The enormous pink jacket industry received a windfall this week, as representatives from the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance lobbied Congress for a public health care option that would not consider excess weight a pre-existing condition. It turns out that when a bill is going around the House, it really goes around the House. Hey-o! Seriously, though, there really is a fat acceptance community, and according to the New York Times, they really do think that fat people are being unfairly scapegoated in the national debate over health care reform. Certainly, there’s no question that fat people get used as scapegoats. Every time a diving board breaks or one end of a park bench shoots straight up in the air, we look around for the fat person. The question is whether this scapegoating is unfair.
It’s an important question, too, because we’re not just talking about a plate of missing brownies, here. According to USA Today—the newspaper that comes with a continental breakfast!—overweight Americans cost the country an estimated $147 billion in medical bills in 2008. As of 2006, 34% of adults in the United States are medically obese, meaning they exceed healthy weight by 30 pounds or more. If you add in those Americans who are simply overweight, the number of fat people increases to two thirds of the population—more if you’ve arrived single at a wedding. The idea of a nation where the majority of people are medically overweight isn’t just embarrassing; it’s vaguely Orwellian. There’s something sinister to the sheer mass* agreement of it, like Brave New World only with Doritos.
According to the NAAFA website, “Fat people are discriminated against in all aspects of daily life… Our thin-obsessed society firmly believes that fat people are at fault for their size and it is politically correct to stigmatize and ridicule them.” It seems like a reasonable claim, until you consider that two out of three Americans are overweight. Who, exactly, is doing the discriminating? When one person makes fun of two people, that’s not being mean—that’s being cool. It is conceivable that, much like in South Africa under apartheid,* a small cadre of height/weight appropriate elites have monopolized political and economic power and are using their position to keep the fat man down, with help from Newton’s Second Law of Motion. Obesity rates are highest among the poor, probably because the cheapest prepared food in America—McDonalds, Fritos, and anything else that will gradually turn paper clear—is terrible for you, and people are not lining up to open grocery stores in the inner city. Still, we’re talking about 15% of the population, here. Even if every poor person in America were medically overweight—if all our Snoops became Big Puns—50% of the country is still walking around the mall eating Cinnabon and wearing sweatpants that say “Juicy” on the ass, with no socioeconomic excuse.
Either that or have every excuse, because our body weight is something over which we don’t really have any control. When NAAFA says that “society firmly believes that fat people are at fault for their size,” it’s invoking the only legitimate argument against making fun of people: they can’t help it. It’s totally cool to make fun of your friend who got drunk and drove his car into a tree, because he did that. It’s not cool to make fun of a guy who had an epileptic seizure and ran his car into a tree. Applied by mothers nationwide, the “he can’t help it” test is pretty much the gold standard for public mockery. Nobody wants to be fat, and the social and economic stigmas that NAAFA alleges are, in themselves, evidence that fatness is not a choice. Still, nobody wants to do the dishes, either, yet 66% are not eating our Ding Dongs off of plates encrusted with the remnants of yesterday’s burrito. The question of whether it is okay to make fun of fat people—which, I think we can all agree, is the most pressing social issue of our time—turns out to cut straight to the big, gristly heart of how we construct the individual in relation to society.
My father believes that it is totally okay to make fun of fat people. He is also a lifelong Republican who thinks poor children should be made to fight each other for food/entertainment, a la Conan the Barbarian. Like most thin people who own their own homes, he believes that the conditions of each individual’s life are entirely the result of his or her choices, and if he or she weighs 400 pounds and can’t stop farting during Couples Retreat, he or she has chosen to be called “Lunchbox” in front of the rest of the theater. For my dad, it’s not hard to see our current epidemic of obesity—and the push for “fat acceptance” as a national moral imperative—as further evidence of a society in which nobody takes responsibility for anything anymore.
The numbers don’t quite add up, though. A country in which A) two thirds of the population is fat and B) fat people are discriminated against can be explained by only one phenomenon, and that’s C) fat people are discriminating against themselves. As Notorious B.I.G. did long for Lil’ Kim, so do the fattest among us still long for the thin, both on the street and in the mirror. We laugh at fat people riding bicycles even as our own enormous asses rebel against us, and the only way out is to agree that being fat is something we can’t control. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but that’s not the real issue. Jean-Paul Sartre, who was French but still liked a pair of big legs, said that “one is always responsible for what one makes of what is made of one.” If we have been made fat, the only thing left for us to choose is whether we will make fun of it or not, and we must accept that choice. It’s a big decision, and it’s only going to be bigger after the holidays.