Dr. Pattie Thomas wrote a book called Taking Up Space: How Eating Well and Exercising Regularly Changed My Life that is just really awesome. If you haven’t read it, it’s well worth investing in.
The first chapter of the book has 10 fat myths. As I read them, I had so many ideas and thoughts and things I wanted to say about each one. I contacted Dr. Thomas and she said that it would be okay for me to use her list to talk about each of the myths here. So–welcome to a 10-week series.
Myth number seven on Dr. Thomas’ list: Fat is jolly.
How’s this for a Catch-22?
There are tons of jokes out there about fat bodies. Fat jokes. Jokes that make people laugh, and that a lot of people think are harmless and feel no guilt laughing at.
Who hasn’t seen a movie gag where a man in fat-suit drag has to lift up his fake belly to show he’s wearing a bikini bottom? Or a viral video of a fat person falling after breaking a chair? Or how about a whole website of pictures people have snapped at a Wal-Mart of a fat people, without their consent, who dare to be out in public with their rolls showing? There are fat jokes in rated-G movies. Fat jokes are shared between friends, posted on Facebook pages and told without even the slightest twinge of guilt.
And if you don’t laugh when you hear them, then the joker blames you for ruining their good time. Not laughing at fat jokes means you take yourself too seriously. I mean, everyone should be able to laugh at themselves, right? And it is funny to have a big belly, isn’t it?
Besides, it’s just a joke. And fat people are supposed to be jolly, anyway.
The truth is, some fat people are really good at laughing at themselves. Some of the funniest comedians are fat people who make a living making people laugh at them. Sometimes fat kids survive the bullying, fat-hating culture of the Western educational system by becoming the class clown. They make jokes about their fat before anyone else can.
What is jolly anyway? Websters says that jolly means happy and cheerful. So, I’d say that a lot of fat people are happy and cheerful—some of the time. But no one is jolly all the time. Everyone has a range of emotions. The problem with the assumption that all fat people are jolly, is that it takes away their right to sometimes feel something other than happy and cheerful.
It makes seeing a sad fat person sort of like seeing a sad clown—disorienting and uncomfortable. Disturbing.
It also turns a three-dimensional person into a sort of cardboard cutout of a laughing fattie. Especially because once a fat person gets a reputation for being Santa Claus-jolly, they might feel the need to hide how they really feel.
I consider myself an optimist, but I don’t want to be called on the carpet if a certain situation makes me feel pessimistic.
I rarely feel even minor depression, but when it happens I don’t want other people getting all up in arms because I’m having a blue moment (or day, or week …).
I’m a genuinely happy person a lot of the time, with a good sense of humor. But I would hate to feel forced to be a happy, cheerful person all the time to avoid others feeling bad. Or because I was afraid no one would like a sad fat person.
And here’s the thing. I refuse to laugh at racist jokes. I refuse to laugh at anti-Semitic jokes. I don’t use the words “lame” or “retarded” to describe something bad. And yes, I’m that pain-in-the-ass fat chick who does not laugh at fat jokes.
I won’t tolerate fat jokes or jokes against any oppressed group. I don’t think that makes me humourless, but it’s okay with me if you or anyone else think it does.
I have twice been in a position of power where I could make a rule regarding these kinds of jokes, other than in my own home where it’s a given.
I’ve been a teacher and I’ve been a counselor leading court-ordered group sessions for drug addicts. In both situations, I made it very clear that I am personally offended by derogatory terms for any sort of oppressed group, and that I will not put up with these kinds of jokes.
I once sent half of an eighth grade social studies class to the principal’s office because they decided to test my rule and took turns telling whatever sad little jokes their thirteen-year-old brains could think up. He sent them right back with a note for me to stop and I never taught at that school again. I also made a complaint with the school district.
I never had to kick anyone out of my group sessions. They self-corrected, because they knew I was serious. And because in other areas that didn’t matter so much, I wasn’t as strict. I didn’t lock the doors the moment the session started. I let them eat and drink in the session if they were coming on their lunch hour. But I would not put up with the laughing and picking on another member of the group for being part of an oppressed group.
There are probably a lot of ex-drug court clients and teenagers out there who think that I’m a stick in the mud. That I’m not nearly as jolly as I should be, given that I’m a big fat fattie. And I’m okay with that. Maybe there are also one or two who think twice before telling jokes that put other people down.
The way to combat the myth that fat people are jolly is to stop perpetrating it ourselves. Stop pushing ourselves to laugh at jokes that hurt, stop making the hurtful jokes ourselves and stop being afraid to embody the full range of human emotions.
Not everyone is in a position to stand up against these kinds of jokes the way I do. I get that. If that’s you, I don’t blame you. It’s hard and it takes a lot of nerve and practice. It’s something I’m comfortable with, almost like a crusade, and so I don’t mind standing up for the both of us. Maybe there’s something you’re good at that makes me scared.
* * *