Saturday, July 25, 2009

on one aspect of the Regina Benjamin controversy

The controversy over the appointment of Dr. Regina Benjamin is shameful, from my point of view, and revealing of one aspect of how fat prejudice functions. Given that the woman's credentials satisfy in any direction you might slice them, how she looks must have really had to ring some bells to make people talk about it. Especially when Koop and Elders didn't.

I think the real reason Benjamin's size has gotten so much attention is that she has a chubby face. I don't think there would have been nearly the hubhub about this if she had the same body with a face that happened to be thinner. I'm not sure people would have noticed her body, period, which is a fairly conventional size 18-20, if that, not particularly readable in her basic black suit.

People--the media--demonstrate a real lack of "lipoliteracy" (as Mark Graham calls it) in reading images of fat people. People aren't that good at reading images in general, but fat bodies, which tend to be shown in very limited and particular ways, so most people (including other fat people) aren't well-practiced at understanding them, are generally pretty crudely read. There is an inability to distinguish body type from body size, to read relative size in an accurate way, to really see how light, angle, clothing and movement are affecting what they're seeing. To know what size other people really are.

Faces are, in a funny way, how people decide how fat someone is, how fat the rest of someone is. And one thing you notice quickly when you start really looking at fat people, at all people, is that people's faces don't necessarily represent how big (or small) they are. Especially images of faces. Faces can tell you something about a person, but a lot of fat people have fairly thin faces. And vice versa. There isn't a one-to-one corollary. There is a whole world of eating disorders sparked by chubby or round faces that don't match thin bodies.

The face is synecdoche, the repository for information about the whole body. And you can't "pass" if you have a chubby face (as in Benjamin's case). And in reading fat faces a kind of eugenics is employed. There are whole worlds of meaning instantly seen in double chins and chubby cheeks, in jowls and dimples and fat, in even small variations on all of this, most of them bad. Meaning that is drawn not just about the person but about the fatness or otherwise of the rest of the body. The fact that the image of the fat face isn't shown, highlighted, nearly as often as it really exists in this life gives it an extra shock and negative power.

The point here is not to lobby for continued judgement of other people's bodies, so long as it's done "correctly." It is to point out that part of what's so frustrating about the issue of body size in this country is that we don't even really know what we're seeing. It's not okay to be fat, but who knows what that is. "Fat" is one whole side of the bell curve, more than that, a million different things. To make intelligent distinctions, to describe something accurately, is to bring size into focus too much, to allow it to be. We want it to just go away.

The dude on Fox News who decided Dr. Benjamin was obese and therefore "lazy," for instance, was reacting in large part, I am convinced, to her face (her body doesn't even seem particularly visible in the press conference footage). Which seems (to some) to make her look sweet, kind, soft, older, less competitive...compromised. Weak. Lazy. Not authoritarian. Not hard-working. Not intelligent, not focused, not educated. Otherwise we could see it in her face, yes? Instead of the chub?

Dr. Benjamin is obviously, demonstrably, all these things: intelligent, focused, educated, devoted, swimming in credentials and press coverage of every kind to make the point if the other facts of her life don't. That this would be questioned as it has shows how much meaning body size has for people.

There are many other things to talk about with regard to this situation, most notably race: race, class, gender, age, the dominance of the visual media, the importance of looking a part, the way in which we are all scarred in some ways by the body wars. I think it's interesting, though, that body size is the arena in which people's reactions to her nomination have surfaced and have been, in fact, allowed to do so.