I’ve written a number of posts about women’s weight issues, from an early post about looking for a size 14 at the Beverly Center to an inane post about Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie which still gets comments from crazed, anorexic teenagers.
It probably doesn’t make much sense why this issue interests me so much. I’m not a woman and I’m not overweight. I think what bothers me the most is the way being overweight is being demonized in our society — for both men and women, and “fat” has become a code word for something more than just weight, with meanings now associated with class and social standing.
This might sound weird to you, but I’m sure part of my sensitivity to a singled-out group comes from being Jewish. I feel lucky to have grown up in New York City, where being Jewish is so common that even the Puerto Rican bus driver who took us to school knew when Yom Kippur was coming up. While there were some tensions between blacks and Jews in my public schools, I never experienced traditional “anti-semitism.” It wasn’t until I went to college and met Jews from other parts of the country, that I learned that the word “Jew” could be used as a dirty word. Some synagogues in the South even used the word “Hebrews” so as not to appear too “Jewish.”
I learned about “jewing down” the price, with its negative connotations of cheapness and unscrupulous behavior. Was my mother “jewing down” all these years? After all, my mother’s whole shopping strategy was to “shop for the bargains.” I always thought that was what you were supposed to do! But then I learned that wealthier “Manhattan” Jews went to the more expensive stores to buy the products at higher prices — so they can look less Jewish! After all, if the non-Jews are too dumb to look for the bargains, then we should become dumb, too. But this never really worked, because then buying at the better store became the Jewish thing to do, so it undermined the whole reason for shopping there in the first place. Luckily, things have changed, and now everyone is like my Jewish mother from Queens, shopping amazon.com to save ten bucks on a digital camera (with free shipping!). (note to Arab media: does this mean Amazon.com is a Zionist tool?)
I remember having a Jewish friend from Louisville in college and he was so obsessed about not being seen as a “cheap Jew,” that he would scold me if I picked up a “lucky penny” off the street.
I don’t need to go into a history lesson about how Jews have been demonized throughout history. You still see those images of beady-eyed Jews with hooked noses in Arab newspapers. It’s the dehumanization of a people that makes it easier to exterminate a group or blow up a bus.
Not that Jews don’t have their own bigotries. I’ve always been a bit of a snot-nosed kid on this subject of bigotry — always on a crusade. I remember when my uncle would come visit, he would always used the word “schvatza” when talking about blacks. (schvatza simply means black in Yiddish, as does the name Schwartz (like Schwartzenneger. It doesn’t really have any negative connotations to it — it means black — but when Jews say it, they usually say it with a negative spin, meaning “ghetto blacks.” When my uncle would say this, I would leave the table, angrily saying, “I will not listen to any of this racism!” In retrospect, if I met a kid like me today, I would find him a humorless prig.
Now what does all this about Jews and blacks have to do with “overweight” people?
I think the association started when I was listening to this song from one of my favorite artists, Ben Folds. While reading the lyrics, think about how the imagery of “fat” people is used symbolically to represent everything that is wrong with our American consumer culture.
All U Can Eat (They Give No Fuck)
by Ben Folds
Son, look at all the people/In this restaurant
What do you think they weigh?
And out the window/To the parking lot
At their SUVs taking all of this space
They give no fuck/They talk as loud as they want
They give no fuck/Just as long as there’s enough
Gonna get on the microphone/Down at Wal-Mart
Talk about some shit/That’s been on my mind
Talk about the state/Of this great nation of ours
People look to your left/Yeah and look to your right
They give no fuck/They buy as much as they would want
They give no fuck/Just as long as there’s enough
Son, look at the people/Lining up for plastic
Wouldn’t you like to see ’em/In the National Geographic
Squating bare-assed in the dirt/Eating rice from a bowl
With a towel on their head and/Maybe a bone in their nose
See that asshole/With a peace sign on his license plate
Giving me the finger and/Running me out of his lane
God made us number one/’Cause he loves us the best
But he should go bless/Someone else for a while
And give us a rest
(They give no)Yeah and everyone can see
(They give no)We’ve eaten all that we can eat
Fat people = all you can eat = SUVs = Walmart
Now, I actually agree with Ben Folds about our culture of overconsumption. But I don’t feel comfortable singling out larger-sized people to make the point. Poetry can be used for harm as much as for beauty.
I can hear the twelve year old kid in me asking the questions…
“Do you mean that skinny people never go to all-you-can-eat buffets? Or that skinny people don’t own SUVs? Isn’t it a fact that most rich people are actually thin — and they are the ones who are most benefiting from our society. Isn’t it an easy target to use the fat Midwesterner as the symbol of the ugly American?”
Am I being a snot-nosed prig again?
Recently I saw some reformed racist on Oprah explaining to her that “nigger” isn’t that bad of a word; he would never think of Oprah as a “nigger.” And I’m sure there are people who still use the expression “jew down.”
Maybe you’re thinking, “What’s so wrong with demonizing fat people, just like we’ve successfully demonized smokers? Maybe it will force them to change. We do have an overweight country. And being fat is not healthy.”
But do we really want to shun those who are full-figured in the same way we force smokers out of the restaurant? Why do so many women, for example, avoid “hanging out” with an overweight girlfriend? Are they afraid that getting fat is catching? And isn’t the very fact that I’m using the word “overweight” a sign of my own brainwashing by society? By whose standard is someone overweight? Am I talking about someone 400 pounds or a woman who is size 12?
Have you read about this poll done by Fitness Magazine?
“More than half of Americans say they’d rather lose their jobs than get fat.
Fifty-eight percent of women and 54% of men say they’d rather be unemployed than gain 75 pounds. And 63% of women and 55% of men say they’d rather be poor with no extra pounds to lose than rich and substantially overweight.
75% of men and 80% of women say they wouldn’t give up 20 intelligence-quotient points to gain the perfect body.”
Clearly, there is a large percentage of the population that fears being fat more than being poor (I doubt these respondents were ever poor). Being poor has some coolness to it — songwriters write about it all the time. But being fat is “shameful.” And I’m sure there are many intelligent, liberal-minded, perfectly politically-correct people out there who would never think of saying anything bigoted against Jews, blacks, gays, Muslims, etc. — but who see no problem at all singing along with Ben Folds:
“Son, look at all the people/In this restaurant
What do you think they weigh?”