Okay, I had it wrong all along. Fat is not a feminist issue. Or even a fashion issue. It has simply become an issue that everyone feels entitled to weigh in on, sound off on, or even trade insults about.
Even those who wouldn’t dream of commenting on the colour of your skin, the quality of your education, the size of your house, will have no qualms about drawing attention to the fact that you are getting a little thick around the middle and a bit of diet and some light exercise wouldn’t go amiss.
Of course it is all couched in terms of health and obesity and faux concern. About how necessary it is to keep your BMI at a certain level if you want a long and healthy life. And how all lifestyle diseases are a direct consequence of weight gain and unhealthy eating.
But beneath all these medical platitudes, wellness clichés, and feel-good jargon, the word ‘fatty’ hovers uneasily just underneath their tongue. They may not say it, but it is clear that they sure as hell mean it.
But then, in our increasingly politically-correct world, where you can’t discriminate on the basis of race, religion, caste or creed, fat is the last remaining bastion of prejudice that everyone is comfortable about owning up to.
And everyone – and by that, I do mean everyone – is at it. Nobody is safe from the attacks of the fat police. Even the redoubtable Oprah Winfrey, who can make or break reputations, turn a book into an instant bestseller, and is probably the richest entertainer in the USA, is not exempt.
The glacial – not to mention, skeletal – editor of American Vogue, Anna Wintour, insisted that the curvy Oprah drop a few pounds before she could be photographed for the magazine’s cover. And Oprah, whose figure has famously waxed and waned over the years, duly appeared on the Vogue cover a few months later, looking suspiciously slimmer.
But then, Oprah plays into these insecurities herself. When she piled on the kilos (as one does) after slimming down to her thinnest ever, she posed for the cover of her eponymously named magazine beside a thin picture of herself. The tagline read: “How did I let this happen again?”
The answer apparently was: a thyroid problem and a crazy lifestyle that didn’t allow her to exercise. But the point was that Oprah, despite all her millions and her status as a cultural icon, felt the same pressure to be thin as the rest of us. And she still thought that fat was a dirty word.
But how can anyone remain exempt when these messages come home to us from all over? Now even the US First Lady, Michelle Obama, has got in on the act. Her mission while in the White House is to tackle the obesity epidemic that grips Middle America around the middle.
All very worthwhile, I’m sure, but was it really necessary to tell the world that her daughters had gotten a little chubby since moving into the White House and that their pediatrician has asked her to put them on a diet?
Of course, it was all dressed up in fancy medical terminology, as in their BMIs were a trifle high, but there was no missing the message. The Obama kids were overweight and needed to lose those extra pounds. I’m sure Malia and Sasha must have loved having that little nugget shared with the rest of the world. That’s exactly what teenagers and pre-teen kids need, right? To be told that they are getting fat, in public, by Mommy.
In fact, these days, a high BMI has become a code word for fat, a polite way of telling you that you are a lardy so-so who needs to get off your fat rump and do something about your weight. Of course, it can have inadvertently comic consequences.
Last fortnight the British papers were full of indignation on behalf of a six-year-old who was classified as obese on the basis of her BMI even though the girl in the picture looked perfectly healthy, even slim.
I had a certain amount of sympathy for her, remembering my own young nephew, a slightly chubby teenager, being needlessly traumatised because his doctor wrote on his prescription: “Appearance: obese.”
But while doctors come right out and say it, the rest of us have developed an entire vocabulary for delivering these insults. “You’re looking well,” in faintly accusatory tones is one way to go. “Are you still going to the gym?” is another favourite. The people who get the full treatment, of course, are celebrities, who have every inch of cellulite, every flap of flesh put under the microscope by the media if they ever put on weight.
Magazines run unflattering before and after pix, television cameras come up close and personal to focus on new folds of flesh, and newspapers offer gratuitous advice on how the said celebrity can win the battle of the bulge.
And no, there are no euphemisms here. The word fat is thrown around with abandon, even wielded as a weapon that can inflict actual harm if not psychic damage.
It doesn’t exactly help that the celebrities often chose to play along, all in the name of good publicity. Take Bipasha Basu, for instance, who was targeted by the media for getting a bit big. She has now launched a new fitness DVD and appears on the cover of a glossy magazine to promote it. The tagline reads: “How I got my body back.”
- Oprah would be proud