Fat Shaming: Socially Acceptable Bigotry

McCarthy Instagram

Fashion designer and Academy-Award-nominated actress Melissa McCarthy, second from left, shows off pieces from her new 7Seven fashion line, Summer, 2015

When gifted comic actress Melissa McCarthy was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, she went searching for an appropriately elegant evening gown to wear to the ceremony. “I asked five or six designers,” she told Redbook magazine. “Very high-level ones who make lots of dresses for people — and they all said no.” The designers demurred because Ms. McCarthy does not conform to the fashion world’s size-two-to-size-six ideal. Designers had no interest in having her wear their dresses, even though over 40 million people in the U.S. alone saw Ms. McCarthy on their TV screens in one night, because designers feared that being seen to create clothing for larger women would actually harm the reputations of their design houses.

It’s ironic that designers think designing for women size 14 and up degrades and debases their brands since fully two-thirds of women in the United States fall into that category. Over 90 million women in the U.S. alone wear size 14 or larger, yet they are relegated to smaller, sadder “plus-size” clothing departments. They are made to feel that they are not only unimportant but not worthy of attractive, comfortable clothing even though they purchase and wear billions of dollars worth of clothing and accessories each year. They are shut out of many stores and designer’s lines completely, and stores that cater to them often offer them less flattering products for more money. The funny but maddening WTF Plus Tumblr blog shows the range of hideous, sexless, embarrassing clothes designed for larger women that smaller women would never be expected to buy, let alone wear.

While Emmy-winning actress Melissa McCarthy is best known for being a popular comedian who is willing to bear the brunt of jokes about her large size, she actually started out as a fashion and textile design student at New York’s prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology before her career in entertainment took off. In August 2015 her new line of clothing, 7Seven, debuted a line of clothes ranging in size from 4 to 28. The line is in a relatively affordable price range that matches or meets the prices of retailers like Ann Taylor and Banana Republic. With her inaugural collection, McCarthy shows a great eye for proportion, fit, pattern and texture. Her designs are fashion-forward and very wearable.

McCarthy dislikes the term “plus-size.” “Seventy percent of women in the United States are a size 14 or above, and that’s technically ‘plus size,’ so you’re taking your biggest category of people and telling them, ‘You’re not really worthy.’ I find that very strange,” she says.

In response to the news of her fashion line’s availability, Internet trolls came out en masse on social media and news sites to denigrate McCarthy and others for “enabling” and celebrating larger women’s rights to enjoy their bodies. As always happens when women with bodies larger than a size 6 dare to show comfort or confidence in their appearance, people took to their computers to accuse McCarthy and others of glamorizing unhealthy lifestyle choices. Those self-elected arbiters of appropriate body shape and size would like all people size 8 and above to go about in sack cloth and ashes until they starve themselves down to a single-digit dress size.

Disapproval and disrespect shown toward plus-sized people doesn’t obviate their need to find clothes that fit, feel good and look attractive. Those who respond to Ms. McCarthy’s new business venture by denigrating those who are larger than themselves are essentially saying that allowing people to clothe themselves attractively, affordably and comfortably  is the wrong tack—that we should instead shame them into looking the way we want them to and tell them that having the bodies they have is a moral failing. I wonder whether these self-appointed body shamers go out of their way to shame smokers and alcoholics, too. Those who drink or smoke bring on early death from their habits in even greater numbers than overeaters do, but our society shows them more understanding. They have the option of giving up their habits and avoiding people and places that trigger their dangerous behaviors, but EVERYONE has to eat, and every metabolism is different, so larger people can’t just stop the behavior (i.e., eating) that disrespectful trolls find offensive. 

Many larger people are actually regular exercisers who are quite healthy—you can’t tell from looking who is truly unhealthy inside. Large people have higher rates of some deadly diseases, but so do coal miners, house cleaners and beauticians because they choose jobs that expose them to carcinogenic chemicals. Police officers and soldiers die in greater numbers and intentionally choose work that causes great stress that often requires taxpayer-funded medical and psychological intervention later. Do we judge them for putting their lives at risk? Do we denigrate them for their choices? 

Melissa McCarthy is a multitalented woman who designs chic, comfortable and fashion-forward clothing, much of it aimed at a market that comprises over two-thirds of the nation’s adult female population. People who want to shame those women into conforming to their personal preferences are nothing more than hateful bigots who spew venomous tirades in the self-righteous belief that their discomfort over seeing bodies larger than those featured in Vogue magazine justifies their using their supposed concern about health and setting bad examples for youth so they can clobber those with different body types and sizes over the head, shaming and shunning them and telling them that they are unlovable, undisciplined and unimportant, none of which is true.

An ever-growing body of scientific literature points toward the fact that people who are deemed overweight to obese usually have very different gut biomes (intestinal ecosystems) than thinner people do, and that the varieties and sizes of bacterial colonies in their guts have an enormous impact on the speed and effectiveness of their bodies’ metabolic rates, the intensities of their cravings for food, the ways in which they metabolize medicines, and their propensity toward depression, anxiety and other emotional and psychological disorders that may manifest in a compulsion to eat in order to find comfort.

In short, the gut biomes of larger people may send intensely powerful and frequent signals to their brains telling them what, when and how much to eat. We live in a culture in which almost everyone has taken multiple types of  antibiotics that distrupt gut biomes, sometimes with disastrous, even deadly results. We are also regularly bombarded with ads for unhealthy foods and drinks that further disrupt our gut biomes and our endocrine systems, making permanent weight loss exceptionally difficult for even the most determined people. But we are also surrounded with Photoshopped images of impossibly thin, unrealistically proportioned people on TV, in movies, in pornography and in computer games, making it easier to believe that there are actually many more “perfect” bodies in existence than actually occur on this or any other planet. So we compare ourselves to these pretend people we keep seeing, and to make ourselves feel less bad about our own imperfections, we glom onto the perceived failures of others and build ourselves up by ripping them apart and smarmily saying that we’re shaming and shunning them for their own good. How preposterous. It’s cruel, and it doesn’t help people to lose weight.

What does help? Making people feel confident and attractive enough to get up, get out and exercise and take good care of themselves. Helping them to feel less anxious or depressed about themselves by giving them access to clothes and accessories that allow them to feel more attractive, confident and appealing. Success breeds success; those who feel shame are more likely to retreat into self-defeating behaviors that compound difficult habits, while those who believe in their inherent worth and who have hope for a positive future are more likely to get up and take the actions that lead to healthier, happier lives. Shaming and shunning those who are heavy tends to push them toward habits that make them heavier still. Helping them to find attractive outfits for every occasion, including athletic and exercise wear, gives them ways to love the bodies they have and helps them to believe that their bodies are worth effort and care.

Yes, being obese is not healthy, but being slightly overweight actually leads to a longer life expectancy than being slightly underweight. Furthermore, many people who are significantly overweight exercise regularly and do not have either diabetes or high blood pressure, just as some very fit and thin women have serious diabetes from childhood onward and need daily insulin injections. You can’t tell by looking, and even if you could, others’ dietary habits are not your business.

Should we encourage healthy dietary and exercise habits throughout society? Yes! Should we work to eliminate junk food dispensaries from schools and increase the quality of school lunches and discourage teachers from using sodas and snacks as rewards for good work? Yes! But it does not follow from these societal goals that encouraging health requires disparaging and defaming those whose habits or bodies don’t conform to cultural ideals.

Rather than fat-shaming those among us with larger bodies, let us celebrate women like Melissa McCarthy who make larger women feel freer to be active, positive and comfortable in their bodies while living happy, productive, healthy and engaged lives.

An Extraordinary Evening with Jessica Williams

Jessica

[The following essay was originally published in July 2005. This year marks the tenth anniversary of my friend Richard’s wonderful house concert series, which began with a concert by gifted jazz pianist Jessica Williams. Last night I had the pleasure of again hearing Jessica play Richard’s glorious Steinway at another intimate house concert. She became my friend at that first concert ten years ago, and I love her and her music still. In honor of Jessica, who is a remarkable musician and a beautiful human being, I reprint this essay and I invite you to visit her website, JessicaWilliams.com.—LG ]

Two nights ago I was invited to share in a magical, memorable evening of of music. Jessica Williams, the extraordinary jazz pianist, played an intimate and elegant concert at the home of my friend Richard. He had spoken to her after her concerts in Seattle over the years, and had the good fortune to be seated next to her on a flight from San Jose to Seattle some months back, which gave them time to share a friendly conversation. Richard is a jazz pianist himself and the owner of a fine piano, and he and Jessica spoke about the idea of her performing at his home for a small group of local jazz aficionados after she finished her bigger Seattle gigs. Happily, the idea became a reality. Seattle is a great town for jazz; the jazz community is avid, active, and friendly, and small enough that everyone gets to know everyone else before too long. This little group knew Jessica’s music well, and the buzz of delight and amazement that we could all get so close to a jazz master had us all feeling a little tipsy before anyone had a drop to drink.

Jessica is well-known and loved among jazz fans and players; the frequently repeated question is, why isn’t she better known to the rest of the world? She’s noted for her improvisational brilliance, has played with jazz greats such as Dexter Gordon and Leroy Vinnegar, and has received lavish praise from the likes of Dave Brubeck, McCoy Tyner, and Marian McPartland, on whose NPR radio show, Piano Jazz, Jessica has performed. Her pieces have often been played between interviews on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross; Terry is a great fan of hers and Jessica was interviewed on Fresh Air and performed an in-studio concert for Terry’s listeners in 1997. I highly recommend listening to the 2002 rebroadcast, available free online, which includes pieces by Monk and Gershwin and some of Jessica’s own beautiful compositions.

What makes her playing unique and exciting is a combination of dazzling technical skill and warm, melodic, lyrical feeling. Her touch is sure, she plays with conviction, and she has the chops to knock any other player out of his socks if she wants to. Yet at the same time, she breathes warmth and life into pieces that can feel cold in other hands. She can take an atonal, dissonant piece that others might treat as an exercise to show off virtuosity and find the spirit at its core, the life force behind the string of impressive notes, the hush in the middle of the chord that a show-off performer would miss.

Jessica finds great inspiration and pleasure in playing compositions by Thelonious Monk, who’s notorious for being tricky to follow or hard to get. Despite having written the accessible but wonderful ballad “‘Round Midnight,” Monk can sometimes be rough, bouncy and dissonant. When Jessica plays him, however, she isn’t afraid to lighten him up, play up the humor behind the notes, to show the subtlety in his compositions so one can feel the thought behind the dissonances, and understand why they’re right and not random.

Jessica was classically trained, so early on she still believed that there were rules that couldn’t be broken and techniques that must be followed when playing piano. She told Terry Gross the first time she heard a record of Monk playing, she thought he sounded like he was wearing boxing gloves at the piano. But with continued listening, she grew to love his openness to new techniques. She incorporated some of them into her own playing and has developed other innovative techniques that amplify the feeling in her music without ever getting lost in tricks for the sake of tricks.

Sometimes Jessica reaches into the piano to strum the strings while playing keys, incorporating a sound like an autoharp into her playing, as she did at the beginning and end of “Getting Sentimental Over You” when she played it during her Fresh Air concert. She’s careful not to overuse it, however; she doesn’t want to become gimmicky but likes to explore the variety of sounds that a piano can make and integrate these devices into the tunes to add color. During this week’s concert, she reached into the piano to strum it at several points, and she occasionally shuffled the soles of her shoes across the wood floor to create a sound like a drummer would with a brush, or like a softshoe dancer might. She also likes to quote other jazz compositions when she plays, a common tip of the hat from one jazz musician to another, throwing a few measures of a well-known jazz standard into a piece for humor and as an homage. She improvises these surprises and tosses them as little treats for the audience, each one a lagniappe to lighten the heart when listeners get too earnest and caught up in the piece.

On Monday night, she began with a piece by John Coltrane, “Wise One,” followed by “The Very Thought of You” by Ray Noble, “Paul’s Pal” by Sonny Rollins, and two pieces by Monk, “Ugly Beauty” and “Nutty.” I’ve never enjoyed Monk as much as I did that evening. She has said that record producers have often pushed her to show off more of her impressive technique, focusing on speed and flash, and playing Monk certainly allows her that, but she plays him with more subtlety and insight. There’s intelligence in her playing without cold intellectualism, an awareness of exactly what note, what chord, what sense of space is necessary to make a phrase work while still holding the meaning of the song, its essence, the point of it all, in her heart. For her, the most satisfying playing involves a spiritual element. As she told me, she can emphasize flash and technique when she’s playing in a wild or distracted venue or on a bad piano that can’t hold up to subtlety; she can adapt and please the audience when that’s what’s called for. But when she is in the right space with a good instrument and a receptive audience, this nuanced and spiritual essence of her playing emerges, and a thrilling pleasure in being right there, right then, with her, in the palm of her hand, fills the audience, or, in the case of someone lucky enough to own her CDs, fills the listener sitting alone at home if she or he gives her pieces the attention they deserve.

Jessica’s playing is so lovely and lyrical that it’s more accessible than many jazz pianists without ever crossing over into that scary “lite jazz” territory. She began her second set with Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful” from the musical Annie Get Your Gun—songs don’t come much more accessible than that. And yet in her hands it was anything but trite; it was fresh again, and as pure as it was when Berlin wrote it. One of my favorite moments in the evening came when she played Dexter Gordon’s “Don’t Explain.” I’ve always loved Billie Holiday’s version, so it’s hard for me to give other artists due credit when they play it, it’s so associated with Lady Day in my mind. But I was right there with Jessica, note for note. Her love for Dexter Gordon the man, as well as for his music was evident in her playing, and it was an emotionally rich piece.

She followed it with her own eloquent ode to her friend, “I Remember Dexter,” and two more of her elegant compositions, “Poem in G minor” and “Sheikh.” She ended with a gorgeous rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” that left me so touched I had to compose myself before I could shake her hand and tell her what a wonderful evening it had been. Ellington himself would have pronounced her performance “beyond category.” At the end of that second set, I realized I’d been staring rapt at her hands the whole time and hadn’t even looked up once to see the faces of the other people sitting around me. At the end of the concert I saw the same grateful wonder in their eyes that I felt, that we could be sitting 10 feet from greatness and share in this experience.

Before the concert, I had the pleasure of talking with Jessica in the kitchen. For all her skill and mastery, and despite all the swooning and kudos afforded her by fans and fellow artists, she is anything but a diva. She was humble and gracious, and she spoke of the pleasure she takes in her art and in sharing life with friends, of the places around the world in which she’s lived, of the kindnesses shown her by several jazz artists, like Dexter Gordon and his wife. She’d never met me before, but asked me about myself as well, and listened and cared about what I had to say. She was there, standing in a kitchen with a stranger, present in the moment and open to the experience. She showed a respectful, commonsense kindness with me and everyone present which I wish was shared by all people of such accomplishment and fame.

Jessica’s lived courageously and taken risks, turned corners when she was told what a mistake it was and been true to her heart, her music, and her passions. She’s been open to new techniques, to new styles, to resurrecting older ideas or creating new sounds that resonate with her heart. The result is a lovely, gracious, multifaceted woman who creates beauty and cares about the world around her and the people in it.

Andrew Gilbert wrote beautifully of Jessica and her art for the San Jose Mercury News: “A tremendously assured musician, Williams marks her style with ravishing lyricism and daring improvisational flights. But what really sets her solo performances apart is her gift for seamlessly weaving together various jazz keyboard styles, encompassing the highly syncopated stride school of the ’20s and ’30s, the light, effortlessly dancing approach of the swing era, the jagged single-note runs of bebop and the rhythmically diffuse sound perfected by Bill Evans in the ’60s, all integrated into an organic whole by her compelling sense of narrative flow.”

Jessica’s well-put-together and satisfying eponymous website, www.jessicawilliams.com, features links to some of her pieces, to interviews, photographs, and, best of all, allows one to order her CDs, some of which are only available through the site. On her homepage she quotes one of her favorite musicians and people, John Coltrane: “I want to be a force for good. I know there are bad forces here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the force which is truly good.” This quotation is so apt for Jessica; she lives her life in a way that brings pleasure to others, and shares her remarkable talents and hopes with others through her musical gifts. She lives her values and speaks through her art. What an extraordinary person.

I’ve a Bee in My Bonnet for Pop Sonnets

*Pop Sonnets - Eric Didricksen

If William Shakespeare were alive today and writing lyrics to pop anthems, what would they sound like? Thanks to Erik Didricksen‘s Pop Sonnets blog, we now know. Pop Sonnets (popsonnet.tumblr.com) has given the Shakespearean treatment to dozens of tunes from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (“My fate now seal’d, ’tis plain for all to see: The wind’s direction matters not to me”) to Daft Punk and Pharrell’s “Get Lucky” (“While ladies dance away the night for sport / So shall we too, their favor sweet to court”), to the lyrical demands of the Spice Girls, whose “Wannabe,” incorporates much spice-related wordplay:

Wannabe

Hast thou a hunger to hear the plaintive wail of Steve Perry exhorting, cajoling, nay, demanding that all and sundry hold fast to hope? Then thou art most fortunate, for Pop Sonnets doth present a poetic parody of “Don’t Stop Believing” which beginneth in this fashion:

A lonely maiden from a hamlet small—
A boy within a woeful city reared:
They both at midnight left their port of call
T’ward any destination volunteered.

The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated,” Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok,” Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty,” and songs by Katy Perry, Beastie Boys, Sir Mix-a-Lot, Green Day, even Britney Spears can be found among the Bard of Avon’s supposed works as channelled through Didricksen. Enjoy this rapturous take on “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson, featuring Bruno Mars:

Uptown Funk

Pop Sonnets is available as a tumblr blog, but it will also be released in book form on October 6 in the US and Canada, October 8 in the UK. Think what a delectable gift the book would make for thy nearest and dearest!

Before you do depart, O gentle men and ladies fair,
Think not that I’ve no heart and would not leave a treasure rare.
For here before you, friends, I place a gift as bright as gold:
And once you’re read it through, you’ll cry—

“Alas, I’ve been Rickrolled!”

Never Gonna Give You Up