“It’s funny ‘cause he’s fat!”
—Mr. Chow in “The Hangover”
With Mardi Gras—Fat Tuesday—upon us again, I found it rather ironic that Kevin Smith—director of such classic movies as Clerks—was in the news this past weekend after being deemed too fat to fly by Southwest Airlines. Smith Tweeted the entire experience, including several epic sarcastic rants against Southwest. My favorite Tweet occurred after Smith was allowed to fly on another Southwest flight:
“Hey @SouthwestAir! I've landed in Burbank. Don't worry: wall of the plane was opened & I was airlifted out while Richard Simmons supervised.”
—@thatkevinsmith (Feb. 14, 2010)
Now, airlines on occasion may have a valid reason to restrict service to passengers whose size unduly imposes on the safety or comfort of other passengers. But it seems like Southwest Airlines was out of line in this particular situation.
In many ways, as society has grown more tolerant and accepting, and overt discrimination based on gender, race, disability, and even sexual orientation has subsided, discrimination against the overweight and obese (or “fat people” to be blunt) is one of the few remaining socially acceptable prejudices.* Tasteless, even cruel, “fat jokes” are fair game for a quick laugh on TV or in the movies, while a joke based on gender or religion requires careful crafting to avoid offending viewers. Now, I’m not saying every fat joke is inappropriate; heck, as a gay man, I think there are plenty of gay jokes that are hilarious. Chris Rock has made a fortune with racially based humor. Notable comics like John Candy, Chris Farley, and Louie Anderson made entire careers out of playing up the lovable fat guy schtick.
When it comes to the overweight members of our society, however, I think there remains a stigma that overweight people are fat by choice. People see an overweight person and implicitly assume that that person could be a normal weight if only they ate healthier and worked out more. So, it’s easy to rationalize teasing them, mocking them, or even discriminating against them since, on some level, we assume it’s their own fault they are fat. Let me tell you, though, it’s not so simple.
I hit the genetic lottery in the weight department (though I definitely missed the Powerball in the looks department, but I digress). At 6’4”, I’ve always been a fairly thin to average build, weighing in at 185-195 pounds through most of my adult life. Now, I do work out regularly, but I can’t say that I’m a particularly healthy eater, with at least half of my meals being fast food or pizza. By contrast, my younger brother “Kurt” has always been into athletics as much as I have, regularly plays basketball, bikes, and snowboards, and has even run a marathon. He’s married, and he and his wife cook good, nutritious meals at home. Yet he carries an extra 70-80 pounds more than me. I know he could probably drop 30-40 pounds, but it is as unrealistic to expect him to be under 200 pounds as it is to expect me to marry a woman. He just is a bigger guy, and always will be.
Then there’s my older brother, “Steve”. Steve battled his weight most of his life, and it made him unhappy, though he rarely talked about it. At some point, he fell into a self-reinforcing cycle of staying home and not working out because he was embarrassed by his weight, and while alone at home, would eat more, leading to more weight gain and less chance for exercise (not to mention his weight itself inhibited working out due to the physical pain and discomfort). As his weight increased, Steve had trouble with tasks many of us take for granted—sitting down and standing up, getting into cars, finding a chair or booth at a restaurant that could accommodate him, picking up things off the floor, or even walking up a short flight of stairs or down a long hall. Then, three years ago, just before Christmas, Steve went to his doctor for what he thought was chronic bronchitis. The doctor was concerned about possible pneumonia, so he admitted Steve to the hospital for observation and testing. While in the hospital and awaiting test results, Steve unexpectedly died from a heart condition known as cor pulmonale. He was only 38 at the time. His weight was well north of 400 pounds.
Steve’s death has really reinforced for me the need to do what I can to maintain a healthy weight. The past few months, the winter weather has kept me from running my usual amount, and I’ve packed on 10 or so extra pounds, creeping over the 200 pound mark for the first time in years. Now, at age 40, I’m probably never going to be back to my prime “fighting weight” of 185 like I was in my 20s to mid-30s. But I need to make an effort to do what I can to control my weight. So, even though I do not give up anything for Lent (other than church), Fat Tuesday makes a good point to start a healthy weight loss program. Starting tomorrow, I will get back to running five to seven miles a day at least five days a week, even if I have to join a gym to do so. I will also cut out alcohol until I get back to 195 pounds; that is the easiest way to cut empty calories (not to mention on days when I work out, I seem to drink a lot less alcohol). Hopefully I will be back under 200 pounds before IMOP in early March.
I’m fortunate that I have the genetic base to stay in a healthy weight zone if I make the effort. But for many overweight people, such as my brother, there are not a lot of plays for the genetic hand they were dealt. I'm not saying that overweight people should be excused from giving their best effort to be as healthy as they can. Neither am I saying that people should never tell a fat joke, or that airlines or other businesses shouldn’t take weight into account for legitimate purposes, but they should try to do so with some measure of sensitivity and compassion. To perhaps create a cliché, fat people are people, too.
* Post-9/11, I would probably add bias against Muslims and/or people of Middle Eastern descent to the list of “socially acceptable prejudices” in mainstream America.