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.

Taboo Beauty

January 28, 2012

This video is what inspired me to write this post. I found it extremely related to our class discussion on January 25th.

Starting on the topic “only in America”, we can appreciate in this video this quote is untrue. The US may be is the instigator in this crazy plastic world, but the rest of the world is sure catching up quite fast. Whether they offer you the best treatment or just the cheapest one, cosmetic surgery tourism is a huge source of opportunities both for customers/patients and doctors. The customers/patients know that what can’t be done at home, someone will be willing to do abroad, no matter the consequences.

I can understand how a transgerder person needs their body to match their mind, and they’ll go as far as possible to make it happen. Sometimes this change is impossible at their home country (money, insurance, waiting lists) so they decide to go abroad for this procedure, even though many times the result is not even close what they had expected.

But when it comes to health, I can’t wrap my head around how many people go the extra mile and don’t listen to the expert’s advice. In the video we can see Sheyla Hershey being really devastated as they she is told that they are going to remove her implants. She is more concern about her looks than leaving her two young children motherless.

The Grotesque in the “Alien” movies – Violation of Boundaries

November 29, 2011

When watching the “Alien” movies (“Alien” 1979, “Aliens” 1986, and “Alien³” 1992) for the first time, their grotesque potential did not occur to me at once – which might also be due to the genre (In the Sci-Fi mode, the audience is probably more tolerant towards the invention of new worlds and thus new creatures). However, going over the main themes again a few days later, certain elements revealed themselves to be fairly grotesque: The permanent threat to the boundary of one’s own body, and the issue of control over it.

More precise information about the three movies can be found on the Internet Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com/), so here I will only provide a short overview of some relevant events:

In the first film (“Alien”, 1979), Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is part of the crew of the space ship Nostromo which lands on a foreign planet; this is where the unfortunate crew discovers the existence of a very dangerous species, the Alien creatures. In the course of the movie, the viewers learn that the creatures are hard to defeat because of their well-constructed lizard-like bodies and their acid blood. What makes the encounters with the aliens even more unpleasant is the fact that they need human bodies to breed: After a queen creature has laid a large number of eggs, small creatures hatch from them which remind you of spiders or crabs. These attach themselves to the face of their future “host”, injecting a small but fast-growing creature into the body of the helpless person (interrupting this process is lethal to the victim). This tactic is the reason why these crawling beasts are also called “facehuggers”. Directly after that process, the victim feels perfectly fine. However, after an astonishingly short time, he or she chokes, due to the alien creature forcing its way out of the body and destroying the host’s torso from the inside out on the way. In the course of the movie, all the crew members except for Ripley are killed; she is the only one who manages to escape and get rid of the last alien in her emergency shuttle.

As a sequel to the 1979 movie, “Aliens” (1986) describes the return of another crew to the alien planet, with Ripley on board again. A representative of the company Ripley works for turns out to be planning the production of biological weapons on the basis of alien specimen. It is not surprising that most of the new crew is killed, except for Ripley, a child they find on their endeavour, and the heavily damaged android Bishop.

“Aliens³”(1992) picks up the thread at this point, describing how the survivors land on a prison planet which is mostly inhabited by male convicts with a genetic anomaly (“double-Y”-syndrome). This time, a “facehugger” contaminates a dog, thus setting free an alien creature that starts killing instantly. When it attacks Ripley, she is completely unharmed by it. She later finds out that an alien queen embryo is growing inside her, protecting her from every further attack. Although her company wants to extract the embryo, she decidesto kill herself and the erupting queen creature in order to prevent a systematic breeding of the creatures and to make sure the aliens can’t cause any further harm.

As a genre in which horror elements are of a rather great importance, the grotesque takes over a major part in creating an uncomfortable feeling at some crucial points, thus keeping up the viewer’s interest as well as the tension throughout the movies. It is mainly the transgression of the boundaries of the human body that triggers ancient fears.

In all the encounters with the alien creatures, humans are degraded to the function of mere hosts for the reproduction of the stronger species, posing a permanent threat to the safety of their own bodies. The nasty fact that once infected victims have no chance to defend themselves against the foreign organism inside them, but appear to be perfectly healthy to their environment until their sudden and violent death, contributes greatly to the atmosphere of suspicion and tension in the movies: The audience can feel with those who face the danger of unwillingly hosting a hostile and deadly breed. It should be remarked that the person carrying the embryo is a woman, which could also be read as a grotesque and macabre degradation of human pregnancy.

It is the issue of this loss of control over the own body, its natural functions and its safe boundaries that makes the described elements of the movie frightening – and grotesque. For the aliens are grotesque, both following Bakhtin’s theory that the grotesque body extends far beyond the limits of what is perceived as a natural bodily unit, and taking into account which sort of creatures they resemble: Spiders, crabs, lizards, insects – all animals which are likely to be found in grotesque literature due to their peculiarities (large number of legs, way of movement, i.e.). Another analogy to Bakhtin is that the respective bodies are definitely in the act of becoming – in this case, via the parasitic pregnancy: Something new literally (and, unfortunately, violently) emerges from the old (whether the ‘old’ likes it or not).

If you are interested in the larger thematic complex, I can recommend Marie Hermanson’s “värddjuret” (German title: “Die Schmetterlingsfrau”), which also deals with an uncomfortable kind of “pregnancy” and the blurring of boundaries between a female body and an animal. The element of insect-like creatures already appears in Kafka’s text “Die Verwandlung”, which is not only grotesque, but also highly absurd.


The Internet Movie Database on the Alien-trilogy

Mikhail Bakhtin, “The Grotesque Image of the Body” (excerpts)      

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.