Invisibility in Visibility: Reconstructing the Image of the Fat Self
Nancy A. Taylor
California State University, NorthridgeI am the shape of the future.
I am the size of the times. 14. 20.24
A force to be reckoned with.
I am the power and strength of 49
No longer a voice in the wilderness,
I am the voice of the average American woman.And I am running the show.
(Advertisement for Just My Size
pantyhose in the March 1999 issue of Mode)
The claims of the Just My Size ad notwithstanding, it is easy to construct the message that fat people, and especially fat women, aren't worthy. The usual visual images promulgated by fashion magazines, television sitcoms, and advertising focus on women as attractive because they are slender. In fact, fat has been referred to as the last bastion of discrimination, since jokes about fat or prejudicial references to or slurs about persons of considerable body size seem less inflammatory and are considered more acceptable than the same negative references made in regard to ethnicity, race or gender. However, fat women have a double burden, as fat men are often considered more attractive, or more normal, than fat women are.
My focus involves constructing a visible and acceptable fat self, a positive fat self/identity that contrasts with the negative images that currently exist. Until the past few years fat as a valid construct did not exist. The idea of "self" separates itself from the external body because the body is the "Other;" the self cannot reconcile the derogatory status of difference and humiliation consigned by society to this "Other" persona; therefore, a continual conflict is engaged between the self (internal) and the Other (external) because this Other has accepted the inferior position in society. Fat people are jokes, the subject of jokes, ridiculed and not heard.
In a discussion of the body as dialogue, Ann Jefferson utilizes Mikhail Bakhtin's theories on Dialogism and the body to postulate otherness: "[L]iving [the] body from the inside, the self experiences [the] external body (the one the other sees and authors) as a series of disparate fragments, dangling on the string of [the] inner sensation of self," (p. 30) and separateness, "Self and other are divided by the fact that what is for one sensation and fragment is for the Other object and whole, and it is this unbridgeable difference in experience that opposes self to other, and yet simultaneously creates the dependency of self upon Other," (p. 154).
Using the theories of Bakhtin, we can see how the aforementioned authors accomplish creations of positive acceptable fat selves by placing the fat body in a discourse with the society that disdains it, perceives it as the other. Bakhtin's theories apply to the creation of positive fat selves with his postulations that the two beings involved each have a role; one is not passive, nor unheard, and the roles intertwine.
Progress in the creation of a positive fat self evolves slowly because the fat self is still the "last bastion" of acceptability; consequently, the positive image of fat will move slowly when destroying negative barriers. The title of Susan Bordo's book on body image, Unbearable Weight. Feminism, Western Culture and the Body, connotes that the contents will include a discussion of existential weight, but a closer reading of the text reveals that most of the sections focus on the more acceptable eating disorders of bulimia and anorexia, disorders that only concern overly thin women. Demonstrable evidence exists that those are the more accepted (and even fashionable!) eating disorders as noted by the amount of magazine advertisements that feature extremely thin women.
Yet these barriers of discrimination are ever so slowly being disintegrated. Within the past few years authors have begun to create heroines whose selves, whose identities, revolve somewhat around their body size: Wally Lamb's Dolores Price in She's Come Undone, Carol Dawson's Victoria Grace Ransom in Body of Knowledge, Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones in bridget Jones's diary, and Mary Gaitskill's Dorothy in Two Girls, Fat and Thin.
Additionally, two women have sought to break down the barriers of the ever-enduring Romance genre by creating a publishing company, Rubenesque Romances, whose sole purpose is to write and publish romances with overweight heroines, demonstrating that even fat selves experience sexuality and desire. They have sixteen novels to date, and their sales are steadily increasing.
The aforementioned authors link the self and the other to create an identity that participates in the dialogue of life. Wally Lamb's Dolores, in She's Come Undone, perhaps does this most adeptly.
Lamb begins his novel when Dolores is a young child, Lamb allows us to participate in Dolores's story as her fat self is created, We get to know the self of Dolores from the time when her father leaves and her mother's mental state deteriorates. In one particular moment at the age of four Dolores's impending weight is foreshadowed by the arrival of a television:
'Dolores, look!' my mother says. A star appears at the center of the green glass face.
It grows, outward, and becomes two women at a kitchen table, the owners of the voices. I begin to cry. Who shrank these women? Are they alive? Real? It's 1956; I'm four years old. This isn't what I've expected. The two men and my mother smile at my fright, delight in it. Or else they're sympathetic and consoling. My memory of that day is, like television itself, sharp and clear but unreliable. (p. 4)
Television alters Dolores's life just as it alters many lives today. We have become comfortable with its numbing monotony. And this is especially important in the creation of the fat self because it demonstrates a connection between fat identity and society. Not a week goes by where there isn't a news report on television about how TV viewing contributes to sedentary lifestyles and potentially obese children. And it is an unlikely coincidence that this phenomenon is occurring at a time when obesity is on the rise in America.
The open observation of Dolores' interaction with food (and thus fat) as a means of survival gives added importance in light of Bakhtin's ideas on self because as he notes there needs to be an open exchange or participation; one party cannot be silent or rendered silent by means of lack of recognition: "It cannot be stressed enough that for him 'self is dialogic, a relation, dialogue can help us understand how other relationships work..." (p. 19). Dialogue implies an exchange, without which one person or entity is privileged over another, and this has been the situation with fat up until now. Fat selves have not existed or if they have, they have been ridiculed as less than thin selves and undeserving, because they "can control" what happens to their bodies. The television, along with other events, leads up to Dolores losing control of her life, thus pushing her out of the dialogue.
What makes Lamb's portrayal an effective creation of self is that the fat is not all of what Dolores is about. It's a part of how she survives; when Jack Speight rapes her, her fat protects her, keeps others from touching her. We are able to see the protective aspect of fat: how it helps Dolores to be created as a person, not just somebody else to be the object of jokes, and in knowing the person we go beyond the joke and partake of Bakhtin's dialogue.
With Carol Dawson's Body of Knowledge, we see the heroine Victoria build up to a visible positive fat self of 600 hundred pounds, but as with Dolores, those pounds don't represent weight; they represent the dysfunction of family:
First I cite physical conditions: I am the last of the Ransoms. There is no one left but me. Since earliest childhood I have remained immured within these grounds, concealed from all but the most private of viewers. This is because a freak's nature admits only limited future prospects. My destiny lies here. (p. 3)
With the phrase "early childhood" we can surmise that like Dolores, Victoria's destiny has been shaped by her early years. While it is not my intention to write a psychological paper, it has been noted that the majority of our personalities are shaped by what happens to us during our formative years, the first seven years of our lives, so it's significant that we see our heroines during their youth, when they lose control.
In creating a positive visible fat self it's important to note that the overweight heroines know they have to tell their story to heal. Victoria notes, after commenting on her destiny, "For the last few years I have been isolate; for certain reasons, almost inviolably so" (p. 3). Victoria will reveal those reasons to us, for she has to in order to survive, and that very characteristic to survive is inherent in all of the aforementioned protagonists. They know they have to inscribe themselves into society, to be heard, to hear themselves. It's one thing to dismiss that which you don't know, but it's harder to humiliate that which one has begun to understand, as Michael Holquist notes in his discussion of Bakhtin's theories on Dialogism: "For a thing exists only in so far as it has meaning, even if it is at any particular point only a potential meaning. Anything that means is a sign, and since there is nothing that may not function as a sign, everything has the potential to mean" (p. 49). Before these fat selves were voiced, fat functioned as a derogatory sign, a signal that whoever bore the label of fat was, and still is, a target for predators: comedians, any visual or print medium, anyone who wants to amuse themselves. Fat selves are also targets for those who attempt to build their own sense of self by humiliating others. Lamb and Dawson (along with the others) begin the process of resignifying fat so that it can be understood, so that the fat self has a name (that is not so negative) that is human.
In creating a fat self, the body cannot be ignored for it is the body that defines, that creates these ideas of difference. If a woman doesn't look like Kate Moss or Calista Flockhart, one needs to aspire to have such looks to belong within the normal realm, to be able to dialogue with others. Women can't be satisfied with their bodies as they are; they need to find ways of constantly improving their physical selves. In his early writings Bakhtin posed several questions regarding the self: "How is the self constituted as an entity that performs responsible acts in the world? 'How does my 'I' and the acts it performs fit into culture understood as a whole?" (p. 176). Up until now, a woman whose body differs isn't even an I, isn't seen as one deserving, isn't even an I. It is treated only as an object. Only when we begin looking at and defining the fat body, do we begin to see it as a part of our culture.
Characters like Bridget Jones play a significant role in how women with non-thin bodies are viewed, in Helen Fielding's bridget jones's diary we are given insight into how perceptions of weight affects those we might not perceive to have eating disorders. Fielding's novel consists of a series of entries by Bridget Jones. Each of Bridget's entries begins with a notation of her weight, calories consumed, alcohol units consumed. For example on February 9 her entry begins, "128 lbs. (extra fat presumable cause by winter whale blubber), alcohol units 4, cigarettes 12 (v.g.), calories 2845 (v. cold)" (p. 67). Her comments concern her body. Bridget never fluctuates out of a normal weight range, but constantly perceives herself to be no different than someone of Victoria Ransom's size; in fact, she is no different, and this is what her entries reveal to us. We are nothing without our bodies. To create a fat self, a respectable fat self we need to understand the whole, only part of which is the body.
Wally Lamb's novel gravitates towards creating a positive fat self by resignifying how Dolores perceives her fat body. Dolores begins her healing process with her therapist who, to heal her, takes her back to the womb. Her therapist engages a type of rebirthing therapy that involves utilizing a pool to represent the womb. Dolores resists at first, because her therapist is a man, and because she is fat, her body decries her desires: "still, parading my flab and broken capillaries in front of Dr. Shaw wasn't exactly the same as having DePolito or Mrs. Ropiek check me out" (p. 268). Even after a moment of forgetting her body, of believing she can escape her self, her body returns: "Now I was strictly myself again: fat Dolores floating in chlorine" (p. 269). She has denied her self her existence. She has emphasized the conflict between self and others. Bakhtin's ideas on act and self note that "the proper way to affirm selfhood at any moment is as 'unmerged, indivisible affirmation of myself in existence"' (p. 179). Dolores's thoughts return to her body always because that is how she has been taught to view herself, for most of the people surrounding her have taught her that that's all there is to her.
Kippy, one of her college roommates, ridicules Dolores because of Dolores's body, and because of her body Dolores isn't a person to Kippy. It's not until Dolores loses some of her physical weight that she feels confident enough to go after Dante (Kippy's boyfriend whom she's always had a crush on from the time she saw his picture and read his letters to Kippy), but alas even her thinner body betrays her, for Dante still doesn't see Dolores, and here we begin to see that one's body size does not tell the entire story of a self. Voicing the events of her life, the feelings the "fat" Dolores experiences is a part of being fat. We learn this feeling of less than from all that surrounds us. Lamb validates the positive visible fat self with Dolores's voicing of her pain of her self perception. With that voicing we continue moving towards an acceptable fat identity and Dolores begins to forge her way into a dialogue with society.
Barriers that allow for fat to exist as a comical construct are slowly being torn down as the beginnings of visible acceptable fat selves form. What's important to note in each of the novels mentioned is that they look at the entirety of the women. They seek to understand their lives. It's about more than a body. It's about the person. The opening quote of my paper was taken from an ad for Just My Size define the future these authors imagine-a pantyhose; the ideas contained in those lines define a vision of the future where body size doesn't serve to demean.
Positive fat images can be seen in some models. The U.S. has Emme, a size 18 model just signed by Revlon late last Fall, and also late last Fall Italy opened a fashion model agency for supermodels called, "Ciao Magre" or Goodbye, thin ones. The novels tell the stories; these commercial manifestations reflect the stories the novels tell. Both of the aforementioned means serve to create positive fat selves that give voice, give recognition to that which has been rendered invisible by virtue of its visibility.
Bordo, Susan. (1995). Unbearable weight: Feminism, western culture, and the body. Berkeley: U of California Press.
Dawson, Carol. (1994). Body of Knowledge. New York: Washington Square Press.
Fielding, Helen. (1996). bridget jones's diary. New York: Viking.
Gaitskill, Mary. (1998). Two girls, fat and thin. New York: Scribner.
Holquist, Michael. (1991). Dialogism: Bakhtin and his world. New York: Routledge.
Jefferson, Ann. (1993) "Bodymatters: Self and Other in Bakhtin, Sartre and Barthes." In Bakhtin and cultural theory. Ken Hirschkop and David Shepherd (Eds.). Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Lamb, Wally. (1996). She's come undone. New York: Washington Square Press.
Reference Citation: Taylor, Nancy A. (2001) "Invisibility in Visibility: Reconstructing the Image of the Fat Self." WILLA, Volume 10, p. 37-40.