the HAES® files: Fat and jolly? Not so much…

by Health At Every Size® Blog

by Fall Ferguson, JD, MA

Note: Hopefully, readers of this blog understand that opinions expressed by any blogger (even ASDAH officers) should not be attributed to ASDAH. [See disclaimer in the column to the right.] This post being more personal than most, it felt especially important to reiterate that any non-jolly expressions of opinion herein are my responsibility alone. FF

“A Right Jolly Old Elf,” Oil Painting by Tom Browning

“A Right Jolly Old Elf,” Oil Painting by Tom Browning

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

- From ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas
by Clement Clarke Moore

It’s the holiday season and I have to be honest, gentle reader. I am not feeling so jolly.

When I volunteered to write a blog post that I knew would appear on Christmas day, I planned to talk about some research I had happened upon concerning whether or not fat people really are “jolly” or not. As I reviewed the literature, however, I found myself resenting it. Why is this even a question? How dare researchers frame their questions around a stereotype? There should be an outcry over any study that purports to examine whether a particular group displays a particular stereotypical characteristic or behavior, and it’s insulting that researchers see fit to do so in this case.

So, I am sorry, beloved reader, if you are disappointed because you wanted to get to the bottom of the age-old question of whether fat people really are jolly or not. I am not going to do that today, as a matter of principle. Instead, I am offering up a much more personal essay on why I am not feeling so “jolly” this holiday season.

Being Fat During the Holidays

It’s been a tough couple of months. From Halloween onwards, we are surrounded by excess—an excess of diet talk and body judgment, that is. Oh, sure, there has been a surfeit of holiday cookies, pot luck parties, gift baskets, and so on, just as there is every year. And this year, it seems all those visions of sugarplums have led every possible media outlet to begin earlier than ever to advertise the weight cycling techniques that will feature prominently in so many people’s New Year’s Resolutions.

And hey, it’s been so much fun listening to folks giggle about being “bad” as they nibble another sugar cookie or take a second helping of the cheese tortellini. It’s understood – doesn’t even need to be said – that the “bad” they fear so much is getting fat (or fatter) from all this “indulgence.”

Now, it’s not easy being fat in our culture at any time of year, but the holidays are an especially weird and uncertain time to be a visible symbol of many people’s greatest fear. It’s a time of feasting and celebration, yet I suspect that many thinner folks become uncomfortable when they see someone my size consuming the same gingerbread lattes and fruitcakes which they are enjoying as part of the holiday festivities.

Of course, I do get invited to holiday parties, but I am not really supposed to eat or drink much of anything there…It’s not that anyone actually says anything, but there’s scrutiny. Oh yes, there’s scrutiny. Don’t ever think that fat people don’t notice how what’s on our plates is scrutinized.

Fat or Non-Jolly: Choose One

Turns out, too, that I am not really supposed to say these kinds of things, especially not in public like this. Perhaps some of you have been experiencing a mounting sense of discomfort as you read – who is this fat woman who dares to be so angry? How dare she say these things, acting all bitter just because the world’s a tough place to be fat?

Well, this fat and jolly meme is brutal. Whatever fat people do, they should never compound the “sin” of being fat with also being angry or sad. Fat people need to get along. In the first episode of the 2010 HBO series “The Big C,” the central character of Cathy Jamison (played by Laura Linney) informed the much younger Andrea Jackson (played by Gabourey Sidibe) about the rules for fat people:

Laura Linney and Gabourey Sidilbe in The Big CCathy Jamison: You can’t be fat and mean, Andrea.
Andrea Jackson: What?
Cathy Jamison: You heard me. If you’re going to dish it out, you gotta be able to lick it up. Fat people are jolly for a reason. Fat repels people, but jolly attracts them. Now, I know everyone’s laughing at your cruel jokes, but nobody is inviting you to the prom, so you can either be fat and jolly, or a skinny bitch. It’s up to you.

Who writes these rules for fat people? Is it so crazy for me to think that I have the right to be moody just like thin people do? Why can’t fat people be non-jolly? Here’s my final act of size acceptance advocacy for the year: I am daring to be fat and non-jolly. Nobody should have to be jolly when she doesn’t feel like it.

Being Jolly Is No Longer Enough Anyway, Even for Santa

In the past, I had the sense that Santa “got away” with being fat because he was jolly. In recent years, it’s not even clear that he’s been getting away with it: a host of media stories have suggested that Santa needs to slim down because he’s setting a bad example for the kiddies. Even this recent story, which suggests that Santa need not “slim down” as long as he does his cardio, names weight as a “risk factor” and provides tips for “healthy Santa snacking.”

That’s how far our fear of fat goes these days: we need our “right jolly old elf” to transform himself from “chubby and plump” to svelte in the name of body conformity, just like everyone else. Just in case you think I exaggerate the fat phobia that has invaded our holiday experience, this holiday season saw the publication of a new children’s book: Santa Claus Goes on a Diet.

santa claus on dietI refused to buy the book, so I don’t know its contents, but the first line, as listed on Amazon, is “There was a terrible problem up at the North Pole.”

Yep, there sure is a problem, Virginia: Santa’s engaging in dangerous eating practices! Another blog featured Santa Claus Goes On a Diet in its review of the “25 Most Ridiculous Holiday Children’s Books” and commented:

“Overzealous parents who want to make their children feel awful for being a little husky all year round now have a new piece of ammunition. Let us raise our yuletide celery sticks in joy.”

And the ridiculosity doesn’t stop there. In the “Fat Santa” Internet game, Santa gets fatter as he eats mince pies, which makes it more likely that he’ll get hit by a game-ending freezing snowflake. Santa has to eat carrots and slim down to have a better chance at survival in the game. No hidden messages there, right?

fat santa

Santa teaches weight cycling on the World Wide Web.

“Naughty or nice” is not the only judgment getting thrown around this holiday season. So, yes, dear reader, I am allowing myself to have a “holly-not-so-jolly Christmas” this year. If I were one of those people who managed to send out holiday cards every year, here’s what my holiday message for this year might say: I’m fat, I’m not always jolly, get used to it.

6 Responses to “the HAES® files: Fat and jolly? Not so much…”

  1. Preach it, sister! I’m so sick of the fat-phobic messages in this culture that are rampant and rammed down our throats EVERY HOUR OF EVERY DAY that I could PUKE on them! I’m angry and outraged, too–when are people, especially women, going to wake up and see how we’ve benn brainwashed like stupid sheep to swallow these “thin is always better” BS lies?!?!?!

  2. great, thank you! i was watching a vid today of michelle obama reading the xmas story to a grp of children, and i knew iT was coming and sure enuf, comments here and there about santa’s size… a few unhealthy lifestyle jabs thrown in. could just feel her disdain for fat. happy holidays, jolly or not!

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Fall!

    Shelly, I’m with you on the thoughtless, illogical fat bashing.

    Alice, there are a lot of ways to feel about the Santa archetype and I’d react just as you did to Michelle Obama’s fat phobic disdain–how sad and thoughtlessly cruel, bringing fat hatred into the holidays. Can’t she give it a rest in honor of peace on earth? I avoid any holiday “feasts” that include the “fat police” like the plague.

    I know I’m hyper-sensitive to attacks on fat people over the holidays. I’ve seen so many unkind remarks that I can even over react when no attack is meant. For example, a few years back when a fat friend talked about being the office Santa every year, my knee-jerk reaction was, “They make you do that–how terrible.” Then he pointed out that he actually enjoyed playing the part, talking to the kids, etc. No one was pushing him into it or disrespecting him. Some people like playing Santa because they like kids, and even my own mother–who wasn’t that heavy during my childhood, but who adored children and had a limited number because of miscarriages, used to dress up as Santa just to enjoy chatting with the little ones.

    Yet my reaction to my friend’s office Santa gig was based on people who had made fun of me when I wore red one year, saying, “Look it’s Santa.” making me feel bad enough that I’ve been careful about wearing red on Christmas ever since.

  4. I loved your post. I feel really bad this time of year and this year im exercising my right to feel angry. Not only because of body image and all the diet talk and “despair” of others but because of deep emotional issues that seem to pop up during the holidays. So I am sick and tired of the obligation of feeling “jolly” .

    Something really unconfortable happened to me as well: I was having lunch with people from work to celebrate the end of the year and across the table was this little 4 year old boy. He was not very polite, kept screaming and his mother didn t have any power of his behavior. By the end of lunch we were choosing desserts and my boss’s 8 year old son said ” why don’t we have ice cream? Everybody likes ice cream” . Trying to be nice I said ” I agree, I love ice cream” . Then the. 4 year old boy turns to me and says ” that’s why you are fat”. And he continued : ” I don’t like fat people” or something like that because I was already shocked with the previous comment. His mother just said : ” what are you saying” ? And my boss intevened and said ” you can’ t say this things, it’s not cool”. There was an unconfortable silence and I went to then toillet a few minutes after, I really needed to go anyway but I was feeling very hurt.
    Because the boy said what is probably on adults minds and it hurts that in our society a 4 year old already has this kind on prejudice. On a personal level it hurt because i felt like an outsider, I’ m not welcomed here.
    Anyway, the mother didn’t ask him to apologize for being rude. Because rudeness towards fat people is “ok” in our society. So my xmas season began with this episode and for someone who’s not usually not jolly this time of the year it was a bad start.
    Thanks for the post :)

  5. Hey everyone–thanks for the comments–I feel for every one who is not a size 2 or 0 (I don’t think size 0 used to exist 30 years ago!) or who is not starving themselves or restricting food to BE a smaller size…why do we let other people’s prejudices push us around? I say–it’s time to stop hating ourselves and treat our bodies KINDLY and with respect–and if that means speaking up, losing some so-called “friends” who can’t control their hurtful comments, then so be it. I have many wonderful women friends who are BEUATIFUL inside and out, and ABSOLUTELY NONE of them are a size 2, or even a 10–we’re ALL 12 or bigger–and what difference does it make? It only matters if we let other’s OUTSIDE prejudices affect out INTERNAL view of ourselves–now that’s slavery!
    I certainly was not born with this wisdom–
    I highly recommend the book “Overcoming Overeating” by Jane R Hirschmann & Carol H Munter. It has helped & inspired me so much to stop dieting and to accept and love myself JUST THE WAY I AM without trying to “improve” my body…I’ll lend you my copy if you want–I can get another. Just let me know.

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