Thursday, 7 February 2008

The Fantasy of Being Thin

by Kate Harding

Once you’ve really started believing in fat acceptance — as opposed to thinking it sounds nice for other people, but you still need to lose X lbs. before you’ll be acceptable — it can be hard to remember how you thought about these issues before (just as it can be hard to imagine what it would really be like to accept your fat body before you’ve done it). I’ve written several times about how I spent ages in the cognitive dissonance phase, thinking it made perfect sense that the OBESITY CRISIS hype was way overblown, and even if it weren’t, dieting doesn’t work anyway — but still wanting to lose weight, still feeling like I, personally, needed to be a size 10, max, before I could really get started on my fat acceptance journey. The thing is, that memory is almost totally intellectual now; I don’t really recall what it felt like to believe those two contradictory things simultaneously.

But then, the other day, I got to thinking about a particular kind of resistance that shows up every single time anyone dares to say that dieting doesn’t work — the kind that comes from other fat people and amounts to, “DON’T YOU TAKE MY HOPE AWAY!” Those of us in the anti-dieting camp are frequently accused of demoralizing fat people, of sending a cruelly pessimistic message. I’ve never quite gotten my head around that one, since the message we’re sending is that you’re actually allowed to love your fat body instead of hating it, and you can take steps to substantially improve your health without fighting a losing battle with your weight. I’m pretty sure that message is both compassionate and optimistic, not to mention realistic. But there will always be people who hear it as, “I, Kate Harding, am personally condemning you to a lifetime of fatness! There’s no point in trying, fatty! You’re doomed! Mwahahaha!”

Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying. *headdesk*

And then I started thinking about what it was really like before I’d actually made peace with my body. And what it was really like was this: The Fantasy of Being Thin absolutely dominated my life — even after I’d gotten thin once, found myself just as depressive and scattered and frustrated as always, and then gained all the weight back because, you know, diets don’t work. The reality of being thin didn’t even sink in after all that, because The Fantasy of Being Thin was still far more familiar to me, still what I knew best. I’d spent years and years nurturing that fantasy, and only a couple years as an actual thin person. Reality didn’t have a chance.
We’ve talked a lot here about how being fat shouldn’t stop you from doing the things you’ve always believed you couldn’t do until you were thin. Put on a bathing suit and go waterskiing. Apply for that awesome job you’re just barely qualified for. Ask that hot guy out. Join a gym. Wear a gorgeous dress. All of those concrete things you’ve been putting off? Just fucking do them, now, because this IS your life, happening as we speak.

But exhortations like that don’t take into account magical thinking about thinness, which I suspect — and the quote above suggests — is really quite common. Because, you see, the Fantasy of Being Thin is not just about becoming small enough to be perceived as more acceptable. It is about becoming an entirely different person – one with far more courage, confidence, and luck than the fat you has. It’s not just, “When I’m thin, I’ll look good in a bathing suit”; it’s “When I’m thin, I will be the kind of person who struts down the beach in a bikini, making men weep.” See also:
  • When I’m thin, I’ll have no trouble finding a partner/reinvigorating my marriage.
  • When I’m thin, I’ll have the job I’ve always wanted.
  • When I’m thin, I won’t be depressed anymore.
  • When I’m thin, I’ll be an adventurous world traveler instead of being freaked out by any country where I don’t speak the language and/or the plumbing is questionable.
  • When I’m thin, I’ll become really outdoorsy.
  • When I’m thin, I’ll be more extroverted and charismatic, and thus have more friends than I know what to do with.

Et cetera, et cetera. Those are examples from my personal Fantasy of Being Thin, but I’m sure you’ve got your own. (Please do share in comments!)

In light of that, it’s a lot easier to understand why some people freak out when you say no, really, your chances of losing weight permanently are virtually nil, so you’d be better off focusing on feeling good and enjoying your life as a fat person. To someone fully wrapped up in The Fantasy of Being Thin, that doesn’t just mean, “All the best evidence suggests you will be fat for the rest of your life, but that’s really not a terrible thing.” It means, “You will NEVER be the person you want to be! All the evidence suggests you will never find a satisfying relationship or get a promotion or make more friends or feel confident trying new things!”

So if that’s what you hear when I say, “Diets don’t work,” then yeah, I can see how that would be a major bummer.

Overcoming The Fantasy of Being Thin might be the hardest part of making it all the way into fat acceptance-land. And that might just be why I’d pushed that part of the process out of my memory: it fucking sucked. Because I didn’t just have to accept the size of my thighs; I had to accept who I am, rather than continuing to wait until I magically became the person I’d always imagined being. Ouch.

That is, of course, a pretty normal part of getting older. You start to realize that yeah, this actually is it, and although you can still try enough new things to keep anyone busy for two lifetimes, you’re pretty much stuck with a basic context. There are skills, experiences, and material things you will almost certainly never have, period. It’s a challenge for all of us to understand that accepting this fact of life does not necessarily mean cutting off options or giving up dreams, but simply — as in the proverbial story about the creation of the David — chipping away all that is not you. But for a fat person, it can be even harder, because so many fucking sources encourage us to believe that inside every one of us is “a thin person waiting to get out” — and that thin person is SO MUCH COOLER.

The reality is, I will never be the kind of person who thinks roughing it in Tibet sounds like a hoot; give me a decent hotel in London any day. I will probably never learn to waterski well, or snow ski at all, or do a back handspring. I can be outgoing and charismatic in small doses, but I will always then need time to recharge my batteries with the dogs and a good book; I’ll never be someone with a chock-full social calendar, because I would find that unbearably exhausting. (And no matter how well I’ve learned to fake it — and thus how much this surprises some people who know me — new social situations will most likely always intimidate the crap out of me.) I might learn to speak one foreign language fluently over the course of my life, but probably not five. I will never publish a novel until I finish writing one. I will always have to be aware of my natural tendency toward depression and might always have to medicate it. Smart money says I am never going to chuck city life to buy an alpaca farm or start a new career as a river guide. And my chances of marrying George Clooney are very, very slim.

None of that is because I’m fat. It’s because I’m me.

But when I was invested in The Fantasy of Being Thin, I really believed that changing this one “simple” (ha!) thing would unlock a whole new identity — this totally fabulous, free-spirited, try-anything-once kind of chick who was effortlessly a magnet for interesting people and experiences. And of course, the dark side of that is that being fat then became an excuse not to do much of anything, because it wouldn’t be the real me doing it, so what was the point? If I wouldn’t find the right guy until I was thin, why bother dating? If I wouldn’t have a breakthrough on the novel until I was thin, why bother writing? If I wouldn’t be the life of the party until I was thin, why bother trying to make new friends? If I wouldn’t feel like climbing a mountain until I was thin, why bother traveling at all?

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Accepting my fat really wasn’t the hard part. Accepting my personality — and my many limitations that have jack shit to do with my thighs — was. But oddly enough, once I started to do that, my life became about a zillion times more satisfying. I found the right guy, I took up yoga, I started taking my writing more seriously, I stopped apologizing for taking vacations in the U.S. and Canada instead of somewhere more exotic, etc. And lo and behold, things got a lot more fun around here. The thin person inside me finally got out — it just turned out she was actually a fat person. A reasonably attractive, semi-outgoing fat person who has an open mind and an active imagination but also happens to really like routine and familiarity and quiet time alone.

That was never who I expected to be — it was just always who I was.

So giving up dieting and accepting my body didn’t just mean admitting I would never be thin; it meant admitting I would never be a million things I might have been. (Which, I’m told, is a phenomenon sometimes known as “maturity.”) I am absolutely not one for settling — which is where the confusion about pessimism comes in, I think — but I am one for self-awareness and self-forgiveness. Meaning, there’s a big difference between saying you can’t be anything other than what you are right now, and you don’t have to be anything other than what you are right now. You will probably never be permanently thin, unless you are already, but other than that, the sky’s the limit. You can be anything or anyone you want to be, in theory.

The question is, who do you really want to be, and what are you going to do about it? (Okay, two questions.) The Fantasy of Being Thin is a really convenient excuse for not asking yourself those questions sincerely — and that’s exactly why it’s dangerous. It keeps you from being not only who you are, but who you actually could be, if you worked with what you’ve got. And that person trapped inside you really might be cooler than you are right now.

She’s just not thin.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Maybe Mozambique

New blog, mainly God-stuff, focussing on a mission trip to Mozambique I may be going on this summer. Check it out.

Achilles: Mummy's Boy

Discuss Mother-Son Relationships in the Iliad.

The mother-son relationships in the Iliad which I have chosen to examine are those between Achilles and Thetis, Andromache and Astynax and Hector and Hecuba. These relationships reveal a great deal about the values concerning motherhood in the world of Homeric epic. The aspects of this on which I have chosen to focus are those concerning maternal duty, the mother’s attitude towards her son, the mother’s identity and the desired behaviour of a son towards his mother.

The Iliad was one of the major pieces of literature to come out of its era and so would have been greatly influential on later Classical societies. Its values would often have been adopted because, in many ways, Homeric heroes and their female relatives served as role models, something to which men and women could aspire. Silk goes as far as to say that Homeric heroes were “not men like us” but were “remote from ordinary humanity” and “mightier.”[1] They were largely a product of Homer’s contemporaries’ belief in the decline of mankind, and their looking back to a so-called “golden age.” A “golden age” is naturally something that one would want to retrieve and so it is likely that the values of the Iliad would have been upheld and the behaviour of its noble characters ideally imitated.

The first aspect of maternal duty in the Iliad which would have been seen as so desirable is the mother’s sympathising with the son in his distress. Women in the Iliad are frequently seen as sorrowful characters, powerless victims of war and sharers in their sons’ troubles. Thetis is a prime example. She is seen weeping[2] and lamenting her son’s ill-fated life[3] in the first book; in the eighteenth she weeps because he will die soon.[4] She does not tell him of Patroclus’ death[5], despite telling him her prophecy about his own:[6] it is almost as if she cannot bear to do so. As Achilles mourns for Patroclus, we see Thetis in her cave mourning for Achilles’ grief.[7] Her words are particularly poignant: “he has / sorrows, and though I go to him I can do nothing to help him.”[8] This tenderness is also evident as, when Achilles is distressed and angry over losing Briseis to Agamemnon, Thetis “came and sat beside him as he wept and stroked him / with her hand.”[9]

Andromache shows a similar sympathy with her son’s plight. When Hector dies, she says: “and the boy is only a baby / who was born to you and me, the unfortunate.”[10] She goes on to enter imaginatively into Astynax’s future sufferings, picturing him having to work hard, begging, with his inherited lands taken away. She is unable to bear the contrast between this unhappy, inglorious existence and his privileged position when his father was alive.[11] She sorrowfully imagines Astynax’s future again at Hector’s funeral: she doubts that he will live to come of age, and pictures him in slavery at the mercy of the Greeks, who will not be inclined to show mercy after his father’s part in the Trojan War.[12]

Maternal duty in the Iliad requires that the mother does not merely passively sympathise with her son’s troubles but seeks to actively help him if she can. Andromache, like Hecuba, is unable to do anything for her son, but Thetis has the advantage of being a goddess and thus having influence over the other gods. Even Thetis is unable to alter her son’s final destiny, but she is tireless in her mission to help him wherever she can. It is she who suggests that she go to Zeus to plead Achilles’ cause,[13] and her eagerness to do so is reflected by her going “early / in the morning.”[14] She also gets armour for Achilles from Hephaestus.[15]

Behaviour of sons towards mothers in the Iliad is, however, more varied. Achilles tends to run to Thetis at the first sign of trouble and cry on her shoulder. After losing Briseis, the first thing he does is go to the beach and “many times stretching forth his hands he called on his mother.”[16] He then complains to her of what has happened[17] and provides a highly detailed, personalised account of events.[18] Later it is to her that he confides his pain at Patroclus’ death.[19] Achilles’ and Thetis’ intimacy is emphasised throughout the poem, but it comes with a sense that Achilles is a little spoilt. He is quick to grow impatient with his mother: “since you know why must I tell you all this?”[20]

Hector’s relationship with Hecuba, though her grief demonstrates that it was deeply loving, seems somehow more formal. He refuses the drink she offers politely, addressing her as “my honoured mother” and excusing himself on religious grounds.[21] This respect is clearly mutual, as she obeys when he tells her to go and make sacrifice to Athene.[22] Obedience between mothers and sons is a complex issue in the Iliad. Hecuba demonstrates that mothers are to obey their adult sons, and yet it is Achilles who obeys Thetis when she tells him to hand over Hector’s body.[23] Thetis, of course, has added authority because she’s a goddess and is acting on Zeus’ command. Thetis’ divinity makes her relationship with Achilles in many ways a special case.

The Iliad also provides models for the ideal mother’s attitudes towards her son. One of the chief characteristics of this is the mother’s putting the son before herself. Thetis is more than willing to humble herself in supplication[24] to Zeus for Achilles’ sake. Andromache’s putting Astynax first is reflected in the structure of her sentences when pleading with Hector. She says: “You have no pity / on your little son, nor on me,”[25] and begs him: “Stay here on the rampart, / that you may not leave your child an orphan, your wife a widow.”[26] In both instances, she refers to Astynax before herself. Another characteristic of the mother’s attitude towards the son in the Iliad is her sense of maternal pride. Thetis’ expressions of this are particularly moving: “the bitterness in this best of child-bearing, / since I gave birth to a son who was without fault and powerful… and I nurtured him, like a tree grown in the pride of the orchard.”[27] This maternal pride is tragic rather than joyful, since the mothers in the Iliad all see their sons killed or left fatherless by the Trojan War.

Finally, I would like to discuss the way in which a woman’s identity in the Iliad is largely based upon her male relatives, including sons. For this reason, a mother is dependent upon her son, even after he has grown up and ceased to be dependent upon her. In a sense, Astynax is so important to Andromache because, after Hector’s death, he is all the family she has. Hecuba describes Hector as “my glory in the town:”[28] the son determines the mother’s social identity, her status, and thus affects her interactions with everyone in her life. Crotty goes so far as to say that the Homeric woman is merely “a part of the warrior’s tragic conception of himself.”[29]

In conclusion, then, sons are an enormously significant part of the lives of the mothers of the Iliad. The sons’ appearance and behaviour affect the mother’s identity and how she is perceived by others. Mothers wholly share in their sons’ difficulties and sorrows, and help practically whenever they can. They have a strong sense of maternal pride and frequently put their sons before themselves. Sons, in return, treat their mothers with affection and respect. This state of affairs in the world of the Iliad gives us an idea of what may have been expected or encouraged in mothers and sons in Classical Greece and Rome, since the Iliad was so fundamental in their canon of literature.

Word Count: 1304


Crotty, K. (1994) The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Lattimore, R. (trans.) (1951) The Iliad of Homer, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Silk, M. (2004) Homer: The Iliad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wilcock, M. (1976) A Companion to the Iliad, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[1] Silk, Homer: The Iliad, p. 62.
[2] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 68. (1.413 )
[3] Ibid. (1.413-8 )
[4] Ibid, p. 377 (18.94-6 )
[5] Ibid, p. 365 (17.409)
[6] Ibid, p.209 (9.410-6)
[7] Ibid, p.376 (18.34-7)
[8] Ibid. (18.61-2 )
[9] Ibid, p. 68 (1.360-1 )
[10] Ibid, p. 448 (22..484-5 )
[11] Ibid. (22.486-507 )
[12] Ibid, p. 494 (24..726-39 )
[13] Ibid, p. 68 (1.419-27 )
[14] Ibid. (1.496-7)
[15] Ibid, p. 378-9 (18.136-44 )
[16] Ibid, p. 68 (1.351 )
[17] Ibid, (1.352-6)
[18] Ibid, p. 69-70 (1.366-412)
[19] Ibid, p. 377 (18.78-93)
[20] Ibid, p. 68 (1.365)
[21] Ibid, p. 160 (6.264-8)
[22] Ibid, p. 160-1 (6.269-312)
[23] Ibid, p. 478-9 (24.137-40)
[24] Ibid, p. 72 (1.500-10 )
[25] Ibid, p. 164 (6.407-8 )
[26] Ibid, p. 164 (6.431-2 )
[27] Ibid, p. 376 (18.54-7 )
[28] Ibid, p. 446 (22.433 )
[29] Crotty, The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, p. 86.

Merchant of Venice: Commentary

It is vital, when commenting on this passage, to be aware that it was not meant to be read in silence, but to be performed on the stage. This makes such a difference because characters on a stage literally come to life: they are embodied, close and present. Their positions on the stage are also very important, and so I have drawn a rough sketch of how I imagine this scene:

This highlights how Shylock is alienated from the other characters: he is the only one standing alone, apart from Portia, who has the power over the situation in her role as the judge. This hints at Shylock’s impending humiliation. In her position of power and in the tension of the scene, the playful aspect of Portia’s cross-dressing is lost, as Palfrey notes:[1] unlike Rosalind in As You Like It, she makes no asides about her hidden identity. A closer look at the text itself also reveals how it would sound vocally on the stage, which likewise influences the audience’s impression of the characters. Portia’s speech, beginning “The quality of mercy is not strained…,”[2] is even and measured in tone. This reflects her control, both over herself and over the fates of Antonio and Shylock. Shylock’s words, however, include a caesura in almost every line and frequent exclamations. The fractured intensity of his speech reflects how he is rapidly losing control over both himself and also the situation, though he does not yet realise it.

This passage, and the scene from which it comes, are vital to the play as a whole in terms of symbols. The characters both embody symbols and are themselves, which is unsurprising as Shakespeare wrote at a time between the purely symbolic characters of medieval morality plays and our own often non-symbolic, character-based modern plays. Put simply, Shylock, as the Jew, stands for the Old Testament and for justice: he says “I crave the law,” (4.1.201) and demands the pre-determined punishment and recompense of Antonio’s “pound of flesh” (4.1.227). Portia, on the other hand, stands for the New Testament and for mercy, as she says earlier in the scene: “I stand for sacrifice.” (3.2.57) She understands the law: “There is no power in Venice / Can alter a decree establish├ęd,” (4.1.213-4) but she requests that Shylock be merciful and accept pecuniary recompense instead. This is linked thematically with God’s mercy to mankind, made possible by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

These themes are reflected in the ubiquitous religious language of Portia’s speech. She describes mercy as like “a gentle rain from heaven” [my italics] (4.1.180): soothing, nourishing, peaceful and essentially divine. Mercy, like Christ, is both “gentle” (4.1.180) and “mightiest,” (4.1.183) and the link is continued with language pertaining to royalty: “it is enthron├ęd in the heart of kings.” (4.1.189) God himself is mentioned a number of times, as is salvation and prayer. She uses the verb “to bless” in her assertion that it benefits both the giver and the recipient, an argument which is particularly interesting because it almost seems to encourage a selfish motive, rather than a Christian one. Shylock is, after all, a Jew, and so is not to be persuaded by any talk of being Christ-like or indeed any other Christian argument. Portia, it seems, is blind to this: she even tells him: “We do pray for mercy, / and that same prayer should teach us to render / The deeds of mercy.” (4. 1. 195-6) Another failing in Portia’s argument is that she contradicts herself, since she claims that mercy “is not strained” (4.1.179) and yet she has just told Shylock that he “must” (4.1.177) be merciful.

This echoes how, throughout the play, the behaviour of the Christians is far from perfect. It is impossible to comment on this passage without considering what comes so soon afterwards: Shylock is humiliated and forced to convert. This forced conversion not only robs Shylock of his identity, it is ultimately pointless: forced love is not true love, and there is something distressing about disguising humiliation as mercy. This passage is particularly significant in respect to this, as we see Portia steadily getting Shylock’s hopes up: “lawfully by this the Jew may claim / A pound of flesh,” (4.1.226-7) which suggests a certain relish in the cruelty she is planning. Shakespeare was perhaps engaging in social commentary here, subversively likening Portia to the powerful and supposedly Christian state of the time.

That is not to say that Shylock is to be entirely sympathised with here, though there is a kind of perverse heroism in his turning down money for revenge. Shylock’s demanding a pound of Antonio’s flesh is disgusting, yet fascinating, and real dramatic tension is created when it seems that Portia is about to let him have it. This “pound of flesh” is surely symbolic too. Ryan believes that it reflects the concealed nature of the Christians: being near the heart, it is a literal expression of the heartlessness of Venice.[3]

The audience is also prevented from sympathising, at least wholeheartedly, with Shylock in this passage because he is presented as a deeply unpleasant character. One of the great ambiguities in this play is that Shylock is the miserly Jewish stereotype, which was an iconic figure at the time, and a fully rounded character. Palfrey speculates that he may have been dressed as a typical stage Jew, perhaps even wearing a ‘Jew mask.’[4] Shakespeare thus seems to be endorsing that image. Yet he includes these poignant words:

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” (3.1.49-55)

Yet Shylock ensures in the passage that he is not pitied, not only by his demands, but by his being generally difficult to like. He seeks to further his cause by flattering Portia as the judge, calling her a “wise young judge” (4.1.219), a “worthy judge” (4.1.231) and “a Daniel” (4.1. 218), after the Old Testament king who showed great wisdom in his youth. His final speech in this passage is also sickeningly self-righteous in tone: “I charge you, by the law / Whereof you are a well-deserving pillar” (4.1.234).

I would like to conclude by pointing out that the trial scene, of which this passage is part, is actually an alternative ending to the play. As a comedy, The Merchant of Venice is required to have a happy ending, but the final scene seems to me to be almost the ghost of a happy ending as it is far less powerful than this scene. Whether or not the trial scene ends happily depends on one’s point of view, but Shylock’s destruction, cruel as it is, seems necessary to The Merchant of Venice’s ending happily. Shylock is sacrificed to the teleology of the play. Perhaps it is he, after all, who stands for sacrifice.

Word Count: 1195


Greenblatt, S., Cohen, W., Howard, J. E and Maus, K. E. (eds.) The Norton Shakespeare (New York: W. W. Norton and Co. Ltd., 1997).
Palfrey, Simon, Doing Shakespeare, (London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2006).
Ryan, Kiernan, Shakespeare, (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002).

[1] Simon Palfrey, Doing Shakespeare, (London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2006), p. 200.
[2] Stephen Greenblatt, Water Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisamann Maus, (eds.) The Norton Shakespeare (New York: W. W. Norton and Co. Ltd., 1997), p. 1132. Subsequent references are to this edition.
[3] Kiernan Ryan, Shakespeare, (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002), p. 19.
[4] Palfrey, Doing Shakespeare, p. 192.