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The Fat Lady Sings

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In the analytic encounter, body meets body, yet rarely is body mentioned. Without a body, we become like the nymph Echo, a disembodied voice condemned to echo what she hears. Rooted in analytical psychology, The Fat Lady Sings challenges the notion that the fat patient must change to fit into a thin world. For years we have been bombarded by warnings about the Obesity Epidemic, a concern rivaling that about terrorism. Curiously, the depth psychological literature is mostly silent about this preoccupation, its origins, meaning, and the psychotherapeutic treatment issues involved.Almost everything written about fat and being fat comes from the world of the slender. Fat people are rarely consulted about their lives, how they eat and move and live. They are too often not seen as credible, or as reliable witnesses to their own experience. The Fat Lady Sings is an exploration of fat and our culture, the fat complex that grips our culture, how the war on obesity is fought in the clinical setting, and how being fat is an ongoing traumatic experience. The book grows out of the author's life as a fat woman, her work as a Jungian psychotherapist, and as a patient in analysis.

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Chapter One: Life in the Panopticon

ePub

Panopticon:

1. An area where everything is visible.

2. A circular prison with cells distributed around a central surveillance station; proposed by Jeremy Bentham in 1791.

3. A prison so constructed that the inspector can see each of the prisoners at all times, without being seen.

I am a fat woman. I have been fat since I was five. As a young child, I used to hide from my uncle who would poke me and laugh and call me “Fatty” while singing “The Too Fat Polka”—how I hate that song. Too many times my mother told me I was “as big as the side of a house.” From early on I felt the sting and shame of being too big, too much. The humiliation of being weighed in gym class. The blind date that told his friend, within my earshot, that I was a “dog.” Knowing I was different and feeling shame for not being slender like other girls, like my mother. And being told too many times, “But you have such a pretty face” as if my body were an aesthetic crime.

An introvert, I am also shy, always a bit ill at ease in large groups or with strangers. Being fat only magnified that shyness. In my early thirties after years of dieting and battling against my weight, I tired of it all. I could not do one more diet, spend one more day obsessing about what I could and could not eat, one more night going to bed feeling an utter failure because I was hungry, because I was losing so slowly or not at all. Perpetually being on a diet meant that my days were filled with obsessing about what I could eat, what was forbidden, mentally calculating the calorie count of every food. And as I slept, dreaming of banquets I could never enjoy. There was only one thing left that I could do—the hard work to stop hating my body, to become able to look at and feel myself without cringing or eviscerating myself with insults and criticism. Simply put I had to give up the endless and fruitless effort to starve my wayward body into submission. The work I did to learn not to loathe my fat body enabled me to go places, to meet people without constantly worrying about how they saw me. I learned a cheery, warm, and pleasant persona for public spaces, because somewhere inside I believed that if I made myself pleasant and easy to be around then at least I could avoid hearing the negative judgments about my body. I was careful to dress nicely, to try to act like I felt pretty. And as long as I didn't think about it, didn't start looking at myself from outside myself, I believed in my own magical powers and I could be out and about and forget about the shame I wear in my flesh. I learned to pull myself way inside my body, away from my skin, away from the surface where I could be hurt, and I could become this sparkling personality and be unaware of my physical self. I could be like the nymph Echo, a voice without a body. The price? Become a body condemned to echo what she hears but not speak her own experience. I could wrap myself in my invisibility cloak of charm and move through the world insulated from the judgments and scrutiny of others. In order to move around in the world, I had to protect myself this way or risk being crushed by the weight and sharpness of looks and judgments I encountered and the shame I pushed down inside. I had to maintain silence.

 

Chapter Two: The War on Obesity: a Cultural Complex at Work

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From the late 70s through the 80s and into the 90s, though of course many women struggled with their weight, the overall climate was not as harsh and punitive about fat as it is today. Susie Orbach published Fat is a Feminist Issue in 1978. William Bennett and Joel Guerin published The Dieter's Dilemma, a book grounded in medical research, in 1983. Carol Shaw launched Big Beautiful Woman magazine in 1979. A flurry of books and pamphlets from what was called the Fat Liberation Movement began fat acceptance. All of these publications, and others, urged fat women to listen to their bodies, presented research showing that dieting is in fact a losing battle, one in which most will regain all weight lost and often more. The magazine gave fat women their first chance to see women like themselves modeling beautiful clothes, and even lingerie and bathing suits, images of women none of us ever saw in mainstream fashion magazines. It is no small matter to be able to see images in a glossy fashion magazine of fat women, women like me. By no means did these publications and others similar to them mean that there was no bias against fat or that it was a kind of Camelot for fat people, but there was nothing like a war being waged against fat and fat people like there is today. In the 90s something changed and any softening of the climate toward fat ended. By the beginning of this century war on fat was declared, a war that continues unabated. As Betty Meador tells us,

 

Chapter Three: When a Body Meets a Body: Fat Enters the Consulting Room

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Over the course of my lifetime I have seen five therapists for more than a session or two. Each time, without fail, I have encountered what I call the thin gaze and with it the assumption that I should want to lose weight. The thin gaze, arising from thin privilege, is the objectifying gaze cast upon the fat person by someone who is not fat. One therapist, a man who himself was fat, assumed that I should want to lose weight because otherwise how could I ever feel desirable? Each time, with all of them, I was angry, though that anger remained unexpressed. Inside, under the anger, I felt shame and pain. Why was what concerned me of so little interest or value? Why was anything I was concerned about automatically filtered through the therapist's notions about my weight, even when weight was not the object of my concern, at least not then? How was it that when they saw me, they saw my weight more than they saw me, a woman with her own concerns and issues?

After my second child was born, I was quite depressed. I had spent three and a half months on bed rest during the pregnancy. Both my life and my child's were at risk. When he was born, I terminated my fertility because to risk another pregnancy was to seriously jeopardize my life. And within a month of his birth, I learned of my husband's infidelity during my pregnancy. All during the time I was confined to bed rest, I told myself I could fall apart after he was born. But instead of falling apart I felt crushed by depression, able to do little else than care for my baby and his three-year-old sister. So I decided to see a therapist, a woman who had five children and was said to be particularly sensitive to issues of mothering and marriage. I took my baby with me when I saw her. I told her all about what had happened. I felt I was dying inside. I needed to be heard and cared for, helped to find my way back to myself and to being alive. I was dying inside and what did she want to focus on? My weight. Again and again, I told her weight was not on my agenda, that I needed to sort out my life on a far more basic level. But she persisted. Frustrated that she simply wouldn't/couldn't hear me, I terminated with her. She sent me off with a dire statement that if I didn't deal with my weight now, I would regret it. Despite the fact that I was clearly depressed, hanging on by my fingernails, all she saw was that I was fat and she believed that I had to “deal with” my weight, meaning I should lose weight, in order to heal. Indeed for her, that I was not interested in focusing on my weight meant I was in denial and that I would suffer the consequences. Did she ever even hear me, I wonder, when I struggled to talk about my sadness about no longer being able to have children, about not feeling as alive to my new baby as I wanted to be, about my slowly failing marriage or did she only see my fat body?

 

Chapter Four: Dancing with Marion Woodman: Searching for Meaning

ePub

Jung's analytical psychology forms the foundation of my work and my thinking about the psyche, psychic life, dreams, therapy, symptoms. In my Jungian world, I accept that we develop symptoms when we are stuck in old patterns and fail to integrate creative potentials within our personality. Symptoms are not to be avoided or downplayed; their meaning needs to be discovered in order for healing to take place. In that way of understanding life, I accept that my fat is meaningful, but does that also mean that my fat is a symptom of something, that it is not merely one of several basic ways of being, of type of body? Perhaps being fat gives rise to a variety of symptoms? Or maybe it is the experience of being fat, of the daily trauma of membership in a stigmatized group that creates symptoms?

In general the fat acceptance community rejects any of what they see as pathologising psychological bases for being fat, but I believe it is a big mistake to entirely discard the reality that body is influenced by mind. I do agree that being fat is not in itself a mark of psychopathology, that neither physical nor mental health can be determined by a look at body size. So how do we explore and understand the meaning of fat without blaming or pathologising? How do we understand what fat and being fat symbolise without conflating that with cause or symptom?

 

Chapter Five: Woodman, my Mother, and me

ePub

In what follows, imagine if you will that you are reading notes from an analysis, with Marion Woodman, voiced via italicized quotes from her writing about obesity, as the analyst and I, the analysand. She makes an observation or interpretation and I respond, defending, resisting, and sometimes accepting what she says.

Woodman: I think eating disorders are related to a problem with the mother. Mother is related to nourishment, cherishing, sweetness—food is a metaphor for mother (Peay, 1992, p. 10).

Am I fat because of my mother? If my mother had loved and wanted me, had held me and let me know she wanted me, would I be thin? This is where I usually balk and become very literal. Something in me wants to shout “NO!” when I come to this point.

A photo of me with my daughter, taken when she was about three months old, shows us delighting in each other. It is so different from any of me with my mother. I am laughing and she is laughing and we are saying I love you with our eyes—that isn't there for me with my mother. She was stiff, and sad, and far away. In a picture of my mother and me, taken in 1946 when I was around a month old, she seems almost to be trying to hold her body away from me. There are no photos of us in which we make eye contact and rarely are we ever even looking in the same direction. In contrast to the pictures of me with my children where our shared joy is evident, there is a sense of sadness and distance in those of me with my mother.

 

Chapter Six: Woodman and Anger, Food, Eating, and Control

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Woodman deals with issues around anger, food, and eating as complexes in themselves. I am not sure that I believe they are significantly different for fat people than for average or slender people. But I would be remiss if I did not also engage them as they are very much a part of beliefs in the larger culture about how fat comes about. It is in these areas that she is most a part of mainstream thinking about fat. I quote Woodman but her words could equally well have been written or said by many people writing about obesity and eating behavior.

Anger

Woodman: They [the obese] have no sense of everlasting arms to uphold them through the crises of life; the early matrix with the mother isn't there. That deprivation propels them to make violent attempts to hold onto life; momentarily they may do so, and then sink back into a lethargy of nonexistence. Their existence is precarious at best because they have no sense of a daily continuum. Such girls may seek husbands who will provide that loving day-to-day cherishing, and therefore in marriage they may lock themselves yet again into the mother they sought to escape. (Woodman, 1982, p. 21)

 

Chapter Seven: A Last Look at Woodman

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In her review of The Owl was a Baker's Daughter, Thelma Bryant summarizes Woodman. She begins: “Certainly not eating, as in anorexia nervosa, becomes a form of suicide and compulsive overeating to the point of obesity may be considered another form of suicide, figurative if not literal” (Bryant, 1981, p. 27). I see again the equation of obesity with compulsive overeating and the comparison with anorexia. Anorexia is a disorder, an effort to escape the body, to rise above it; obesity is not. Obese is a body type. Not only that, but recent research finds: “The science around obesity does support the contention of so many people that in spite of a healthy diet and getting exercise, they continue to gain weight” (Sharma, 2011). In fact, one can be fat and anorexic. And what is this equation of becoming fat with a death wish as if being fat is a choice?

When I think about it, I feel angry and upset knowing that most people who see me believe that I am consciously responsible for my weight, unwilling to reign in gluttonous appetite. I want to yell, “IT's NOT MY FAULT!” but what good would that do? Most doctors, therapists, and analysts would see me as resisting. The others would think I am just making excuses, refusing to take responsibility for myself. What makes the psychological pathologising of fat people particularly noxious is that although it is based on nothing but speculation, it is very difficult to refute. If I argue that fat is a physical characteristic, not a marker for psychopathology, I am being defensive. Indeed for those who believe it, denial seems only to support the case they have for pathologising fat people. It's a fat person's catch-22.

 

Chapter Eight: Memory, Shame, and the Fat Body—Pulling it all Together

ePub

Previously I wrote that I believe with all my Jungian heart that my fat is meaningful. It tells me that we develop symptoms when we are stuck in old patterns and fail to integrate creative potentials within our personality. Symptoms are not to be avoided or downplayed, but the meaning, which has often heretofore been missed, needs to be discovered in order for healing to take place. But that requires that my fat be a symptom of something, not a more basic state of being. The question remains—must it be a symptom in order to be meaningful, to have symbolic meaning for me?

Callan provocatively says:

A symptom is an untended memory. It is the voice of a forgotten or banished part of ourselves…Memory is the medicine of the psyche—even, and especially when the memories are dark. (Callan, 2004, p. 7)

I try this on. My fat is an untended memory. It is the voice of my negative relationship with my mother. Of my rage. My fears of dependency. Of abandonment. At least in part it is. Memory in the body. I recall master knitter Elizabeth Zimmerman said “One likes to believe that there is memory in the fingers; memory undeveloped, but still alive” (Zimmerman, 1981, p. 75). It is here that my delight in knitting, my foundation in analytical psychology and this work begin to meet in memory and the body. As Marie Louise Von Franz put it:

 

Chapter Nine: My Body, my Self: Toward a Theory of Fat and Trauma

ePub

Almost every approach to working with the fat patient in psychotherapy involves the notion that her fat is the result of trauma in the past and that the answer lies in losing weight, becoming less fat or even better stop being fat at all. But what happens if we begin to think instead that her fat, rather than being a response to trauma or any of the several complexes Woodman outlines, what if her fat is itself a source of trauma, of being fat? What if we look at the effect on the psyche of being visibly different, visibly part of an “injured group”?

We know that for African Americans, their visible difference from the normative dominant white culture creates a host of anxieties and behaviors. In the days following the Trayvon Martin verdict, I watched and listened as prominent African Americans spoke of their fears for their own children, knowing that privileged status was no protection against racial hostility and fear. On a visceral level I understood their anxiety, their knowing that always, no matter what, they must remain aware that they are different, they are outside the white mainstream, just as I, no matter my accomplishments, am always seen as fat and thus I am also always on guard against the bias that I encounter every day because I am fat. As is true for African Americans, I cannot escape my difference, my outsider status, because I wear it, my status is visible all the time.

 

Chapter Ten: Back to the Consulting Room: Blind Spots and Remedies

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In a book about the impact of the personal history and experiences of analysts, Steven Kuchuck wrote:

Having key elements of oneself labeled pathological, especially by the field you have turned to for healing, professional identity, and development, wreaks havoc with even the most securely formed psyche. (Kuchuck, 2013, p. xx)

Kuchuck was speaking of his treatment as a gay man when he was in training at a psychoanalytic institute, where he was told he should conceal this basic fact of his identity. For someone who is homosexual, disclosure of this aspect of identity is voluntary as there are no visible markers. But disclosure is not optional for the fat person or the person of color. We have no way to “pass,” to blend into the cultural background. We are immediately subject to a scrutinizing gaze as soon as we walk into a room. Before we open our mouths, before any questions are asked, regardless of whether we are present as therapist or patient or ordinary person, we are subject to the projections common to the cultural complexes about us. When I first read Kuchuck's statement, tears came as I know very well what he writes. When those two analysts told me that though they believed I would make a good analyst, I would not be accepted because of my weight, I experienced that havoc. How could it be that they or anyone could say that? That they could not just think but say that in one breath both that I would make a good analyst and that my weight disqualified me was dumbfounding. Even now, more than twenty years later, that stings and leaves me somewhat bewildered even as I know they were reflecting the bias that I and every fat person encounters dozens of times each day. I expected more and better of “the field [I] have turned to for healing, professional identity, and development” (Kuchuck, 2013, p. xx). When any of us experiences judgment and/or rejection in a relationship or place where we should reasonably expect care and concern—from a therapist or doctor, from a loved one, within the family—then we experience trauma, the trauma of being judged or rejected for some basic aspect of ourselves.

 

Chapter Eleven: Coming out as Fat

ePub

An important part of resolving the personal fat complex is to embrace my own fat body, to come out as fat. It is a little strange to think about coming out as fat when anyone who sees me knows. It's not like I could hide what I am and pretend to be thin; I cannot escape being fat, not in anyone's wildest imagination, unless of course I am in a room full of blind people.

Unlike the gay body, the fat body is always already out. The fat body is of course hypervisible in terms of its mass in relation to the thinner bodies that surround it. As Moon suggests, the fat body displays “a stigma that could never be hidden because it simply is the stigma of visibility”, and asks the question “What kind of secret can the body of the fat woman keep?” (Murray, 2005a, p. 153)

No matter what I do, no matter what my accomplishments, no matter how charming I am or intelligent or engaging or interesting, no matter what, I am fat. That cannot be hidden or escaped.

Working on a project like this often has interesting side effects. I started this six years ago just after the actor/director Kevin Smith was asked to leave a Southwest Airlines plane because he refused to buy a second seat and they deemed him too fat to fly. I had never considered that a person could actually be made to leave a commercial airliner because he or she was too fat. So what happened to Smith made me angry and feel compelled to begin to write and be more public about my life as a fat person. I first wrote about coming out as fat that summer. But since then, as I have read, thought, and written about fat, I have arrived at a more nuanced stance about what coming out fat is and what it is not. I have made a place for the ambivalence that has been there unacknowledged for me all along.

 

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