Heavy mettleWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
“Whether people grow fat by joking, or whether there is something in fat itself which predisposes to a joke, I have never been quite able to determine …”
— Edgar Allan Poe, “Hop-Frog,” 1849
I have heard people say that when you buy a white car (or a red one or a blue one, etc.), you tend to notice more of that color on the road than you once did. Since embarking on a weight-loss journey and undergoing bariatric surgery in September, I seem to notice very heavy people in ways I did not before. In particular, I seem to be more sensitive to how overweight people are portrayed and treated. It’s like I was in denial about the issue when I was pushing 400 pounds, but now I see more clearly how pervasive the topic is.
I have been watching news items that reflect many of the current attitudes about the American obesity epidemic. In a May 13 news story about Toledo mayoral candidates, Blade Politics Writer Tom Troy described candidate (and Toledo City Council member) Joe McNamara: “He normally dresses in a conservative business suit and tie with white or blue buttoned-down shirts that don’t quite conceal a few extra pounds around the middle.
“Once compared in looks with film star Omar Sharif, Mr. McNamara today looks more like somebody who spends too much time bent over his computer, or pushing the buttons on his TV remote.
“Mr. McNamara refused to discuss his weight, or relate it to the experience of very overweight New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie … who recently revealed he underwent a surgical procedure to restrict food intake and thus lower his weight.”
Yikes. Is it any wonder so few people want to enter public life in Toledo? I wonder if an overweight female candidate would receive the same physique critique from the daily newspaper. Anita Lopez had better keep hitting the treadmill.
Casual, skinny political observers might think The Blade’s unflattering description hurts McNamara, but as Toledo has been ranked America’s 7th fattest city, it might help him connect to a major new audience. Do not be surprised if at McNamara’s next campaign rally, he is greeted with bloated, out-of-breath chants of “One of us! One of us! One of us!”
I do not see McNamara on a regular basis, but unless he has been bingeing on Big Macs and Frostys lately, he does not merit a comparison to Christie. Christie was estimated to weigh about 350 pounds before electing to undergo lap-band surgery; he is reportedly down 40 pounds or so. Speculation is that Christie needed to lose weight to be considered a serious presidential candidate (one Tweeter called him a “Jello blob”), though he has said he chose the surgery with his family and children in mind.
Christie’s weight struggle and surgery elicited the predictable late-night jokes (Martin Short told Jimmy Kimmel that if elected president, Christie would be the first oval in the Oval Office, conveniently ignoring Ohioan William Howard Taft, who weighed 330-plus pounds and once got stuck in the White House bathtub).
“Yesterday New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he’s not sure if he’s going to run for re-election next year. He said, ‘I’ll collapse that bridge when I get to it,’” Jimmy Fallon said.
“Republicans are having trouble luring Gov. Chris Christie into the presidential race. They should try pie,” David Letterman said.
The Christie jokes illustrate that fat may be the only safe prejudice in American society. Make fun of race, gender, disabilities and sexual orientation at your peril, but you can laugh at fat people without fear of repercussion. As obesity has become more common, even the entertainment industry has capitalized. There has always been an Oliver Hardy, John Candy, Chris Farley or John Goodman available to play the funny fat man, but that dynamic has shifted to include women … Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson have embraced their size and are celebrated for it.
Fat is a safe punchline because, unlike race, gender and disabilities, the perception is that being overweight is the fat person’s fault, an easily remedied choice. But underlying the supposed humor is a barely disguised contempt that is fuel for bullying.
Target apologized recently when shoppers noticed some interesting semantics. While a smaller dress was sold with the color “Heather Gray,” the same dress in plus sizes was called “Manatee Gray.” Target spokeswoman Jessica Deede described the Manatee Gray naming of the “Women’s Plus-Size Kimono Maxi Dress” “an unintentional oversight,” but even without the color gaffe, how consumer-friendly is a “Women’s Plus-Size Kimono Maxi Dress?” Does one dress need that many adjectives in its title to make it clear it’s for a fat woman?
Deede said Target was “fixing the discrepancy” and that the dress was removed from the company website.
At least Target offers clothing for plus sizes, if you can accept being overweight as a “plus.” Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mark Jeffries came under fire for saying his clothing company is only for the “cool kids” — and not for “fat people.” The store reportedly does not carry any women’s sizes above large and only carries bigger men’s sizes to appeal to athletes. I have never been inside an Abercrombie & Fitch — I find the pedophile-baiting images and staccato bursts of perfume the stores spray into the air repulsive.
As blogger Lindy West said, “Everybody knows that fat people are all dowdy frumps with no fashion sense — I mean, just look at the clothes they choose to wear, which clearly has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that nearly all major brands refuse to create clothes that fit fat people’s bodies because of exactly this type of kneejerk anti-fat disgust. More bedazzled tunics patterned like an antique Parisian suitcase, please! That’s what we fat ladies like!”
As Americans grapple with the obesity issue, it will be interesting to track how the prejudices evolve. Will there be increased compassion or increased contempt? Will we have another overweight president? Or even an overweight mayor? There’s not much I can do to help Christie, but hey, Joe McNamara, I walk for an hour Downtown almost every day. Let me know if you want to join me. We can get some exercise and maybe crack jokes about scrawny politics writers.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.