Being obese is not the new black, Bill McClellan

St. Louis Today columnist Bill McClellan makes a clumsy, faulty, yet interesting argument about the disadvantages of being obese in a majority overweight and/or obese country obsessed with its body image. Using latent fat hatred and phobia in the first few paragraphs, McClellan makes his case by featuring a young, single so-called obese woman living in mobile home who, according to him, claims a social worker trying to take her kids away had been “against her” from the moment she saw her. The woman was in danger of losing her son to the state as the caseworker believed she was an “unfit mother” due to her size. She did eventually get her kid back.

She lived in a mobile home in rural Missouri. She was young, single and obese. She was drinking a super-sized soft drink from a convenience store when I stopped byShe told me the caseworker had been against her from the beginning. I asked why. She shrugged and sipped her soda.

“She doesn’t like me,” she said.

That seemed entirely possible. We are almost programmed to feel a certain antipathy toward obese people. At least, we are allowed to. We are not supposed to dislike people for reasons of race or sexual preference, but obesity is different. It is their fault. They have no self-control.

As an aside, McClellan pretty much dehumanized and reduced the woman in his opening paragraphs by constantly referring to her sipping a super-sized soda as to communicate to the readers that she, indeed, contributes to her obesity and is to blame for her misfortune. It’s ironic he used that type of imagery because a few sentences later, he throws a bone to fat activists and acknowledges there are genetic predispositions that contribute to obesity. His bid to sympathize with overweight and obese folks fails, as his subconscious bias and resentment of fat people slips into his reporting.

He then brings in New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who earlier this week decided not to seek the Republican nomination for president. He pointed out the governor’s size would be an obvious weakness to his bid for the presidency:

So I figure he’s probably smart. It’s not easy for an obese person to do well in politics. A guy as heavy as Christie has clearly overcome a lot of prejudice.

It’s not quite like being black. Nobody gets stopped for Driving While Fat. People don’t cross the street when they see a couple of overweight teenagers approaching.

But in some ways, being obese is more of a disadvantage than being black.

Sigh…there’s that analogy of everything being the “new black” again.

McClellan makes his argument below:

Think about beer commercials. They represent an idealized vision of contemporary America, just as Norman Rockwell’s paintings represented an idealized vision of our society 50 years ago. Back then, the vision was almost entirely white.

No longer. In our beer commercials, we are happily integrated. The parties always include a couple of black people.

Who don’t they include? Fat people. Nobody even has a beer gut.

There’s been a proliferation of people who belong to dominate groups in society to equate their suffering with being the new black, or suffering the same type of oppression African-Americans face on a daily basis. In 2008, we saw this phrase used by gay marriage supporters who were fighting against Proposition 8 in California. Helena Andrews even used the phrase in her memoir Bitch Is The New Black.

Sure, equating something to blackness is hip and trendy, but it reduces the everyday struggles black people in this country have to confront everyday. As SharkFu at AngryBlackBitch tweeted to me this morning, “Every ‘new black’ analogy proves just how trivialized racism is in our society.”

Of course, being overweight and obese does bring about disadvantages, discrimination, hatred and outright oppression from factions in our society determined to shame and blame fat people for their ills. But, to equate one inherent disadvantage to another not only trivializes racism in this country, it ignores and sweeps aside the privileges some fat people may enjoy due to the fact that they could belong in other “acceptable” groups.

For example, an overweight white woman still has power and privilege over an overweight or obese woman that happens to be a person of color. A fat white man can enjoy the privileges that come with being a white man a fat black man can only dream about. An overweight, cisgendered couple is accepted into society because their gender conforms to their external organs. A fat man is less likely to suffer from the rejection and pain many fat women face because they aren’t thin and beautiful.

The widespread use of the “new black” phrase is yet another example of how people who belong to one privileged group want to claim the mantle of being discriminated against, but are willing to assert and wield their privilege when the burden of belong to an oppressed group becomes too stifling and demanding. We’ve seen this in some factions of the GLBTQ movement and among the majority-white vocal TEA Party activists. While these same groups of people will quickly take cues and scripts from the Civil Rights Movement and claim allegiance and sympathy with the plight of black Americans, they’ve been quick to casually reduce or trivialize the racism POCs experience everyday to advance their bid to join in the game of oppressing The Other.