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As Mama Used to Say, ‘Don’t Laugh at Fat People’


Thursday, July 3, 2008
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There have been a lot of hurtful remarks made by surrogates of the three remaining presidential contenders about a candidate’s race, gender or age. Democratic presidential nominiee Sen. Barack Obama took a lot of heat recently because of remarks he made during a fund-raiser in San Francisco. He was explaining the difficulty he is facing winning working-class white voters, especially those from small rural towns.

 It’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations,  Obama said.

Obama was widely condemned and seen in some quarters as a bigot. However, on the unsavory route of bigotry some slurs are considered worse than others. Mockery or insult to a person’s race, ethnicity or religion is totally unacceptable. Making fun of someone because he or she is  queer  may be somewhat less taboo, but it is still definitely frowned upon.

When I was a child growing up in Upper Caldwell, Liberia, I was taught not to point at or laugh at a handicapped person. A fat person was what I aspired to be, for in most of Africa heavyset people are often associated with good health. People who would never openly admit to racism have no qualms about expressing revulsion for a chubby person. And that just may be because the fat threatens the thin down to the deepest levels of their psyches.

The reaction of some Americans to an overweight person – especially one who is 20 or 30 pounds over the so-called ideal weight – is so intense and so overwhelmingly ridiculous that it makes the United States a big superficial nation that has a problem with its human composition. When I tried to highlight the discrepancies meted out against overweight people in a conversation with a group of my American friends, I got berated from all sections of the room for sounding like a chauvinistic cockroach.

My message was intended to draw attention to the perception that some in this society have about fat people, which has appalled me since I arrived here over a decade ago. Unfortunately, my remarks were misunderstood as being judgmental rather than a thought-provoking look at fatness. I have noticed that being too fat is one of the phobias of the West, where the 21st Century has seemingly imposed on most of us the aesthetic ideal of a wasp waistline, a non-existent tummy and twig-like thighs. 

In most Third World countries, however, a belly and a prominent back (butt) are signs of prosperity and confer a certain prestige. Now, perhaps, you understand why I am suffering from culture shock, even after being in this country for over a decade. While most men in the West lust after pencil-like women, men in most African cultures drool over voluptuous women. Being skinny is a sign of malnutrition and sickness. But it would be wrong to take either of these versions too lightly, since they apply psychological bias and social pressures that can influence health to a considerable degree.

Being too fat, especially to the point of obesity, experts say, is potentially harmful to one’s health. For many, a fat person variously symbolizes loss of control, a reversion to infantile desires, failure, self-loatheness, loss of will power, passivity and gluttony. Such ingrained attitudes must be confronted and rejected. 

Society always looks for types of people to hate and to feel superior to,  says Amardeep Singh, my Indonesian friend of Indian descent.  Fatness is about the last thing left that seems to be a person’s fault, but it’s really not. 

Nevertheless, the gear may be shifting as ever more people protest against the nefarious demands of external slenderness, as the population ages and thickens, and as excessive thinness becomes associated – not with athletic superiority – but with chronic ailments that alter a person’s physical appearance, such as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

When you have a disease like HIV/AIDS that makes people skinny, suddenly slenderness, sooner or later, may be seen as suspicious.

I also hope that as Hollywood’s demand for super thin bodies continues to drive celebrities and those who wish to be like them to develop eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, Americans will rediscover the beauty of the curvaceous body.

 It’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations,  Obama said.

Obama was widely condemned and seen in some quarters as a bigot. However, on the unsavory route of bigotry some slurs are considered worse than others. Mockery or insult to a person’s race, ethnicity or religion is totally unacceptable. Making fun of someone because he or she is  queer  may be somewhat less taboo, but it is still definitely frowned upon.

When I was a child growing up in Upper Caldwell, Liberia, I was taught not to point at or laugh at a handicapped person. A fat person was what I aspired to be, for in most of Africa heavyset people are often associated with good health. People who would never openly admit to racism have no qualms about expressing revulsion for a chubby person. And that just may be because the fat threatens the thin down to the deepest levels of their psyches.

The reaction of some Americans to an overweight person – especially one who is 20 or 30 pounds over the so-called ideal weight – is so intense and so overwhelmingly ridiculous that it makes the United States a big superficial nation that has a problem with its human composition. When I tried to highlight the discrepancies meted out against overweight people in a conversation with a group of my American friends, I got berated from all sections of the room for sounding like a chauvinistic cockroach.

My message was intended to draw attention to the perception that some in this society have about fat people, which has appalled me since I arrived here over a decade ago. Unfortunately, my remarks were misunderstood as being judgmental rather than a thought-provoking look at fatness. I have noticed that being too fat is one of the phobias of the West, where the 21st Century has seemingly imposed on most of us the aesthetic ideal of a wasp waistline, a non-existent tummy and twig-like thighs.

In most Third World countries, however, a belly and a prominent back (butt) are signs of prosperity and confer a certain prestige. Now, perhaps, you understand why I am suffering from culture shock, even after being in this country for over a decade. While most men in the West lust after pencil-like women, men in most African cultures drool over voluptuous women. Being skinny is a sign of malnutrition and sickness. But it would be wrong to take either of these versions too lightly, since they apply psychological bias and social pressures that can influence health to a considerable degree.

Being too fat, especially to the point of obesity, experts say, is potentially harmful to one’s health. For many, a fat person variously symbolizes loss of control, a reversion to infantile desires, failure, self-loatheness, loss of will power, passivity and gluttony. Such ingrained attitudes must be confronted and rejected.

Society always looks for types of people to hate and to feel superior to,  says Amardeep Singh, my Indonesian friend of Indian descent.  Fatness is about the last thing left that seems to be a person’s fault, but it’s really not.

Nevertheless, the gear may be shifting as ever more people protest against the nefarious demands of external slenderness, as the population ages and thickens, and as excessive thinness becomes associated – not with athletic superiority – but with chronic ailments that alter a person’s physical appearance, such as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

When you have a disease like HIV/AIDS that makes people skinny, suddenly slenderness, sooner or later, may be seen as suspicious.

I also hope that as Hollywood’s demand for super thin bodies continues to drive celebrities and those who wish to be like them to develop eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, Americans will rediscover the beauty of the curvaceous body.

Wynfred Russell is the director of the Center for Multicultural Services at Normandale Community College. He can be reached at 952-487-8131 and [email protected]

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About Wynfred Russell

Wynfred Russell is a former faculty of the Department of African American & African Studies at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, where for six years he taught African history and culture. He has also taught African history and multicultural education at North Hennepin Community College and Century College. Russell is currently the Director of Normandale Community College's Center for Multicultural Services. 

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