Saturday, 26 August 2017

On fatness

Heather Heyer is dead, mown down by a car at the age of 32 in a counter-protest against white supremacists.

Twenty-year-old James Fields, an unambiguous supporter of Donald Trump and neo-Nazism, has been charged with second degree murder. Amid the many respectful tributes paid to Heyer, Andrew Anglin, the vile editor of the vile Daily Stormer website decided to stick his vile head over the moronic parapet and write a truly disgusting obituary. In his vomiting of hateful bile, he called her a "fat, childless, 32-year-old slut".

People like Anglin, who look upon The Handmaid's Tale as a manifesto rather than a stark warning, hate women when they don't marry as blushing young virgins so they can breed the next generation of arseholes. But it's his use of "fat" as an insult that I want to examine.

Why is it so awful to call someone, especially a woman, fat? Surely fat women simply need to toughen up, put the doughnuts down and lose some damn weight, right?

It's awful because what Anglin and his ilk are saying to women when they resort to "fat" as a criticism is that they are repelled by us, we are difficult, we refuse to conform to a stereotype, we have the temerity to take up too much space. And if we are outspoken as well, we are reduced to being good-for-nothing, fat, mouthy bitches who should shut up and quite literally shrink away. It's a sexist form of shorthand.

Of course the swift defence of anyone who routinely calls women fat is that they are merely worried about their health, as if fat people don't know they are fat, as if the health risks associated with being overweight are a state secret, as if the reasons for gaining weight don't vary, as if people put on weight deliberately to piss off the slender and sylph-like. Oh, please. Just stop. The "I'm just worried about your health, Fatty" is concern-trolling, justifying an unconstructive insult directed at someone who is probably well aware of their own body.

Even The Economist was disappointing in the wake of Heather Heyer's death. Amid an otherwise well-written obituary, the writer felt the need to mention her weight and her appearance in a way that would never have happened if it was a man who died that day in Charlottesville.

The obituary said: "She was bubbly, funny, strong-minded and, at 32, happy with herself, even if she put on weight too easily (cigarettes helped with that), and even if her hair had too much natural curl (she’d found products that really worked to sort the hair out, until some of her profile pix drew “Wow!” and “Saaaaaamokin!”)."

Jesus, really? What a reductive and depressing load of crap. How is the conversation following the events in Charlottesville advanced by mentioning Heather's weight, or that she resorted to cigarettes to control her weight, or that she used hair products to restrain her naturally curly hair until she was rewarded with the ultimate accolade of the Facebook age, of being told one's profile picture is hot? 

Why perpetuate the grim narrative of women's bodies, right down to the hair on our heads, being things that need to be controlled, even when you are protesting against goddamn neo-Nazis?

The news cycle moves on from Heyer's death, even if the story of race relations in the US and whether people need to see statues of Confederate generals in public to stop themselves from enslaving people rages on. Amid the noise, there was the story of actress Gemma Arterton claiming that she was sent a personal trainer on location in Morocco, put on a ridiculous diet, and filmed in the gym so that studio bosses were reassured that she was losing weight in order to meet the required standard of hotness deemed suitable for starring in The Prince of Persia.

Obviously, this led to comparisons with male stars going to great lengths, including unhealthy methods such as dehydration, to become muscle-bound, six-pack-owning gods for film roles, in the usual attempts to minimise what a woman had to say on the matter. 

Firstly, pointing out what women are forced to go through to meet a silver screen ideal does not negate the experience of men who are put in a similarly unhealthy position. Christian Bale nearly died when he lost weight to play a desperate insomniac in The Machinist and people were, rightly, shocked when they saw his skeletal form in the film, 

Secondly, it is the disproportionate numbers that make the situation especially absurd for women. When men lose weight or bulk up for roles, it's pretty much always integral to the role, such as Robert De Niro as a boxer in Raging Bull, Russel Crowe in Gladiator, or Robert Downey Jr for the Iron Man series. 

Actresses are, however, forced to lose weight, usually off already slender bodies, to play lawyers, waitresses, teachers, stay-at-home mothers and so on and so forth... It's not the same as losing weight to play a ballerina or a gymnast. It's pathetic that this is considered simply part and parcel of being an actress, as if people will stay away from the cinema in droves if the lead actress is anything bigger than a size 8. 

We never heard Tom Hanks pontificate on losing weight via a diet of dried apricots and birdseed for Bridge of Spies or Liam Neeson forcing himself to hit the gym for several hours a day to play a single dad in Love, Actually.

Whether it's about slagging off a woman for paying the ultimate price for protesting, or actresses whittling themselves down even if there is no real reason in the script for doing so, it's still sexist bullfuckery. It is about keeping the focus on women's bodies, regardless of their size, when there are more important things to be discussing - but woe betide the woman who discusses the important things while not being in possession of a wasp-like waist or cellulite-free thighs. 

It's about putting women in their place - and that place is a skinny box where they are inoffensive and quiet and, above all, not disruptive.

Photography by Georgia Lewis     


1 comment:

  1. I think living in England gives you a certain distance that those of us in the states don't have the luxury of. To be sure, it's incredibly unfair to harp on fat peoples weight even as the rest of us bear crosses of our own that aren't nearly as visible to others. It's not cool. It's not clever. It's just a sad commentary on us all.

    That all said, from the center of the culture vortex here in America, I'm far more concerned that my super smart, utterly witty, totally reasoned friend Georgia is quoting the Daily Stormer. There was a time when such commentary by avowed racist assholes would be ignored for the sake of only buying into opinions in the marketplace of ideas that were not appealing to our basest instincts.

    It's really scary over here right now because the daily stormer is getting prime time media airplay. We've always had these pricks in our midst, and frankly, living in a place that respects a person's rights to free expression demands that we defend the rights of Nazi's to speak. But, it doesn't demand that we give them a seat at the adults' table.