Now that’s what I call a surgeon general

It appears that Obama and his administration, while educating themselves admirably on health care issues as they’ve been doing for the past several months, have also clued in to the fact that there are doctors who aren’t on TV. Even before the inauguration, there were reports that  Obama had asked Sanjay Gupta, a fatphobic blowhard of a TV doctor, to be his surgeon general (as Kate said at the time, “what, the Australian dude from ‘House’ wasn’t available?”). Six months later, Gupta having taken himself out of the running, they have suddenly hit what looks to me like a hole in one.

Meet Regina Benjamin. She runs a rural family health clinic serving the poor and underserved. It’s been destroyed twice by hurricanes George and Katrina, and she’s rebuilt it from the ground up. She believes in education and public health care. She’s won a MacArthur and several humanitarian awards. Bonus: she’s kind of fat.

Now, it’s not like having a fat surgeon general automatically means that she’ll be sensitive to fat issues. Some of the ugliest attacks we hear come from fellow fatties who find it terrifying when we tell them they don’t have to suffer. And Dr. Benjamin’s father died of diabetes-related complications, though I don’t know what type, so she probably feels very strongly about at least some of the diseases that are associated with fat — if she thinks they’re also unequivocally caused by fat, she may go ahead with the calls for public anti-obesity measures. They just won’t be as offensive to me as Gupta’s would have been because she seems like a real nice lady.

But this does mean that there’s a chance, however small, that Dr. Benjamin understands that fat is not automatically inimical to health. And her position as a doctor in a poor rural area probably means that she is more sensitive to the effects of poverty on health and food access, and might understand that lack of access to good nutrition or unbiased health care or leisure for activity — not fat bodies themselves — are problems to be solved. That’s a chance I didn’t expect us to get.

The surgeon general is often mocked as being a symbolic role, but it is possible to effect some change in the position, even if many people don’t — especially now, when the health system is potentially in overhaul. What would you want Dr. Benjamin to be aware of? What kinds of changes would you want her to instigate?

(P.S. go here for a much thinkier and generally better analysis of reactions to Benjamin’s body type.)

Hidden Plus Sizes on Etsy

You may already know that Etsy is a middle-class fat girl’s dream when it comes to stores like Jane BonBon, MissBrache, and SelenaEon (reviewed by stitchtowhere on Fatshionista), all of whom specialize in or at least explicitly advertise plus sizes. If you’ve got the money to buy new clothes but don’t think you have the money to get everything bespoke, Etsy sellers skirt that line — affordable personal seamstresses for all! Marianne collected a bunch of plus-size sellers in a recent post, and her readers actually turned me on to a few shops I hadn’t known about (I spend a LOT of time on Etsy, but it’s also a vast site with a lot of chaff to sift through). For fatties with the freedom to spend about $100 on a dress, there are plenty of talented dressmakers working in 14+. Kate, incidentally, wore a Jane Bonbon custom creation for her party; there was some waiting involved, as there always is for handmade stuff and especially for Jane because she’s in high demand, and the dress still required a little alteration when she got it, but she got to set the parameters of the dress herself and work with someone who knows how to design for fat bodies. (Jane’s making me a skirt too, and she asked me whether I had a sticky-out butt — she likes to add a bit of length in the back for the big-arsed among us, so that our skirts maintain an even hemline. That’s service!)

What you might not have known is that not all the plus sizes on Etsy are out in the open. Because of the high level of customization and personal attention that’s generally involved in an Etsy store’s business model, many stores displaying a standard straight-size range will happily open their size charts’ borders to let in paying customers. SM and I both had experiences recently with sellers whose posted size charts top out at L or XL, but who are still body-positive and happy to make their wares you-sized. Below the fold, we offer reviews, with links and (headless) pictures.

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Allegorical Figures

The local commuter paper ran an interview today with John Currin, a painter who deals in explicitly physical and sometimes pornographic images of women. (The first picture on the linked slideshow, actually, is NSFW.) I find his work interesting, if sometimes (deliberately) disturbing; I wouldn’t exactly count him among my favorite painters but I have no beef with the guy. However, I found this bit of the interview rather telling:

Express: The majority of your work is of the female figure. Why is that?

Currin: The simple answer is that I enjoy looking at women more than I enjoy looking at men, but the more pretentious answer is that I find it easier to think of metaphors and allegories when I’m using women in paintings.

This got me thinking. Part of the reason we show such public interest in — and sense of entitlement to — women’s bodies is that they’ve historically been used to represent things that are at once greater and smaller than “individual woman.” When we’re accustomed to women’s bodies signifying virtues and values and cultural mores — instead of signifying, you know, a woman’s body — it’s no wonder we start to feel they’re public property.

Imagine walking into a museum room containing representative samples of figures in the history of Western art. Some of the female figures you see will be representing Venus, the Madonna, and so forth — but many will be allegories of love, virtue, chastity, poetry. Think of the Graces: three women usually represented from front, back, and side, a 360-degree view of the female form. That’s what “grace” is. Think of the Muses. Think of the Sistine sibyls (not to mention Brittania), who are not just qualities but places. Male figures appear in these paintings too, but almost always as gods or Biblical figures, people with names. Men are characters, women are symbols.

They’re still symbols today. The female bodies used in advertising rarely stand for actual people — they mean “smooth,” “tasty,” “appealing,” “sexy,” “expensive,”  “new and improved.” Half the time they don’t even have faces, just a flank or a bust being used as a backdrop — the Nymph of the Liquor/Aftershave/Cereal/Beer. That repugnant series of Bacardi ads got one thing right: they gave their female images names and characteristics (at the expense, of course, of dignity — can’t have them getting too uppity). Most advertising bodies and body parts don’t even get that far. The much-maligned Headless Fatty is the other side of this coin, of course; she’s not a real person, but a metaphor for gluttony or ill health or consumerism or the downfall of society (if not all of the above).

Is it any surprise that women’s bodies are treated as a public concern? The entire culture is accustomed to seeing them used as metonymies for our highest (and lowest) values. The long historical pedigree of anti-woman sentiment means that the fact that women’s bodies contain women’s minds has always been elided, in favor of metaphorical elevation or degradation. We always have to stand for something, and what we stand for is  everyone’s business.

This is why objectification isn’t just the province of misogynists, by the way. Often you’ll hear Nice Guys protest that they don’t objectify women — no, they worship them! So instead of just being sexual receptacles, women stand for all that is good and beautiful in the world. How original. How healthy.

In some ways we’ve come far from Elizabethan sonnet cycles where the beloved is Virtue and Wisdom Personified, but in other ways the female body is still being treated like Humpty Dumpty treats words — it means whatever people want it to mean. How do you get people to get their figurative thought off your actual figure? That’s probably a long and complicated process involving, more or less, overthrowing the patriarchy. As we get back control of our bodies and images, we’ll regain control over what they signify. Until then, just remember that you don’t have to be somebody’s metaphor. Don’t stand for just “standing for” — your body deserves more than a symbolic existence.

Midweek link roundup

When I was in school I always used to get in trouble for talking or passing notes with my friends instead of doing my work. Little did I know it would prefigure my blogging habits. Sure, we haven’t turned in a lot of essays, but here’s a peek at what we’ve been passing notes about in the last week or so:

Adams’ argument applies on several levels here. The ad displays both the meaty sandwich and the female body as objects ready for masculine consumption. The woman in the ad is not meant to enjoy the burger, for this is not about her. Like the meat, she is a thing to be consumed, a thing that will provide the viewer with a hearty dose of masculinity and virility. In an interesting twist, this ad, which is clearly intended to sell a piece of meat to straight men, also presents the phallic stand-in as something desirable. Men are supposed to see this image and think something along the lines of: “I like BJs and burgers, cuz I’m a real man. I need some BK,” yet the ad makes the meat into a sexualized, fetishized masculine object.

So is it “natural” for me to weigh 300 lbs? I have no fucking idea. Maybe if I hadn’t lost and regained (and lost and regained, and lost and regained) so much weight as a kid and teenager, I would weigh less now. Maybe if I hadn’t started dieting at nine years of age and possibly affected what would have become a normal adult metabolism, I would weigh less now. I have no way of knowing. And I can’t travel back in time (….yet) to find out whether doing things differently would have led to a different result. And even if I could, I don’t know that I would bother.

  • I’m curious about this article — the thesis seems to be that obesity has always been treated as a product of metabolism and genetics, but maybe instead it should be treated as an eating disorder. Was this published in Proceedings of the Bizarro Academy of Sciences?
  • BMI may be even less accurate for African-Americans. There’s increasing evidence that race needs to be a factor in at least some medical decision-making, but as in so many other areas of life, able-bodied white men are the default and everyone else is considered an outlier or a deviation. It’s good that research is being done, but I’m thinking the medical community needs to listen to Lesley: bodies are not variations on a narrow template.
  • Friend of the blog Robin Abrahams (otherwise known as Miss Conduct) wrote an excellent piece about how to handle situations where the rules of etiquette and one’s personal preferences for treatment are at odds. We’ve been kicking around ideas about a post on “safe space” (and also a very belated review of Robin’s book) so look for those in the future, but meanwhile, you get a slightly-less-belated link.

Just as we expect more than etiquette strictly demands from those whom we love, we should be willing to accept less than etiquette demands if there are no emotions at stake. That’s how it works with those whom we love and who love us: we learn which buttons to avoid and which ones we can happily pound away on all day.

And it’s absolutely vital to sanity to realize that when you step out of your circle of loved ones, you no longer have the right to that kind of customized treatment. People will say things that are hurtful to you, and if those things are within the common bounds of civility we’ve defined as a society, you cowboy up and answer them politely.

  • Hanna Rosin at Double X writes about a new documentary on sex changes in Iran and makes our heads explode. Don’t tell me I’m “used to thinking of ‘transgender’ as the last stop on the gay train to freedom and self expression,” Rosin  — believe it or not, I think that the ability to become the opposite gender is not actually all gay folks’ ultimate goal. (Watch also for the part where she claims to have a better idea of “the universal truth about being transgender” than trans activists do!) Still, the documentary sounds very interesting.
  • Sweet Machine’s looking for a go-to dress for summer, something as versatile as this one (or at least, as versatile as that one would be if you weren’t a total remixing GENIUS). Do you have a go-to piece that acts as the underpinning of infinite outfits?
  • “The pudgy John Hodgman” hit a home run with his astute and funny speech at the Radio and TV Correspondents’ Dinner:
  • ETA: Holy shit, just saw this from Jez. Ableism doesn’t get a lot more blatant, folks.

So what have you guys been talking about?

Douchehound of the Day

I just sent the following comment to spam:

I wish you huge obese would stop complaining and talking.

(Linkage mine.)

Because it’s not good enough that you can, you know, just not read our fucking blog. We need to actually become silent.

As usual, we don’t douchehound people because they piss us off; what pisses us off is otherwise smart progressive people acting fuckheaded, not dipshits being dipshits. Constitutional dipshits range from hilariously pathetic to just shrugworthy — you can’t stop a scorpion from stinging, and you can’t stop a person with no resources or capabilities beyond hostility from being randomly hostile. We douchehound when people clearly illustrate, usually unconsciously, some particular nasty and often unacknowledged characteristic of the brain trusts we’re dealing with here.

In this case, what usually gets glossed over is this: what they object to is not what we’re saying but the fact that we’re talking. We don’t just have the audacity to fail to live up to this guy’s standards of beauty — we also have the nerve to persistently not disappear! What kind of women ARE  you people? Sure, I could go somewhere else and not have to deal with scary scary critical thought, but I’d still know that somewhere, women were flapping their gums! FAT women! OBESE WOMEN are MAKING NOISES! LANGUAGE NOISES! SOMEWHERE! Oh why won’t they simply be quiet? Can’t you please shut up and restore order to my world?

The flip side of this, of course, is that you can rankle the hell out of these kinds of guys just by continuing to operate in the world as though you were real people and not just big fat walking vaginas. If you’re worried about being too inarticulate, too inexpert a speaker or writer, too much of an imperfect ambassador for fat, remember that some folks find it plenty subversive that you’re daring to speak at all. You don’t even have to talk about fat; just be a fat woman talking. That oughta get their goats.

Wait, you mean there are supposed to be WOMEN inside these clothes?

You might have noticed that there hasn’t been a lot of content lately, because things happen — most notably, Kate and I have to go be professional writers sometimes, not to mention the fact that we’re both pretty strenuously ADD, and SM and A Sarah have the equally if not more time-consuming demands of academia. Also, sometimes we burn out on blogging. We’re grateful every time you guys pick up and run with an open thread or a Friday Fluff, because even though this is one of the most rewarding hobbies in the world it is still a hobby, and some days when you only have the mental energy to keep yourself fed, exercised, and employed, it falls by the wayside.

Anyway, like last time we were silent for a while, we’ll offer up as a consolation prize a little behind-the-scenes glimpse of how it works at SP. A reader sent us a link to this article, and the following conversation ensued:

FJ: Can anyone tell what the hell this article is SAYING?

Kate: No, no I cannot. I think maybe it’s that fatphobia doesn’t exist because capitalism does.

FJ: I’m getting something like… standardized sizes don’t fit anyone, so they don’t fit plus sizes, so you should stop selling plus sizes.

Sarah: My most charitable read is that she’s distinguishing the average weight from the mean weight.  Her argument, as I see it, is that it’s in the economic interests of the clothing companies to make clothes near the mean (rather than the average simply because that’s how they can maximize the number of people who can wear their clothes while minimizing what they spend on developing different sizes.

IOW, even though the “average” size may be a 14, that doesn’t mean that’s the single size (or range of a few sizes) that the greatest number of women can wear.  There’s a big range of sizes above a 14, obviously — and those all affect the average size, but that doesn’t mean that any *one* (or two or three) of those plus sizes is common enough to pull in lots and lots of customers, at least to a brick-and-mortar store.  So the sizes promising the greatest numbers of customers wouldn’t be the *average* size (or range of sizes), but the *mean* size, which (she claims) brick-and-mortar stores already do try and cater to.

As I say, that’s my most charitable presentation of her case.  I have no idea if it’s true.  I also think that her main thesis – i.e. that not carrying sizes over size 14 isn’t sizeist, just good business – is hogwash.  Indeed, though she doesn’t say so, her own analysis kind of calls attention to the reason why it’s horseshit.  If having an “uncommon body” (her words) means you shouldn’t expect to be accounted for by apparel companies, then whence the proliferation of size 0 models, mannequins, and readily-available clothing?  Oh, uh, well, you know, we meant “uncommonly BAD, i.e. FAT” not “uncommonly BEAUTIFUL, i.e. extremely thin.  Because we’re happy to have THEIR business.”  Sort of like Paul Campos’ point that finding Keira Knightley attractive isn’t seen as this odd, weird fetish… whereas finding someone 350-plus pounds attractive is.  Even though both kinds of bodies are equally “uncommon,” statistically.  So even if her math is correct, her presentation of it is still really othering.

Also, this isn’t the first time this point has come up about plus size women not spending as much on clothing in the recession.  What’s going on there?  I’m intrigued and pre-emptively pissed off.

FJ: OK, Sarah can write about it.

A Sarah, as it happens, is working up something else, but luckily the good folks at Jezebel (which I used to turn my nose up at — why?? I still skip all the celeb stuff but they do meaty topics with aplomb) have offered an insider’s take on the “it’s more cost-effective to clothe size 8s even though the average woman is a 14 because the majority of people are not average” argument.

Tatiana the Anonymous Model’s article makes really good use of the analogy between plus and petite clothing, but in my book the last graf is the real money, and the nut of my initial reaction to the Postrel article. She writes: “Moreover, the excuse about cost boils down to complaining that making clothes that fit most women is really hard — and that doesn’t sound quite right coming from companies who are in the business of clothing women.” Word up — how lazy is it to say “oh, fat women’s bodies have all these idiosyncrasies, we’re just going to throw in the towel”? I’ll buy, I suppose, that the average size 8 woman is shaped a little more like a size 8 fit model than the average size 20 woman is shaped like a size 20 fit model. That claim erases a lot of women’s bodies if you cleave to it too strongly, but I could be convinced, at least temporarily for argument’s sake, that there’s less range among most thinner women in a particular size. (Of course, most non-fit-model-shaped fat women I know deal with this by buying one size in tops and another in bottoms, but moving on.) If I believed that clothing manufacturers responded to body variation by actually trying to accommodate various bodies, I’d buy that this puts a bigger burden on them — and even though they don’t, I can see why they might find it more cost-effective to simply stop making the sizes that tend to fit more women less well, and keep making the ones that fit fewer women better. Maybe.

But I’d still find it fucking reprehensible. This is your excuse? That fat women are hard to fit? I watch Project Runway; I’m not surprised that fashion designers would grouse about the fact that there are supposed to be women under those clothes. Making clothes wearable for women who don’t look like models is so harrrrrrrrrrd! But using that as the basis of a claim that the fashion industry isn’t fatphobic is just a bit absurd. If you deliberately ignore a huge portion of your potential clientele allegedly because working with them potentially makes your job a little tricky, you’re pretty much either a bigot or a lazy ass. If clothing manufacturers aren’t fatphobic, they’re even bigger slackers than we are at this blog (and they’re getting paid).