02.17.10

Leave Fat People Alone

Director Kevin Smith got kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight. Is it time for the hefty to have a Stonewall moment?

Kevin Smith is mad as hell as he's not going to take it anymore. The director of Clerks, Chasing Amy, Dogma, and, most recently, the Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan comedy flick Cop Out, was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight on Valentine's Day, allegedly for being too fat to fly. Southwest's formal policy requires customers who cannot lower both armrests, or who "compromise any portion of adjacent seating," to purchase two seats. Smith often purchases two seats when he flies on Southwest—he insists he does so only because "I don't like people"—but because he was flying standby on this particular flight, he only purchased one seat.

Smith called his recent deplaning the worst experience of his life. "When you grow up fat, you learn how to navigate through a thin person's world without calling attention to yourself… No fat person wants to stick out. We're all kind of dying inside a little bit."

Smith is a fat man fighting back, and, in a society seething with fear and hatred of body diversity, a lot of people are disturbed by his actions.

Some of us who have spent years fighting for size acceptance—or, as I would prefer to call it, body liberation—have wondered when we would see our Stonewall moment. Smith is a fat man fighting back, and, in a society seething with fear and hatred of body diversity, a lot of people are disturbed by his actions. For example, consider how convenient it is for the airline industry to deflect a customer's anger over ridiculously small seats—I'm thinner than approximately 80 percent of middle-aged men and I don't fit into one very comfortably—on to "overweight" passengers, a category that includes, according to our public health authorities, nearly seven out of 10 adult Americans.

Or consider the words of a person like MeMe Roth, the president of National Action Against Obesity, whose " qualifications" to speak on the issue consist of being tall, thin, young, and blond, as well as consumed with fear and hatred of anyone not as thin as she is. Roth has been all over the airwaves attacking Smith, claiming that what people like him are "expecting us to do is to subsidize the lifestyle choices of those who habitually eat improperly," as she told CNN's Anderson Cooper. In an interview last year with The Guardian, Roth compared eating food to being raped, and then suggested that this form of rape "is incredibly pleasurable" for the victim. "From a food marketer's point of view," she says, "when your quote-unquote victim is so willing and enjoying of the process, who's fighting back?"

The unhinged quality of such insights set off some alarm bells in The Guardian reporter, who quizzed Roth about her own dietary habits. Roth claimed that she's "never even been on a diet," but then revealed she doesn't eat breakfast, isn't too crazy about lunch, and doesn't like to eat until she's run at least four miles. (Indeed, the interview was taking place in the middle of the afternoon, and Roth had eaten nothing that day.)

This, of course, is classic eating-disorder behavior. A survey of Roth's pronouncements about food, fat, exercise, and so forth reveal a lifestyle that would seem to fit the profile of someone suffering from anorexia nervosa: an overwhelming obsession with maintaining thinness, a denial of the dangers associated with her behavior, and, in the words of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a tendency to "engage in compulsive rituals, strange eating habits, and the division of food into good/safe and bad/dangerous categories."

The biggest irony in all of this is that Roth's own self-reported body mass almost certainly correlates with a considerably higher risk of mortality than Kevin Smith's. Roth reports having a BMI of 19.4—i.e., at the low end of the "normal" weight range. The mortality risk associated with such a BMI is much higher than that associated with a BMI in the mid-30s, which is what Smith appears to maintain. And that's without even taking into account that the anorexia Roth risks encouraging—for example, "If you think you might be a little hungry may I suggest a tall glass of water, a nice romp between the sheets and a good night's sleep"—has the highest mortality rate of any psychological malady.

Here is how crazy we've gotten about this topic in America: Our national media are more than happy to keep putting a possibly mentally ill person on TV to lecture us about how to maintain a "healthy" relationship with our bodies and ourselves.

What would happen if some significant portion of those 150 million "fat" adults decided, like Kevin Smith, to reject the shame and stigma and abuse that is heaped on them constantly by a thinness-obsessed society? Smith should make a movie about it.

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Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado at Boulder.