Donald Clarke: Fat-shaming bullies feel they are making a moral point
Stunt on London Underground highlights particular strain of aggressive prejudice
New Jersey governor Chris Christie is aware that fatso gags from political comedians come with the territory. Photograph: James Lawler Duggan/Reuters
Oh that’s nice. Last week, a cadre of witless meatheads took to molesting less svelte commuters on the London Underground. There has since been some debate as to whether the campaign might have been a conceptual art piece or a commercial promotion. But the fact remains that some passengers were handed cards whose text began: “Our organisation hates and resents fat people.” The so-called Overweight Haters Ltd went on to suggest that such folk soaked up NHS time and consumed too much of the Earth’s resources.
Whether meant sincerely or not, the campaign confirms that too many schoolyard bullies carry their aggressive mindsets into adulthood. They harass female celebrities on Twitter. They undermine workmates at the water cooler. Civilisation is, perhaps, little more than the decorative veneer that disguises unchanging barbarian impulses. Look. See the Visigoth in the mirror. How does that make you feel?
The stunt highlights a more particular strain of aggressive prejudice. The perpetrators of “fat-shaming” are, for the most part, no different to other bullies, but there is a self-righteousness to them that sits ill with such unfriendly psyches. The archetypal fat-shamer feels that – rather than picking on people for the sake of it – he or she is making a moral point. The taunting and teasing is a way of revealing the sins to the sinner.
A few months ago, the alleged comedian Nicole Arbour created a fuss by posting a useless video entitled “Dear Fat People”. In the piece, she suggested being obese was a form of assisted suicide and that “fat-shaming is not a thing. Fat people made that up.” When quizzed about her stance on the BBC, Arbour insisted her act was aimed at helping fat people overcome their unhealthy habits. See? The moral authority actually lies with the bully again.
You might argue such prejudices have always been around. There’s something in that. The fat lady has long been a butt of jokes in broad comedy. Though an exquisite performer with a sweet voice and gorgeous timing, Hattie Jacques still permitted the Carry On… team to use her size as a joke in itself. Billy Bunter needed to be huge. So did Chris Farley. It goes on.
Something has changed, however. In an age when perfectly ordinary people – lawyers, brickies, baristas – attend the gym more frequently than professional athletes once did, an equivalence between moral decadence and imperfect body shape (by the fat-shamer’s standard) has become embedded in discourse.
SympathyIt’s not often that columns in this newspaper ask the reader to have sympathy for one of the Republican contenders for the US presidency, but we would like you to spare a thought for Chris Christie. The governor of New Jersey is not a slim man. He has been known to joke about the fact himself. He is aware that fatso gags from political comedians come with the territory. They joked about Richard Nixon’s ski-jump nose. They made fun of Ronald Reagan’s hair. Here’s the thing. There is a distinction between making jokes about a politician’s appearance and suggesting that supposed physical imperfection disqualifies him or her from office.
A full four years ago, Michael Kinsley wrote a column about Christie in Slate. He pulled no punches. “Chris Christie cannot be president: He is just too fat,” Kinsley explained. “Why should Christie’s weight be more than we can bear in a president? Why should it even be a legitimate issue if he runs? One reason is that a presidential candidate should be judged on behaviour and character.” Once again the fat-shamer is assaulting the moral high ground. Kinsley’s argument is that Christie’s substantial heft indicates a lack of self-control. Heck, a man who can’t stop himself eating a second doughnut might not be able to stop himself invading Mexico.
BaloneyThis is baloney, of course. The columnist is really commenting on Christie’s appearance, not his dining habits. In the modern era, it is increasingly difficult to attain the highest office if you slip too far outside the accepted physical templates. It was not always thus. Teddy Roosevelt filled every corner of his suit, but he made it on to Mount Rushmore. There were objections when Winston Churchill became prime minister, but nobody argued he was too fat to lead the fight against Hitler.
The rush to fitness and the adoration of Hollywood aesthetics has made too many of us body fascists. Supermarket tabloids draw circles round “cellulite” on perfectly healthy celebrities. Idiots molest larger people on the tube. Chris Christie is defending his waistline when he should be defending his economic policy. How easily we give in to new conformities.