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No Fats, No Femmes
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
A few years back, I got a job teaching composition at a local college, and I had the damnedest time getting my students to care about their assignments or to be creative in any way. Everything they wrote was boring beyond belief, and I could tell they hated my class and dreaded coming to it. Almost in desperation, I tried an exercise I'd learned from my undergrad days at I.U. I told my students, Write about something you did that was unforgivable. Don't dress it up, don't make it literary, just tell me what happened. After a few puzzled moments the students gradually warmed to the idea, and I could see that I had gotten them to take a personal interest in their compositions. Everybody has a nagging memory of something bad they did, and it's a rare person who can resist the chance to explain that behavior. The resulting essays were the most thought-out and well-written papers I received all semester.
After I had given the assignment, though, one of my more precocious students asked me, in front of everyone, what story I would write about if I had to. I hesitated for a second, completely thrown, and then told them something that happened recently. I'm at a dinner party with friends, I tell them, I'm having coffee in the dining room and I'm regaling everyone with an anecdote about one of my least favorite acquaintances. I ridicule the guy mercilessly in my story, getting laughs, and then I top my account off by saying, finally, "And besides, the guy's a fat f---." This is my laugh line. But suddenly it's quiet. It takes me a couple of seconds to realize that one of my friends in that very room is probably 80 pounds overweight and I have completely forgotten about him. I notice the expression on his face. After a few agonizing moments, another friend comes to my rescue and, thankfully, takes the conversation in another direction. Pretty soon things get back to normal, with everybody choosing to ignore my thoughtless words.
What I couldn't ignore, I told the class, was the terrible look on my overweight friend's face. It was unmistakable — a wince of pain, then abject fear, like: maybe they're going to turn on me next. It is the look you see on a kid's face when the neighborhood bully is around. Seeing this makes me immediately remorseful and full of self-loathing but it's much too late for that. I have to accept, right then, that I have added a bit more pain to the world, a quick kick in the teeth to someone who thought I was his friend. Nothing more, nothing less. And no way to make it right.
The class was quiet when I finished talking. I wasn't sure what they thought about me. And to be honest, I had no good explanations for my own behavior. See, I had always championed myself as a model of tolerance who would never say anything derogatory toward blacks, gays, Asians, Hispanics. But for some reason I guess I decided that overweight people didn't deserve any similar sensitivity. It was shocking for me to acknowledge this, to realize how obviously prejudiced and mean I really was.
But then I wondered, maybe a bunch of my students didn't think I had done anything wrong at all. Maybe they thought I behaved appropriately. People have such profound antipathy toward obesity, it's so ingrained in our culture, this hatred-fear, that I think it's become socially acceptable to ridicule overweight people. Race, creed, sexual orientation, even addiction problems, well, you can't make fun of those. But obese people? Tee off. I'm embarrassed by the story I've told, but frankly I hear so much worse every time I go out in public or whenever I turn on the computer. Our national obsession with body image has made the overweight person the new pariah.
And look, I know about the obesity problem in the United States. I do. I know it's an epidemic. I know that in Indiana, close to 30% of the adult population is overweight. I recognize the implications to health care and social programs. I know that the weight-loss industry is a billion dollar business and that bariatric clinics have become common place in virtually every city in the country. Knowing all this, though, I still don't believe that this gives anybody the right to be a vicious creep towards somebody who's probably a little sensitive about their body in the first place. I keep thinking, you know, obese people have tons of health problems, they have heart disease and diabetes and a lower life expectancy and higher insurance rates and more depression, and then, as if that wasn't enough, they get to endure public ridicule and cheap shots from half-wits. Isn't there a rule against piling on?
I think there's a far greater epidemic rampaging in the United States right now, though. An epidemic of ridicule. I've quit reading blogs and flames and I've stopped watching Chelsea Handler and American Idol and Colbert and that awful Ann Coulter. There seems to be a game afoot, now, to see how uncivil and mean we can take the national dialogue. The end result of this exercise seems obvious: inevitably, everybody will become a target. For now, we'll just have to settle for overweight people.