Tuesday, December 17, 2013

a small thing

Come back when your numbers are fatter!

A small thing -- a big thing. An oft-repeated thing. A clich├ęd thing. I don't care. How many times have I had my blood pressure taken in my life? Hundreds. I'm 47.

Almost every single time -- and I mean every time, no matter who's taking it -- whether they're familiar to me or not -- the person who's taking it says in surprise: "Oh, that's low." Every time.

My blood pressure is almost always in the average/low range. But still, surprised commentary ensues. I've had my blood pressure taken a lot recently and apparently I am the most surprising thing people have encountered since uhhhh I don't know. (Are there any surprises anymore?) Since the black-footed ferret came off the extinction list. I don't know.

I have had medical staff say everything up to and almost including "Come back when your blood pressure's fatter" to me in response to my readings: "It must be a fluke" -- "This must be an anomaly" -- "Now it must be normal" (when I'm having white-coat syndrome). When I say something to try to help contextualize the readings I get silence, or a snort, or sometimes outright disbelief, which manifests as the snort, or a sigh, or an antagonized-but-held-in-check meaningless response. You get a lot of the latter as a fatty at the doctor's, and it always takes a moment for it to sink in for me: they think I'm lying.

So here's what I want to say:

Medical staff aren't paying enough attention to me if they are surprised by my blood pressure readings every time. Medical staff are not contextualizing variations from my usual norm well if they expect high readings. This is a problem.

But really: people aren't paying enough attention to fat people if they are always surprised by this. I know a lot of fat people who have the same experience. It's not actually that unusual.

But REALLY I'm saying: DATA. Data. Information. Numbers. Blood pressure numbers are just one measurement, but because it's a number, like all data: let's listen to them, okay? Let them talk first? Notice what they do.

Otherwise, why Science at all?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

just show us

November 2013 issue
So, what does Melissa McCarthy have there below her Photoshaved chin and under her coat: an extra limb? Explosives strapped to her chest? A gaping wound? A nest of ducklings she's keeping warm? A sparkly disco ball?

We'll never know, because letting the fat human body take up the space it actually takes up makes people really nervous. In life, and in pictures. Especially, somehow, in pictures.

Most women who magazines choose to put on their covers are close enough to the very narrow range of what's acceptable that magazines can make it work. Everyone gets tweaked -- shaved, padded, lightened, smoothed, sharpened -- until they are the right shape and color and age. Vaguely. But (I am speaking basically about size here) the choice of subject to begin with is very narrow indeed. It excludes extremely thin bodies too, but far more average and fat ones. And the sample is way beyond narrow -- it's a tiny thin line in the population. The debate people engage in about the differences in what they see on magazine covers is a joke. Like prisoners squabbling over minute differences in their daily beige porridge.

Fat bodies, though -- bodies that that lie far, far out on the bell curve past what is considered okay -- bodies that cannot pass: how to handle? They're too big to cut down to fit the usual space.

Usually magazines solve this problem by not showing them. Such as Adele's Rolling Stone cover or Gabourey Sidibe's famously skin-lightened Elle cover last year, here:

Never showing the whole product, for lack of a better term (although on some level that is what we are talking about, when we're talking about what drives this publicity machine), is being challenged more, though. Melissa McCarthy is officially a major box office star, in a way that still charms me, as it almost seemed to happen despite ourselves and our rules about size.

There are lots of ways to look at the decisions driving these Elle covers. You can see dislike, you can see hate, even. You can see bland old ignorance. You can see a lot of fear. You can see stubbornness, an unwillingness to change. You can see blind rule-following.

What I'm starting to see more and more is just: nervousness. The kind of nervousness that leads to hilariously unprofessional and low-quality images such as this:

This is a poster for a mainstream, big-budget, high-grossing film, made by a studio with an army of graphics staff, and McCarthy is a head on a stick! This the best they could do!

They don't know what to do. They're flailing. With challenges on all sides, the power of a extremely codified beauty ideal is still so strong that the purveyors of this image give us something a graphic design 101 professor would mark an F.

That is: at this point the fact of the thinificiation of McCarthy's face/body (please Jebus, don't let her go sleeveless!) is less interesting to me, in part because it's been going on forever, than the flailing and missteps. Somehow the poster for The Heat created more amusement in me than horror -- it's just so bad. Unlike some people I would not argue that the thin beauty ideal is in its death throes, but it is facing new tests. McCarthy bundled up in  her winter coat on Elle shows how amateurish the media is about this -- how much more experience they need in showing people of size. And how clear the path isn't, right now.

Oh, so -- to the media: just do it. Show fat bodies! Let them be. Let us see what Melissa McCarthy is wearing. It will be okay. Really. Fluff the ever-living hell out of the pic -- make it as glamorous as you want. But it's okay to show her. Fashion is not antithetical to size. It does not take away from the former to let the latter be seen.

I have been writing a blog piece called "How to Fix Everything" for about five years now. Isn't that helpful? It isn't done yet, but when it is, it is going to fix everything. Totally. I swear.

In my list of things to do to break the stalemate between size acceptance and whole generations of people raised to believe that fat is the same thing as disgusting ill-health and all the leeway you need to justify your hate (hello Rex Reed), among the top two things at this point -- and maybe even the biggest thing I think we can do --  is provide and seek out more imagery of fat people in our daily media consumption. Much much more.

We need to see fat bodies - average bodies -- all the time. ALL THE TIME. Doing all the things that they do. We don't even know how constantly they are curated out of our sight. Fat bodies are such a departure from an extremely well-established and constantly defended and reiterated visual norm that that it's the first thing people see in an image. Many can't see past it at all. We need to start taking images of people of size for granted.

I have looked at more fat bodies than most people I know (do you have any idea how much fat porn you have to look at to illustrate a sex book?) and I still feel that thunk in my chest when I see a fat person in an advertisement or on television or a magazine cover: OH THAT'S DIFFERENT. That's different. That's not the norm. The pressure of the thin ideal is so strong and hegemonic that I think breaking it will become key to seeing ourselves and others differently in the future.

What we need are images of fat bodies without apology. That coat on McCarthy is an apology -- and a very awkward one, at that. Somebody's nervous as hell.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Monday, August 12, 2013

poor Kate Lumley

I'm going to write poor Kate Lumley a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead or make her an O Brother, Where Art Thou? She deserves her own parallel literary experience, in which she comes to Italy and has her own expansive, lovey-dovey, Von Arnim vacation.

I don't begrudge Mrs. Fisher the quip demonstrating her increasingly unlaced levity (see Joan Plowright in the movie version of the moment, below), but it seems a sad thing that the characters feel lightened and free at Kate Lumley's expense! Let's subvert the paradigm! Give her some fun.

Monday, July 8, 2013

So, I'm not sure if Southwest or the world wants you to know this, but...


Southwest Airlines is now obligated to accommodate customers of size. Per their own policy. Whether or not you pay for a second seat. Did you know this? I flew using this new policy in March and am reporting back.

I do not know why this change in Southwest's policy isn't better advertised. I can't tell if they don't want to discourage passengers of size from paying (or thinking they had to pay) for a second seat -- which you can still do, and which guarantees that second seat without any potential confusion or inconvenience to other passengers. (Southwest now automatically refunds the money for that second seat afterward, rather than conditionally refunding based on the fullness of the flight -- another change.) Or if Southwest doesn't want to draw attention to the fact that they could be seen as potentially prioritizing customers of size over other passengers if the latter got bumped as a result. Or if it would be too disturbing to have suddenly said out of the blue: we're seating everyone.

It's a tectonic shift in policy, though. And (as I would understand it) puts the airline somewhere different compared to other airlines by making the promise of enough room an overt one, to be honored on the flight purchased. The change went into place on November 7, 2012, but there were no company press releases about it that I could find, nothing via company email. I heard about it through the fatty grapevine on Facebook (more here). Here is Southwest's new policy [emphasis mine]:
Customers who encroach upon any part of the neighboring seat(s) may proactively purchase the needed number of seats prior to travel in order to ensure the additional seat(s) is available. The armrest is considered to be the definitive boundary between seats; width between the armrests measures 17 inches. The purchase of additional seats serves as a notification to Southwest of a special seating need, and allows us to adequately plan for the number of seats that will be occupied on the aircraft.  In turn, this helps to ensure we can accommodate all Customers on the flight/aircraft for which they purchased a ticket and avoid asking Customers to relinquish their seats for an unplanned accommodation. Most importantly, it ensures that all Customers onboard have access to safe and comfortable seating. You may contact us for a refund of the cost of additional seating after travel.  Customers of size who prefer not to purchase an additional seat in advance have the option of purchasing just one seat and then discussing their seating needs with the Customer Service Agent at their departure gate. If it is determined that a second (or third) seat is needed, they will be accommodated with a complimentary additional seat.
Basically: please buy a second seat if you need one. But if you don't, we'll give you one anyhow. No being forced to buy a second seat, no being bumped.

I have been buying a second seat for years (and blogging about it), doing it on Southwest because it's the only place I can afford to do so, trading money I usually (but not always) got back for guaranteed space/safety/peace of mind. So this new policy is a huge change, and hardly seemed real when I heard about it. There was a lot of skepticism and worry about it among my friends who are quite used to fencing with the vagaries of flying while fat and its financial/psychological demands. It hardly seemed possible.

I flew to Los Angeles and back from Chicago under the new Southwest Airlines policy in March. The crew handled it differently each leg of the journey:

When I went up to the gate in Chicago after a normal check-in at Southwest departures and told the agent I'd need a second seat, she just handed me a blue pre-boarding sleeve and did not enter anything in the computer. When I boarded the plane and asked the flight attendant for a seat belt extender, she mentioned that it was her first time implementing the new policy and asked if I had a "seat reserved" slip for the second seat, which you get when you buy/are assigned two seats (I didn't).

When I checked in at the gate in LA, the process looked much more like it does when I buy two seats. The agent made it official, checking me into the system. She gave me the magic blue pre-boarding envelope, and in addition the "seat reserved" slip and a second boarding pass. (Pre-boarding: undeniably fabulous, but very necessary; if you board late it's quite possible to end up "with" two seats that aren't anywhere near each other, defeating the whole purpose of this stuff.)

I had no problems at all, although I did not know what to expect and did worry a lot about whether or not someone would be bumped because of me; I got to the airport very early both times. I think they asked for volunteers to be bumped on the first leg of my trip, but not on the second. It seems likely that not being checked in as having two seats on the first leg of the journey was the result of policy not being completely clear yet (it seems likely Southwest would need to check in the two seats for security reasons and general airline policy/head-counting). I was definitely more at ease in my mind when I was "official" and had my "seat reserved" slip as a defense. Without that, I would have been relying only on the flight attendant's memory and willingness to intervene should a conflict have arisen.

The reason this all worked, by the way, is because I told everyone up-front what I needed. I know I don't fit in just one Southwest seat. I know I need an extender. I put it all up-front. I can't tell you how the airline would have handled it if conflict emerged during the seating process without checking in about all this ahead of time. Or if it had been an insanely packed holiday flight. Or if everyone who needed a second seat suddenly...showed up.

What would that look like? What would flying look like? I do not know. With all the teeth-gnashing about this topic (omg-obesity-flying-blah), I still wonder all the time: what would it really look like if people showed up asking for what they need?

The truth is that even if they can afford it, many, many people do not fly because of worry about fitting into airplane seats. So many people do not even risk the discomfort and hostility, even if they can afford two seats. (So many people don't even try to find out. The lack of information out there is astonishing.) Many people fly with one seat, but worry terribly about it as they do it. Many people have terrible experiences, fat and thin -- the only people comfortable and free from the worry of deep vein thrombosis on commercial flights are 10-year-olds -- but there is a special misery reserved for fat people. Like the flight from Vegas when a man held up the plane to complain about sitting next to me, needing no less than four flight attendants to calm him down as I cried alone in my seat (what can I say, it was the end of a shitty trip and my emotional reserves were low). Or people who end up with hematomas and permanent scars from armrests digging into them.

Anyhow, Southwest's new policy: so far, so good. To me the difference between having to buy two seats -- even if I get my money back -- and only having to buy one makes the difference between not flying and flying. So I'm taking it. That's the bottom line.

Southwest has to be looking at their bottom line too: there's no other way. Complaints about fat passengers only grow, and this new policy must be part of wanting to hang onto customers, fat or not. But why not tell more people about it? What are they holding onto by not making it better known? Do they know things could look different -- or are they trying to avoid that? What are they waiting for? I'm not assuming the worst about their motives (quite), but I am curious. So much of this process of jamming people into airplanes is murky and shameful and full of conflict, as people's worst feelings about themselves and other people are suddenly brought to the surface. Is Southwest hoping to sell seats without having to remind us of that? Without ever bringing it up at all? Are they building a business for the way things really are but hoping we don't notice?

I also wonder: will this policy last? Be challenged? Be adopted by other airlines? What am I missing, thinking about this? Have other fat folk written about it? Feedback welcome.

(Illustration is Toil Girl Karla.  See more of Les Toil's work here.)

FLYING TIP: See a fat person in a window or aisle seat with a white "seat reserved" slip on the middle seat next to them while you're boarding? GRAB THE THIRD SEAT IN THAT ROW. The empty aisle/window seat, next to the emptyish middle seat. There will be nobody sitting next to you. Embrace the fatness!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

supporting *everyone* in adopting good health behaviors

I always appreciate reading Linda Bacon on health and size (emphasis is mine):
Ernest:  So what are the real parameters determining one’s health?
Linda:  My main goal is to take weight out of the equation, recognizing that its value has been exaggerated as a health indicator, and that we’ll get much better information from attentiveness to other, better-established, health indicators, such as glucose sensitivity. I’d rather re-frame your question to put our focus on supporting everyone in adopting good health behaviors. This would be of great benefit to everyone, regardless of whether one is big or small, has trouble with glucose regulation or not. If our focus is on fat, we miss diagnoses in thinner people, who may suffer from the diseases we blame on fat, and we pathologize fatter people, despite the fact that many of them are not, nor will they be, sick.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

the soda ban and a personal animus

Mayor Bloomberg's soda ban was struck down this week in New York. For the moment, at least. I feel this was the right thing to do, and the judge's ruling that noted the "arbitrary and capricious" nature of the particulars of the ban was spot-on. There are nasty implications in attempting to affect public health - by which Bloomberg means obesity - in this way.

But here's the thing: I have come to find soda kind of evil, a word that I never use about food. I understand the urge to want to slap it back. I can't override my animus toward it, even though I like to drink it sometimes. This is my bias.

I try really hard not to extrapolate anecdotally from my own experience with regard to food and health. If you pay any attention in life, you see that even with some large-scale patterns, everyone's body is a different machine, responding differently to meds, foods, sleep, movement, emotion, temperatures . . . everything. I can't assume my experiences are anybody else's. And (to be brief) I find a lot of talk about nutrition exhaustingly prescriptive and rigid, when it's not overtly paranoid and moralizing; that's all nutrition, good and bad, even with interesting and compelling facts about the science of junk foods. But given my own point of view I am still closer to having the same urge to cap off soda serving sizes that Bloombergians do than I am than in regard to any other food and public health topic.

I love cold clear sweet things, by the way; I think I have an especially strong cold sweet tooth, in fact. I love granita, sorbet, Popsicles, unsweetened juice bars, Italian ice, all-fruit smoothies, Pop-Ice, slushy frozen fruit juice, good sugar-based sodas of all kinds, all of it. I often order sorbet at ice cream stores, which people treat as if I'm denying myself (I have problems with lactose, but that's not usually why I order sorbet). One of my happiest eating experiences recently was just a black cherry soda over ice at a diner. I can't even describe how good it tasted with my food, how satisfying it was. Seriously, a good soda is a beautiful thing. There is an itch that gets scratched when something sweet and cold goes down your throat that nothing else can do. I think it's a travesty to not have a cold soda to drink with your pizza. Nothing soothes my tum like ginger ale or cola syrup.

But I don't think soda - the kind with high-fructose corn syrup - is evil because it's delicious and tempting, I find it evil ultimately because it tempts but does not deliver. It has a sorcerer's apprentice quality. You reach for it to slake your thirst and hit those sweet (hah) spots (ahh) in your throat only to find that afterward you're thirstier than you were before and want another. It doesn't end. It's like a weird curse in a fairy tale. In my experience there's no off button with soda, no click of satisfaction, like it's not really food. It doesn't ever really fill you, except in uncomfortable ways. It doesn't really satisfy, except in an initial rush of sensation - you end up chasing the dragon. It's good at washing things down, but that's about all it does really well in quantity.

I don't have the same experience with Mexican Coke (made from sugar) that I do with regular Coke (made with HFCS). I may want more than my stomach does, but I do get to the point of "ahhh," rather than wandering further and further afield from it. Honestly, anything with HFCS as a major sweetener, like Slurpees, makes me feel only thirstier and more unsatisfied. I haven't drunk diet soda that often, but my impression is that the Off Button with diet soda is even farther out of reach. No Ahhh there. And maybe even more of that almost salty feel on your tongue that makes you want more.

Sometimes I wile out over soda and drinks tons of it. But in general I try to shape my consumption, as much as I can, to really enjoy it when I drink it and to drink the amount I want: treat it less like a beverage and more like dessert. Then it tastes much better. But that can still be difficult. When I go to fast food places I usually order a small soda, but about half the time they bring me a large anyhow. (Can you imagine that happening with any other food or beverage?). Or I ask for a cup or glass to be half-filled at a regular restaurant, and am handed a glass that's filled all the way. (Sometimes I ask for this too because I get tired of spilling glasses of soda; it's like there's a law it has to be filled to overflowing.) On planes I ask for the cup to be half-filled, which is a hassle to remember, I know, but it is still pretty hard to get them to do it. Or at a restaurant with free refills I have to say to the waiter over and over NO, please, don't refill my glass.

I have had a lot of experiences with restaurants thrusting way more soda at me than I was asking for. When you are trying to drink a small quantity of it you do get a window into how people really do expect huge quantities of it. It's hard to turn off the blast. So I get the urge to want to slow it down.

I also think there are a lot of dangerous paths you can start trekking when looking at processed food, paths that end up obsessively demonizing it, ratcheting up its appeal and power, giving us fewer tools to navigate the food world that's out there. And I don't agree with Bloomberg's "obesity kills" M.O. of slapping drinks out of people's hands - he sounds less concerned with the health effects of soda than with an oversimplified parity between health and size that makes me tremble for the fat kids of New York and more misguided policies they will be facing. Fat kids - and the thin kids who will be presumed to be safe from such effects.

But I do think soda is kind of - evil. I can't get past my own feelings about it, can't help remembering my own experiences with it that just never seemed to end. It seems like the perfect drink for a world where we devise tortures for ourselves about food, even when we have enough: stapling stomachs so that we can't absorb nutrients, living in fear of foods and our hungers, starving even when amidst plenty, always wanting more, not believing we can have or want satisfaction.

dude, there's no actual sugar in those

Thursday, February 7, 2013

a few reasons why I hate "baby bump"

The term is everywhere. It's too late to stop it. But here's why I hate it:

It's cutesy and cloying. And kind of a throwback to the stork-bringing days of yore.

 It's a sneaky way to comment on women's bodies when we shouldn't. E!Online can't rightly say:
But reporting on a bump lets them talk about her body anyhow.

 Calling the enormously complicated process of pregnancy, involving all the systems of the body, a "bump," is reductive to the point of absurdity. And does nothing to help people understand women's reproductive health, which we don't, generally.

 Reducing the acceptable visible signs of pregnancy to a single bump attached to a woman's abdomen increases the sense that there is one norm and that any deviations from that are aberrations. It also allows all those at-home MDs to diagnose "how pregnant" someone is. A pregnant woman with a very big belly is always "very advanced," "heavily pregnant," or "due any day," no matter where they are in their pregnancy. Women with changes in their face or the rest of their body are somehow managing their pregnancy incorrectly, sloppily.

 Calling a pregnancy a bump confirms the simplistic idea that once you've given birth all evidence of it should be gone (physically, emotionally, everything). Remove bump - voila!

 "Bump" has in most medical contexts a somewhat negative connotation. Acne bumps. Razor bumps. Bump on the head. Hematomas. Skin bumps. Not very happy.

 Calling stages of pregnancy "bumps" somehow a woman's sense of autonomy. The baby becomes less hers, less belonging to her. Belongs to the outside world more. Which feels weird and strangely unsafe. Like the baby is more vulnerable.

 Bump-watching provides another way to increase focus on women's bodies. Which we do way too much. Not only that, it increases the focus on women's bellies and abdomens, the part of the body most women are most self-conscious about, and makes it even clearer that protrusions are for pregnancy and naught else.

 It's fekking obnoxious. I mean, cmon. Try to imagine Ingrid Bergman or Eleanor Roosevelt or Hillary Clinton or Toni Morrison saying "baby bump."

p.s. Case in point: this was also posted today on people.com. I guess bumps are kind of like pet dogs? You can take them with you places on a leash?

Thursday, January 31, 2013

They're not fat.

I just feel like saying:

Toni Collette isn't fat in In Her Shoes.

Minnie Driver isn't fat in Circle of Friends.

Jennifer Saunders isn't fat in Absolutely Fabulous.

Renee Zellweger isn't fat in either of the Bridget Joneses.

Martine McCutcheon isn't fat in Love Actually.

Mary Boyland isn't fat in The Women.

Ginnifer Goodwin isn't fat in Mona Lisa Smile.

Kim Cattrall isn't fat when her character returns from California in Sex and the City.

Mollie Sugden isn't fat in Are You Being Served?.

Bette Davis (pre-transformation) isn't fat in Now, Voyager.

Fat Betty is...well, I don't know what she is, but she isn't fat (Mad Men).


Monday, January 7, 2013

Nick the Barbarian (Not-entirely-SFW)

A friend of mine pointed out the work of a tattoo artist who was new to me: Nick the Barbarian. I like his fat girl stuff a lot. There is genuine perv (a good thing--they're not just shapes), but also a lot of aesthetic joy in how he draws the fat female form. Always happy to see his new work.