In this week’s column, Dan Savage revealed that his infamous recent advice to a man who was turned off by his wife’s fat was totally not his fault, dude. It turns out he was throwing a passive-aggressive little hissy about readers criticizing his advice to a gay man in the same situation:
Readers—mostly female readers—were outraged: Before breaking up, before cheating, before drinking heavily, couldn’t SAS try being honest? Why didn’t I tell SAS to tell his boyfriend that the weight was a turnoff and that SAS was seriously thinking about ending the relationship if the boyfriend didn’t lose those extra pounds?… The advice you read in this space for HARD—all about being honest and open (including those now-infamous conversation starters like, “You have gotten fat and unattractive and my sex drive is nil, so can we do something about it before I bail on you?”)—was written by my female readers. All I did was change the pronouns from male to female.
Oh gosh, how fiendishly clever! You really showed us, Dan! You proved that sometimes people have opinions that contradict with other people’s opinions! For his next act, by the way, Dan goes on to quote various responses to his ghostwritten column, which — good lord! — also contradict one another. Wow, I’m really convinced: from now on I’ll read columns written by people who get paid to give advice, not columns collaged together from the opinions of a thousand amateurs. It turns out that a thousand amateurs don’t always agree.
Needless to say, I’m rolling my eyes so hard that I can see my dinner. But this column, smug as it is, is on balance a boon. Dan Savage gets a break from the intolerable drudgery of writing one freakin’ column a week by conscripting a bunch of schmos without their knowledge or consent. And I get to write about something I’ve been meaning to mention: the “everyone’s an expert” phenomenon of fat.
Foolish as it may be, I tend to read every blog that links here, at least every one that WordPress tells me about. Many posts are touching personal stories about discovering and coming to terms with fat acceptance. Some are sharp feminists directing other sharp feminists our way. Several are critical, either from an understandable “I’m not ready to let go of the FoBT” perspective or from a nonsensical “I can’t read sentences” one. But almost all of them have this in common: If they have any comments at all, they will have at least one comment saying “I just don’t think it’s okay to be fat, and here’s why.” These commenters go on to talk about their weight loss experience, or the surefire diet they know will work this time, or some dude they knew who lost 200 pounds eating Subway, or the terror of carbs or the horror of fats or the menace of corn syrup or the, I don’t know, delicate ennui of riboflavin. They cite ignorant parents, sedentary children, irresponsible school officials, some lady they saw buying chips at Giant Eagle, the generation gap, the degradation of society. They expound, from their presumably flawlessly skinny pulpits, on how simple the whole thing really is.
And of course, the same thing happens incessantly on this blog, though we usually spare you. Here’s a brand-new douchehound, straight out of the box, still with that new-douchehound smell:
There’s a backlash against being thin, but the reality is more people are overweight than underweight. Being overweight in the US is a much wider spread problem (no pun intended). Instead of finding ways to justify it, people should be taking better care of themselves. Everywhere I go in public I am shocked at how many overweight people there are, especially children, who seem to be getting fatter & fatter. It IS a REAL problem.
Seriously, could this be a lot snottier? Here’s what YOU SHOULD DO. Here’s what EVERYONE’S CHILDREN are like. Here’s what THE REALITY is. Here’s how YOU SHOULD take care of yourself. Here’s MY FEELINGS on the subject. It IS a REAL problem. I KNOW WHAT IS BEST FOR EVERYBODY.
Of course, it’s easy to be an expert when you don’t know shit about dick. It helps enormously if NOBODY knows shit about dick — if you’re talking about what some guy you’ve never met should say to his boyfriend you’ve never met, just for example, or when you’re spewing facts and figures about something as complex and individual as human metabolism. I mean, who’s going to contradict you? Unless a fellow reader can conclusively prove that they’re the One True Nutrition Scientist and have been hiding out on top of a pillar until everyone comes off it about the calories in-calories out thing, then it’s pretty much just your word against everyone else’s. And everyone else totally knew someone, or totally tried this one thing, or totally read about it in Reader’s Digest. Everyone is pretty damn sure they know something you don’t.
What is it about, this conviction that eating food and occasionally reading nutritional information qualifies you to lecture about human physiology? I use gravity, and I could even tell you some figures and formulas about it, but I don’t pretend to be an expert on physics. I can do basic numerical calculations, but that doesn’t mean I have a valid position on Fermat’s Last Theorem. So why would participating in nutrition and exercise, or even reading a Cosmo article about them, possibly justify me in spouting off my views on such multivalent issues as food, fat, and fitness — issues on which even real experts don’t agree? It puts a whole new spin on “I’m entitled to my opinion” — people truly do feel that expertise on size, health, and nutritional and exercise habits is a veritable birthright.
I do think that some of it is the misogyny that’s so closely wrapped up with fat hatred. (Even fat hatred against men. That’s why fat men are often feminized when they’re attacked — you’re soft, you’ve got breasts, you can’t see your penis.) Women’s bodies are public property, subject to consensus views, so why wouldn’t fat bodies be the same? There’s a dehumanization aspect to both — it’s not a person, it’s a REAL PROBLEM. A public problem. Which, of course, it’s everybody’s right and moral duty to penetrate (symbolically, natch) and solve.
I can come up with other explanations based on the usual components of bigotry, mostly fear. It makes sense that people might collect information and opinions as talismans against the fear of fat or the fear of mortality. Talk loud enough at death, after all, and it’ll leave you alone — that’s what the folklore says. But as Dan Savage’s column demonstrates, it’s not just nutrition and exercise and health — people also have opinions on how you should talk to fat people, how you should behave in relationships with fat people, how you should broach the subject of fat with fat people. Maybe each of those people is right about some fat person, somewhere. But we’re actually not a monolithic group, united by our waistlines. Believe it or not, honesty might be the right approach for Dan’s first correspondent’s boyfriend, but exactly the wrong one for the second writer’s wife. Not every fat person should eat the same thing — we have different metabolisms, different bodies with different abilities and different needs for exercise and different food tolerances and different nutritional requirements. We don’t all wear the same size or shape of clothes; we don’t all look good in black, or bad in horizontal stripes. And not every fat person needs the same thing from his or her friends, family, and loved ones. We don’t even all need the same things from strangers.
I don’t know exactly what people find so intoxicating about the smug superciliousness that comes from having an opinion on What We Should Do About Fat. But I know what really bothers me about it: the essentialism. I can look with pity on false bravado, people playing at being experts because they need to cultivate a sense of superiority. But when people tell you that they know how you should eat or how you should act or how you should discipline your children, or what you can wear and how much space you deserve, it’s genuinely ignorant and simplistic, just as much as when they serve up unbidden platitudes how you should talk to your wife. And it’s just as likely to be self-contradictory, stupid, and wrong — because people are intensely complicated, both psychologically and physiologically. They’ve got traumas and allergies and fetishes and hot buttons and genetic predispositions and gut microflora and defense mechanisms and antibodies all their own. Even House can’t figure out a medical mystery in under an hour, and you think you can tell me how to eat, work out, dress, and live, sight un-fucking-seen?
That’s the problem with snap judgments of an entire group of people: Chances are good that you’ll never ever be right, at least not for very long, no matter how much authority you speak with. It doesn’t matter how smugly you announce that fat people just need to ____, or being fat is bad because ____. You’ll be wrong as often as you’ll be right, if not much, much more — because there are no essential qualities that go along with fatness.
Maybe it’s comforting for people to have a simple answer for complicated problems, but in my opinion it’s a recipe for looking like an idiot. Does a glib answer have any value when it’s basically guaranteed to be wrong? If people were willing to educate themselves (or even just keep in mind that tricky principle about fat people being people first and foremost, merely a subset of an unutterably complex group), they might even achieve a kind of expertise. You’ll notice that the more someone really knows about a subject, the less likely she is to be able to give an “elevator pitch” — ask a scientist about the principle she’s studying, or a literary scholar about her favorite book, and you’re likely to encounter an awkward moment where she explains that it’s a bit complicated. Shit, ask a physicist about gravity and you’ll get the same. The people who can tell you what to eat, do, say, or wear in a single unequivocal livejournal comment are betraying their own ignorance. But what’s more admirable, really — a nuanced sense of the genuine complexity of human psychology and physiology and the wealth of research thereon, combined with a sense of discernment and perspective? Or the ability to reduce the world to a simplistic caricature where you look like the winner?