Big Fat Double Standards

LiesI’m watching  a television show in which a thin, stereotypically “beautiful” woman is going through a break up and responding by eating huge spoonfuls of ice cream, then spraying whipped topping directly into her mouth from the can.  It’s time to play one of my favorite games – what if this was a fat woman?

Imagine a fat woman eating huge spoonfuls of ice cream punctuated with sprays of whipped topping directly from the can into her mouth.  If you answered that she would be the subject of shame, stigma, humiliation and ridicule, give yourself 20 points.  In fact, many of us have had our pictures photoshopped to look just like this in an attempt to ridicule us.

To review, for thin actresses these behaviors can be considered adorable, but for fat women the exact same behaviors are supposedly irresponsible, causing diseases that we “deserve”, and costing ALL THE TAX DOLLARS!  justified by stereotypes and the obesity hysteria that leads to poor reporting,   gross misuses of science, and “everybody knows” trumping actual evidence.  The fact that this happens isn’t news, but it’s still bullshit every damn time.

So what behaviors should we condone and for which people?

Trick question!!  The answer isn’t to stop “condoning” these behaviors in thin women or to start “condoning” them in fat women.  The answer is for each of us to get out of the condoning business altogether and mind our own damn business.  Each of us has the right to punch, but that right ends at the tip of someone else’s nose.  Probably not coincidentally our right to judge others works exactly the same way.  We are allowed to have all kinds of opinions, but nobody else has an obligation to care how we think they should live their lives. If we start thinking that people do have such an obligation, we soon find that this slope is just too slippery –  whose behavior do we get to choose and who gets to choose our behavior for us?  (I note that people who insist that they should get to tell me how to live are rarely interested in receiving the same treatment from someone else.)

While we’re at it, we could stop making assumptions.  Like not assuming that the way someone is eating tonight out at dinner is the way that they eat all the time. Like not assuming that we can look at someone and know what they eat. Like not assuming that it’s any of our business what people eat or how they look, ever.  Let’s stop creating a culture of guilt and shame around food, and we can also stop creating a culture of guilt and shame around bodies, mind our own business, make our own choices, and maybe live happier ever after.

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34 thoughts on “Big Fat Double Standards

  1. You’re right that the thin actress having her binge portrayed as cute is unfair, but there’s another angle– her binge is a break in the self-control which is considered normal for her. Are there any tv characters who are thin in spite of eating a lot? (This is a real question.)

    When I saw the title of your post, I was expecting a different double standard– that any medical cost which can be attributed to fatness is blamed on fat people, but medical costs which are caused by trying to not be fat (sport and exercise injuries, damage from anorexia and bulimia) aren’t blamed on anything. I’m pretty sure you’ve brought up the sports/exercise side of this already.

    1. That’s a good point!

      Because when I eat out and choose to buy the salad or vegetarian option (because that happened to sound like the tastiest thing on the menu/I was in the mood for something fresh and crunchy/those are the only options that regularly include goats cheese), I know people assume that it is NOT my normal diet and that I must therefore be trying to lose weight. It’s all those comments about “being good”.

      People don’t just assume that what they see is how we always are – for thin people or fat people – they filter what they see through their own stereotypes of us and then assume that what they see reinforces or proves what they already believe (fat girl eating dessert = she eats that all day long, but fat girl eating salad = dieting… must blow their mind when I have the salad and then have dessert afterwards!).

      The only exception seems to be thin women who eat a lot in general, who get a pass for having “hollow legs” (where people joke about all the food going that isn’t their stomach).

    2. There definitely are TV characters who are portrayed as thin in spite of eating a lot. The main example I can think of right now is the show Gilmore Girls. The two main characters, Lorelai and Rory, mother and daughter, are both enthusiastic eaters, who love junk food and scoff at the idea of restricting themselves or eating “healthy.” I actually love this show; it’s clever, funny, and as far as I can remember has no major instances of fat shaming. And I do think it’s cool that the two main characters are female and vocally opt out of diet culture (and there are some great snarky lines about this, like when Lorelai, after being told by her mother to “eat more green things,” says “Oh, don’t worry, mom, I plan to eat a five-dollar bill on the way home.”).

      But the thing is . . . both actresses are thin and conventionally “model-gorgeous.” So, although the show is generally great about not having any explicit anti-fat messaging, there is a implicit assumption on the part of most people who watch the show that the two characters aren’t restricting themselves because “they don’t have to.” And as a 12-year-old (the age I was when I started watching the show) this, and other shows/movies featuring thin actresses playing voracious eaters, just added to the already-unrealistic ideas I was getting about how my body should look. Suddenly, not only was I supposed to be “skinny” — something that’s physically and genetically impossible for me without some seriously unhealthy restricting — but I was supposed to be able to do it while proudly and publicly chowing down on cake.

      1. I remember so many, many shows where one character lamented about another character’s ability to eat a massive amount of (usually rich) food, and would comment something like, “Oh, you’re so lucky. I gain ten pounds even looking at that!” So the recognition that we are NOT all the same is truly out there, but it’s been squashed under the angry conventions of haters.

        1. One of my favorite older movies “Charade” with Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant…. Audrey regularly binge eats when upset, and at the very beginning her best buddy says “It’s infuriating to me that your unhappiness does not turn to fat!”

      2. “Suddenly, not only was I supposed to be “skinny” — something that’s physically and genetically impossible for me without some seriously unhealthy restricting — but I was supposed to be able to do it while proudly and publicly chowing down on cake.”

        This concept really hits home with me. When I went through periods of restricting and over-exercising with the goal of weight loss, I would always try to hide it from people. I NEVER exercised in public, and always tried to eat “normally” (or even to excess) in front of people. Not because I was worried people would find out about my disordered eating, but because I wanted to look like a girl who could be thin without having to put in any effort.

        I still can’t exercise in front of people I know (exercise classes without friends are fine) without feeling anxious.

  2. Spot on as always Ragen! And if I
    may add the thin woman giving the whipped cream can a blow job would be coveted by any man in proximity and whatever breakup she was emotionally eating over would be instantly transformed into a wild and wonderful adventure. Just sayin’. Hugs! Dr. Deah

    1. Dr. Deah, that’s aptly put – about giving the whipped cream can a blow job because you KNOW that’s what it’s supposed to resemble. So now we can add sexism to the mix. Lovely.

  3. I think there is an assumption made in these scenes. That the thin woman only does this occasionally. Or else she’s making up for it somehow later. And one assumes the fat woman does it all the time.

    I tend to get offended when a show has a fat person eating lots of junk food all the time cause I’m thinking, “I’m about that size and I don’t eat like that! Is that how thin people think I eat?”

    1. Yes and no. It’s how the variety of thin person who cracks/laughs at such jokes *needs* to think we eat so they can continue to support a body-size based system of morality. As for whether they *really do* believe we eat that way, I honestly don’t think they care. Their goal is reinforcing in the eyes of society they are, through no effort they’ve put forth, automatically “better” than a fat person. If saying we eat lots of Twinkies helps them reach that goal, they’ll say we eat lots of Twinkies even if they suspect- hell, even if they KNOW- it isn’t true. It’s not about us. It’s about them. We’re just the ones being pelted with all the shit falling out of their baggage.

  4. This post reminds me of a speech I did for a media class in college on the subject of how the advertising industry treats women. I read Jean Kilbourne’s Can’t Buy My Love as part of my research, and one of the topics she discussed was how women are basically invited to have guilty love affairs with food. But of course we’re also expected to stay thin!

    I didn’t realize it at the time, but that book and the research for that speech, and the simple act of daring to be a fat woman giving that speech (albeit a “good fatty” as I was doing Weight Watchers, and advertised that during said speech) was the start of my breaking away from the idea that it’s okay to shame, stigmatize and manipulate people into being what society thinks they should.

    Kilbourne also points out the difference between how food is advertised to men and women, though I suspect this has changed somewhat in the decade + since I read this book. She talks about how men are encouraged to eat “hearty” or to enjoy “manly” foods, ala Swanson’s Hungry Man meals or Campbell’s Chunky soups. It was a fascinating read with a lot of interesting and eye opening points.

    1. “I read Jean Kilbourne’s Can’t Buy My Love as part of my research, and one of the topics she discussed was how women are basically invited to have guilty love affairs with food. But of course we’re also expected to stay thin!”

      That reminds me of something I saw quoted here awhile back (although I don’t remember who was being quoted), about how overeating has become popular culture’s new promiscuity. The new go-to way to imply a woman is out of control, in danger of being consumed by her own appetites, or just generally of lesser quality than other women is to call her an “overeater,” “emotional eater,” or “food addict.” That would actually gel really well with the ‘Manic Pixie Gorger’ detailed in this article; just as a “good girl” in a bikini is cute and sweet but a “slut” in the same outfit is vain and obscene, a thin girl shoveling massive amounts of food down her throat is innocent and carefree but a fat girl is wanton and corrupted.

    2. Something else I noticed is that house cleaning products are geared to women. If there is a man in the commercial, it’s Mr. Clean. And now that you’ve pointed out about Hungry Man meals, it merely confirms what I suspected about cleaning commercials: inherently sexist. Women stay at home and do the cleaning (“at home in the kitchen!”), and have secret “affairs” with Mr. Clean because their man can’t “do it for them”.

  5. I’ve definitely observed this phenomenon. And in nearly every story about a fat character who ‘sees the light’ there’s the triumphal tossing of all the hidden junk food. After all, if we never see her eat a Snickers bar, it must be because she’s hiding it in a hollowed out book or at the bottom of the laundry basket. It couldn’t possibly be that she isn’t that wild about candy bars.

    Me? I love a Snickers now and again… but there’s no way in hell I’d be desperate enough to eat one that had spent a few days underneath my funky socks. That’s just nasty.

    But a thin character that goes on a junk food binge? Well that’s because she’s heartbroken and has been mistreated and thus self-medicates… and that brings up another interesting point.

    In both cases, women use high-calorie, sweet foods as emotional medication ONLY. The hidden Snickers and the can of whipped cream sprayed directly into the mouth are indications that all is not right in the world of this woman. It’s incredibly rare to see female characters – fat or thin – eating sweets just because they enjoy them. There’s nearly always an emotional reason they eat something sweet.

    1. “In both cases, women use high-calorie, sweet foods as emotional medication ONLY. The hidden Snickers and the can of whipped cream sprayed directly into the mouth are indications that all is not right in the world of this woman.”

      Well, there IS a variant I nicknamed the Manic Pixie Gorger who eats a lot, and frequently, as a way of showing she’s too much of a free spirit to care about monitoring her food intake… which is okay for her to do because she is and remains thin. Both Cecilia and Lilka from Wild ARMs are examples of this character type.

      But yeah, now that you mention it, the “uses food as medicine” version does seem to be the more common one.

      1. Zuzana from the “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” series fits this archetype, too. At one point in the third book she orders “enough food for 20 people.” While I mostly love her character (and also the books, generally), she and Karou (the protagonist) are described often as “tiny/waifish/like dancers/other variants of extremely skinny.” It made me arch an eyebrow every time the author juxtaposed the characters’ thinness with overeating and often made me think about how this would come across if the characters were fat. I’m 100% sure it would cease to be cute, quirky behavior if the characters weren’t thin anymore.

        Also, all the fat characters turn out to be villains. Sigh!

        (Not to mention the one weird point where Karou hasn’t been eating well for weeks, has circles under her eyes, and she’s often described as “more beautiful” for looking unhealthy????? Yikes.)

  6. “The answer is for each of us to get out of the condoning business altogether and mind our own damn business.”

    Yes, please. This.

    I’m exhausted of all of the assumptions.

    If I’m out and eating dessert, it must be because I only ever eat junk food. It couldn’t possibly be that I don’t keep sweets at home because I’m worried about my blood sugar and so when I do have an occasional treat it’s when I *am* out.

    If I’m out and eating meat and a salad, I must be trying to lose weight or “being good”. It’s not because that’s my usual diet and I’m still fat, because if that were the case, everything they think about fat people might be wrong.

    If I’m out and eating a steak or a burger, I’m clearly fat because I’m eating too much fat. Because there’s no way my metabolism could respond such that I could maintain or lose weight eating all that fatty, “bad for you” protein.

    But even worse than the assumptions about my food intake? The further assumption that I care to answer for my food choices in order to receive the “good fatty” participation trophy. I really, really don’t.

  7. Why are women portrayed as emotional eaters? Either thin women do it when something bad happens, or women are fat because they are emotional eaters (I have heard this being the reason for ‘overeating’ way too often).

    1. “Emotional eating” is just code for “you’re mentally ill because you’re fat”. Which is one of my biggest pet peeves.

    2. It might be because certain foods, like chocolate, can raise serotonin levels and therefore can help you feel better when you are down.

      I ate emotionally before I was diagnosed with depression (still do at times, but at least I know why). It was a form of self medication for me, I’m only mildly affected so snacking on chocolate helped keep me from being down. I also tended to snack more when I was having my period, cramps are bad enough without having to deal with them on an empty stomach and the hormonal changes made me slightly more susceptible to my depression.

      Given that woman have to deal with hormonal cycles due to menstruation and some women will be like me or more affected, that would give enough women to start the stereotype. Then add the fact that boys and men who emotionally eat are gonna try to hide the fact because otherwise they will be accused of being girly on top of everything else Put a couple of ‘comedians’ who thinks stereotypes are funny on top and serve to a media that relies more on clickbait headlines than actual journalism these days…

    3. Sexism, plain and simple. If you’ve ever seen diet shows with both sexes, there are plenty examples of male emotional eaters.

  8. Thank you. This clarrified for me a source of resentment I had only vaguely been aware of (mostly from the fact that it was soo much easier to lose weight when I was thin than it is now that I am heavy that I don’t think people who haven’t lived it have any clue).
    But this helps me clarify that beyond that, the standard we are held to is even higher than the one skinny people are held to so we are supposed to do something that is much harder than for some other people in more than one area. (not just our diet, exercise and health habits must be impecable but everything must be and we are still not acceptable.
    We can be healthy, kind and generous, but are still expected to deprive ourselves and allowed no leeway. It is as if we are expected to starve for thinness and then also be starved by the straightjacket of their perceptions of us even when we do exactly what they are doing, or even better. Hunger is presumed to be gluttony, a hair out of place and we are unkempt, and presumed to have low self concept. Unless we wear the outfit of an MD we are presumed to be ignorant, (and even a doctor with a few extra pounds may be presumed to not be practicing what they preach) and on and on it goes.

    Never it is considered that we may be the some of the very ones holding up the world while too many others are considered more worthy just from succeeding in their fluff lifestyles maintained with diet cokes, or whatever. Not that I resent them for that, I know they are often victims of pressures and doing their best as well. I just really wish we could be on the same side more often, and people would stop presuming to know what another person is about just from appearances.
    I resent our marketing system because I think commercialism is behind so much of it and it seems to have gotten so much more extreme just in my lifetime.

    In our society whatever women do never seems to be enough. We are all too often supposed to be more than is reasonable for humans,
    with too little societal support.

    1. …In our society whatever women do never seems to be enough. We are all too often supposed to be more than is reasonable for humans, with too little societal support.

      Preach it. 8)

  9. Reminds me of the commercial that is played during the summer for some kind of sausages. This “bigger” guy is shown in slow-motion in ecstasy chowing down on a big bbq’ed sausage in a bun. What would happen if they put a fat woman on that commercial doing the same thing? It’d never happen, because then it’d be disgusting. But a fat man doing it is perfectly fine, and it’s encouraged on the commercial for sausages. Seriously? Ugh.

    1. Oh, oh! Yes! And also, if it were a skinny girl, it would be all about how she’s sexing up the sausage to show a guy how well she can work it. If it were a fat chick it would be all about how the sausage is the only thing she can get. UGH.

      1. And now I’m thinking about those gross Hardee’s commercials where the rumpled, post-coital girl is practically dripping over a juicy burger. Put a fat girl in that pic and the jokes would FLY.

  10. What’s interesting is that one reason women still can’t be seen to publicly “chow down” is for competitive reasons: Eating contests and the like. Society apparently still considers that too macho, and possibly too social an activity for a mere woman– no matter what size or level of conventional attractiveness she’s achieved. Competitive dieting, sure. But not competitive eating.

    At least, I’ve personally never seen either RL or fictional competitive eaters who are women.

  11. I just remembered a commercial I saw a few years back that’s relevant: I don’t remember what was being advertised, but the character doing the advertising was a very thin, petite woman who chatted happily the whole time about how she wears her yoga pants everywhere, even formal settings. This was played for laughs, and she was portrayed as *just adorable.*

    Now juxtapose that commercial with the NutriSystem commercial we’ve likely all unfortunately been subjected to, in which Marie Osmond accuses viewers of “wear[ing] your sweatpants because it’s more comfortable,” implying this is the dress code of their evil fat lifestyle, which they will happily doff when they mend their ways with the fad diet she’s hawking.

    Different behavior, same double standard. When the thin woman wore yoga pants everywhere, it was because she was busy, quirky, and high-energy, but the fat woman is implied to be wearing sweatpants everywhere because she’s lazy, too fat for prettier attire, and void of pride in herself.

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