"You have such a pretty face." Do you have an immediate association to this sentence? Ask a friend; does he or, more probably, she? If, like me or like Marcia Millman, a sociologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, you have ever been or are over-weight, you will probably anticipate the phrase that will follow the initial one: "Why don't you lose weight?"
When I was 14, Richard Rodgers, a friend of my parents, came to dinner. I had known him as long as I could remember. Among other subjects, we talked of my recent success as Gretel in a school production of the Humperdinck opera and of how much I'd loved his latest Broadway hit, "Carousel." He took my hands in his and said lovingly, "Cynny, you have such a beautiful face -- if only you'd lose weight I tell you what: you get down to around 120 and I'll give you a part in my next show." I couldn't do it.
Four out of 10 Americans are clinically overweight; many more focus huge amounts of energy on keeping thin. If they have ever been heavy, even if now at normal weight or under it, they probably still struggle with the obsessions of the fat person. Most of the obsessed, those who feel fatness stigmatizes and excludes, are women. The overweight woman "is stereotypically viewed as unfemimine, in flight from sexuality, anti-social, out of control, hostile and aggressive." "But the negative reaction and anxieties aroused by obesity cannot be adequately explained by the argument that obesity is unhealthy." Smoking is demonstrably more unhealthy, but does not arouse emotions of repugnance and disapproval in both smokers and nonsmokers. Paul Henreid lighting two cigarettes and giving one to Bette Davis still seems romantic even if the spector of lung cancer lurks; imagine if he had unwrapped two chocolate bars and given one to her.
Several of the women interviewed for the book suggested that obesity is for our society "what sexuality was for the Victorians." Such a statement makes clear why Millman focuses all but entirely on women and fatness except for a single appendix on fat men: women still struggle with the problem of woman as object. Thus their sense of identity -- how to be chosen and prized -- is tied up with appearance more than achievement. Being fat is still practically and symbolically laden with significance for women. They are still unsure as to which kinds of success are most important. Marcia Millman is a professor and this is her third book; my professional statistics and those of numerous other women are similar to hers. Yet I wonder which measurements are emotionally most crucial for us.
"Such a Pretty Face" is not a "how to" book. It is rather an examination of the mythology of fat. The first part is a section on "The Social Worlds of Fat People." In it three organizations which deal with obesity -- NAAFA, Overeaters Anonymous, and a camp for fat adolescents -- are described and examined.
NAAFA (National Association to Aid Fat Americans) is a society which asserts that fat can be beautiful. It works for the rights of fat Americans and plans social events of the type from which the obese are normally excluded. "Under flashing strobe lights, flesh undulates in all directions. The dance floor is filled with monumental women, women who weigh 250, 300, 400 pounds and more. They are spectacularly dressed in sexy, bare-cut evening gowns . . . Necklines plunge. Some gowns are backless. Some have sequins or feathers or spaghetti straps." Around the wall are men who identify themselves as "fat admierers," the heavier the woman the more appealing.
Overeaters Annoymous, modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, stresses individual responsibility for self-examination. It recognizes that the individual must "abstain,' but that abstinence is only the first step. After acknowledging that they are compulsive overeaters, "powerless over food," members embark on the twelve OA steps which are meant to be, and often are, the path to an emotional and spiritual rebirth. Members share with each other their histories and struggle. The pain and degradation of fatness come through in the long quotes from OP members.
An examination of a summer diet camp gives a picture of children being sent to an environment where they both receive the labels "fat" or "thin," usually kept in their heads for a life-time, and are relieved of the pressures of being solitary "fatties." They enter into a cycle of losing weight each summer, gaining it back, evolving elaborate strategies for cheating while desperately wishing for success.
The second section of the book, "Living with Oneself as a Fat Person," is more analytical than the first. It describes, often by long, amazingly truthful yet sometimes repellent sections of interviews with obese women: "I remember in the summer being eaten alive by bugs when I tried to sleep and discovered the next morning that what had attracted them to me and my bed were the pork chop bones on my empty plate that I had set on the window sill before going to sleep. This discovery horrified me." These interviews form part of the analysis of such topics as Obesity and Desexualization, Obesity and Heightened Sexuality, Compulsion and Control in Eating, and Splitting the Body from the Mind.
Although some outside sources are used -- Margaret Atwood's novel "Ladly Oracle," whose heroine attempts to shed her fat childhood, or R. D. Laing's discussion of the "unembodied" schizophrenic -- this book is primarily an original exploration of the topic. Even though, of course, it overlaps with themes in a number of other books, books as diverse as "Fat Is a Feminst Issue" by Susie Orbach, "Freaks" by Leslie Fiedler, "Illness as Metaphor" by Susan Sontag, and all the first-person accounts of battles with overweight, it is unique. "Such a Pretty Face" dissects the reality, the psychology, the politics and they mythology of a massive and weighty world. I recommend it to all those fighting real or imaginary obesity and those curious or concerned about what "Being Fat in America" is like.