American Fat: Obesity and the Short Story
Kelly, Lionel, Yearbook of English Studies
A discussion of the representation of obesity in American short stories using examples by Eudora Welty, Jean Stafford, Andre Dubus and Raymond Carver, with Russell Edson's speculations on fatness, writing, and the prose poem. These stories reveal a persistent preoccupation with obesity and sexuality, and reflect aspects of the pervasive social discrimination against obesity. These issues are placed in the context of the medical establishment's view of obesity as epidemic in the United States, and the answering claims for social justice from what is called the 'fat lobby'.
According to recent statistics provided by the World Health Organization and the United States National Institutes of Health, obesity is a widespread phenomenon in the United States. The WHO puts the figure at thirty per cent of the population, whilst the NIH, which uses an adjusted reading of the Body Mass Index, the standard measure of the relationship between weight and height to determine obesity, calculates an astonishing fifty-five per cent of the population, some ninety-seven million people officially designated as overweight. The view of the medical establishment is that obesity is reaching epidemic proportions, and whilst the clinical distinction between obesity and being overweight may be a matter of subtle differences on the Body Mass Index, obesity is now a serious health issue in the United States, and a politically contentious subject as the 'fat lobby' challenges the institutional and social injustices they claim to suffer. Here I am concerned with the representation of obesity in the short story, an interest developed in response to Raymond Carver's story 'Fat' from Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, a story remarkable for its brevity and stylistic ingenuity, and the way it charts a characteristic social fascination with and recoil from the obese. In addition to Carver's 'Fat' I shall look at Eudora Welty's 'A Memory', Jean Stafford's 'The Echo and the Nemesis', and Andre Dubus's 'The Fat Girl'. If there is one common preoccupation in these four very different stories it is in the relationship between obesity and sexuality, a relationship poignantly registered in a different idiom by the folk-singer John Prine in his haunting ballad of dysfunctional lovers 'Donald and Lydia'.
They made love in the mountains, they made love in the streams. They made love in the valleys, they made love in their dreams. But when they were finished there was nothing to say, Because mostly they made love ten miles away.
Of the short story as a narrative form it may be said that in terms of volume or space it represents the counter-image to the figure of obesity, yet across a time-span of some fifty years obesity recurs as a topos of the short story both as subject and in some examples as a manifestation of style. In the view of the medical establishment, the common cause of obesity in contemporary America is that the population is sedentary and eats too much and that food is cheap, palatable, and easily available. At the same time, obesity is a condition that may signify either wealth or poverty in any individual case. Despite the density of obese people, on the evidence of statistics I have cited, and bearing in mind the norms of physical well-being as these are socially construed, the obese figure, like its alter ego the anorexic, is commonly represented as the abnormal and aberrant. A good example of this is in Flannery O'Connor's 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find' where Bailey, his wife, children, and mother are slain by the emaciated escaped convict, the so-called 'Misfit' and his two companions, one of whom is described simply as 'a fat boy' who stares at the family 'his mouth partly open in a kind of loose grin'. In O'Connor's story the conjunction between the physically abhorrent and the morally aberrant is made explicit, as is the irony of the title, an expression spoken in the story by the obese cafe owner Red Sammy, whose stomach hangs over his khaki trousers 'like a sack of meal swaying under his shirt'. …