Why Is Fatness So Grotesque?

February 13, 2012

Honestly, I tried to answer this question for so long, I can’t even remember. I come from a family that has never been shockingly overweight, but more often than not on the large sight of ok. This fact in itself has resulted in diets attempts gone bad from simple yo-yo dieting to more than one person that had to be treated for sever anorexia. But why do we live in a society and culture that has such an aversion to fat and fat people that someone feels forced to hate themselves in order to feel accepted?

First and foremost, fat is something positive. Most archeologist, anthropologist and pre-historians are convinced that without the body’s ability to accumulate fat most of us wouldn’t be here today. The evolutionary trick to store energy within the body made it possible for humans to survive long stretches of time without access to food (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00hbsk2). So, hurray! And while too much fat can present a person with serious health risks, have to little of it and you are in a whole lot more trouble.

Knowing all that actually presents me with a conundrum, as I am as biased towards fat people as the next person: Fat people are lazy, can’t control what they eat, are stupid and too ignorant to find information about how much energy = food they need. When I see a ‘grotesquely’ fat person behind the wheel of a very small car or on the subway with shins that are as huge as my stomach, I can’t help myself but to stare at such a mass of fat.

During this semester, I looked at a lot of theoretical texts trying to explain why fat is equaled to being bad. They ranged from fat being connected to being female and therefore to being weak to fat being connected to foreigners and therefore something bad and finally to fat being a sin against God[1]. Not satisfied with that I read other sources, e.g. “Calories and Corsets” by Louise Foxcroft and found even more reasons why fat is bad: If you are fat, you are a bad politician, if you are fat, you are a bad woman and finally, if you are fat, you are uneducated and a sloth. Considering all the labeling in regards to fat that has been going on for almost all of our written history, it’s no miracle fat doesn’t stand a chance. I’m actually starting to wonder why there aren’t even more people despairing over their weight.

So although between a third and a half of the general population is supposed to be overweight the individual is constantly taught that being overweight is not the norm but something horrible far outside of it. And what do we as humans do with things that don’t fit neatly in the category they are supposed to? We ostracize and we stare. To change this fact will be an uphill battle.

[1] On a side note: The Christian faith and its fear of the body is believed to have produced the first anorexics in the form of martyrs already 2000 years ago.

South Park – the grotesque reflection of ourselves

December 1, 2011

South Park is a little village in Colorado, USA which a lot of -at first sight- strange people call their hometown. The most important characters of this fantastic, correspondenting succession are the small, and in fact really cute, seven and eight years old boys Kenny McCormick, Kyle Broflovski, Stan Marsh and fat Eric Cartman.  

It is one of the most popular and famous series in the USA and so it is in other Western countries, too. Trey Parker and Matt Stone already produced 15 seasons and one movie. They started to broadcast the animated and homorous television series in 1997. Since that date fans of South Park cannot imagine television without this fabulous and mordant criticism of society. Eyery episode and also any character is well-defined by stereotypes and prejudices which are well-known all over the world. So it is just normal that there is, for example, a gay teacher, a Jewish boy who is always been picked of being Jewish, a fat boy who is not recognizing his fatness, a young guy out of a poor family, a dude with emotional issues and a big black chef who is often complaining about being a victim of racism. The guest parts of some celebrities or just the stories told about them are most of the time overacted but there is no gag without some truth behind it. Furthermore all the grotesque things which happen seem to be just a reflection of what is going on in reality. Of course there is no successful series in television without overacting gags and characters but some of the people who are laughing on one hand about a stupid joke about Adolf Hitler and the Jews or about the whole “Jesus-is-one-of-us-thing” do not recognize on the other hand that these jokes just can be made because of them. It is clever of the producers just to observe what is going on in society to make a favorable series out of it. There is then just an inserting of some hyperboles needed to have a hit on television. And the most funniest thing about this strategy is people do not recognize that actually they are the ones other folks laugh about. It is a great circle of the stereotyped human beings with all of their good and bad qualities.

Moreover it is also very interesting how interested people are in the mechanisms of human body. They love watching some orifices of the body and what actually comes out them. The whole body and its functions therefore seems to be a spectacle. No one in society would ever burp, fart, poop, or puke in public and if someone does so, there is not anyone who starts laughing or applauding(only the embarrassed “burper” or a disrespectful person to embarrass the “farter” even more). In South Park everything that is given into the body or comes out of it again is worth it to be shown and to make fun of it.

In a nutshell comparing South Park to society in “real life” does not lead to a big difference between the acting and the behaviour of the characters in South Park and the people in reality except of the exaggerated exposure of the series on TV.   

Just one great example; the Robo-Streisand: http://www.southpark.de/alleEpisoden/112/



How should we deal with “freaks”?

November 30, 2011

Watching David Lynch’s “Elephant Man” made me think about the way I and most people interact with so called freaks (I will use the word “freak” in the absence of a better general term to describe persons with any disorder, disability or unusual appearance, despite of its offending connotation. In addition to that, I intentionally use “freak” to create a judicial connection between the exposure of “freaks” in freak shows and in modern TV-shows).

During a discussion in class, my impression, that this question cannot be answered easily, was affirmed. I think, the main problem is our own uncertainty and our lack of experience in this field of interaction. We do not know if the freak is fine or offended if we look or even stare. We don’t know if it is okay to joke around or if the freak feels ridiculed and humiliated by it. Do we better ignore the disorder or make it the main topic? Of course, we need to be as compassionate as possible and pity the freak…or don’t we?

Yavannie already wrote about Modern Freak Shows and how they are still present in today’s media.

The usual concept of modern TV-(freak)-shows is to present a freak, explain the medical background and to show extensively how the freak’s life looks like. This concept made me remember an early episode of South Park.

In South Park’s second season episode “Conjoined Fetus Lady“, Nurse Gollum is introduced.

The episode starts very casual with the children playing Dodgeball in PE-class. When Kyle is hit by a ball and is sent to the school nurse because of his bleeding nose, the mood changes. Background music that we usually hear in horror music underline the other childrens’ conversation.

“I heard, the school nurse is hideously deformed.”

“I heard she has tentacles and eats children for lunch.”

“Has anyone actually seen the nurse and come back to tell about it?”

“No Cartman, nobody ever has.”

Kyle’s fear is confirmed (at least for him) as soon as the at first ordinary looking nurse turns and reveals a dead fetus attached to her head.

Nurse Gollum

 While Kyle can’t stop screaming, the surprised nurse explains in a very calm and comfortable way:

“Oh, I see you’ve noticed my disorder. I have a still-born fetus growth attached to my head.”

Later, when Kyle’s mother Sheila overhears the children talking about the nurse, the freak show found its manager. With – of course – only good and charitable reasons in mind, the highly motivated cliché charity-parent starts a crusade to “make the public aware of her” and her disorder, the “conjoined twin myslexia“.

“Her disease should be brought to light so that it can be understood rather than made fun of.”

How clearly uncertain and uncomfortable people usually are, when they are confronted with a grotesque body,is impersonated by the different dinner guests at the dinner that Sheila organized for Nurse Gollum. While Gerald can’t stop to nervously confuse words and therefore to use “dead fetus” in every sentence, Mr. Mackey tries to completely ignore that anything is unusual even when the conversation-topic is fetus-related. Nurse Gollum seems to be the only “normal” person at the table but her statement that she is “a pretty happy person” doesn’t stop Sheila and Principal Victoria to commiserate with her and to offer her different hats that she could wear (to look normal).

The two charity-ladies are so happy and enthusiastic about their movement, that they organize the “Conjoined Twin Myslexia Awareness Week”, consisting of a parade (including only Nurse Gollum), an award-show for the “Lifetime Conjoined Twin Achievement Award” (“This award goes to outstanding conjoined twins who have made a mark on society”), the obligatory video of “the brave life she has lived” (showing her grocery-shopping, in the post office or on her toilette) and another huge event where all people of the audience wear conjoined-twin-hats.

Expecting a grateful and touched speak, everyone is surprised by what Nurse Gollum actually says:

Nurse Gollum: “Thank you, Mayor. I uhhh, wa-I… I don’t know what to say; this has been quite a week.”

Sheila: [wiping away a tear] “She’s really touched.”

Nurse Gollum: “What I really wanna say is… well, -egh this may sound odd coming from a woman with a fetus sticking out of her head, but… you’re all a bunch of freaks!” [the crowd is stunned]

The Mayor: [taking the mike] “Uuhh. Freaks with big hearts! And now, le-”

Nurse Gollum: “Don’t you realize that the last thing I ever wanted was to be singled out?” [Sheila and the priest look betrayed] “I just wanted to do my job and live my life like any normal person, but instead, you’ve made everybody focus on my handicap all week long.“ [the look is spreading] Look, I don’t want to be treated different. I don’t want to be treated special orh-or treated gingerly or-I just want to be ridiculed, shouted at, and made fun of like all the rest of you do to each other.” [people are listening] “And take those stupid things off your heads!” [she turns and walks off the stage]

The Mayor: “Oh, my. What an ungrateful bitch.”

Sheila: “Yyeehh, the nerve of some people!”

Kyle: “Hey, you know. That nurse is actually pretty cool.”

Stan: “Yeah. Maybe that dead fetus makes her smarter.”

I think, it’s not necessary to comment on that last scene as it explains my point itself. Of course, this episode does not give us a guideline on how to behave when we are confronted with a “freak”. What it does, is to show us how “freakish” our behavior can be turned by our insecurity and discomfort. There is nor right or wrong or perfect pattern of behavior towards “freaks”, because everyone (“freak” or “normal”) is an individual that needs to be treated individually.

In my opinion, the important message is, that we need to question our own behavior and to calm down and let things flow naturally instead of “freaking out”.



Sources and additional reading:




Modern Freak Shows…

November 29, 2011

Why do we talk about freak shows as if they were a thing from the past? Freak shows still exist today and they are just as horrendous, useful and interesting as they have been then. While people don’t go to circus side shows anymore, they do pay hefty fees for their TV channels.  Modern freak shows are ever present in the form of documentaries about people who suffer from strange genetic anomalies or disabilities.

One example that I stumbled upon is a show produced in Britain by CHANNEL 5 called Extraordinary People . Goal of the show is to reveal people with disabilities who manage feats previously thought impossible for them to achieve. They show dwarves and giants, conjoined twins and fetus in fetu, people without faces, blind people who can walk like they could see, autistic people who are mathematical geniuses and children with half a brain. While all the episodes concentrate on a specific, often medical, event in the lives of the showcased “freak”, their life’s story is told. It is always highlighted that they accomplish to live as normal a life as possible despite their difficulties. Does that ring a bell?

The more episodes I watched the more I wondered why documentaries such as these are as popular as ever. In Thomson’s Freakery she points out that the freak shows of the 19th century were a very useful tool to create the abstract sameness a voter in a democracy needed to be. By looking at the strange other the audience became one in their normalness and turned into the mass of equalized people needed to support a fledgling democracy. Is democracy today then still so feeble to be in danger of failing? The answer, sadly enough, has to be a resounding YES. As economic crisis after economic crisis hits the world the cultural divides between the poor and the rich, the labor and the middle class, the uneducated and the educated turn more solid every day.  By providing examples of the obviously different such documentaries artificially generate a unity among all the cultural groups. And as a result democracy can withstand another onslaught. Hurrah!

What I found even more interesting than supporting our political system was the level of control that the medical establishment acquires through these freak documentaries. In Extraordinary People most episodes are centered around a medical problem, may it be the question what this one person suffers from or whether the “freaks” can be “normalized” without killing them. So, similar to the issue of intersex people , the medical establishment seizes the power to decide who counts as normal and who doesn’t. What if it wouldn’t be necessary to differentiate between normal and abnormal? Would democracy even work if the deviant and freakish wouldn’t exist? And do the needs of the many really outweigh the needs of the few?

To a degree freaks will always be a curiosity. But the degree to which we treat them as human beings and not as a medical condition, that has to be cured, is up to us. After all, don’t we teach our children to accept anyone for who they are? This is the lesson society will have to learn to create a better future.

Fat vs. Skinny – Modern Beauty Standarts based on Historical Views?

November 21, 2011

Last session we talked about the “Venus Hottentot” and prostitutes, and about how these women were stereotyped as being fat because of their uncivilized way of life. We further discussed how 19th century society used these ‘bad’ stereotypes to control society. Women (and people in general) were led to believe that being thin means being civilized. In the discussion we talked about how this viewpoint of relating obesity to unattractiveness and an uncivilized way of life still affects our lives today. We discussed the stereotypes of black women with big butts in rap videos, the skinny runway models, and attempts to encourage curvy women in their self-confidence (Dove Ad). And this made me think…

Could it really be that 19th century Victorian society was the starting point for the slimming craze that we see everyday in modern life? Of course the stereotypes aren’t communicated the exact same way, but they still exist. Women feel unattractive if they don’t look like “photoshopped” models. I always thought that the starting point for the slimming craze was given with the rise of the mass media, and the broad propagation of these ideals. The media tell us what to wear, what to eat, what to buy, and of course how to look. Everybody who wants to sell something uses a standardized ideal of beauty for advertising.

Of course the attraction to skinny people isn’t naturally given, it is a pattern used and represented by the media. In fact attributes that made a person attractive varied from fat to thin. Society constructs attractiveness. It decides what is acceptable, and what is not. However, today it’s not so sure whether society controls these images, or rather the companies that want to sell stuff by using mass media to reach people. Maybe both of them are combined, and today’s life takes place in a “mass media/ concern- controlled society”. You find yourself surrounded by ads wherever you go: in the streets, on the radio, TV, internet, magazines… being exposed to ads that carry certain messages is part of everyone’s life. We’re used to it, so we stop thinking about the appearance of ads, and at the same time we stop questioning the validity of the messages. We simply accept what we see as part of our surrounding. So, by accepting the messages, we accept the stereotypes carried by them – and every ad does carry them. Even Dove – with their “anti-skinny” campaign – uses the thin stereotype in order to sell stuff. They just turn it around. And in fact the women in these videos aren’t fat at all, but they’re said to be chubby, as opposition to the skinny standard models. Unconsciously this creates the message that curvy women feel bad for their appearance, because they don’t look like skinny models, which again makes the skinny body a desirable body. Besides that, the women shown in the ad aren’t fat or anything close to it, so there’s a disproportioned image shown a certain group of society should relate to.

Many people are intimidated by the ideal they’re shown. Often enough one can’t reach the idealistic stereotype, because it is, as the definition says, something existing only in imagination, desirable or perfect, but not likely to become reality (Oxford Dictionary). I often compare the awareness of one’s own flaws to drawing a picture. The viewer who sees the picture after it’s finished looks at it and sees a beautiful painting. The artist, however, sees all the flaws, the process and the mistakes he made while painting it. Most people don’t realize that their looks aren’t bad at all, and that they don’t look ugly to others because those others aren’t aware of any of these flaws. Often enough they’re too concerned with hiding their own.

Currently there aren’t many people who fit the common ideal of skinny beauty, because it isn’t in the human’s nature to be extra skinny. There are different medical views that say what amount of body fat is healthy, and one could argue for different points of views, but that’s not the point. Every living being puts a lot of effort in staying alive; the given conditions are acknowledged and maintained. The human is the only being that would deliberately starve or stuff himself on conditions that aren’t linked to health or surviving at all.