Some thoughts on Fat

I was reading ahead, and couldn’t resist blogging about some recent thinking about fat that I’ve been doing. A couple of recent ‘event’s come to mind. The first is an internet/media kerfuffle around a woman who wrote a piece in Vogue magazine about the diet she forced on her little girl, the resulting web backlash against her (resulting in a book deal, of course), and the thoughtful commentary about fat/health/aesthetics/dysfunction that it has generated. The second is about Betty Draper [SPOILERS to follow if you are not caught up on the most recent season of Mad Men].

The new most-hated mom on the internet is Dara-Lynn Weiss, who wrote a piece in Vogue detailing the strict diet she inflicted upon her daughter Bea when the 7-year-old girl seemed to be gaining weight (her BMI set her at ‘obese’ even if people didn’t think she looked obese) and eating too gluttonously for her mother’s taste. (The article isn’t online, but many of the details have been reported in other sources.  Her methods appeared draconian and cruel, intent on shaming the daughter into restricting her intake of calories. The NYTimes breezily grouped Weiss with other  nouveau-strict parents such as Tiger Mom Amy Chua, a trend it characterizes as a kind of rebellion against the loosy-goosy self-esteem-at-all-costs parenting ethos of, I guess, the 1990s and early 2000s. But even that article acknowledges that Weiss’s story is slightly different – because it is dealing with, as Weiss’s literary agent puts it, “something that isn’t often dealt with directly or publicly. It’s maybe breaking a bit of a taboo to even talk about weight.”

Isn’t it a curious comment? Because weight – and fat – seem to be not only widely discussed, but subjects of American obsession. No discussion of our food, our healthcare problems, or our collective body dysmorphia, or our flagging economy is complete without a reference to our fat fat bodies. But yes, most of us don’t publicly shame our fat children into self-loathing for the sake of saving a few calories, and most of us don’t brag about it, and even fewer of us land a book deal out of being so gross.

Slate, who seems to post a story relevant to our class just about every day, points out that Weiss’s methods “would be psychically lacerating even if her motives were legitimately health-based, which they aren’t.” Ah, this is interesting. We manage to cloak a lot of discussion about fat in terms of health, life and death, but what if what we are really talking about is aesthetics? Given the way Bea’s weight loss was reported, the auther Katy Waldman posits, “I doubt Dara-Lynn was as delighted with the girl’s healthier BMI as she was with her fashionably lissome frame.” (Of a 7-year-old.) Waldman goes on to ask if “it’s ever appropriate for a parent to express concern over a child’s weight.” The answer seems to be no; the risk of damaging your child emotionally seems to outweigh [ha] the benefits of cutting the calories – because little girls (and increasingly boys) are tending to conflate their weight with their identity. Maybe because mothers like Weiss and magazines like Vogue are telling them to do so.

Slate weighed in [haha] again to suggest that the evidence linking high weight and health problems is far from conclusive. BMI seems wildly derided as an accurate indicator for an individual’s health risks, and some 20% of obese people have no health issues at all. It seems that we are using a language based on science and statistics, health and medicine, in order to address problems of beauty and self-worth. “In order to put weight in its place,” the author Virginia Sole-Smith concludes, “we need to acknowledge that our obsession with it is fully about beauty and has almost nothing to do with health.”

So why am I so moved by what is happening to Betty (Draper) Francis on Mad Men this season? [Spoilers] Just seeing her appear for this week in episode 3, her first appearance of the 5th season, was jarring. Presumably the “Fat Betty” story line is a response to svelte actress January Jones’ real-life pregnancy, but I think it is an intriguing twist for the character.

There are some problems with making Betty fat, not least of which is the show’s seeming contempt both for Betty the character and for fat people in general. The show seems intent on punishing Betty for being so selfish and cruel. Somebody just told me that one key to Mad Men is the way that its scenes are often set up as mini-comedies – even if the story is dramatic or tragic, and even when the arc is sad, the scenes have elements of comedic timing, slapstick, and jokes. Out of this contrast, the show gets a lot of dramatic bang for its buck. So when we see Betty trying and failing to fit into one of her old elegant dresses, followed quickly by this scene of her stuffing Bugles into her mouth wearing a shabby pink housecoat, the show seems to mock Betty with its humor, and contribute to the idea that fat people are ridiculous, lazy, and gluttonous.

But Betty has always been a tragic – if difficult to like – character, and these comedic scenes hit a painful nerve, I think. This woman whose power has been her beauty, whose vanity has been central to who she is, is being transformed physically. This woman who subsisted (proudly) on red wine and cigarettes while everyone around her ate meals all these years, who loved to be on display, especially for Don, now inhabits a different body, and she is visibly uncomfortable and unhappy.

The show enjoys juxtaposing fat, aging, miserable Betty with lithe, young, bubbly Megan. This is just mean, but also effective and wrenching. Don, who the show loves no matter what a jerk he is, has moved on into a hip mod apartment, with a francophone beauty dancing on his arm, filling his life with light and energy. I don’t imagine he’ll be able to keep up, or enjoy himself much, not only because he seems increasingly old-fashioned and out of place in youth-culture-happy 1966, but because he is a black hole of unhappiness, and what goes up with Don must come down.

I enjoyed Betty’s arc this week. What the show gave us – a self-reflective Betty, ashamed of her vanity, warm and vulnerable in the face of uncertainty – it quickly took away. What a tease! When she finds out she isn’t dying, her perfect husband guy is visibly relieved. (This seems to follow the arc of our conversations on fat – at first it is presented as a health crisis, but now it seems that what we are really talking about is beauty and self-worth, and it is much more complicated.)

She sinks deeper into unhappiness knowing there is no easy out, no longer animated to be a better person by the threat of impending death. Characteristically, she is snarky and unpleasant in the face of perfect husband guy’s unconditional love and kindness. But the thing is, I am totally won over by her. I think January Jones has always done a good job with some tough material. Now, padded in a fat suit, she is more uncovered than ever. Am I crazy, or does making Betty fat make her a lot more interesting?

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1 Comment

  1. dygottlieb

     /  April 4, 2012

    Nice gif.


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