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.)
For Mr. Christie, being flat-out fat has not stopped him from being elected governor of a populous state nor from being courted for the Republican nomination, and hitherto his heft may have proved an advantage. Fat makes him seem more down-to-earth, more a man of the people.
Though the governor is a lawyer whose background is middle-income, being big as a house seems to suggest that he is just a regular guy, an unpretentious Jersey boy with an instinctive grasp of the needs of the struggling. You’d like to have a beer with him. He’d help himself to a handful if you ordered peanuts.
Weight is also entangled with character. A lean physique implies a tendency to discipline, self-control and purposiveness. Culturally, we link slenderness not only to success but also to judgmentalism, joylessness, uptightness and vanity.
Men who are thin can seem prissy or effeminate. Mr. Obama’s narrowness is compensated by a resonant voice and gift for oratory, which lend his presence gravitas. Otherwise, he might seem to lack substance in a metaphorical sense. No one in politics courts a reputation as a “lightweight.”
Fat among the hoi polloi may appear to betray sloth, laziness and self-indulgence, but for male politicians displays of appetite can pay dividends – which is why candidates are often seen bolting down hot dogs and barbecue sandwiches on the campaign trail. Appetite indicates a zest for life, ambition, an appealing allegorical hunger for more than pot stickers – even, subtly, high levels of testosterone.
Being heavy contributes to Mr. Christie’s lunging, aggressively advocative demeanour, and helps to plant him in the popular consciousness as a force to be reckoned with.
Should his surgery produce dramatic results, he will lose more than weight – though having been fat would certainly prove a fabulous feather in his cap for 2016. Americans adore self-reinvention and before-and-after-picture success stories.
Alas, just as in every other realm, the curious advantages of a few extra pounds do not extend to female politicians. They don’t convey a “zest for life” with an expanding girth, but simply look dumpy and plain. Hillary Clinton’s gentle thickening during her stint as secretary of state makes her look older and more conspicuously past her prime. (A wager: Should she indeed take another stab at the presidency, by 2016 she will have starved off that excess.)
Pudgy female candidates may get a little credit for being just folks, but in the main female politicians are better off slim. Of the 17 women in the U.S. Senate, only one is noticeably overweight. Minority Leader of the House Nancy Pelosi borders on emaciated. Michele Bachmann’s fetching figure was a considerable assist in her 2012 presidential bid. And if Sarah Palin ever started hitting the cream buns, her career, even as an inspirational speaker, would be over.
That’s not only because much of Ms. Palin’s appeal is sexual. For women, thinness is associated not only with class but with status.
In either gender, when overeating gets combined with other appetites, it loses all advantages and just looks sad. Amid the current drug allegations, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s puffy features contribute to an image as a dissolute. (Also, during his highly public Cut the Waist Challenge last year, Mr. Ford fell far short of his goal of losing 50 pounds in five months. Nobody loves self-reinvention that didn’t work.)
Mr. Christie is right, of course, that weight is a health issue, but health is political as well. The presidency is a demanding job, and the Governor had grown so large that opponents could have argued that he would be too likely to drop dead in office.
Obesity as a health issue slides insidiously to obesity as a moral issue.
Fat is increasingly stigmatized beyond its medical implications. “It’s not good for you” morphs to “it’s not good.” Conversely, slenderness attaches not only to sound nutritional practice, but to virtue. It’s not a big leap from regarding skinniness as next to godliness to concluding that fat is evil. The dubious expression “obesity epidemic” further
suggests that this depravity is contagious.
By tacit conceit, being overweight isn’t simply unhealthy but a sin. This moral taint may help to explain why even in these elaborately sensitive times, it is still often thought acceptable to make fun of fat people.
But is fat a moral issue? One can make the case that obesity is costing Western health systems a fair whack of change (up to $7-billion in Canada), and those who keep trim and fit might reasonably resent footing the bill for sedentary snackers. But this argument, however valid, is not at the bottom of the ludicrously convoluted interpretations we make of our own and each other’s size.
Haughtiness about junk food and indignation about high health-insurance premiums too often disguise a fundamentally aesthetic disgust.
Western standards of beauty have become strictly defined in terms of size, a ruler that is especially brutal with women but is increasingly applied to men as well.
Two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and they must be tired of being denounced as indolent and degenerate; they must be tired of having objections to their health-care costs used as cover for revulsion. As homophobia has classically been driven by fear of being gay oneself, fat-phobia thrives on a similar projection.
A natural rebellion against this incessant hectoring – you don’t eat enough broccoli so your very character is defective, you’re a burden, you’re weak, you’re a source of corruption, get away from me, whatever you’ve got I don’t want to catch it – helps to explain why being overweight isn’t necessarily a disadvantage for chunky male politicians, whose constituency is anyone with a BMI of more than 25.
Yet people are heavy in every economic stratum, and just because the guy is fat doesn’t mean he has a feel for your working-class woes. There may be the odd viable conclusion to draw about character from figure – Mr. Obama is a control freak, and he can be aloof.
Still, plenty of big people aren’t lazy, and work very hard. Nothing about a little padding means some bloke is bound to be good company at a bar, or jolly, or not judgmental.
Fat having become so culturally and morally freighted only makes obesity as a health issue harder to solve.
Meanwhile, the terrain has become such a minefield that pretty soon anyone in the news will have to convene a focus group to decide whether to eat that second biscuit.
Lionel Shriver’s new novel Big Brother is now out with HarperCollins. She lives in London and in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Follow us on Twitter: