A few weeks ago, the TV host and snarkmaster Bill Maher did a segment on the obeisity epidemic where he argued that “it’s time to bring fat-shaming back.” Oh, Bill. Sigh. He decried the recent trend of being more sensitive towards the concerns of fat people as a kind of PC joke: surely there is some group of people in this country whom “we” all can agree deserves our derision, his logic goes. How dare those fat people advocate for themselves and insist that the “rest of us” treat them with empathy? Maher’s small-mindedness is just another example of the epidemic of other-ing that is sweeping our culture, a new battle line than can be drawn allowing us to sit in judgement of one another, fanning our own moral superiority like a peacock flourishing its tail. Let’s beat on people who are fat now, who may be experiencing health problems, shame and depression as they suffer the sneers of those folks who don’t struggle with their weight. Clearly, Mr. Maher’s logic goes, these lazy lardos bring it on themselves, this epidemic is of their own making and the only way to solve it is for “everyone else” to make them feel horrible about themselves. Yeah, that’ll fix it.
I don’t want to dwell here on Maher’s smart-alecky style nor his lack of compassion – insensitivity is his brand. He didn’t get where he got by being kind, after all. I DO want to point you all, though, towards the late night host James Corden’s brilliant response. Here’s the you tube link. With a cheeky twinkle in his eye and great generosity of heart, Corden, himself a fellow of size, shared his own vulnerability, while deftly pointing out statistics that Maher’s diatribe obscured: Much of our obesity epidemic is due to poverty, a lack of access to nutritious food, and the business imperatives on farmers, food processors, restaurants, and manufacturers to get us all to eat more. They don’t force us to put the fork to our lips and shovel it in, but they sure do push us to pile it on the plate.
Mr. Corden’s response showed humor, warmth, clear thinking, and heart. And guts. It was downright moving to me, as a person who has struggled with eating and weight since girlhood and kilts that showed my bum. When he said: “I have been on and off diets incessantly my entire life long, and this (gesturing to his plump torso) is where it’s gotten me,” my heart lurched. That is ME. When he took on the misconception that people are overweight because they are lazy or stupid, I felt another inner “YASSS!” I am a fitness teacher, I teach four cardio classes a week, work out with a personal trainer twice a week, walk my dogs daily for an hour. I eat little to no processed food, cook everything myself, make mayonnaise and spaghetti sauce from scratch, and generally eschew dairy and gluten, while keeping sugar to as dull roar as much as I can. I never eat fast food. I don’t binge. Whatever goes into my mouth, you’d better believe I know: how many calories it has, how many grams of protein and fiber, whether it will boost my balking metabolism or stall it. I can cite recipes from every diet ranging from Atkins to Paleo to Whole30, and I have been on them all. I religiously read labels to understand the nutritional value of the foods I eat. I do all this, obsessively, and it is exhausting. Like James Corden, this is where it gets me: 30 pounds overweight. I’ve gained an average of pound a year in my thirty years of marriage, ten of those since menopause ground my already pokey calorie-burning capacity to a virtual standstill. I’m human: I soothe my anxiety with snacks, a habit borne of childhood trauma, which taught me that food rarely failed me the way people did. Food certainly never yelled at me or hit me or belittled me for sport. Is it really so bad that I chew on my feelings? I’m not addicted to Attavan; I didn’t become an alcoholic, like so many in the gene pool before me. I don’t take my unresolved shit out on anybody else. I am vulnerable to sugar or white wine, and I can definitely overindulge if I am not fucking VIGILENT. Which, at least half the time, I am. I am that person who never has a slice of cake at your birthday party, who routinely passes on the restaurant bread basket, who eschews butter on her corn of the cob or will take a spoonful (or three) of dessert off the shared plate but rarely order her own. If I am seeing you after a long absence, you may not be thinking “she looks heavier,” but you’ll never convince me of that, because I am thinking, “she probably notices I’ve gained weight.” (True confession: I will have noticed your weight change, however infinitesimal.) When you ask, “have you lost weight,” which you mean well, I think, “oh geez, the whole time I’ve known her, she’s been thinking I should lose weight.” I am both delighted and furious that you should notice and feel it’s appropriate to comment on the relative comings and goings of my flesh. I’ve been skinny and I’ve been zaftig and I’m here to tell you: I am ME, at any weight, and my body has been a great friend to me.
I accept that these reactions are likely projections of my inner shame onto you. And yet: Bill Maher makes it crystal clear, judge-y is how a LOT of people who don’t struggle with their eating and their body images feel when they see fat tissue on another person’s body. They think they know your story: you lack character or self-control. Your will is weak. You’re out of touch with your feelings. You’re a glutton. They have no idea of the relentless, obsessive self-management required for some of us to wrangle our bodies into compliance with the cultural notion that we should look other than we do, or the 24/7 burden of feeling less-than because we fail. When you’re heavy, even just a little, you may walk around feeling badly about yourself because your body is an insult to an ideal aesthetic; as a culture, we’ve internalized that aesthetic like a brand on our psyche. “Normal”-weight people aren’t immune; you, too, recoil at your own tissue and walk around steeped in shame that you’ve had to size up your jeans from a four to six. Persons-of-struggle-free-normal-BMI, you can feel as much self-loathing as you like over those extra six pounds. You may even be able to lose it and keep it off. I am happy for you, genuinely. And envious of you, too. I’d like it to be easy, and it isn’t. It never has been for me, and it never shall be. And that’s simply how it is.
Mr. Maher frames his piece as concern over a health epidemic, and certainly, we may all have compassion for the health struggles of our fellow travelers in this incarnate lifetime. Yet, I wonder: would he look at me and make assumptions about my health based on my generous bum, or the little fold in my lower back I’ve developed in the last few stressful years? He doesn’t know my blood pressure or HDL to LDL ratio, but I bet I could give him a run for his money. My primary care doc is pretty darn thrilled with me. I’d love to have him come to one of my classes and see if he can keep up with me on a dance floor.
I think it’s sad that Mr. Maher sees undermining other people’s body positivity as something we can (and should) do to fix them. But then I think: he’s just a human being, and he has his foibles and frailties. Maybe he secretly forges checks or shoplifts; perhaps he struggles with a porn addiction or suffers from ceaseless tinnitus and that’s why he’s so cranky. We’ll never know about his brokenness because we can’t SEE it on his person, fleshily peaking over his belt. He’s lean and strong, he looks “good,” and I imagine he works at it. You know what? It’s ok that having the personal courage to share his inner demons isn’t part of Maher’s brand. He serves his purpose, and his humor, although oftentimes cruel, can also be intelligent and laugh-out-loud funny.
I’m just grateful that it IS James Corden’s character to express, with humor and generosity, his own fragility. In so doing, he honors the dignity and beauty of everyone anywhere who struggles with anything at all. So thanks, Mr. Corden. I think you are way sexier than Bill Maher, just saying. Generosity of spirit is big turn-on for me. Now get back to that pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
Post script: I wrote this post in response to James Corden’s piece the day after it aired. I set it aside and just opened the document this morning when cleaning off my desktop; it was cryptically titled “It” and I had forgotten I’d written it. But I have to admit that I may have balked at posting the reflection because of my shame, and a hesitation to go streaking, naked and fleshly, out into the world, baring my inner frailty.