By Pauline Graham Binder
“You still so fat, een?” That’s the way I’m greeted by an elderly woman I’ve known since childhood. It’s at once an observation and a rebuke.
I’m Jamaican born and bred and firmly in my middle years. My, how things have changed since I was a girl growing up in the rural parish of Clarendon! Back then, the greeting most likely would have been, “You nice and fat, een?” The tone would have been one of admiration, even envy, because excess girth would mean that life was treating me well. Being mawga (skinny) was not good. And if you went abroad to live for even a short period of time and returned home more mawga than when you left? Well, that was just a pity. It indicated a failure to thrive abroad. If you were married, it meant your husband wasn’t treating you well. If you were single, it meant you needed to find a good husband.
I’ve lived in America most of my life and have witnessed the change regarding size in this culture, too. When I arrived in New York over thirty years ago, being a size four was not a prerequisite to being considered “beautiful.” I was watching a popular morning talk show several months ago where they were discussing Marilyn Monroe. The female co-host mentioned that Marilyn may have been a size twelve. The male co-host almost dropped his teeth in shock at the idea that she could have been anything more than a size four or six. I don’t know what size Monroe was in her heyday, but she wasn’t mawga and she had a healthy-looking body. A well-known actress was quoted as saying she would kill herself if she ever found herself as fat as Monroe was. When I see film clips and photographs of the glamour girls of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s like Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, and Lady Day, I see beautiful women with curves. Not one “walking x-ray” among the bunch. So what happened? Was it the emergence of Twiggy (that big-eyed English girl with the figure of a boy) in the 60’s that changed the standard forever?
Studies have shown that as Black women we are more comfortable with our size and still consider ourselves beautiful at weights above the “norm.” However, I was alarmed recently when a friend returned from a visit to Jamaica where she observed thin teenage girls avoiding meals because they were afraid of getting “fat.” Thanks to the influence of MTV and other shows, the American mainstream standard of beauty and other values are greatly influencing cultures around the world, and Jamaica is no exception. This image of skeletal beauty is reaching extreme proportions and being continuously enforced by the media. Even a brief content analysis of TV commercials is very revealing in this area. Average and outsized models are used for selling household cleaning products, antacids, and the like, or as clerks in chain stores. Luxury items such as perfume, makeup, jewelry and furs are sold by thin models. It’s as if average or plus-sized women are not consumers of these goods. Do we not wear perfume, jewelry or furs or enhance our beauty with makeup? The irony is that skinny female models are also the ones who most often appear in commercials for some of the most calorie-laden foods! How misleading can the media get?!
Fat people, especially women, are routinely treated as second-class citizens. We are the only group at whom it’s acceptable for comedians and others to publicly poke fun without fear of recrimination or rebuke. “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings” is a phrase embedded in the culture. “Fat” and “ugly” are often treated as if they were one word. What makes me angry is that we can’t fight back on the same level as our tormentors. For example, if I responded to that elderly woman with, “You still so old and wrinkled, een?”, she’d have probably started crying and everyone would’ve accused me of being ill-mannered and insensitive.
Another thing that bugs me is when I see men with their beer bellies dragging on the ground having the temerity to refer to a woman as being unattractive because of a few excess pounds! The chutzpah! Then there’s a well-known white comedienne who is always calling other women of perfectly normal size “fat.” My comment to her is this: Yes, you’re super skinny and among the x-ray set, but have you looked in a mirror lately? Any more plastic surgery and your eyes will be in the back of your freakin’ head!! I do see a glimmer of hope lately for the return of size sanity, however, as we’ve gone from the self-torment of Oprah to the divaesque strut of Star Jones of the TV show The View. Star is a woman befitting her name, who seems totally comfortable with a dress size outside the box. She’s got beauty and brains and living her life fully and not giving in to the concept that one must be mawga to be beautiful and if you’re not, you better go hide under the nearest rock or hang your head in shame until you peel off the pounds.
Do I want to lose weight? Some. As I get older, it’s more wearing to carry around this excess poundage. But it’s not easy, and not simply a matter of eating less. Genetics and metabolic factors play a role. However, I’ve not let my excess weight prevent me from functioning as a productive, generally happy person. It’s not prevented me from having a wonderful near thirty-year marriage, a beloved son, and loyal friends and family. For this, I’m grateful to my Jamaican upbringing during a time when the quest to be skinny was not an obsession and my concept of beauty came from female relatives who were comfortable and proud of their full hips and busts, and where womanly curves drew admiring glances. Otherwise, I’d still be fat today but miserable too, treating my weight as a millstone around my neck pulling me into the abyss of self-pity.
As recent studies have shown, Americans are spending unprecedented sums of money in the effort to lose pounds, yet the population’s average weight is on the rise. With the advent of personal computers in more and more homes and the increasing number of hours children spend in front of the TV and playing video games instead of being engaged in outdoor physical activities, the population is also putting on excess weight at a much younger age. If there isn’t a wholesale change in attitude in American society as a whole, there’ll be a whole lot of depressed young people with low self-esteem walking around in the 21st Century. “Diversity” has become the watchword in our society, but it’s usually reserved for race and gender issues. It should also should apply to size. As for me, I will continue to live my life and carry myself with the dignity with which I was raised, no matter what my dress size. I refuse to sit in my room and lament because I’m fat. No way! I walk outside with the sunlight on my face because life is good. And, fat or skinny, a moment wasted in this life can never be regained. But I’m still searching for the perfect retort to “You still so fat, een?”