Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Fatness, Dissociation, & Dehumanization

This short film, FAT, begins by streaming voices repeating the word “fat” over shots of the subject, Margaret Donahoe’s, fat body, sometimes as she squeezes her fat together. After this, we finally see broken shots of her face, as she begins:

“My whole life growing up I had been taught to dislike my body, and specifically my fat/ I had been dissociating my from my body/ you really cement this separation between your self and your body.”

[Trigger warning for body issues & fat shaming.]

FAT from Margaret Donahoe on Vimeo.


After her short narrative, she begins to interview friends (individually), who are seemingly answering the question, “Do you think that I am fat?” For the most part, her friends show immediate discomfort.

After their initial answers, her friends’ narratives are cleverly laid over one another in a way that I feel captures the complexity and intensity of the issue.

What strikes me most is the theme, as Margaret notes, of dissociation--a stark emphasis on the separation between the mind and the body. Fat people, more often than you might think, are told by friends that they aren’t fat. And that’s not necessarily because they aren’t large folks, but often because their friends do not want to label them, as her friend says, with “the kinds of awful connotations that come with that word in the society that we live in.”

I’d like to highlight a couple of quotes from the friends, which I should note are obviously clipped or cut and pasted in particular ways by Donahoe and Good, who made the film together for a class at Queen’s University last year:

“If I hadn’t gotten to know you, I sometimes wonder, and this is gonna sound bad, but I sometimes wonder if, like, if I would have seen you as-...someone.”

“I think that when I call somebody fat and if I were to describe you as fat to somebody else, I would be also describing you as someone like, horrible and disgusting and, you know… and that’s really really fucked up.”

“Looking at a picture of you from before, it’s a completely different person.”

“I guess fat is lard. That you cook with.”

“Cut the gristle off the meat.”

The end of the first quote, though constructed by the filmmakers, is telling. "I sometimes wonder if, like, if I would have seen you as-...someone.” The third quote is apparently referring to a photo of Margaret before she had lost some weight. While subtle, the friend's use of "it" to refer to fatter Margaret reveals the impulse for dissociation...and indeed the tension experienced in this impulse when talking about someone she sees as a person at the same time as she refers to an image she feels discomfort associating with that person. It's evocative of the notion that people can "shed an entire person," which reinscribes the thin-person-inside imagery. The last two quotes get at our tendency to reduce fat to an inanimate object, separate from individuals, separate, indeed, from humanity.

This may seem like overanalysing to folks who haven't paid much attention to this stuff, but dissociation and dehumanization are every day experiences for fat people.

In Killing Us Softly 4, Jean Killborne states, “Turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step toward justifying violence against that person.” And in our society, we are told and shown that fat is a thing. Fat bodies are just thin bodies with too much fat. Fat is extra. Fat people are told, “Underneath all that fat is a thin person waiting to get out,” and, “You have such a pretty face,” both phrases that encourage fat people to dissociate from their bodies. Since fat bodies are bad, the cultural logic is that we should focus on fat people's 'inner beauty,' sometimes coded as their inner thin person, i.e. 'once you lose weight, you're inner beauty will finally shine through.' (See Mendoza for more on thin person inside as representation of beauty and goodness). **

As you can see above, we do this in our visual culture as well. Charlotte Cooper famously coined the term “headless fatties” to refer to the perpetual phenomenon of media outlets showing fat people only from the neck down--faceless objects, abject parts. It is a different kind of objectification than most feminists rail against, though the result is still dehumanizing. Without faces, we do not connect with headless fatties, we do not see them as people. Headlessness encourages us to dis-identify with them, to see them as fat parts, cultural monsters intended to invoke horror and disgust.

The logic of fat suits similarly aids us in dissociating personhood from fatness. If we know an actor or actress is wearing a fat suit, it's easier for us to justify enjoyment in the stereotypical and harmful depictions of fat people which they are temporarily embodying. After all, they aren't fat people at all; rather, they embody our ideal fat person--one who does have a thin person inside, one who can strip off and discard their abject fat "layer." (See Mendoza, again.) One can look also to the plethora of fat suit Halloween costumes for a more commonplace dehumanizing of fat people.

If you're not yet convinced about the ways in which fatness (and, indeed, fat people) are seen as seen as separate from our notions of humanity and personhood, I offer you an increasingly popular meme:

Note that in most depictions, the fat man* is shorter, signifying de-evolution (despite the fact that we have only gotten taller as a species over time).

These depictions take one step further, predicting the de-evolution from fat man directly to animal--specifically the pig. Fat folks are rather accustomed to insults which depict them as animals (pig, hippo, whale, etc.) rather than human beings.

These images, we should note, are commonly used by folks talking about food, exercise and/or obesity. Imagine, if you will, being a fat person in the audience or in a college classroom when this sort of image is put on the screen.

In this Ted Talk by Dean Bornish, the audience laughs uproariously when he gets to this slide:

The meme is so popular, they even have t-shirts. For a change of pace, you can sprinkle in some extra sexism. The second t-shirt actually depicts a fat woman as being lower than primates in the evolutionary meme.

It's no wonder Margaret's friends had such a hard time calling her fat.


*Note the androcentrism inherent in most representations of evolution, where 'man' stands in for 'human' evolution AND the whiteness of the images, which should not be not lost on anyone with any semblance of (Western) racial consciousness.

**Erin Remick (fat famously) mocks the "thin person inside" in her video Fat Dinosity.

Related Reading
Cooper, Charlotte. "Headless Fatties."
Mendoza, Katharina R. 2011. "Seeing Through the Layers: Fat Suits and Thin Bodies in The Nutty Professor and Shallow Hal." The Fat Studies Reader. NY: NYU Press.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Fat off the Top--Linksisode

I know it may seem like a blogging cop-out, but I'm a fan of links. In fact, I often call myself an obsessive disseminator of information. If someone paid me to offer up great links, I would be living quite comfortably.

I love giving people new information...especially on stuff I love, so here goes...fat awesomeness, off the top of my head:

First, my friend NotBlueAtAll has been working hard on organizing A Fatty Affair, a fantastic (and free!) fat and body positive event in the Bay Area, which will be setting it off later this month with a clothing swap and special guests Marilyn Wann, Phat Fly Girls, Raks Africa Dance Troupe, and Virgie Tovar.

Second, the fab Golda Poretsky is taking reservations for the 2nd Annual Body Love Revolutionaries Telesummit. Last year's telesummit was excellent and this year's is even more action-packed with EIGHT difference conference calls on various fat topics. Golda even records the calls and posts them for 24 hours, so you can listen if the time is not good for you. Check it out!

Since it's January and that means enactment of the annual "resolutions" rituals...many of which tend to be weight loss resolutions, Pattie Thomas is encouraging folks to participate in the (also 2nd Annual) New Year's ReVolutions Project, which encourages people to forgo weight loss resolutions and dieting in favor of a focus on revolutionizing your relationship with your body. They list several 'action items' as ways you can participate.*

Tonight, Charlotte Cooper posted a film she made called Lovely and Slim, which made me squeal! Lovely and Slim is "based on a song that came about when [she] really tried hard to think of the benefits of being thin..." Lyrics included. Charlotte's activism is always so fun. I aspire! (can't link to the video for some reason, so click the link!)

Finally, Bobbi (what a fantastic name!) and Austin have started a new webcast about non-normative bodies called Trans*Fat Chat. I am impatiently waiting for more episodes!

If you have any great links, disseminate in the comments!

*I'm quite happy to say that one of the suggested icons is my very own! I made the Revolt image a few years ago and loved it, but it languished on my Facebook page until last year. It features my lovely square teeth and rosy cheeks. You're welcome.