Little did I anticipate that in releasing my new novel Big Brother I would once again stir up a hornet’s nest – buzzing right around my head.
It was inspired by the death of my older brother from complications of morbid obesity in 2009. The novel begins with a sister picking up her big brother at the airport and failing to recognize him. Her once lanky, handsome elder sibling has shown up weighing hundreds more pounds than when they last met. Like my previous novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, this book is partly a psychological mystery, asking, “What the hell happened?”
But the story inside a book is distinct from the story of the book’s publication. As of the first interview for the British promotion of Big Brother, the media’s focus rapidly shifted from the fiction (who cares about that?) to the author: when I eat, what I eat, how much I eat, how much I exercise, which exercises I do, and how many repetitions.
That first time, I had been tolerant of these curiously personal, positively mechanical questions on the assumption that in the profile this information would somehow be tied in with the themes I explore in the novel: the many reasons we eat other than for mere nutrition, the roles food plays in social and domestic dynamics, the complex relationship between the body and the self, the moral baggage we load on weight, and the alarming degree to which we now “size each other up” and make character judgments on the basis of whether someone is fat or thin.
But no. That interview and the subsequent articles it spawned elsewhere didn’t explore more philosophical matters, but were purely nosy and voyeuristic. Journalists and online commentators were fascinated by – and keenly suspicious of – the routines by which I maintain my private, 5-foot-2 physical plant. (In respect to my not especially interesting exercise habits, I was, it was implied in more than one paper, a liar.) Irrelevant information about the author’s dining proclivities even contaminated more than one review.
The publicity became yet another illustration of the problem the book explores. In an era saturated with the visual image, people in the public eye necessarily offer themselves up for scrutiny of their waistlines. The expression “public figure” has taken on a peculiar literalism, for fat has gone political. Being wide or narrow effectively lands you on one side or another of a violent cultural divide.
To appreciate just how loaded body size has become, let’s take two case studies: U.S. President Barack Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. As they toured the Jersey shore’s newly rebuilt boardwalk last week, the President and the Republican who may have designs on his office displayed starkly contrasting physical versions of Big Men in government.
Despite all the multicourse state dinners, Mr. Obama remains a Slim Jim. Despite having lost 40 pounds since February, Mr. Christie remains a meatball hero.
Since going public about his lap-band procedure, Mr. Christie has insisted that his weight-loss surgery was motivated solely by private concerns: He owes it to his family to protect his health. Yet he is canny enough to realize that his contours would be an issue were he to run in 2016, and the shape of the high-profile silhouette isn’t as simple a business as thin/good, fat/bad.
Weight is entangled with class. Long gone are the days when beefiness was a badge of wealth and prosperity. Today’s elites are thin – which is why you pay through the nose at top-end restaurants for three leaves of arugula and a few flakes of fish, while all-you-can-eat buffets are dirt-cheap.
Among Mr. Obama’s red-state detractors, the President’s slight build may mark him as suspect even more so than his race. Educated salad-eaters on the coasts recognize in Mr. Obama a fellow traveller, but for pork lovers in the heartland that tall, svelte nattiness connotes a sense of superiority and an aloofness from ordinary folks. The modesty of the President’s real origins gets cancelled out.
(Fortunately, his wife’s comely, fit but bigger-boned frame provides a balance to this impression.)
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