Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Why Women Need Fat - will repost soon

ERRATUM: I need to more carefully reframe what it was I liked about this article--will repost soon.

Monday, December 19, 2011

have a fattastic 2012

There are two--TWO--fantastic fat-themed calendars to hang, flip the pages of, or scrabble on, in 2012. Yeah, I'm dangling my prepositions!

1) The Adipositivity Project wall calendar (11"x17")--twelve months of arty, nsfw, fat lady visuals. Beautiful photography and a worthy, exciting project, as always. I was honored to make a minor contribution to their holiday message.

2. The Fat!So? dayplanner--a cover to decorate yourself, and double pages inside with tips, quotes, images, drawings, and dates to help inform a size-positive year, from Marilyn Wann and others. Here is a brief video showing the book. Proceeds go to build the Weight Diversity Action Lounge, a community center in the SF-area.

on NHANES and data-gathering

Worth reading: this recent interesting post from an interesting blog by Kjerstin Gruys, who is spending a year not looking in mirrors and writing about the experience. Gruys details participating in the CDC National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES) and what it was like to have such detailed information taken and given about her health, especially as a former anorexic.

The part that really leapt out at me was this fascinating paragraph about (basically) the framework within which the CDC is collecting information about weight and food, and how the way it is designed will never allow a full picture [emphases are mine]:
. . . I can honestly say that the NHANES study seems to be biased toward preventing weight gain, as opposed to preventing eating disorders. My first clue didn't come on my "Preliminary Report of Findings" but in the wording of one of the interview questions asked during our home visit. The field interviewer asked me if I'd "ever participated in any weight-loss diets". My answer was "yes." Then she asked me, "How much weight did you lose in your most successful weight-loss attempt?" The NHANES computer program only allowed her to record the (horrifying and unhealthy) amount of weight that I'd lost in my most "successful" attempt, but there was no space to specify that "it was due to anorexia and she could have died." Upon my urging, she added a special note, but I have no idea how this will be handled when the data are analyzed. This is troubling: the wording of this question frames any weight loss as good, which we know isn't true. Another thing I noticed: despite asking me to describe, in detail, every bite of food that I'd eaten in the prior 24 hours, I was never asked whether I'd purged any of this food, or if I had taken laxatives or diuretics (I hadn't, but that's not the point). Through these questions (and non-questions), some of the most dangerous health behaviors - such as crash-dieting, purging, laxative abuse, and extreme food restriction - are made invisible.
Worth a read. Thoughtful post.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

good quote on the Jessica Simpson blah-blah

This article in Slate about Jessica Simpson's possible pre-birth signing with Weight Watchers for post-birth weight loss endorsement sums up the whole game really well:
This . . . body-policing cycle—weight gain, scrutiny, weight loss, more scrutiny, repeat—that is one of the most powerful motors in the machinery of celebrity journalism. No celebrity can ever achieve the right weight, because there is no right weight; one is always too fat or too skinny, and one is always eating too much or too little. There’s no escape. There is only—for the publications that sell copies by stoking readers’ body anxieties, for the celebrities who manage to ink multimillion-dollar weight-loss deals, and for the diet companies that rake in consumers’ cash—profit.
In fact, this piece points out that Simpson—or her handlers—or the machine—whatever—may be encouraging a bidding war by placed items about her weight gain/prenant eating habits. The real fuel of people's pain and worry makes this industry possible, but it feels like money will never let it stop.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Weight Loss and Sexual Reorientation in Evangelical America

This book by Lynne Gerber, Seeking the Straight and Narrowlooks fascinating. From the U of Chicago Press website:
Drawing on fieldwork at First Place, a popular Christian weight-loss program, and Exodus International, a network of ex-gay ministries, Lynne Gerber explores why some Christians feel that being fat or gay offends God, what exactly they do to lose weight or go straight, and how they make sense of the program’s results--or, frequently, their lack. Gerber notes the differences and striking parallels between the two programs, and, more broadly, she traces the ways that other social institutions have attempted to contain the excesses associated with fatness and homosexuality. Challenging narratives that place evangelicals in constant opposition to dominant American values, Gerber shows that these programs reflect the often overlooked connection between American cultural obsessions and Christian ones.

How Glad I Am!

How can you not like this song? This version of this song, I mean.

I always think there's an unintentional dash of size love in the lyrics, somehow. And her version is so crisp and happy, so Nancy Wilson.

My love has no beginning, my love has no end
No front or back and my love won't bend
I'm in the middle, lost in a spin loving you
And you don't know, you don't know
You don't know, you don't know how glad I am

My love has no bottom, my love has no top
My love won't rise and my love won't drop
I'm in the middle and I can't stop loving you
And you don't know, you don't know
You don't know, you don't know how glad I am

I wish I were a poet so I could express
What I'd, what I'd like to say yeah
I wish I were an artist so I could paint a picture
Of how I feel, of how I feel today

My love has no walls on either side
That makes my love wider than wide
I'm in the middle and I can't hide loving you

And you don't know, you don't know
You don't know, you don't know how glad I am

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

my dinner with @robdelaney

Nah--not dinner, a seven-tweet exchange. Which he thoughtfully deleted on his end, so as to keep his kooky followers (wait, that's me!) from targeting me as a civilian.

I love reading Rob Delaney on Twitter, as do many other people--as of this exact moment, 257,212 other people, which is maybe 200K more than when I first started following him. (I cite this not as hipster cred but to show how fast things can change on Twitter. Tis bonkers.)

If you already follow him you probably get the appeal of his funny and nsfw feed (watch as I make it unfunny with a little sketchy analysis), which more than many uses the tools that only 140 characters allow, including lots of change in voice and tone using punctuation, spelling, and length, doing stuff like: responding to fake tweets he's made up (Barack Obama) or to real tweets from dumb corporate/celebrity feeds (Kim K); employing a great sense of the goofy and macabre; showing a strong, sincere POV about politics, shitty popular culture, and dumb women's beauty ideals, which shines through in all the fun, nasty tweets. I can't sum up his tweetin' in one paragraph, but it's really fun, and worth a surge through it, as is the stuff he writes for Vice. He's smart. He doesn't ha-ha at his written jokes--just lets them rip.

He often talks about liking chubby women (see category "he likes it sturdy," here), which is always what makes it an extra-bummer to see guys like that draw that line where "fat" becomes a lazy, meaning-packed diss. They just move the line over a little, a distinction that people in their preferences always seem to need to define by talking about how gross the things they don't like are.

I think I'd responded to one of his "fat" tweets before, but in October I tossed another response at him (first thing in the morning, bleary-eyed, unthinking) because of the first tweet below, here, and then had the following exchange:

Who knows if he actually thought about what I said. "Fat" still pops up in his tweets in kinda meh ways. It must be such a temptation to use that word, especially in that context--three words of great power and connotation--although to me it means only one thing. I don't mean that in any kind of ennobled way! This is not about being PC. It's just that all the word describes is body size...that's it. Any other meaning is long gone for me, to the point that when other people use it I can feel confused at first. He's right--it is lazy to use it as a descriptor, because it doesn't mean nearly as much as people think it does, which also makes it misleading. And confirms its general role as an insult. And he didn't need to mention that his weight fluctuates (inasmuch as it's relevant, which it isn't)--everyone in America has issues about size, otherwise people wouldn't be so fucked up and mean about it to other people.

But I quite appreciated him writing back (and quickly deleting the posts). It was very exciting and I do think he was a mensch for doing it. And I love his ballsy way of using the space he has on Twitter--opening up a lot of space with his jokes, especially by being both raunchy and real (ungh, why are the words describing nsfw humor so humorless) and sort of feminist at the same time. Which was why it was a bummer to see him patting prejudice into place using "fat" the way he did, but you know--Twitter goes by fast. Things change fast too. Who knows.

ADDENDUM: I forgot to mention that the day after our interchange, this piece by Delaney appeared on the Vice website: "I Fuck Food." Which is a phrase from this blog--I used it in an entry about Bridesmaids: ". . . a lame sight gag involving a sandwich that makes it clear that people think fat people fuck food, not people." Simultaneous genius?

"It's that fat lady from the station!"

A lady needs tools in her self-esteem arsenal, yes? Of all kinds?

I like to collect and savor moments that demonstrate (a sometimes delightfully unexpected) admiration for fat women in movies or TV (or paintings or books or). Earlier in my life I think I used to snatch at them, really--as evidence of something I wasn't quite sure existed--but regardless, I am still now, as then, ever on the lookout for bits of culture that praise or otherwise provide an appreciation of the larger lady. They are fun.

As such, I offer up a scene from Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991), a rather chaotic adaptation of the novel by E.M. Forster. It is one of those stories that shows horrid English people doing horrid things in Italy (and how), which opens their insides up and teaches them how to be otherwise, although it may be too late? Yes? No?

Earlier in the film, the exceedingly horrid Harriet Herriton (played fearlessly by Judy Davis) and her brother Philip (Rupert Graves) have bumped into a woman (Evelina Meghnagi) on the train and rudely pushed her out of the way [see above stills]. After disembarking they all end up waiting in the sun at the same train station in Monteriano, where the fat woman, whose conversational advances Harriet has cut, is unaccountably (to Harriet) picked up first by the pleased driver.

Later, Harriet, Philip, and Caroline Abbott (Helena Bonham-Carter), attend a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor and discover that the woman they were traveling with is fact the star of the production ("It's that fat lady from the station!"). She sings the mad scene from Lucia ("She's sure to be very vulgar," says Harriet) as the Italian audience--mostly men, and mostly rather swain-like--sit rapt and silent before breaking into crazy applause at the end (and Philip climbs the balcony to meet the man they've come to Italy to see, as if he's leaving his own culture and joining theirs). I was enchanted by this scene when I first saw it. There's a nice little bit of comeuppance in it, as well as the fun of seeing a room full of Forster's Italians swoon over the singer. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

what a twit

From the Gordon Ramsey interview in October UK edition of Playboy. Credit to Playboy for the extremely stupid question about the nature of being a chef, and to Ramsey himself for the asshole answer, which has SWEETFUCKALL to do with cooking (interesting to contrast his with the "never trust a skinny chef" dictum, which was also assholely). Also, credit to both of them for barging ahead immediately afterward with the idiom "spreading yourself thin" in a way that to me adds extra Duh to his already specious thinking about the phenom of the chef brand:
Q8 PLAYBOY: How do you not weigh 300 pounds?

RAMSAY: I like the Chinese ethic of eating four or five small bowls a day. I don’t think chefs should be fat. I was a fat chef once. I think it’s the most disgusting trait for any chef to walk into a dining room at 450 pounds and expect people to eat his or her food. My father died of a heart attack at the age of 53. I’ve never smoked in my life. I love keeping fit. I don’t like sitting around.

Q9 PLAYBOY: Clearly not. You have more than two dozen restaurants around the world, three TV shows here and three in the U.K., cookbooks, promotional tie-ins, four young kids. Do you ever worry you’re spreading yourself too thin?

RAMSAY: Oh, come on. Do you think ­Wolfgang Puck has spread himself too thin with Puck Express and a $400 million company? Fuck no. For a guy with 127 restaurants, he looks great and he’s cool as a cucumber. I can only hope to continue at that level at 62. But he does it the same way I do it and the same way Thomas Keller or Joël Robuchon or any other great chef does: You hire great people.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

photo Tuesday - NSFW

The bottom pic has been making the rounds on Tumblr, which led me to look at the artist's website. There's some other interesting stuff on it. This is not a whole-hearted endorsement, btw--the dick-worshipping pic on the front page right now is kind of hilarious, and you could argue that the bottom pic is problematic--but still--interesting.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Never read the comments.

This time I read the comments. Dumb me.

My friend Lorna (the gorj redhead) was featured in this piece in the Daily Mail (the Daily M being its own problem, yes), and for some reason I let my eye drift to the land of text AT THE BOTTOM. Never do that.

What struck me this time, in addition to the usual sneering, bottomless derision, was how goddamn sure commenters--especially the concern-trolling commenters, who make sure they check anybody's perceived complacency with their size (they can identify this by a lack of proper self-hate) before it goes too far with medical "concerns"--how goddamn sure they are that they KNOW EVERYTHING.

It's almost funny. They know why a group of people or in an fact any one person is fat, how they live, who will get diabetes, who is paying for fat people's drain on the economy (them). They know a fat person's psychology, medical history, test results, future, past, state of being--all from looking at a 5" square 72 dpi photo online with some accompanying shitty prose. They are there to make sure we all know what they know. It's even more ridiculous when you know the commenter is a grossed-out 18-year-old who is so incredibly sure about this stuff. The 18-year-olds don't sound any different from the crazed adults, actually. Which should tell us something.

I think it would be great if commenters had to include the unspoken part of their concern-trolling (in brackets):
I know your fat will make you diabetic [because I am the wizard of diabetes future!]

I hate to tell you but [I am an MD because I am online and I can diagnose illness from online photos and] you are unhealthy because you're fat

You are promoting obesity by showing [and not flagellating] these fat women [who using my logic aren't really people at all]

I don't believe you are happy at your size [because you shouldn't be and I will keeping treating you like shit until you realize you this]

I appreciate fat acceptance but there is a line between curvy and unhealthily obese [and I can tell where it is by when my dick gets soft]

I know that if you ate less and exercised more you'd be happier [because I AM SUPERMAN & I CAN SEE WHAT YOU EAT WITH MY X-RAY SPEX!!]
Anyhow: ungh. And: hehe. Vent over.

Never read the comments.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Friday, September 23, 2011

Big Big Love! by Hanne Blank

In August of last year I wrote here about the revised version of Big Big Love coming out in 2011. Well...it's here! And can be bought by anyone desirous of doing so, as of a few days ago.

The subtitle of Big Big Love is "A Sex and Relationships Guide for People of Size (and Those Who Love Them)." Which is just what it is, in the best, broadest, kindest, firmest, most positive way. I actually think it's a great resource for anybody, whatever your size, and a great primer for managing your own needs and treating yourself well while navigating life as a sexual being. There is an air of kindly authority to (especially the new version of) this book that ever pleases me.

In addition to the delicious and nutritious text from Ms. Blank, and the wonderful slidy, bosomy cover photo by Fat Bottom Boudoir, there are interviews with:
and others; wonderful peeps with great specific ideas and advice.

Look, it's a snippet!
A sexy snippet.
What I didn't mention in my last blog entry about this book--and didn't know at the time--was that I'd be illustrating it. There aren't many illustrations in this book--just five--but they were all extremely carefully chosen, and drawn, to complement the text in very specific ways. I mean, duh, right--that is what illustrations are for--but a lot of thought went into them, from Hanne, from her great editor, from me. I hope they please.

It is a wonderful book and I am honored to have been part of it. I have seen it in every stage (and I mean every): from working on the zine from which it grew in the late 90s; to reading the edits in the original version ten years ago; reading edits for this one; offering bits of input all along the way. And I still find helpful and new information in it. I still go back to it for its solid yet nuanced perspective, and I'm sure I always will. If I hadn't gotten my illustrator's copy, I'd buy it. I can't recommend it more highly than that.

Hanne will be doing readings and events in the fall. You can find out more about them here. HB is one of the best public speakers I know--go have fun.

Love love!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Dear Jamie Oliver - You're the Human Rights Issue

Dear J.O. -

Fabulous fat suit. Really. Heh. Fat man likes his french fry.

That photo is taken from this week's Guardian piece about your "calls for a global action to tackle obesity."

The gist of your campaign--the first part to your ideas--is that: children in the US and UK live in a world of westernized fast food and food deserts; family cooking is a lost skill; there is little actual food in a lot of the food children eat; companies, obsessed with profit, are clever at finding what will appeal most to children and selling it to them, with no real interest in nutrition.

I agree with most of that. I am fat, I believe wholeheartedly in size acceptance, and I agree with that (if not the moralizing about it). I think the issues that inform what children eat are extremely complicated--more complicated than just corporate influence and a lack of information--but--yes. You can see the problems you describe with one trip to the grocery store--if you can get to one where you live, and if you can afford to buy anything once you're there. Carbs and processed foods are cheap, and protein and produce are not.

However, the thinking that immediately follows these ideas of yours is where you--and Michelle Obama--lose it every time. And lose me. You take off in a plane with lots of thrust, but don't realize that your machine is missing the parts to get it where you want to go. You don't see that the plane's crashed, and crashed fast, from faulty logic.

How does concern for all children's nutrition and health immediately and completely turn into concern about obesity? Why is obesity assumed to be the only response in the human population to the problems of the world in which we live and eat?

There is no sketchy explanation going from one topic to another, in fact there's no explanation at all; you just assume a leap in understanding from the concepts of "poor eating habits" and "food deserts" to fat, quickly followed by fatisbad (not only bad, "PREVENTABLE," as it says on your campaign site.) The pledge you want us to sign reads:
Jamie needs you to join him in taking a stand against obesity. Let’s show the world that we demand more. PETITION: 'I support the Food Revolution. Kids need better food at school and better health prospects. We need to keep cooking skills alive.'
Shouldn't you be asking us to "join you in taking a stand against bad [whatever] food" if that's really your concern?

The way you and most everyone else regard fatness is the exact opposite of the poignant de Montaigne quote, "Every man beareth the whole stamp of the human condition." In your thinking those who are fat do the wrong things in response to the fast-food world we live in, and those who are thin do the right things. Fat people are marked; thin people are not. You can see it and know it.

Forget the fact that this is bad science. Forget the fact that a myriad of factors influence how or if the human body gets fat. Forget that there are thin children suffering from the same issues of nutrition and ill health, from the same diets. Forget the fact that we haven't actually been spending the last 100 years praising being fat in this country; we've been horrified at it, discriminating against it, dieting about it, obsessed with it, trying to make it go away, and it's never worked. Forget that we don't actually know how to make a population thinner. Forget the fact that juking the stats ("obesity in the US costs $10,273,973 per hour!") is a time-honored, suspect way to defend your opinions about the health of a large group of people. Forget the fact that although size and fatness is absolutely interwoven with health, the degree to which it is, and how it plays out in individual cases, varies wildly.

Forget all that. You, and Michelle Obama, still end up in an untenable, illogical, and hateful place by focusing on size instead of health as a solution to whatever it is you really have a problem with.

When obesity is the entire locus of attention, you end up mopping yourself into a corner by (as the Guardian piece put it) urging "western nations to play a key role in halting the dramatic rise in numbers of obese people [emph mine] across the planet."

Try that sentence with any other modifier: "halting the dramatic rise in numbers of old/disabled/black/tall/skinny/short people across the planet." People. The key word there is people. Somehow people get lost very fast in the shuffle talking about fat, when fat is considered an endlessly influenceable state of being and a product only of (bad) decisions. Even when (as the Guardian piece does) experts acknowledge that the "current obesity epidemic was not caused by people being lazy or overeating" and that "research...showed that individuals had much less choice in the matter of their weight than they would assume," you're still choosing to focus on size, not health, as the key to fixing it.

What you end up with, as Melissa McEwan wrote in her excellent Shakesville post, is eliminationism. This is almost always the end result of discussion of size: somewhere, somehow fat people are being asked not to exist. No, I don't want you to go away, I just want you to be skinnier and healthier. Don't come back til you are. Don't be til you are thinner. Don't...be.

To all the folks whose response to any of this is ever, "why the fuck don't they just eat less?" that will sound self-pitying and dramatic. But it's true. Even if fat people could present you with a card that swears they dislike their fat bodies and swears they are trying to change them, and have eliminated every possible "excuse" for being fat, would you still accept fat people as they are, right now? Allow them every right and privilege? Because that's all we have in this world--right now. Fat and apologetic, fat and unapologetic--we just are.

The "flip" side of your alarmist and self-serving headlines such as "42 Million Kids Are Obese--Help Me Save Them" is that THERE ARE 42 MILLION FAT KIDS. That's kids--people. Not 42 million cases of diabetes, not 42 million families that don't know how to feed their kids: 42 million people. The only reason that many people put up with, and wholeheartedly defend, the right to be treated like crap (which, unfortunately, is where efforts to influence body size get us) is because we're taught fat is bad.

And the way we learn that now--the way we justify it--is health. That is how we hate fat people now, by knowing they are unhealthy, dying young, out of shape, eating more than their share, ignorant of nutrition, diabetic, "morbidly obese," and with giant carbon footprints. (It's amazing how fat hating turns everyone into an M.D. And a sociologist. And the coolest part is that you can know this just by looking at em!) You, Jamie, are doing your bit to drive that home.

You and the First Lady could end up somewhere so great--seriously, great--if you just let your ideas go where they want to go--with a focus on health, and let body size come along however it wants to. Not to mention that focusing on health (see HAES) is the only demonstrable way you can effect it. (Weird, isn't it, how that works. Focusing on health improves health.) It just kills me that there is all this good intention--and I think there is a lot of it in the mix--if there weren't, this would all be much easier to deal with--but it goes somewhere so dead-end. With just one crucial tweak you could do so much good, but as it stands you are poised to perpetuate and create a lot of damage.

You called in your recent speech for a "global movement to make obesity a human rights issue," and that's exactly what I think we need--in a different way--to protect ourselves in this very fat-phobic world from the well-meaning, if proselytizing and ego-heavy, efforts of people like you.


p.s. Here's that Shakesville post again.

p.p.s. Here's another great one at Red No. 3.

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Review of Bed by David Whitehouse

UK edition (l.); US edition (r.)
Asleep he sounds like a pig hunting truffles in soot. It isn't snoring, more of a death rattle.
"A Pig Hunting Truffles in Soot" is the name of British author David Whitehouse's Tumblr account. It comes from the first line of his debut novel, Bed, which is written from the point of view of the brother of the fattest man in the world, Malcolm Ede, who weighs 100 stone, or around 1,400 pounds. Bed is many things, including slight (it feels like a stretched-out novella), turgid, overwritten, occasionally beautifully written, and not all that successful in its significance, but it is also notable for leaning on indulgent, horrified depictions of a very fat man to give it meaning.

Published in August in the US and earlier this year in the UK, Bed got its publishing contract after winning the To Hell With Prizes contest in 2010 for best unpublished work. For two years before that it sat in the drawer of an agent at William Morris after being turned down by "every publisher in the country." Now it is a finalist in The Guardian's Not the Booker Prize contest and the film rights have been sold.

Most reviews, whether middling or glowing, praised the writing in Bed, acknowledging it as the biggest advantage in this book that is "...ultimately a bit too sparse and empty...Bed is light, getting across a simple point with a low degree of difficulty" (The Onion's A.V. Club). The New York Times called the book unsuccessful but acknowledged the author's gift with words: "Mr. Whitehouse’s great talent for outlandishly clever description is not matched by a gift for storytelling." The Guardian had something of the opposite reaction: "...[T]oo often this writerly exuberance strains for an effect it doesn't achieve, leaving the novel cluttered with unnecessary flourishes, and extended metaphors that collapse under their own weight. Which is a shame, because once you've got past the sentences, Bed is a satisfyingly complex meditation on what it means to need and be needed." But most reviews were along the lines of the San Francisco Chronicle--"Whitehouse's prose is pure sparkle"--or the Boston Globe: "gorgeous writing lifts a story that could feel quite heavy, even dull and sleepy, into something that soars." The starred Publishers Weekly review said: "A masterful balance of displaced emotion, black humor, and reportage, this accomplished debut offers an offbeat insight into the lives of a family dealing with morbid obesity."

To what is Whitehouse's eye and pen turned? Many things, but the extended metaphorical riffs, the sustained passages that seem to propel this choppy book and have his attention, are the descriptions of Malcolm's--Mal's--body. Three paragraphs down from "a pig hunting truffles in soot," Whitehouse picks it up again:
Those photographs you see of whales that have beached and exploded, split by the buildup of gases inside, the thick coating of blubber that blankets the sand, that's what Mal looks like. . . . He has spread out so far from the nucleus of his skeleton, he is an enormous meat duvet.

. . . Peppered with burst capillaries, a truck-size block block of sausage meat packed into a pair of cheap tights. The fat has claimed his toe- and fingernails, his nipples have stretched to the span of a female hand, and only something with the tenacity of a biscuit crumb could meander through the folds of his tummy. There must be enough for a full packet of biscuits in there by now. In twenty years Mal has become a planet with its own charted territories. We are the moons caught in his orbit, Lou and Mum and dad and me.
That last bit goes to the main point of Bed. Mal was an unusual, uncontrollable kid, prone to shedding his clothes in inappropriate situations, and dominated the life of his family. He grows up, gets a job, has his girlfriend (Lou) who loves him and sees his specialness, but he suddenly cannot take the mediocrity that adulthood, only recently embraced, brings:
"I work in a chair. I fight on a computer game. When I vote, it changes nothing. What I earn can't buy anything. Maybe my purpose is to give purpose to others."
The morning after his 25th birthday Mal opts out of life and refuses to get out of his bed. All he does is eat, fed by his compulsively care-taking mother, and he abandons his girlfriend, with whom his brother is also in love. Mal becomes a media sensation, and brings an American, Norma Bee (a large, laughing black woman who veers dangerously close to a Mammy type), into the narrator's life, a woman who herself had a husband whom she fed in bed as he grew bigger until he died. That is: It is not at all obscure what will happen to Mal by the end of Bed. If the words "death rattle" in the second sentence didn't make it clear, the unnamed brother also says in that first chapter: "Mal's death is the only thing that can save this family because his life has destroyed it."

We have clues about what this is all supposed To Mean: Whitehouse said in a Publishers Weekly interview that, "There was an extra feeling of inertia around [my family] because of the debt my parents were in, and Mal's decision to go to bed and not get up is a metaphor for that." I think I might be more likely to buy this idea if Whitehouse didn't mostly give it impetus with outside-in and smells-of-the-lamp descriptions of what it means to be very fat. Whitehouse carves up Mal's body as meat for metaphor. Very little time is devoted to the transition, told in simple periodic flashback, from skinny Malcolm to 1,400 pound Malcolm--he is just--boom--a fat man, the fattest man in the world, and no longer a person. Malcolm says much less once he is fat; he's mostly described.
And then there are creams and medicines. Lotions to rub on his sores and serums to massage into his skin, all of which Mum did on her own. The latter years of her life were effectively spent basting an enormous turkey in the oven, lifting it, turning it and coating its flesh without the reward of a hearty meal.

The visual stimulus of watching Mal be bathed wrenches my stomach up into my esophagus. He looks like an enormous sea monster caught and displayed in a Victorian museum of the grotesque.

His arms are thicker than my legs. Four times as thick. Five or six, maybe. They look like rolled ham. Mal sheds skin, snakelike, with every move. Each morning he nests upon a fresh coat of it. His fingernails are thick, cracked, yellow and shiny like laminated lumps of cheese. His huge torso is contoured with stretch marks the length and thickness of a cowboy's leather belt. I imagine them tearing.
Whitehouse, a former magazine writer and editor who says in every interview that he's "always preferred making stuff up to reporting fact" (a perfectly reasonable thing for a novelist to note, but it jumps out at me), got the idea for the book, he says, watching shows on TV: "Almost every programme was about people who couldn't get out of the house because they were too big. I watched all of those documentaries and was fascinated by the grotesqueness of it and the sadness." When asked about his research, his response wasn't that different:
I watched a lot of documentaries and did a bit of reading on the topic, but I never wanted to get too forensic. I wanted it to feel like a description of something totally alien and abstract, something impossible to imagine.
A lot of the descriptions of Mal read rather like the casual (well-crafted, but casual) comments of somebody watching a documentary on TLC. The attitude of the book is more intentional than that, though. In another interview Whitehouse said:
...I never wanted to describe [Mal] as a human – or at least I wanted to avoid doing so as much as possible. That's why I stayed away where possible from issues about the toilet etc. I didn't want it to seem graphic and real. The whole notion of going to bed and becoming the fattest man in the world is so strange, so abstract, that I tried where possible to dehumanize it in terms of its physicality. I guess the emotions I describe related to the act are human, but in my physical descriptions of Mal's metamorphosis I could be describing a planet, or a strange sea creature. Something difficult to imagine. I never wanted it to be that explicit. [sputtering emphases mine]
This quote makes it pretty clear, if the book's orgy of metaphor didn't, that Whitehouse feels it's fine to dehumanize a fat person to make a point--that it's not in fact necessary to do anything else. "Dehumanize it in terms of its physicality"? Is that "write whatever hateful thing I want and call it abstract, because somehow if the character is fat then it's not necessary to see a person in it"? His descriptions of Mal are extremely graphic and real, they are just not clinical. Somehow Whitehouse thinks they're not graphic, or perhaps that they're only to be expected. And while going to bed for your life might be unusual, being fat is not, but either way Whitehouse is definitely choosing to see it as such. He works to keep Mal alien and unknown, a shitty and lazy thing for a writer to do. His body means everything, and nothing.
I am taken aback as I am every morning by the deterioration in the health of Mal's skin. Where once was florid boyishness is now a ruddy, mean-spirited mess. The lack of fresh air has turned his face into a miserly wallet for dirt and sweat and grease. The resultant clusters of immature acne glisten at the sides of his nose, growing like a coral reef across his chin and down his neck, blinking in the sunlight as they slowly marinate in their own juices.

I dream sometimes of standing on him, my feet disappearing up to ankle heights in his flab, schloop schloop schloop as I stepped, like quicksand.

...[a butcher] would need to dig for a long long time to find Mal's bones. Burst a spade with a sharp downwards jab through that dirty thin top layer of skin. Force the shovel with his foot through the sinew and the meat. Lift, drop and dig, spooning out the maggoty-white tubes of fat.

The growths and deformities caused by poor circulation chart a route up him to his knees, huge, flattened spheres of flab the size of satellite dishes, the bony caps long since buried.

Fulsome beads of sweat map Mal's emotionless face. On television he looks even bigger. His arms appear as bags of salt swollen to splitting. The physical stress of the occasion makes it too much for him even to hold his mouth closed. The lighting makes the insides of his cheeks glisten as the spit runs down them. His eyes are dust bowls, sunk back into his face like the ugliest of dogs.
Whitehouse is under no obligation to make the realities of being 1,400 pounds pretty or tell his story from any point of view other than the one he wants to--he's under no obligation to do anything in fiction, including make it realistic (the largest weight ever recorded for a human being was around 1,320 lbs.). But to make Bed a less tediously offensive (and better) book, he might have done more than look at a very fat person and say "You! I must have YOU for my metaphor!" The meaning in Mal's grand gesture is what's supposed to contextualize the idea of his size, and this gesture and his death are supposed to have (as Whitehouse has said) "altruism" in them, saving his brother and his family from their middle-class trap. But Mal's death feels to me, while inevitable, unkind. It's not altruistic, it's the story's creator killing something he thinks should die. Mal is sacrificing himself for his family, but Whitehouse is sacrificing Mal for us.

David Whitehouse
I wouldn't be working out all my reactions to Bed if I didn't rather bitchily note here--as the book jacket and its promos do not--that Whitehouse was for a period features editor at Maxim UK (and an editor at Peaches Geldorf's brief experiment in magazine publishing). The descriptions of Lou--the beautiful girlfriend Mal's brother inherits through Mal's death and sacrifice--can be just as indulgent as the descriptions of Mal (in a different way). Sometimes she ends up sounding a bit like a Maxim Girl write-up:
Lou was beautiful. Some people are so attractive that looking at them makes you feel as though your own skin doesn't fit properly, and Lou is like that. She has blond tumbling hair that wisps and frays as though she's washed it in the sea every morning, combed it through with the finest shells and rinsed away the foam in a freshly formed rock pool.
Despite that there is, as I said, good writing to be found in Bed if you feel like it. ("Home was always the same inside. Its exterior grew and shrunk depending upon how long I'd been away but indoors it was a precise mold.") The mind boggles, however, picturing what a film company will do with Bed. Given that Mal, once he's fat, doesn't do much but lie in bed and be described (literally) to death, that will leave us with--what? Lots of lurid imagery, I'm sure--the "schloop" of fat and swollen bags of salt--but what else? Not much, since Whitehouse's orgy of metaphors will be gone and all we will be left with is a character about whom, once you strip away the horrified language, the author doesn't quite know how he feels.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Lucian Freud

Lucian Freud died a week ago. His death surprised me, somehow. I'm not entirely sure why I thought he'd live forever--maybe it's because his last name always had him pegged as someone who came after something else long gone. Maybe because his paintings did not age that much compared to other artists. His nudes, especially, do not date.

Like a lot of people, I have been a little drunk on Freud's paint and palette from looking at his paintings so much since his death. It's the nudes that want my attention.

There has been a lot of intelligent commentary on his paintings of the human body, but there still seems to be a sense at times that his paintings of large people were grotesque. Some of the more pointed phrases from obits and tributes:
  • "showing off the human figure in all its gorgeous, swollen, egregious fleshiness" (Independent)
  • "The flesh [of Freud's nudes] was mottled, lumpy and, in the case of his 1990s portraits of the performance artist Leigh Bowery and the phenomenally obese civil servant Sue Tilley, shockingly abundant." (New York Times)
  • "Almost all of us carry an image of a 'Freud' around in our minds – a gracelessly posed, grossly sagging woman, perhaps, or a face sculpted in paint that appears to fold and puff like a cauliflower ear." (Telegraph)
  • "Astonishment, even disgust, often greeted Lucian Freud’s paintings when they first appeared. In Benefits Supervisor Sleeping a mountainous friend lay snoozing on a sofa, one blubbery breast cupped in a hand, revelling in rolls of fat like a beached whale." (Economist)

I don't know much about how Freud's paintings of large people were received in their time, but I can believe that they shocked then. I can see that they still shock now.

I do not think of Freud as a fat person painter. He's not Jenny Saville or Botero. I think he painted the human body (and other animals) with complete integrity, in the sense that his view of things was whole and consistent from one subject to another, whatever their size. Other than one painting--Evening in the Studio (1993)--I don't see anything that particularly editorializes in the way he has his fat subjects posed, and even then I'd argue he does the exact same with smaller models, in works like Painter and Model (1987) and The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer (2005) (also featuring clothed/unclothed models). All his subjects are under the same eye, including himself at times.

The man really did paint what he saw as he saw it: veins, fat, skeletal structure, hair, flopping breasts and genitals, muscle mass, skin; most of his models lying, leaning, splayed, pitched over, bent, draped, slumped. Pushed or fallen over. Not many stand.

He famously said:
I'm really interested in people as animals. Part of my liking to work from them naked is for that reason. Because I can see more, and it’s also very exciting to see the forms repeating through the body and often the head as well. I like people to look as natural and as physically at ease as animals, as Pluto my whippet.
In the same show catalog from which that quote comes it was also written:
In the sense that they are at their most animal-like when resting or sleeping, those who sit for Freud trust him to bring out the animal in them.
I think his paintings of fat people shock only because of the subject matter and the fact that he chose to paint them--and because we are still shocked by images of fat nudes--not because of how he painted them. We're all animals in his work: all fleshy, hairy, mortal, pulled on by gravity and age, doing the hard work of being still as time passes.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

the voluptuous nudes of Norman Lindsay

There are many nudes by the prolific Australian artist Norman Lindsay (1879-1969) to be found and enjoyed! (This, despite the fact that he lost a lot of his work in a 1940 fire.) The dude loved naked women. And Sirens isn't the world's worst movie if you want to get a look at Lindsay's home (where they filmed it); a fluffy film, but not too terrible. Hugh Grant is extremely well cast as the earnest and blushingly pervy vicar.

p.s. This is my copy of Lindsay's children's book The Magic Pudding--I think it might have been my my mother's or her siblings; it's an American edition from the 1930s. The illustrations are great. Love the aminals!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"Is childhood obesity proof that not all parents love their children?"

Dr. Michael Katz came to my attention in April because of a thread he started at TED.com, entitled: Is the Childhood Obesity epidemic proof that not all parents love their children?

I thought it was a joke at first, but it turns out Katz is a doctor who runs the--let's get this out of the way now--unfortunately named website EatingKids.com, the K of which is seemingly capitalized to discourage the sense that the site is about the best way to sautee toddlers (I'm not sure it helps). EatingKids is devoted to childhood eating issues, "created not only to provide information, but to create a collaborative community of parents, doctors and educators who could fuel each others' passion to eliminate Eating Disorders & Childhood Obesity."

The dude seems well-intentioned, and the site includes, for example, a lot of good ideas about managing the onslaught of damaging media imagery for young girls with eating issues. But the parts of the site devoted to childhood obesity demonstrate the same thinking that fueled the TED question:
Obesity is a disease. It is also totally avoidable. While there do exist some genetic and thyroid deficiencies that can contribute to obesity – these are extremely rare.

As a rule: you show me an obese child and I’ll show you parents who are not doing their job.
Katz's question--can parents of obese children actually love them, given that they are fat?--makes a certain horrible sense in the context of our culture's current understanding of fat and especially children who are fat. It is the natural next thought in a world where body size is always and ever the result of what you do or don't do, and what you teach your children to do and do for them. If fat is a failing, then fat children are their parents' failure. If fat = death, then parents who 'let' their kids be fat are killing them. They do not love them.

So Katz tries it out on TED. Here are some of Katz's comments, taken from the thread. He wrestles with the do-they-love-them question as he considers the fact that this cannot all be an issue of information/knowledge:
Considering how many children are obese in the USA we can safely assume that not ALL the parents are ignorant of these factors. In fact, I think it is safe to say that most parents DO understand them - which is why I asked the question in the first place.
- - -
First, I TOTALLY reject the notion that a parent could truly LOVE their child, yet somehow NOT be able to feed the child a healthy diet on most days. ALL the stories you hear about fruits/veggies being more expensive than fast food are lies and I can prove it on any trip to the supermarket. I don't mean to be aggressive here, but I am truly SICK of that kind of false "meme."
- - -
I see this same thing happen time after time in these online "debates" and I'm beginning to get annoyed. I said what I said and there's no reason to cook up some false extrapolation about what I said. So, let me be clear: Based on what I've seen in my life, as a physician and as a person on this earth, I do not believe that all parents really love their children. I was interested to know if Childhood Obesity could be seen as a proof of that. That's about as far as I wanted to take it.
- - -
...If you love someone I believe you will stop [harmful] behavior . . . the abusive husband who beats his wife out of frustration with his life could still actually and truly love her. I think that is NOT true. So if a mom feeds her kids pizza and potato chips and the like on a daily basis, with the kids growing ever fatter (and sicker), can we say she really loves them? I think not.
Not long after the TED discussion, Katz posted this page on his site under pretty much the same headline/title--"Childhood Obesity Epidemic: Do all parents love their kids?"--incorporating some of the responses he got at TED (including, in a few cases, quoting them word-for-word with no attribution in his "points," "questions," and "answers"). He quotes, by way of answer to his question, a line from somebody else's post: "It’s not as easy as yes or no."

But it's clear he still does not seem to know what to think about it all--how to reconcile his ideas and the facts. I think he's honestly trying to understand it. He goes back to the idea that people just do not know what they need to know. He wonders if perhaps institutions should step in if parents "would not" feed their children properly. In one of his points he wonders, if a parent's schedule is contributing to their child's obesity, whether or not they should quit:
Assuming that one’s finances make it possible, then “Yes,” quitting is probably reasonable. This may seem extreme, but my answer is “So is diabetes" [emph his]. Love for your children requires you to make certain sacrifices if they are really in the child’s best interest. In fact, if the decisions you make really ARE best for your child, then they probably shouldn’t be considered sacrifices at all. If you love someone I believe you will stop hurtful behaviors, and leaving your kids a frozen pizza as an after-school snack IS a hurtful behavior. So…if a mom feeds her kids pizza and potato chips and the like on a daily basis, with the kids growing ever fatter (and sicker), and this is a result of the fact that she’s at work and doesn’t have time to cook a healthy, nutritious meal, then can we say she’s really doing the best for her child? I think not.
Dr. Katz seems to have created an extremely narrow definition of healthy and normal at EatingKids.com. I have to wonder how his treatment and understanding of eating disorders is informed by his understanding of obesity.

And it may "make sense" in our world, but it is still appalling to see this guy wrestle with the idea of the amount of love in a child's life--love--trying to get his mind around and explain body differences. Let me answer the question for him, by the way: no, actually, childhood obesity is not proof that not all parents love their children. It's proof of a lot of things, including socio-economics and genetics, which Katz dismisses, as well as food choices. If the standard statistic that one in three children is obese is true, that means he is honestly wondering if one-third of American children are not loved. That right there--the fact that he is positing the question at all--should tell him this is more complicated than the factors he sees at hand. He's answered his question already. The fact that he persists in it at all seems too appalling and dehumanizing to believe. But that is the world we live in.

Katz has also written a book about orthorexia; would be interesting to check it out.

check it out

The Museum of Obeast Conservation Studies!

...created by Rachel Herrick. "Her installation-based work spans a wide variety of media including sculpture, video, photography and performance. Herrick’s pseudo-scientific museum exhibitions document the field of study around the North American Obeast, a genus of mammals she invented to satirize fat bias and the cultural panic surrounding the obesity epidemic."

Monday, July 11, 2011

On Megan in Bridesmaids

I don't know what to say. I saw the movie twice. I took notes. I tried to keep an open mind. I didn't read any articles (because I'm weird like that sometimes, but also) because I wanted to have an unshaped reaction to it all. But ungh. Megan still kind of broke my heart.

I hate calling out Melissa McCarthy, who is great, gets a lot of screen time and in some ways steals the show. I love her--I think she's a great actress and comedienne. And I liked that Megan turns out to be the "together" character. And I liked the movie all right (Maya Rudolph is just wonderful).

But what the fuck. Is this the only way we can let a fat person into a mainstream movie, by making them as out of it, as weirdly-dressed and outsider as possible--arriving in the form of some weird stereotype? Does it make us that nervous to have a fat actress as just a another character?

Megan is definitely the Zach Galifianakis of this movie--the giant clueless toddler with no sense of social norms. McCarthy being a very pretty woman, effort is needed (and expended) to make her to look weird. Her makeup is handled differently than the other female characters--she's made up (or not at all) in harsh ways. Her clothing is unflattering and full of ZG-like touches--arm braces, etc.--as well as being strangely mannish (paired with pearls) and tailored in awkward ways. She gallops around, flops over couch backs, is sexually rapacious in unwanted ways as only fat people are in movies.

Okay, she's weird. Her character has a right to be weird. McCarthy's good at it! But it feels, watching it, as if the makers of Bridesmaids were so nervous at the thought of McCarthy on the same footing as the other actresses who, while all having personality quirks, were allowed to look semi-normal in Hollywood ways, that they make her a freak. The only scene in which McCarthy's makeup and wardrobe is treated as the others is the final scene when she is in bridesmaid wear and it suddenly becomes clear on what a different footing she has been treated through the movie because she looks gorgeous.

The absolute worst part of the movie is the little coda during the end credits of a videotaped homemade sex scene between Megan and her boyfriend. It's a lame sight gag involving a sandwich that makes it clear that people think fat people fuck food, not people. It was just miserable to watch (twice).

I feel like my original guess about the movie was right: McCarthy is miscast. She would have been a great lead and Kristen Wiig would have been a good Megan. I like Wiig a lot, but didn't feel like she had the emotional range needed for the character, ultimately. McCarthy would have been great.

The best thing to come out of Bridesmaids with regards to McCarthy is that she is getting more high-profile work: the Knocked Up spinoff, and another Paul Feig movie with she and John Hamm as "unconventional lovers," about which I don't even know what to think. From where I sit it would make sense to just cast them as lovers, but you know--we'll see.

The Media Machine and the Bodies It Feeds On

There needs to be a new word for the editorial point of view demonstrated in the constant rotation of articles in the UK's Daily Mail devoted to the excoriation of the female form. Dysmorphomaniacal. Celebricorpusrabidity. Hyperbodyhyperactiviscrutiny. I used to take screengrabs in open-mouthed shock to document articles such as this:

or this:
or this:
...until I realized that the Daily Mail looks like that every day. Truly, every day of the year. It's a microscope! Photos catch female celebrities from multiple angles while chiding them for their clothing choices (too slutty, too demure, too fancy, too rumpled), their footwear (they went after Nigella Lawson for her bunions recently), their hair, their panty lines, for sweating while exercising--anything. Women intrusively photographed with telephoto lenses "flaunt" their (either) Perfect Bikini or Somehow Wrong--fat, old, thin, wrinkly--Body in their bathing suits. Every (transitory, misleading, temporary, sustained) facial expression or bit of body language captured in any still photograph is valid evidence of and captioned as part of whatever narrative about their love life the Mail is pushing--jilted, spinster, happy, cheated on, cheating. You can not win.

In a perverse way I almost (almost) admire the Daily Mail for its insanity. It's so thoroughly superficial, in the literal sense. It's only about how things look: an insatiable Gargantua of body scrutiny. It's not admirable, of course--it's awful--and I feel terrible for anybody caught in the papp's sights in the UK, for good or for ill. It all sucks, although in a kind of equal-opportunity way. Everybody/everything gets put out there.

Also, weirdly, humanity shines through sometimes--at least to my eyes. Bodies are just bodies, and you show enough of them, even with all the commentary, they just seem like...bodies. And in the meantime the Mail looks stupid, like a bully jumping up and down harassing somebody on a bus while no one pays attention. They make themselves look ridiculous.

I found a few recent articles chastising otherwise looks-sanctioned female celebrities for evidence of their age especially mean, even given the Mail's usual MO--although it proves this point. Both of the articles criticized the women's hands and arms. One was about Kirstie Alley:

and one was about Meg Ryan:

Their arms are a dead giveaway! The bracelet only brings more attention to Alley's 60-year-old hand! The summery dress only shows Ryan's bulgy veins! They're not getting away with their grand plan to...

...wait, what are these women getting away with? Nothing. Yes, they are aging female celebrities who engage in the dance of beauty ideals. WE ALL KNOW HOW IT WORKS. We all know what they--and we--are supposed to look like, what the requirements are and when people don't fit them. Being thinner (as Alley is for the moment) means she is OK, as is Ryan, but they both sadly, stupidly, forgot to magically de-age their hands. Boo-ya! Failure. The Mail grinds these women through the body ideals machine and finds them wanting, cleverly exposes the tests they don't pass, but the only 'weaknesses' it exposes is the machine itself. Because Christ almighty, old hands age. Bodies age.

It's shitty journalism and pointless crap and it does harm, but I can't help feeling that articles like this mostly point out the flaws in the media's body-scrutiny machine. Rather the way that this article in People does:

The article is about a dancer on "Dancing With the Stars," Cheryl Burke, who gained (she estimates) five to ten pounds a couple years ago while on break from the show (some estimates by other helpful people put it closer to 20); she also said at the time she went from a size 2 to a size 4. When photos of her in a bikini surfaced at this time she started getting a lot of flak. There was a story at that time where she defended her weight, and then this story in January detailing the the heartbreak of the original story...

Ungh, I can't keep up. Whatever. She gained weight, spouted the party line about "loving her curves" in public while panicking and dieting in private, then talked about it all later again. The point is that this is all this story is about: ten pounds. That's it. The media machine is fucked--because it exists, but also--if a ten pound-change triggers this kind of journalistic need (and note: there were two cycles of stories about this). You can see the spectre of money in it all--Burke gains attention for her autobiography and for the show--which creates its own impetus, but still. This is all we're talking about. Ten pounds. And 60-year-old hands. That's it. That's all. The trigger is filed down insanely low.

Unfortunately stories like this and the Daily Mail insanity are more convincing proof of a flawed system than the scrutiny tendered to people who "deserve" it--Alley, for instance, when she gained 90 pounds. Then somehow it's okay. Merited, even if we won't admit it. But lets take the proof where we can find it: if the detectors start blaring when there's very little to detect, maybe the machine is broken.