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.'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'

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.