On Being an Eyesore: Precious and Public Fatness
I haven’t been around lately. I could say I’ve been recovering from the big race, but that’s not really it. There’s more to it. A sort of malaise has set in. I’m not sure where to go from here in a lot of ways. With my running. With my writing. With everything. So that's the place I'm writing from: malaise.
I recently read the dust-up over a review of Precious and was thinking about my marathon photos. (They connect, really, you’ll see) Latoya Peterson of Racialicious and Jezebel wrote a post critiquing David Edelstein’s review of the movie. I was disappointed in Edelstein because I’ve heard some of his reviews and found him to be a smart thoughtful writer. The quotes Peterson pulled, however, smacked severely of unthinking white male privilege. He responded to Peterson and the Jezebel commenters in another post that felt more thoughtful. (It was also pretty exciting to see a NY Magazine reviewer respond to blog commenters) The whole discussion of the movie is fascinating to me because there is just so much to unpack; the role of race in both the world of the movie and the world of the movie-making alone could be a thesis paper, but I’m going to leave the discussion of race to those that are more qualified. What I want to talk about is size.
Edelstein says: “…(the director) has such a striking actress in Gabourey Sidibe, who plays Precious, that he doesn’t need to force her alienation—or ours. I’m not judging girls who look like Sidibe in life, but her image onscreen is jarring to the point of being transgressive, its only equivalent to be seen in John Waters’s pointedly outrageous carnivals. Her head is a balloon on the body of a zeppelin, her cheeks so inflated they squash her eyes into slits. Her expression is either surly or unreadable. Even with her voice-over narration, you’re meant to stare at her ebony face and see nothing.”
I think he is right about Precious being unreadable, the character has been horribly abused and abused people are often guarded to the point of being alienating. This, however, is what we call “acting,” Mr Edelstein. We don’t achieve this kind of shut-down existence merely by being fat. I think that’s insulting to Ms. Sidibe on several levels not the least of which is giving her no credit for her talent. (I'm not even getting into the fact that Edelstein calls her a zeppelin. Or the very problematic "not judging girls who look like Sidibe in life." What does Sidibe look like in life?) If you look at Sidibe being interviewed she is a gregarious, funny, and beautiful (yes I DO think so) young woman. She is nothing like Precious.
It is interesting to me that he thinks the mere on-screen presence of a large actor is “jarring” and “trangressive.” I think he has a point, though. Good or bad, this is not at all what Hollywood usually puts up for us to watch. Apparently fat people are unwatchable, grotesque carnival freaks. But Edelstein is not judging. Maybe I’m being unfair, maybe I’m shooting the messenger. Edelstein is merely reporting what is happening in the world and this is true. Fat people are judged all the time.
I have been unable to get myself to purchase any pictures of my marathon. Throughout the course, the official race photography company stations photographers to snap candids of your great moment. I would imagine most people order a ton of photos from them. There are even options to mount the photos to plaques with your name and time engraved alongside the Chicago Marathon logo. They look lovely. I don’t think I could drop the cash, but more than that, I can’t find a photo I like. What is wrong with me? I’m proud of myself, proud of this accomplishment, but I hate all these pictures because I am undeniably fat in them. You can see the curve of my belly. You can see the flab on my upper arms.
Every time I think I’ve found a measure of peace with myself, the world worms its way back into my head. “Fattie,” it hisses, “What were you thinking wearing that outfit? You don't look anything like a runner. Aren't you embarrassed to be seen like this?" But there were runners the same size as me on the course. There were bigger runners too. Was I judging them this way?
Am I transgressive? This is interesting to me because I’m not sure how I look has anything to do with people around me, but it does somehow. Somehow it affects people. I remember meeting an acquaintance from college who hadn’t seen me in awhile, this was while I was at my highest weight. He didn’t say anything, but he visibly recoiled as though I had been horribly burned in a fire or lost a limb. It took him a second to gain his bearings and smile at me. My appearance was that startling to him. Even though I’ve lost some weight since then, I could feel that reaction in some of the cheerleaders at the race. The puzzlement, “what is she doing here?” and “how can a marathoner be fat?”
Don't get me wrong, the experience was incredible and many people genuinely don’t care and are generous and supportive, but there is so much of the cold shoulder when you’re fat. No one says anything directly (at least not in my experience), but it hangs there in the air. And what hangs there often has an angry accusatory feeling to it. “How could you let yourself GET like this?!” “Why should I have to LOOK at you?” As though looking at me somehow causes other people pain or discomfort or even inconvenience. What about looking at me bothers you so damn much? (What about it bothers me?)
It is this feeling that we are offending people simply by existing in an unacceptable body that makes fat people want to hide. Or segregate ourselves into fat-only exercise classes and dance clubs and the like. I’d love to organize a fat-only 5K. I remember running my first 5K. It was a little neighborhood race. I imagined it would be fun and friendly and, for the most part, it was. I followed all the newbie rules. I left my ipod at home. I positioned myself solidly at the back of the pack (it was about twenty runners- does that count as a pack?) as a measure of respect. I was running my first real race. I had worked hard to be there, trained, lost a good bit of weight. I was slow and I knew it, but I didn’t care, I was laughing and having a good time. I was running a race!
There was a man on the sidelines who made a snide comment at me as I passed on the second or third lap and I, thinking he was making a friendly joke at first, responded with something about the meat wagon being right behind me. I try to have a sense of humor about myself and my slowness. (I don't vouch for the quality of my jokes.) Well, he wasn’t kidding. He was disgusted with me. I was bringing down the quality of the 5K by being there. This little neighborhood race. If I wasn’t so flabbergasted he might have succeeded in shaming me, but I laughed instead. Whatever, dude. You aren’t even running. I am. And you have no idea what it took to get me here.
Ok. Time to buy some fat marathon photos.