Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Thinner Than Thou


In the not-so-distant future, worshipping God not only goes out of vogue, but becomes illegal, and worship of the body takes center stage.

Too fat? Too thin? Too old? Too ugly? If you don't look like Ken or Barbie, it's all right to rejoice, because gyms, spas, lipo and face-lift clinics have become places of worship. You can have a cookie cutter body forever... almost.

But if you don't want to get fixed... then heaven help you.

I've been meaning to read Thinner Than Thou since it first came out a couple of years ago, but that first chapter is a bitch to get through. The prose is set out in blocks, and for snappy teeny-bopper dialogue gosh-bang stuff, it needed Chuck Palahniuk-like breaks. I found the teenage protagonists annoying (as many non-loner/non-geek teenage protagonists tend to be - it's always tough to sympathize with physically perfect people who don't have anything interesting going for them except physical perfection).

It gets better as it goes along, because you get some more interesting characters: an overweight executive who signs up for a "however long it takes" fat-camp run by the Reverend Earl, who's cult of thin dominates the country's economy, and the mother of an anorectic teenager who realizes that she's let her obsession with her looks overtake her concern about her daughter's health, as well as the locked-up, spunky anorexic herself.

There's good worldbuilding in here, and plenty of stabs at our current obsession with the body. There are the infomercial/"religious" programs put on by the Reverend Earl admonishing fat people, telling them they're disgusting, telling them they can achieve "success through sacrifice." Telling them. Telling us.

The world outside is one long superhighway of fast food joints and food advertising but inside, among and between is the cult of thin that's grown up around it. The 24 hour gyms, the face lift clinics, and the seedier sorts of places, the places inbetween. Because porn is about everything forbidden, the fatter you are, the more deviant, the more fetishized. A lot of this book ends up being about food porn, and sadly, along with that we end up with this sort of hyper-satirized stereotype of a fat person, these enormous, insatiable people who are so fat they can't walk, who can't stop eating, or thinking about eating. They just can't help stuffing themselves. I mean, aren't all fat people like that? I don't even bother with utensils!!

Eh.

Though I realized that a lot of Reed's plot hinged on the whole "unable to be satiated" thing (as this is also part of the Reverend's plan: make it so that people are always hungry, always fat, and yet always yearning to be thin), there's only one anorexic in the book, and she's not shown as wild, ridiculous, and out of control as the fat characters are. In fact, there are no fat main characters in the book (one of the POVs starts out heavy, but goes to a fat camp and slims down by his second chapter). The fat secondary fat characters are all these gross stereotypes, the women who steal food, gorge themselves on Hershey's bars (not occasional binge. Gorge. All. The. Time) and those who become the Reverend's "Queens" - the women he feeds in order to get them fat (the term for this suddenly escapes me) so that he can get off on watching them eat and then revel in their fatness.

The obesity's all about women, about uncontrollable women, uncontrollable desires, and OK, yeah, that's traditional and all, but I get kind of bored seeing the fat female body as a symbol of out-of-control rebellion, even in this book where the rebellion is "good." Not only was fat forbidden, but it was then linked to sexual desire, and then, in every case, linked to the desire for a fat female body. So fat, boundless, overstimulated, insatiable women. Gee, that's a new one.

But that's just on reflection. It doesn't become really crude in its obviousness until the end.

One of our primary characters is an anorectic teenage girl whose parents, horrified that she's too thin and sickly to look the part of the perfect teen, sign her away to a hard-core hospital/spa/nunnery where a bunch of "Dedicated Sisters" preach to her about food and body image and coax her to eat. Her brother and sister and boyfriend go off on a big cross-country roadtrip in order to find her. Her mother leaves their father and goes off on her own to search for her, too. When the "Deds" get a hold of you, they don't tell you where they're taking your daughter.

The book starts to unravel toward the end, as all of the disparate characters come together in an attempt to topple the Reverend. The thing is, this book was a satire from the start. It's supposed to hit close to home and then go over the top, so I shouldn't have been surprised. It reminded me a lot of Egalia's Daughters, in that respect, though this was vastly better written. Both were difficult to take seriously, especially toward the end, even knowing it was *supposed* to be over the top and it wasn't really serious because it was... serious.

Because there's beautiful stuff in here, as when the army of "big" people who don't fit the Reverend's ideal go on the March (and again, when we see the massive "army" they're all "big" people. These mysterious anorexics and others who don't fit the mold [I'd assume being too tall or too short or otherwise "malformed" would count, too, but no, it's really all about those out-of-control fat people] are no where in sight).

And the army declares:

We are tired of it. We are just plain sick and tired of it. Why should we slave and suffer and waste our lives trying to please you? We are done smiling and pretending that we eat like birds just because you say normal people do. We are fed up with dieting and suffering in gyms because you think we should look like you. We are fed up to here with you and your impossible standards. Who put you in charge of standards anything?

All nice rah-rah stuff, but again, here's an army of fat people saying, "we just pretend to eat like birds!" and it clunks into that stereotype of the-out-of-control fat person, the one who must eat piles and piles and piles in order to gain that twenty extra pounds that makes them imperfect, and that's the most annoying stereotype. The difference between a "normal" (ie BMI blah blah whatever) weight and overweight person is about a 100 calories a day.

An extra three tablespoonds of peanut butter does not make somebody a wild, crazy, insatiable pig. The thing is, in the cult of thin, it's not just about people who weigh 800 pounds. There just aren't going to be enough of those people to fuel your dieting industry. It's about the people who are 140 and want to be 120. It's about dying for "perfection."

But anyway.

So after the anthem-march comes the convergence of everybody to bring down the cult of the body, and it's a little silly and over the top, as the anthem is, as the book is, but...

I think there are places where Reed might be writing from her own fat prejudice, and that comes out in some of the language and the big-fat-slob stereotypes (and the fact that NONE of the main viewpoint characters are these uber-monster fat people this society so fears), but well, you know, there was enough in here to get me thinking about the cult of thin, and how far we're willing to take it. It does what a lot of SF and satire like to do, which is take what we've come to see as "normal" out of its everyday context and blow it up, bright and shiny and ridiculous, and slap it over a new background so it shows up in stark relief, and we can look at it in horror and tried to figure out how the hell we could think of any of that behavior as "normal."

Interesting experiment, but not a grand slam.

1 comments so far. Got something to say?

David said...

I'm not finding a lot of pictures of Ms. Reed on-line, but in the ones I do find she looks pretty skinny. (I'm just sayin'.)