The Dog Theory of Fatness


Watching this weird and awesome video of flying dogs over at Col’s Blog, I was reminded of the dog theory of fatness. I can’t remember where I first read about it, but it stuck with me as the most beautifully simple analogy for human diversity. The theory is this, in a nutshell: maybe we’re like dogs–who come in way more shapes, sizes, and colors than human beings, yet are all just dogs.

And here’s the important part: each dog is judged according to expectations that issue from what kind of dog he is, not a single vision of The Ideal Dog. You can certainly have a Great Dane that needs to lose weight, but nobody expects a Great Dane to starve until she becomes a Chihuahua. We expect that if she eats well and gets enough exercise, she’ll be a fine and healthy Great Dane, end of story. Likewise, there’s no hand-wringing over a skinny Whippet, no speculating about how much he eats, whether he’s healthy, whether he’s logging into Pro-Ana communities when his parents aren’t around. He’s a freakin’ Whippet–he’s supposed to look like that. This is common sense.

Yet somehow, it’s not common sense when it comes to human beings. When it comes to human beings, we think this is common sense:



(Results not typical.)

Of course, even in the dog world, discrimination exists: breed standards, personal preferences, stereotypes about certain breeds that work an awful lot like racism. I happen to prefer blocky dogs to pointy ones, big ones to small, short-haired to long, floppy and silly to lithe and noble. But still, at the end of the day, I’m just crazy about dogs, and if I somehow inherited an Afghan Hound, I’m sure I’d fall madly in love within ten minutes–just as I fell madly in love with my small dogs, despite desperately coveting every Newfoundland I see. To my mind, dogs, by virtue of being dogs, are all likely to be extremely lovable; the fact that I find certain kinds more attractive than others, generally speaking, does not mean that A) I couldn’t go gaga over one I find generally less attractive, or B) people who hold different opinions about what makes a dog attractive are off their rockers. It means I like what I like, but dogs, as a concept are cool.

And what a fucking concept that would be, if we applied it to human beings and got on with our lives.


Here’s one of my dogs, Solomon, this morning.


He’s half Pug, half Corgi, and all Harding: thick-bodied, stubby-legged, smart but prone to wild flights of stupidity, friendly, snuggly, easygoing, and ever hopeful that his bad manners will be overlooked if he’s funny enough.

He’s also two or three pounds over his ideal weight, which, on a dog his size, makes him about as fat as I am–noticeably, but not unusually so. For comparison, here he is at his ideal weight, according to the vet:


Just a weird-looking, barrel-chested little dog, any way you slice it.

And from the day I got him seven years ago, when he was three, he’s eaten pretty much the same thing and gotten just as much exercise as he wants–which happens to be not much. So, as far as I know, I’m not depriving him of exercise or overfeeding him. And my vet’s not worried about his weight.

This does not stop strangers from making comments like, “He sure doesn’t miss any meals, does he?” and “Oh, aren’t we tubby! Haha!”

His actually being at an ideal weight for his body never stopped them, either. This is a dog that just reads fat, regardless of whether he is; such is the nature of a creature built like a hefty firelog perched atop three-inch legs. And of course, one wonders if the people who makes these comments are actually talking about the dog at all. And one usually concludes that they are not.

And yet.

Far more often than he gets that kind of comment, he gets comments like, “Oh my God, that is THE CUTEST DOG I HAVE EVER SEEN!” and “Does his tail EVER stop wagging?” and “You’d better not turn your back for one minute, because I WILL STEAL YOUR DOG!”

So Solly does okay for himself. Cute, cheerful dogs do not suffer socially for being slightly porky. I don’t worry about him.

I worry about the kids I might have someday. And god help me, for all my fat-positivity and all my fuck-you-ness, I worry about coping with the nonstop judgment passed on parents of fat children. My better half and I were, weirdly enough, both scrawny children who couldn’t gain weight if we tried. In both cases, adulthood totally solved that problem–meaning, if we have fat children (not at all unlikely, given the rest of the genes in our pool), we will be fat people with fat children. Meaning, a lot of people will look at us and think–without knowing anything about our eating or exercise habits or the aforementioned gene pool–“Ugh, those children should be taken away from them,” and “Look what they’re teaching those poor kids,” and “People like that shouldn’t be allowed to breed.” Many won’t stop at thinking those things, either; they’ll say them out loud.

I have no idea how I would handle that, especially since I was–miraculously, in the context of my family–spared the agony of being a fat child myself. I had about ten and a half blissful years of feeling like my body was just fine the way it was. That’s not many, out of 32, but it’s something–now, when I have moments of really being in my body and happy with it, like during my yoga practice, it feels as though I’m going back to the beginning, returning to my natural state; my memory has an anchor for that feeling. But for a fat kid in this culture, the natural state is shame and self-loathing. How does that kid, when she becomes an adult, even begin to conceptualize being in her body and happy with it?

And how would I keep from making things worse if I were her mother, constantly engaged in a Sisyphean struggle not to be shamed by those who would assume my child’s fatness was A) correctable and B) all my fault–i.e., practically everybody? The fact is, when I was a kid, I ate pretty normally, hardly exercised at all (especially once I learned to read), and happened to be extremely thin. My sister, four years older, ate the same meals I did, ran around the yard with me, swam competitively in grade school, played on the high school volleyball team, and was always fat. Our parents and our lifestyles didn’t have a damned thing to do with it; she just drew the short straw. And it messed her up good.

So now, here I am, blogging about fat acceptance, haranguing my friends about it, trying every day to walk the walk… and secretly praying to a God I don’t even believe in: Please, please, let me have kids like me, like Al, not like her. I wouldn’t know what to do with a fat child in this culture. It would break my fucking heart. I can’t even handle the judgment when it’s about the dog.

And even the people who feel free to snark on my chubby dog aren’t stupid enough to think he’d magically become a Greyhound, if only I were a better mother.

10 thoughts on “The Dog Theory of Fatness

  1. thanks for sharing the dog theory of fatness. it is very impactful.

    when kids have a support system — especially parents — who identify with, understand, and can help them cope with their afflictions (or whatever you want to call it), the world is less cruel.

    you are wise, compassionate, generous, loving. your kids will be happy, any way they are.

  2. But the important thing is, did you appreciate the Mastiff/Pug funny? ‘Cause that’s my favorite part.

    (Thank you.)

  3. Brilliant analogy.

    “Likewise, there’s no hand-wringing over a skinny Whippet, no speculating about how much he eats, whether he’s healthy, whether he’s logging into Pro-Ana communities when his parents aren’t around.”


    “How does that kid, when she becomes an adult, even begin to conceptualize being in her body and happy with it?”

    You become a ninja radical, since, apparently, appreciating your body for what it can do rather than what it looks like is one of the most radical things a woman can do in this society. But you don’t discuss it much outside of like-minded company, because too many people want to argue the point with you, and if you have a life, there are waaaaaaaay better things you could be doing with every nanosecond of your time they are all too willing to waste.

    Next question?

  4. This may be old, but jeez, does it kick ass. :)

    Similarly, I keep finding myself with thin-to-skinny cats…I offer free/endless feeding and they spend about half their time outside, just like pretty much everyone else I know with cats, but mine are always skinny while theirs are always fat. (My cats tend to be on the shorter statured/smaller frame size, too, and since I pick ’em out at kittendom where it’s all the same I have no idea how this keeps happening.)

    Right now, I even have neighbors feeding my cat because they think I neglect her.

    If my cat were a person, she would be Doing Something Right even though she naps way too much to actually be active. :)

  5. This reminds me of a time many years ago when I had my Doberman Pinscher at the vet’s office, and a woman came in with her yellow Lab. She took one look at my dog and said to her dog, “Don’t you wish you had HER girlish figure?” I remember thinking at the time how truly weird this comment was, how much it said about this woman’s personal issues. I found it especially bizarre because I had had yellow Labs my whole life up to that point, and I had never thought of them as fat — and this woman’s dog was not fat, either. It was just a normal Lab!!! People project all kinds of weird, personal things onto dogs (theirs and other people’s).

    I really like your idea that people could vary just like dog breeds do, yet still be perfectly acceptable and lovable and worthwhile. That’s a wonderful perspective! Thanks for a great post.

    (PS: Loved the two photos with caption. Hilarious!)

  6. What a good analogy.

    A healthy dog gets exercise and eats well. An unhealthy dog doesn’t (either not enough food, too much food or too little exercise, I’m sure there’s a such thing as too much exercise, like I once knew dogs who would chase sticks until they fell over and that wasn’t good, but usually not the case) same with people.

    Know what the best part is? People have a fat dog and instead of exercising him more and feeding him less they just put him on diet dog food. Your dog is on Jenny Craig! Ack.

    And, reading that it might sound judgmental…but it’s not meant to be. My point is, people have really unhealthy relationships with food and it’s contaminating their pets. That’s pretty sad.

  7. I’ve been thinking a bit about this post lately, and what I thought was, it would be an even better analogy if the before picture of the mastiff were to be contrasted with an after picture of, like, an Italian greyhound.

  8. This is great. I was just at the dog park last week, and telling my man that I love being at the dog park because no matter how many dogs you see, they’re all either beautiful or cute in completely unique ways. It never runs out, there’s just always some kind of dog that appeals in a way no other dog did before. It makes me want to take them ALL home.

    So now I’m consciously working on seeing people in the same way. Well, not the taking-them-home way.

  9. I wanted to thank you for this post, and in a broader sense, this site, which I’ve recently begun to explore. I had seen the BMI slideshow before but never dug deeper than that. I have always thought the BMI charts were bullshit, I am 5’2″ but my wrists are bigger than most men’s. If I was the ‘right’ weight on the BMI chart I would look sick. Short does not always = petite.

    Anyway, my reason for commenting was that this post is a really good way to introduce someone to fat activisim and a new way of thinking. My coworker just this morning announced that she had gone to an orthopaedic surgeon for follow up on surgery she had a few years ago, she commented that some of her pain had returned. He told her it was because she had gotten fat and if she lost 30 lb she would be fine. This woman is new to our department and not used to me and my…assertiveness, so I tried to treat the subject gingerly. After spending time on this site I felt I had the tools necessary to help her change some of her thinking. This is what I said:

    “Please don’t take this the wrong way, I am a person who likes to help and share information. but your doctor telling you to lose 30 lb in order for him to help you is inappropriate. this website has information on discrimination by health professionals against people who are overweight, and even those of normal weight that a doctor ‘decides’ still needs to lose a few pounds. I am not calling you fat per se, but there is an activist movement toward acceptance of people of all shapes and sizes that fights many kinds of discrimination, including medical. this link sort of sums up the argument in the least confrontational way, I think but you need to find a doctor that will treat you as you are, and not this idealized version of who he would like you to be. it’s not fair or appropriate”

    I felt so good, even if she thinks I’m a nut who needs to mind her own business. Thank you for your site, and especially this post which can really be a gateway to new understanding.

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