I believe your right to overeat ends where my airplane seat begins. Still, I can’t help admiring Mo’nique, the 250-pound-plus comic actress whose new reality special, “Mo’nique’s Fat Chance,” is a rah-rah beauty contest for big women that premieres on Oxygen Aug. 6. “If you don’t like how I look, look another way– there’s a lot of space on this earth,” Mo’nique likes to say. Who can argue with that?
Certainly the world would be a happier place if everyone had Mo’nique’s confidence and talent for winning people over. “There was a little boy named Jamal, who always used to call me fat, but Jamal really liked me,” Mo’nique, best known for the UPN sitcom “The Parkers,” recalled of her sandbox days at an Oxygen press conference the other week.
“I would say, ‘You really want my phone number, so just ask for it, and I’ll give it to you.’ And I would share my Twinkies with him, baby. That’s how you get them– share your snacks.”
“I don’t know when my number is going to be up, so I want to go happy,” she added. “I like a good steak with some sauteed onions and mushrooms and A-1 sauce and a baked potato and a piece of cheesecake, baby. I like that.”
Hey, who doesn’t? Still, the unhappy fact is that most people in this country are now overweight or obese, and the lower you go down the socioeconomic scale, the fatter they are. This is the population least able to afford the myriad of health problems and increased risks that go along with eating too much.
It may be true that, as Mo’nique points out, an active fat woman is healthier than a sedentary thin one. But unfortunately, most people in this country aren’t active at all. Mo’nique and the Oxygen team like to say that “this show is about empowerment.” (Oxygen programming is always about empowerment, which assumes women are naturally weak, but that’s another story.) But wouldn’t it be more empowering– even though (in fact, because) it’s very hard– to face facts and then do something about it?
This is not the age we live in, though. A few weeks ago I came across an old World War I poster that announced, “Deny Yourself Something: Eat less of the food fighters need.” Deny yourself something. What a curious and forgotten concept. The poster might as well have been 1000 years old instead of less than 100, so bizarre was its message to modern eyes.
Contemporary citizens are far more likely to deny reality than deny themselves anything. Around the same time I noticed the poster, I read a long and grotesquely fascinating Washington Post feature story about a 625-pound man whose extreme obesity had confined him to his bed for the past seven years.
Almost as remarkable as this awful situation was the sympathetic reporter’s strained attempt to make it seem like nobody’s fault, really. A doctor was trotted out to provide a quote suggesting that the excess weight was acquired by consuming just over 100 extra calories a day. The man’s wife was portrayed as loving and loyal, rather than an enabler who provided her bedridden husband fattening foods he wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach.
And I’m afraid that Mo’nique, charming as she is, demonstrated a resolutely head-in-the-sand attitude when I asked her about our current obesity epidemic and related health problems– bringing up examples of anorexic and bulimic women, and diet pills, and her 120-pound mother who is nevertheless battling cancer.
“If you look at the word ‘diet,’ the word ‘die’ is in that word,” Mo’nique said. “If you don’t eat, you die.”
Now it’s true, of course, that physically fit, slender people can get sick while overweight people don’t. It’s also true that you can be killed in a car crash while wearing a seatbelt and survive while not, but this doesn’t disprove that seatbelts save lives and riding unbelted markedly increases your risk of death or injury. Mo’nique didn’t want to hear about that, though. Instead she brought up the ridiculous idea, often repeated by the fat acceptance crowd, that Marilyn Monroe was a size 14.
What this fails to acknowledge, of course, is that a size 14 in the ’50s equals a size 8 (or less) today. Falsely downsized clothing, along with stretch fabrics and expandable waistbands, are just another byproduct of our living-in-denial contemporary culture. Even though these days I weigh 10 pounds more than I wish I did, I still wear a size 6. I was slimmer in high-schol, but my clothes then seemed much bigger. I wore a 9/10, or (more often) an 11/12.
Fat pride activists never want to hear about any of that, though. Last year they even began protesting when Medicare announced it would begin paying for obesity treatments, which you might think even those opposed to nanny-state meddling might consider a good idea. Why not pay a little more in prevention now, if that would cut huge bills for obesity-related problems later?
Certainly losing weight is difficult. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. My friend Greg Critser, author of the book “Fatland: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World,” argues that beltless pants and limitless refills are symptoms of modern American culture’s general lack of boundaries and self-control. He also dislikes the way upper-middle-class boomer parents, who lead the public discussion, are loathe to talk about limiting children’s diets or making them exercise, lest kids end up anorexic or with damaged self-esteem.
“Feminists and liberals have transformed a legitimate medical issue of the poor into identity politics for the affluent,” Greg told me, “which I find the worst kind of narcissistic behavior.” But he also lacks patience with libertarian complaints (as do I) about government intervention: “Those who have all kinds of problems with programs about obesity are going to be crying their eyes out 20 years from now,” he added, when a fat and aging population brings with it increased taxes and social burdens.
Greg is now fit and trim but used to be chubby. At school, he was called Blimpboy and Skipper, after Gilligan’s hefty pal. He only took the weight off a few years ago, when a man yelled “Watch it, Fatso!” at him for opening the car door into traffic.
“On the one hand, he’s a dick and I’d like to find that guy now,” Greg recalled. “On the other hand, the social shaming worked.” Social shaming is anathema to anything you’ll ever see on Oxygen, of course. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea.
Catherine Seipp is a writer and visiting fellow with IWF. She also maintains a blog, “Cathy’s World.”