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My Completely Unneccessary, Silly Letter to Jon Stewart: What's a Girl So Upset About?*




I know this letter is long and that's now how you're supposed to do protest letters, but I'm long-winded, people.


Dear
Jon Stewart,

Your bit with the fat suit on Monday’s show (September 14th,
2009) was distasteful, less than amusing, lazy, and sorely problematic. I know
what you were trying to do. People called you all lazy for taking three weeks
off; and since fatness is the ultimate symbol of being lazy, you got in a fat
suit. And since Jon Oliver had joked on his radio show about eating two whole
cheese steaks (or so I hear), you threw that in. Since you have a playful
relationship with Brian Williams, you took the opportunity to incorporate him.
I get that you were taunting your naysayers.  

 

I also get that for you it (likely) wasn’t about fat people
at all—but that’s part of the problem because it was on our backs. I know it seems initially an outlandish notion, but
you being in a fat suit and TDS using stereotypes and images of fat people the
way you did affects my every day life. I’m not saying you hate fat people or
that you are responsible for all of the derision and discrimination fat people
face—certainly not. But you are responsible for what you do, the messages you
spread, and your complicity, especially when so many people regard you as
someone well-reasoned, critically-minded, and progressive, someone who engages
in smart, sharp (if silly) comedy. Hang with me a second.

 

See, I am a fat person, and every day I deal with people
judging me as just some lazy fatass who doesn’t deserve a god-damn thing (aside
from a good fat-shaming, for my own good).
Fat discrimination, according to a recent study[1],
is as prevalent as race and gender discrimination in this country. I’m not just
talking about how people judge me on the street or how there is no room for
bodies like mine on TV. Fat discrimination and weight bias are prevalent in
health care, education, and employment. It affects real living, breathing
people. For instance, it affects the quality and thoroughness of care we
receive from medical professionals, and we suffer and some of us die because of
that.[2]


But what does this have to do with you in a fat suit? Fat suits have
been compared to blackface. Now, that’s not a historically equivalent
comparison in any way, but the the function is similar. You can put
on a fat suit and laugh with everyone else at the fat representation of you and
how gross and disgusting and wrong it is. TDS can further dehumanize fat
people by using a picture of a (faceless) bed-ridden fat person with Williams
face Photoshopped on—participating in what Charlotte Cooper calls the parade of
headless fatties—to drive home how disgusting it is to be fat. [3] And
in the process you and TDS can metaphorically masturbate stereotypes that perpetuate
the bias and discrimination we face in our every day lives—all for your joke
that really isn’t about fat people, which just means you have no regard for us
in the process.
And then you can take
that suit off and you don’t have to deal with the consequences.


Your promotion of fat stereotypes and dehumanization of fat people is part of a greater system of bias, discrimination, and dehumanization which directly affects my quality of life. It helps give people the idea that it's perfectly okay not to have any regard for us. After all, if we didn't like it, and if we had any dignity, we'd just put down the sandwich, right? If you had any sense, you might not assume fat people give up their dignity by virtue of being fat. For more a more
nuanced critique of “Fat on Film” you can visit the recent Newsweek slideshow of the same name: http://www.newsweek.com/id/213419.

 

This is why I’m disappointed in you and the TDS writers. I
expect better. And frankly, the best way to show your audience you haven’t
gotten lazy isn’t by telling lazy
jokes.

 

There are three things you can do to help fat people and
our work toward social justice. First, educate yourself on this issue. Do not
take what you think you know about fat people for granted. Put some critical
thinking into it and be willing to challenge your own assumptions. Second,
bring critical fat studies scholars or fat activists onto your show. Open a
conversation. Linda Bacon (yes, bacon, haha) is a preeminent scholar of Health
at Every Size, who has found that fat people who don’t diet and don’t lose weight can be healthier than
ones who do.[4] She has
just published a book on the subject. Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby also have
a book out called “Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere.” Recently, scholars in the UK
have published a book called “Fat Studies in the UK” and soon the long-awaited
“Fat Studies Reader” will be out. Finally, we don’t care if you make fat jokes,
just make them funny. Make sure that you aren’t merely reinscribing harmful
stereotypes, and make sure they are the same critical quality as the rest of
your bits.

 

Sincerely,

 

Withoutscene

Fat Human Being, Fat Activist, and Doctoral
Student in Sociology and Women's Studies

 


[1] Puhl,
RM., T. Andreyeva, and KD Brownell. 2008. “Perceptions of weight
discrimination: prevalence and comparison to race and gender discrimination in
America.” International Journal of
Obesity
32: 992–1000.

[2]  See the blog
“First, Do No Harm: Stories of Fat Prejudice in Health Care”: http://fathealth.wordpress.com/ and
also the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity website: www.yaleruddcenter.org/what_we_do.aspx?id=10

 

[3] For the record, I know
TDS uses Photoshop to do much more ‘horrible’ things to people’s images—but
there is a particular history of fat people’s faceless bodies being debased and
dehumanized in the media, as your colleague, Colbert, has even pointed out.
Charlotte Cooper’s piece on Headless Fatties can be found here: http://www.charlottecooper.net/docs/fat/headless_fatties.htm

[4] Linda
Bacon’s website: http://www.lindabacon.org/





*Apparently being upset about something so trivial is just silly. And after all "The joke was funny--I'm a fat person and I thought so." And "It wasn't about fat people. C'mon, they make fun of EVERYBODY on that show." "Being angry about it isn't going to solve anything." "You shouldn't let words upset you so much--we should be showing people that words can't hurt us." And, of course, "Don't we [fat people] have bigger fish to fry?"
(These are paraphrases of claims made to me from people who identify as fat-positive, size-accepting, fat-accepting individuals. Claims that I hope to have arbitrated in this here letter.)





Edited to note: I know the racial comparisons I make are problematic. I hate to rely on comparisons to racial discrimination and bias to highlight fat discrimination and bias. I am open to finding new ways to make our cause seem serious and our claims seem legitimate without using analogies to other oppressions. I try not to. But in some cases, I just haven't quite figured out how to really put things in perspective for people without using comparisons. Even if I know it is problematic.

The power of visibility | Shining a light on Fat Love

CarrieP's picture
CarrieP
September 22nd, 2009 | Link | This letter rocks so hard I

This letter rocks so hard I can't stop reading and re-reading it. You are so fantastic!!

denim0503's picture
denim0503
September 22nd, 2009 | Link | Yes!

Amazing! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Well communicated!

Thanks for not lowering yourself to unnecessary backbiting or name calling. Thanks for being logical and considerate of the opposing side . . . it does wonders for getting people to actually listen. And mostly just thank you for recognizing the issue and putting yourself out there!

As for the comparison to racial discrimination, I agree. It's hard to equalize discrimination issues, but I also feel that perspectives of weight bias can be drawn from issues of racial prejudice in that both instances of discrimination result from nothing more than physical appearance. That someone can be stereotyped and disliked or even dismissed from across a room can be understood by both groups. Still, I'll keep my eyes out for other comparisons.

Thanks again.

-Esther

Health before Beauty

pani113's picture
pani113
September 22nd, 2009 | Link | Good for you for taking

Good for you for taking action!

"Fat can be beautiful. Intolerance is ALWAYS ugly!"

Elm Nehmara's picture
Elm Nehmara
September 22nd, 2009 | Link | A very well thought out and

A very well thought out and logical letter. I too am tired of being marginalized by the media and hope that someday fat people will be portrayed in the media as lovable, smart, and everyday human beings. I am tired of the fat stereotype of fat being being lazy, love hungry etc. I hope that someday fat people will be seen as sexy and not be shamed or ridiculed because we have a few extra pounds or flabbiness everywhere. I would love to see more people who look like me, period. I'm tired of the media glorifying stick thin figures and ostracizing (especially woman who are seen as nothing more than sex objects in the media) fat people in general.

It's like Tyra Banks once said on her show : "Fatness is the last acceptable form of discrimination."

Viola's picture
Viola
September 23rd, 2009 | Link | I like the letter, I think

I like the letter, I think you made your case well. I think that when it comes to humor shows, it's kind of a losing proposition because they may see it as the ability to poke fun at yourself. But I do feel the same way, that it's a lot different when you put on a fat suit with this idea of becoming something you aren't. I think the problem with fat discrimination is that everyone believes they own the problem of being fat, so they are less willing to consider they have thin privilege and benefit from it. Plus people are always flipping it around and crying reverse discrimination, because I think people don't want to see themselves as the oppressors, they want to be the oppressed, as long as they don't *actually* have to suffer from oppression--but someone's bad opinion of them is enough for them to feel like they are in the right with what they are doing. I think your letter did a good job of revealing that there is true discrimination against the fat population.

I don't believe that fat prejudice is the last acceptable form of discrimination, because I think we still actively discriminate against certain groups with no real understanding of or care about what we are doing. We may not even realize how we are still supporting racism, classism or other kinds of discrimination. And, also, of course, it depends on the setting. Some forms of prejudice are much more accepted in some circles although maybe not as society as a whole. And the fact that many states feel the need to vote against gay marriage and believe their right to discriminate against gay people is sacrosanct, shows that there is acceptable discrimination out there. I do think that actively discriminating against and shaming fat people is actually seen as morally good in a significant percentage of the population. Of course, I'm biased, but when most mainstream health and governmental entities push the automatic assumption that BMI is valid, significant weight loss is possible and results in healthier people, a fat person's right to exist is called into question. Some of us feel that acutely.

worrier September 23rd, 2009 | Link | "I know the racial

"I know the racial comparisons I make are problematic. I hate to rely on comparisons to racial discrimination and bias to highlight fat discrimination and bias. I am open to finding new ways to make our cause seem serious and our claims seem legitimate without using analogies to other oppressions. "

What about comparing the treatment and popular views of fat people to how the "untouchables" are treated in India. I said in another post that I feel like I'm one of this society's untouchables.

"I don't believe that fat prejudice is the last acceptable form of discrimination, because I think we still actively discriminate against certain groups with no real understanding of or care about what we are doing. We may not even realize how we are still supporting racism, classism or other kinds of discrimination ... I do think that actively discriminating against and shaming fat people is actually seen as morally good in a significant percentage of the population. Of course, I'm biased, but when most mainstream health and governmental entities push the automatic assumption that BMI is valid, significant weight loss is possible and results in healthier people, a fat person's right to exist is called into question. Some of us feel that acutely."

I agree with all of what you said. I think one of the big problems with fat discrimination is, as you say, many people think it is a morally good thing to do (recently in New Zealand a professor of nutrition announced on a current affairs TV show that we're all too nice to fat people, we should stop being nice to them). Another really big problem with in is, in my opinion, the vast majority of people don't think it exists at all (or they don't want to believe it exists). I've been ridiculed about my weight since I was 7, and ever since I was 7 I've been continually told the usual; just ignore it, just don't let it bother you, they're just being silly, it's unimportant, insignificant, making a fuss about nothing, just think positive thoughts about yourself, you're just too sensitive. Even other fat women I've talked to dismiss the nasty remarks with these sorts of comments. As for the callous way fat people, especially fat women, are treated in the media, the vast majority of people accept it as normal, ok, even as an acceptable group of people to have a laugh at. That's a prime example of not acknowleging the existance of distrimination. The example above of the professor of nutrition announcing we're all too nice to fat people is another example of not recognising the existance of fat discrimination.

Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one who even recognises the existance of the nasty way fat people are treated. I see and hear the way fat people are treated and spoken about in the media and no one around me remarks on it, or even seems to notice that it exists. It's like treating fat people like that is a given, as in, how else would you treat fat people. That it's been getting worse with the prevalence of the obesity epidemic hysteria alarms me.

Hasta la vista, baby!

mujergorda September 24th, 2009 | Link | You? Awesome. I really

You? Awesome.

I really admire your ability (and patience!) to lay out the arguments in a clear, concise way, and to connect them to the reality of lived experience without being either condescending or condemning. I wish I had the head and the stomach for that kind of engagement, I think it's so valuable.

omnifrog September 24th, 2009 | Link | Great letter and I agree with you...

...but don't apologize for the racial comparison. That comparing weight issues to race issues is not appropriate has somehow become dogma of the FA movement. That's just silly.

What started out as an appropriate criticism, that fat is not the last acceptable prejudice, has become something insane. There are billions of people who understand the struggle against racism. And hundreds of millions at least who understand the struggle against homophobia. To not make comparisons to those struggles and the rational behind those struggles is ultimately to be fighting a war and deciding to leave the bazooka at home.

People don't want to understand frameworks. They don't want to start at the beginning. They are intellectually lazy. Comparisons allow for understanding the with the minimum possible effort.

withoutscene's picture
withoutscene
September 29th, 2009 | Link | omnifrog, I wasn't

omnifrog, I wasn't apologizing about it per se, I was qualifying it, making my awareness overt, and inviting conversation about other ways we can make our struggle real and human to people because I am not there yet. I think we need to strike a balance between reaching the, in your words, intellectually lazy masses and being lazy or simplistic in our dialogue. If we know that people are intellectually lazy, we know that making statements that compare oppressions or even ones like mine that rely on the awareness of the gravity of some oppressions to bring our own to light WILL likely get translated into things we never intended. It's exactly because of the laypublic that I think we need to be so careful. This is the reason I qualify my statement about blackface because racism and sizism are NOT historically equivalent. I expect a layperson--likely someone who doesn't know anything about blackface and it's part in our racial history--might not otherwise get that, no, fat suits are not the SAME thing. I teach undergrads and they are largely unaware of historical contexts of any kind unless they are wholly superficial. And when there's that one-dimensional understanding going on, things get lost in translation.

tante October 2nd, 2009 | Link | You're not the first to

You're not the first to equate fat haters with racists. As this theater review points out, John Waters did it in 1988. But then it was irony.

Of course, today anti-fat bias can be a form of racism, too, because as a group, African Americans generally tend to be heavier than whites.

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