Fat and Prejudice


One of my favorite moments on the just-concluded season of South Park was Eric Cartman's unstoppable laughter and mockery of a "little person" aka a midget. The genius of the cartoon is that it's perfectly clear that Cartman is vile, that his prejudice is disgusting, and yet Cartman also represents our collective id. We can't help ourselves at times. That's partly why I'm a skeptic of hate crime laws. They imply that prejudice is some kind of optional state of being which can be removed or deterred by law. At its core, it cannot. It is integral to being human. We dislike each other, often for random reasons, but sometimes for pure "ick" motivations. We can and should legally penalize criminal acts, regardless of their target. We can and should stigmatize proud expressions of bigotry. But we will never erase it.

Which brings me to fat people. I mean really fat people. Wayne Meredith notes the modern conundrum:

The way morbidly obese people are treated in our society is an interesting can of worms, indeed...

They seem to be the last bastion of socially acceptable contempt for a human, based solely on their appearance. I’m certainly guilty of making a whispered comment or two about a fat person I’ve seen. Someone I know nothing about, except the fact that they’re very overweight. (Full disclosure: I could stand to lose 20 lbs, myself.)

But tolerance can simply be very hard under these circumstances. I mean - these circumstances:

When we got to our seats they were occupied. Not by a couple of people. One big morbidly obese man occupied them. He was stuffed in one seat but his girth spread a quarter of the way across the two seats next to him and he used one of the seats to hold his pile of concessions.

"Excuse me, I think we have 16 and 17." ... He looked up and I know he contemplated staying put, but without saying a word he started shifting his stuff around.

It took him about two minutes to move, which is a lifetime when you are standing up in the aisle. Play resumed before he could finish the chore so my wife and I had to squat down to stay out of the line of sight. When the man had finally completed the move to his assigned seat, I took the bullet and sat next to him, giving my wife the aisle seat that didn’t come with fifty lbs of triceps fat. I contorted my body in my seat so that the man and I wouldn’t make body contact. My position wasn’t too bad, except for the armrest being in my ribs instead of under my arm and it was hard to sip casually on my beer. Big boy had it worse though. From my peripheral vision I could see he was laboring to maintain his personal space. He had his hands tucked up under his chin holding his nachos on his chest with one and his beer with the other. Each time he brought a cheese laden chip to his mouth he risked losing everything. He was under tremendous stress. While I commend him for his efforts to respect my seat, he failed miserably...."

And so did our anonymous non-hero's compassion levels. The point is: he tried. I think we have to accept constant failure in this as part of the human condition, keep the law out of it, do our best to show respect, and pray some more.

(Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty.)