I just came across this article on Salon.com: “Why the fat guy should lose his privilege” by David Sirota. Even though he wrote it over two years ago now, I want to say a public thank you for his exposure of the fat double standard. Also, I’m glad that the article put a bee in my bonnet.

See, as an obese woman who has to eat an unhealthy starvation diet and exercise too much to be a size 12 – which is why I’m typically a size 18 – I get a LOT of fat shame directed at me. Right now, I’m pregnant with twins, so I’m in an immune pocket of space where people don’t want to criticize. But usually, here’s what happens:

I go to a gathering of crunchy mamas. We’re all wearing our babies or nursing toddlers. We probably have a zillion things in common. But their dress size is a divisor of mine, probably the smaller divisor. We smile at each other, and they look at my hips, and they don’t talk to me. I can’t possibly share their values for healthy eating and living, the look says, because I am fat.

[But if I go among poor people, the looks pass from my hips to my children. More on that below.]

See, fat is a stand-in for values in our culture. It’s a visual shortcut for one’s virtue or vice. Which virtues one associates with thinness, however, are not necessarily the ones marketers would have women believe. The typical line of reasoning in advertising and public opinion pieces is that thin women practice moderation and self control. The correlating vices for the fat tend to be laziness and gluttony. So, a fat woman lacks moderation and self control and must be exceptionally lazy and prone to excessive eating. Everyone “knows” this in educated circles.

But a fat man is rarely held to the virtue/vice standard, and that is where one can crack this whole fat nut open. See, I don’t believe that fat in our culture is actually best understood on the virtue/vice scale. It’s better to look at it through the lens of household models, obedience, and servitude.

I grew up in two worlds, a Catholic matriarchal world and a Baptist patriarchal world. For many, many people in the fattest parts of the United States, the Baptist patriarchal model holds sway. In this culture, women are still shamed for being fat, and sometimes an idea of virtue is proposed as a solution to the problem. But the on-the-ground reality is not one of women as free agents. The rhetoric of their virtue is the derivative virtue of a lesser member of a household, someone who manages well and cares well for others. (Please understand that I am not criticizing the many caring, immensely wonderful persons I know who are Baptist/non-denom or otherwise live by this model. I’m just trying to expose a different standard for decoding fat.)

Thin women are not looked highly upon because they have virtues, but because they keep themselves sexy and put their families first, meaning quite practically that they eat last. The fact of the matter is that in many cultures of the world, women eat last. Even privileged women may do so, but they have abundance to support them.

Here’s how a family gathering (or a church gathering) went in my Baptist world: Women served men their plates, piled high with food. Then they served or oversaw the children’s food. Then they would go back and get a small portion for themselves from what was left over. If someone at the table needed something, the woman would pop up and abandon her plate to get it, coming back to cold food, or sometimes to a space that had been cleared by a combination of someone’s inattentiveness and someone else’s well-meaning attention. (Look, I still do this, and sometimes I don’t get to eat anything at all at a church gathering, because my options are already restricted by some severe food allergies. I’m seriously not criticizing women for doing this.)

In that culture, if one watched what women were expected to do rather than listened to the rhetoric, in other words, if one observed the applied ethic, here’s what it meant to be thin: the thin woman put men first. And that’s why fat men are not criticized. Their fat is a symbol of their power, of their ability to amass servants and loved ones in a servant role, who put them first and give them the best food.

So a fat woman in that culture is not seen as primarily gluttonous or lazy; she’s seen as neglectful. A fat woman in most of America is characterized variously as a bad mother, possibly unintelligent or uneducated, and definitely anti-social.

Upper middle class people, caught up in the virtue/vice paradigm and looking down their privileged noses at these women, like to point fingers at what the woman eats. But middle class people and working class people know that calling a woman “fat” impugns her family. A fat woman must not love them right. She must not have the sense God gave her to put her man and her kids first. Your mama is so fat that… you are outside at 10pm on a school night and probably have not been fed yet.

In a structure of poverty, where the upper classes expect good servant attitudes from the poor AND try to apply upper class rhetoric to foreign social systems, forgetting that virtue was traditionally only seen as an option for the privileged, fat women are neglectful servants first, vicious characters second. Fat men manage to function in the educated world where virtue/vice rhetoric reigns, because on the ground, the old idea still functions. Fat means other people are feeding you, so you must have power.

A woman whose body is lean and well-dressed is seldom suspected of neglect, even if she neglects herself, her family, her job. Just as fat men get a pass for being well-fed, thin women get a pass for being caring parents and spouses and conscientious workers.

Now, I’m not suggesting that body fat or its lack is a simple issue in real life (food supply, long hours, sedentary jobs, inflammation, calories versus nutrition, blahdeblah etc). But I believe our actual working cultural assumptions are not what marketers might have us believe. There were lots of reasons for the “What’s Your Excuse?” controversy last month, but it also hit right on target for the patriarchal model of fat guilting women. “Look,” it said, “here is a mother taking good care of her children and also making sure to be sexually attractive. She certainly knows her place.” She’s a good servant.

And that is how fat functions in real life for many, many people: it demonstrates a place on the pecking order. A fat woman is only okay if she demonstrates her acquiescence to male power or has managed to live in a social bubble that subverts the common social order in favor of a different ideal. A fat man can keep his privileges wherever he goes. (Though, ironically, if he happens into the rarified upper middle class intelligentsia bubble, he will be held in suspicion until he takes up racquetball, running, or at least uses a treadmill to get down to the preferred BMI of the elite. This little quibble will not significantly affect him, though, since an expressed desire for self-improvement usually is adequate to secure the trust of this social class.)