skirt.

Gluttony is our society’s deadly sin. “Fat pig” carries a stunning insult: You’re showing other people you have no control over yourself and your desires and you wallow in them. In medieval times, St. Thomas Aquinas said gluttony shows not just a desire to eat and drink, but “an inordinate desire . . . leaving the order of reason, wherein the good of moral virtue consists.” (The punishment in hell for gluttons is to be force-fed rats, toads and snakes.)

That’s where the public condemnation comes in. No obese person can hide the fat. All the other deadlies can be hidden. Anger can be masked; sloth can be excused. Pride seems a prerequisite for Wall Street. Lust is so common as to be regarded as normal, if what passes as song lyrics and videos are to be believed. As for envy and greed, both are easily disguised. But the outward show of gluttony is obvious.

Indeed, there are fat people who are not gluttons. But I’m not talking about the beautiful inner person, I’m talking about what other people think. Regardless of hormones, glandular imbalance, whatever, obese people are regarded as gluttons, the conventional wisdom being if they weren’t a glutton, they wouldn’t be fat. It doesn’t necessarily make sense, but such thinking fuels the billion-dollar diet industry and all the weight-loss gimmicks that promise so much for the frantic and desperate.

The truly sad fact is that being fat is no sin. The “fat” woman of today would have been the envy of her peers a generation ago. Consider Marilyn Monroe, once the sine qua non of sexuality. The icon has not changed, but our perception of what is attractive has altered, diminished to little-girl proportions, to hipless, breastless, pre-pubescent thinness. This is what the fashion industry presents to us as normal, presents to us in the clothes the industry wants us to wear. Kim Chernin writes in The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness, that young girls who envied Marilyn Monroe’s womanly body “yearned as growing girls to look like her.” Look what has happened, writes Chernin, to the perception of beauty. If Marilyn Monroe “were alive now and still as grand and voluptuous as she was then, (she) would today no doubt be considered fat. It is unlikely that today someone seeing her for the first time would be taken with jealousy because of the abundance of her body.”

We are shaped by public perception. What keeps the diet industry in business also feeds the coffers of mental health professionals, self-help experts, psychiatrists and psychologists the world over.

Ask any fat person how she or he eats in public. Likely as not, you’ll get two divergent answers: One group will shyly admit they overeat only at home, out of a sense of public disapproval; the other will brag they don’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thinks of their eating habits. But the next time you’re in a mall, stop off at the food court and just watch how people react to others who do not fit within the narrow parameters of our standards.

Chernin writes about just such scenes, where public disapproval is based not on actions, not on beliefs, but on appearance. “It may be that I feel so much sympathy for these women because I have always imagined that I looked like them. I have walked out on the street or on the beach or on the dance floor, feeling that people were casting just such knowing looks at me. But I don’t think even I could exaggerate the pain these women suffer because they are large. In the face of their obesity our normal standards of humanity vanish and we are possessed by a form of racist revulsion for the bodies of these women.”

Fat people are the last group which can be openly scorned. How do I know? I’ve been there and done that. I have seen both sides of the issue.

Remember the scene in Gone With The Wind, when Scarlett O’Hara talks about “eating barbecue” with her long list of beaux, especially the twins, Brett and Stuart Tarleton? Prissy brings a plate of food for Scarlett, who refuses to eat, saying she will “do my eating at the barbecue.” Mammy promptly gives her a tongue-lashing, telling Scarlett: “You can always tell a lady by the way she eats in front of folks like a bird and I ain’t aimin’ for you to go to Mr. John Wilkes and eat like a field hand and gobble like a hog!”

In a 1980 edition of Homemakers Magazine, Janet Polivy, a researcher into the psychology of eating and dieting at Toronto’s Clarke Institute was quoted as saying: “We are obsessed with overeating because gluttony is the last sin left. In a world where politicians steal, where promiscuity is sanctioned and where youth and beauty are revered, gluttony is the sin we can see.”

NEXT: Much depends on dinner


Written by Catherine Ford

October 23, 2009 at 5:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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