Sunday, May 09, 2010


I have written reactions to the ways in which fat people are represented on television in the past. These days I struggle with "what's the use" and I have to push though it.
The other night I was watching Grey's Anatomy. The show began with the doctors being lectured about sensitivity. As the first patient arrives at the emergency entrance it becomes clear why. The patient is an extremely fat man who arrives in the back of a truck. Right away I'm worried. The patient makes a lot of self deprecating jokes, which the staff struggles to ignore. His beautiful (by cultural standards) wife arrives and reveals that she is pregnant.
The first and, for me, truly terrifying moment comes when the head of the hospital says he won't OK a surgery the man needs because of the risks. He says something about not giving him care since he obviously doesn't care about himself. It's an uncharacteristic response from this particular doctor and he reversed the decision quickly in the next scene. I realize that this is television and a drama but it was terrifying because it felt too real. The man refuses the surgery because, despite all of his laughter, he is dreading having a child because of what he won't be able to do with his child and fear of the child's shame.
The wife had all the good lines. She overhears some of the doctors wondering how the couple has sex and she jams them. Her confrontation with one of the doctors is the turn around moment in which the doctor confronts the patient and talks him into the surgery. The surgery was graphic, which is sort of the way this show does things. He survives and in the end is told he needs to make "lifestyle changes", which he willingly agrees to while he smiles at his wife. Picture my grimace.
The actor who played the part is a fat man who wore a fat suit. I was reminded of an episode of House in which Pruitt Taylor Vince wore a fat suit. I am some what irritated by this but maybe there aren't a lot of 700 pound actors. I preferred the characterization on House because the man was able to be his own advocate and not need a beautiful wife but both men were resigned to death because fat people don't really love life and don't have the will to fight for it, right?
On House the man has terminal cancer. He will die, not because of his weight. Irony. Or something.
I've been trying to sort though what I think is understandable in terms of what it takes to create a drama and what I think is unnecessarily hopped up and what is just plain offensive. The phrase life style choices, for example, sets me off.
People in the high numbers are referred to as super sized by the fat community. I'm not really feelin that term. It just feels like a way of trivializing. I don't believe anyone gets that fat from too many calories and not enough exercise alone. I think something else is going on. It's difficult to articulate in positive terms.
Any idea that fat may be unhealthy causes tension in the fat community. It's understandable since the health industry continues to use fat as a one size fits all basket into which everything wrong is dumped. Fat people will never get good health care while this is true. I believe fat to be a natural expression of physical diversity. That doesn't mean my weight isn't a factor in things that go wrong. My knees probably do hurt more because of my weight. That said, until all people with sore knees are fat it's not useful to focus on my weight. I want doctors who talk to me about a health issue the same way they talk to any size person. I don't really mind when my weight is mentioned in a laundry list of things because my weight is part of my health history. I will have issues that other people don't have. When it's part of the whole picture it's normal. When it's singled out as THE issue, it's just not useful.
Talking about health in binary terms is not particularly useful for anyone. The book I'm reading quotes D W Winnicott:Health is tolerant of ill health; in fact, health gains much from being in touch with ill health with all its aspects. He's talking about psychological heath but it's an idea that works for me in more general terms. No one is healthy. All of us are dancing along a path that encompasses health and ill health. It changes every day for reasons we can control and reasons we cannot control.
The book goes on describing people with denial about health issues and the value those patients gain when they own their issue. Before the acceptance the patients are: continuously encoding information about their defective bodies and at some level they do indeed have knowledge about their handicaps and the emotional implications thereof. I am not saying being fat means you have a defective body. In fact I think this language is less than useful for the issues that the book is discussing. However, fat people are told they have a defective body almost daily. It's a struggle to unseat that internal identity. And with the struggle to unseat the conflation of defect and genetic expression often goes the understanding of real handicaps and the emotional implications thereof. If I deeply understand and own that I am a fat person and have no particular value attached to that fact I can own and parse related issues. Life style change is a buzz phrase. Not useful.
Should people who are so fat they become immobile diet and exercise to lose weight? I don't know. I think everyone benefits from a healthy diet and moderate exercise. My wish is that people of that size would be in a dialogue with the health care community, which might reveal a deeper understanding of how it happens. What I want for them is enough space and care to be as healthy as they can be with or without weight loss.
Darlene Cates is a fat actress. There's a moment in the Gilbert Grape movie when she is meeting her son's girlfriend for the first time and she says: I wasn't always like this. The girl friend says: I wasn't always like this. It's one of my favorite movie moments. It's so real and so leveling. I don't love everything about the representation in that movie but there were some great moments.
What's the use? Television and movies are about entertainment and the story always organizes around the "beautiful" people. It's a chicken and egg. Are those the beautiful people or do we just see so many of them we have come to see them that way? They all look alike. It's boring.
I wish there was more complexity in the way fat people are represented. I did get a smile from a recent episode of Glee in which the token fat character shakes off body shaming with a wonderful song.
Yeah. I feel that. Don't you bring me down today.

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