:: Article

Fat and Out of Control

By Fletcher Cullinane.

Donut image by Isabella and Louisa Fischer (@twinsfisch) via Unsplash

If you are queer in America, you deeply feel the many ways society misrepresents, dehumanizes, and vilifies us. It can even try to erase us, either through direct violence or systematic forms of exclusion and neglect. You don’t have to look any further than the almost daily slayings of Black Trans people across the country to know how real a problem the eradication of queer and trans people is. If you are fat in America, you already know the many ways society engages negatively with you and it looks a lot like how queer people are treated: With  judgment, with disdain, with disgust, with ridicule. And, if you are fat and queer in America, think about how even some of the rituals and structures that are supposed to uplift us like Pride overvalue the visuals and consumption habits of a writhing mass of muscular, gay white men—even though the Stonewall riots to which they owe a great debt were led by Black Trans and Queer Americans.

But even if you’re not queer or fat in America, you don’t need to look very far to see any of this happening. In fact, you can barely escape it.

The COVID-19 global pandemic has left many of us feeling trapped at home. We’re hunkered down, surrounded by stockpiles of comfort foods, and bound to gain a few pounds as our sense of normalcy has been shattered⁠—sorry for the inconvenience, “beach body” people!⁠ But even if the world has been laser-focused on the coronavirus and its ineffable human toll, its persistent piercing gaze on fatness has not gone away. In some ways, it has made it stronger.

Maybe you’re standing in line at a supermarket, and your eyes wander over to The National Enquirer or Star or one of the other brightly colored tabloids blaring on a countertop rack. Maybe there’s a feature about a surprise divorce reported thirdhand, or some once-beloved actor’s supposed “sad last days” (don’t worry, folks, Matthew Perry is fine). But the biggest floats in this never-ending parade of oh-how-far-they’ve-fallen are the celebrity weight gain stories. The unfiltered paparazzi snaps of a formerly shredded hunk relaxing with his gut out on an LA beach. A formerly lithe musician caught buying junk food at an upscale supermarket. Forget for a moment the fact that these people are stalked precisely for these unguarded moments. Consider too that those pictures represent perhaps some of the most relaxed, most authentically peaceful parts of their days.

And yet, those tabloid pictures represent what society deems failure. We’re supposed to swoon over chiseled muscles, canyons of abs, acceptably “thicc” curvature. But instead, we are encouraged collectively to gape, to exclaim Wow, look at how fat that guy from Twilight got! Their bodies are ours to consume, wide-eyed and giddy. Even if the tabloids present these weight gain stories as human tragedies in action, an out-of-control train ready to become a wreck, they gleefully and loudly invite you to come and rubberneck. It seems only fitting that these tabloids often get shelved next to the quick-energy candy bars and impulse snacks. You can hork down some Reese’s cups and have an eyeful of Rob Kardashian—unwitting saint in the gay gaining and encouraging pantheon—who’s now fatter than ever. And boy do these magazines love to report those weights!

But, maybe you’re not that much of a reader. Turn on a TV then, or take a browse through Netflix. You might get to watch a fat straight sitcom dad blurp his way through an oversized hoagie against his wife’s admonitions, until, wuh-oh!, fatty got caught again! But hey, it’s fine! His wife cares about his health, but he’s just too fat and weak. Now consider how much worse this gets for visual representations of queer bodies. Take for example, the “groundbreaking” 1998 sitcom Will & Grace. While the show received accolades for centering queer characters in a predominantly non-queer medium, it also lazily embraced gay stereotypes  to keep the audience feeling included in the joke, but not complicit perpetrators of the joke. My most hated memories of the show were the times that the character Jack McFarland would insult Will about “being fat,” despite the fact that actor Eric McCormack was (and remains!) conventionally handsome and fit. The ruthless and unreasonable body standards often espoused by gay men here were treated as playful homosocialism, rather than the insidious undercurrent of excessive fatphobia from which they stem. And the viewers cackled at sassy Jack, even if Jack in real life would see my near-naked body on a dating app and swipe left hard.

Maybe you think studio-audience sitcoms are trash. How about a reality series pitting fat people against each other to become the thinnest—and therefore the best? Yes, The Biggest Loser still is with us, and it still makes its contestants strip and show off their bellies in dramatic weigh-ins. You’re supposed to be inspired, but the camera almost screams Jesus Christ, look at that dude’s tits! And maybe if he tries harder, puts in the work, summons his willpower, he can be the winner of this thing, and prove he is worthy.

Worst of all, maybe you can catch a daytime episode of Maury, and be lucky enough to witness one of his “shockingly fat babies” episodes, where Maury Povich assembles a gaggle of overweight and obese toddlers on stage in skimpy clothes designed to show off their bellies, and all the while makes the sad and frustrated parents confess the babies’ eating habits as some diet book authors criticize their parenting. And maybe the fat babies perform a little song shirtless for the crowd. Boffo! It’s the Golden Age of Television, and you can mock the fat in every stage of their lives.

Once upon a time, you might have gone to a carnival for this kind of fleshly sideshow and its howling crowd. But now the sideshow is all around you, and you’re a participant whether or not you want to be. And the fatness you witness has been packaged for you as either spectacle or punchline, until one day it’s an epitaph.

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In mid-2020, as Americans around us die in staggering numbers, it’s hard not to look at the way we treat the people who have contracted COVID-19, some who lived, some who died, and some still battling for their lives. We lament the tragedy of the selfless and hardworking healthcare professionals sickened in the line of duty. We sneer at the young and assholeish who partied in Cancun for spring break and now are on ventilators. We sigh at another elderly person whose aging body couldn’t fend off this pernicious virus. And we judge the overweight and obese for letting their bodies become this vulnerable to it. The stigma of this illness, for some queer people, even echoes their lived experiences of HIV and AIDS, and the impact it had on the lives of their family and friends.

Gianluca Russo’s June 2020 article, “The Dangers of Fat-Shaming COVID-19 Victims,” relates the story of Alison Schwartz, an employee of People magazine, who died of the illness in April. As Russo reports, “the touching obituary that People posted online became a vehicle for fatphobic trolls. Schwartz was belittled for her size, and effectively blamed for her own demise.” I don’t encourage you to seek out those comments, but I am sure you can imagine the grim, reductive logic at play: If you are fat and you die, it’s probably because you were fat. Russo concludes with an attempt to lay down facts: “Weight and health are both multifactorial issues. Many contributing factors are out of individuals’ control. Poverty, lack of resources, unemployment, and systemic fatphobia all contribute to what many medical professionals deem the ‘obesity epidemic.’”

But to be fat in America invites people to look at that fact and say, Nah, I think I understand what’s really goin’ on here. Let’s look back to Gina Kolata’s November 1, 2016 New York Times article, “Americans Blame Obesity on Willpower, Despite Evidence It’s Genetic.” Remember November 1, 2016, one of the last days before the impending doom of the Trump presidency? It seems so very long ago.

Even if the America of late 2016 feels like a fever dream, since then very little has changed for many groups of Americans, or things have changed for the worse. BIPOC remain brutalized by a cruel machine of white-centered law enforcement and shut out of democratic processes. Healthcare for LGBTQ+ Americans is threatened at every turn, decided by a government who do not understand our experiences: It’s not enough that the Supreme Court ruled to protect queer Americans’ jobs in June 2020 when the Trump administration has rolled back healthcare protections for queer and transgender Americans. At the same time, fat Americans—not an organized group with an established initialism to unite them—are themselves glommed into a nebulous underclass personifying pre-existing health conditions.

The main function of Kolata’s 2016 NYT piece is reportage on a then-recent study from the University of Chicago which explored “Americans’ beliefs about obesity, including how to treat it, whether people are personally responsible for it and whether it is a disease.” And, contrary to all known scientific evidence about the causes of obesity, Kolata notes that “three-quarters of survey participants said obesity resulted from a lack of willpower. The best treatment, they said, is to take responsibility for yourself, go on a diet and exercise.” That’s right, 75% of Americans think you need to put down the cheeseburger and jog around the block a few times. Kolata sums up the evidence more succinctly than Russo, albeit in far less detail: “Researchers say obesity, which affects one-third of Americans, is caused by interactions between the environment and genetics and has little to do with sloth or gluttony.”

The emphasis is mine, because it’s worth highlighting the kinds of language patterns one can easily to fall into. Do I think a New York Times reporter is shaming fat Americans? No. But is she using weirdly judgmental language here? Yes. You don’t need to be the religious type to know that “sloth” and “gluttony” are counted as two of Christianity’s so-called Seven Deadly Sins, because just like fat-judgment, Christianity permeates the very fabric of American society.

So, rephrased another way, “Obesity is caused by environment and genetics, and has little to do with sins against the divine.” To ascribe fatness a moral dimension is absurd, and yet, we do it with our language. We do it with our media, too: How often have we witnessed a fat character in a creative work also serve as a shorthand for lazy or incompetent? How often does a villain’s fatness serve as embodiment for greed and rejection of hard work, when the heroine sent to vanquish him is the epitome of yoga-pants fit?

If you’re fat, you’ve likely cringed at how the world uses fatness as stage dressing, as a costume for characters in a meta-morality play where all signs say, “point at the fattest one and jeer.” If you’re also queer, think about all of the other “sins against the divine” you have been accused of, either directly or as part of a community. The hate-filled Westboro Baptist Church screams that their god hates you. If you’re a man who has sex with men, the Red Cross thinks your blood is poison until you’ve sworn to practice chastity for a year (and even with COVID-19, they’ve merely “relaxed” that requirement to a three-month period of abstinence).

So, where does this leave you in the perilous moral balance of society? Do you choose nobility and sacrifice, or do you selfishly have sex and commit the Deadly Sin of lust? And in a time when medical resources are scarce, you have the temerity to keep practicing sloth and gluttony too? Why expect the world to choose sympathy or even science, when sin and shame is all around us, waiting for us to claim them?

Even for the types of Americans inclined to believe science—who even accept that queer people are a feature and not a bug in the human program—many still seem to envision the human body as the sum total of its inhabitants’ lifestyle choices, a kind of living karma turned flesh. If you are fat, your fatness is the emblem of your weakness or your lack of willpower, played out over a lifetime of struggles against family size bags of Cool Ranch Doritos. Maybe that’s easy for people to believe when they look at someone like me, fat and approaching forty.

And even as other vulnerable, maligned groups deal with what the American Christian framework deems “vices”—alcoholics, gamblers, drug addicts—their addictions are often considered “sicknesses,” or else they are simply given sympathy, or at least pity. In effect, they receive what fat people rarely get: the benefit of the doubt.

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If you’re queer, and if you’re not comfortable sharing that with this society, you don’t necessarily have to. It just might mean that your experienced life, compared to the story you narrate to the world, varies radically in details and candor. You can stay in your closet, but still decorate the closet to your heart’s desire. You don’t come equipped with a permanent rainbow flag of any color scheme, and no one is making you chant “We’re here, we’re queer” along with them. A range of reasons, cultural and personal, may even make coming out a feat that’s out of your control.

But if you’re fat, at a certain point your fatness is too big to hide. You can’t suck in your gut forever. Your “movement clothes” don’t hide your size, they just obscure the reality of your shape. Your body is your rainbow flag, but no one has told you how to coordinate the colors. You’re not fooling anyone here.

And regardless of how you ended up being here—whether it was uneven economic or educational opportunities, genetics or epigenetics, childhood obesity that your caretakers couldn’t contain, internalized body shame or self-destructive overeating, lifestyle choices in a cruel capitalist society that sells you poisons only to advertise the cures, or any or all of the above—that’s all behind you now. You are fat.

The good news is that you have the thing that most Americans cherish: options. You can choose to look at yourself, your body, and say “I accept this is me.” You can amp that up to something bolder, more self-promotional, and relentlessly fat-positive. Drape yourself in the “Big Is Beautiful” banner, add a sash for “Fat Is Where It’s At.” Strip down to your bare midriff and show off that massive, glorious belly with all its mesas and fjords. If this is you, then you don’t need anyone’s permission to celebrate yourself. And if you want to get bigger and bigger, either through passive acceptance or through actively growing, you need no one’s permission for that either.

But for many fat people, it’s far more complicated. Assuming we believe what science tells us, we know that being fat correlates with health conditions that most of us find undesirable, the very same health conditions which we will be blamed for having developed: diabetes, cardiovascular disease, breathing difficulties, and whatever else threatens us. We also know that no amount of fat activism will truly dismantle American cultural attitudes towards fatness. We will always have to bear the critiques of well-meaning friends and relatives alongside the hideous insults of strangers online. (Spoiler alert: Sometimes they sting equally.) Even with drastic, invasive surgeries or a pharmacopoeia of too-good-to-be-safe drugs, there are no quick answers. Few Americans will get to be contestants on The Biggest Loser, with its dedicated trainers and curated meal plans, or guests on Maury, with its promise of national attention and maybe a jump-start to a more ideal body with the show’s prize money.

Nevertheless, some of these fat Americans’ desperate, spectacle-driven journeys to “fitness” might play out like those shows all the same, with ongoing progression pics shared on Instagram and Facebook, and maybe reposted by their fitness coaches who use their progressive thinness as business drivers. Your body never stops being made an example of. And maybe some among these converts unwittingly become the fuel that fat-judges will use to say, “Now, what are your excuses?” Worse, some of these newly fit people become fat-judges themselves, seeing in fat people the thing they so publicly rejected, in the same way that some of the most vicious homophobes observe and degrade in queer people what are their own repressed sexual and romantic identities.

Maybe you’re fat but you’re not looking for radical body change, and instead hoping for something incrementally comfortable for you. Maybe you’ve tried to lose weight, and failed to achieve the goal. Maybe you’ve landed somewhere in between it all, “fit but fat,” or just “fat but fine with it.” Maybe some of this is completely out of your control, due to other health issues, or just your current environment. And maybe, just maybe, there is something a little true about “willpower,” even if its weaponizers hurl it at you with reckless force.

If you’re fat and queer, you know how much American society is obsessed with centering our fatness and queerness, while all too happily decentering us as human beings who are beautiful, or who at least deserve the chance to see ourselves as a kind of beautiful. Other people, both fat and nonfat, queer and nonqueer—uncaring, distant, stupid, useless, jabbering people—will attempt to make us their cheap and mean entertainment, quantify us a cautionary example to rank themselves against, point to us as fodder for disease and social decay. Our fatness becomes so big to them that it engulfs us, our queerness so different to them that it distorts us, into something weak, broken, and unworthy.

In the face of this horror show, at times flippant and fatal, I am afraid I have no real strategy for surviving, let alone thriving. I can only attest that I find myself eternally at odds. At times I wield my belly rolls and moobs like a sexual arsenal to conquer all the men; and at other times I despair when no shirts I try on seem to fit right. Some days I feel proud (but denied) when I’ve subbed a fruit smoothie for a burger at lunch; some nights I find myself dejected (but delirious) after gorging on a midnight jar of peanut butter again. I make promises to myself to start being more active; then I find myself flopping through a binge of streaming content. Once in a while, I’ll step on my bathroom scale after a big meal and get a giddy exhilaration when I’ve hit a fascinating new number (especially true in the age of COVID-19); and sometimes I look down at that “225” and think I’ll be fat forever, a lesser specimen for the men of gay apps to pity-fuck one drunken Saturday at 2:00am.

When you’re fat and queer, maybe the best you can do is stay alive, stay vigilant. Carry a shield to reflect back the Medusa-like gaze of the world. Flaunt the things that scare them the most—even if they’re also the things that scare you the most.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fletcher Cullinane is a writer and editor. He has written for Fat & Queer: An Anthology of Queer and Trans Bodies and Lives (Jessica Kingsley Publishers/Hachette, 2021), and has published several essays and a nonfiction book under his orthonym.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 16th, 2020.