Lizzo and Body Politics
Fat-Bottomed Girls, You Make the Rockin' World Go Round
Lizzo is an internationally famous musician who, for better or worse, has been attached to the “body positivity” movement, a term she claimed in a Vogue interview not to like very much. There was a time when Vogue only talked to the astonishingly gaunt and underweight, but today they are interviewing obese people to talk positively about their obesity.
Lizzo never sought the role of spokesperson for body positivity. She was just another obese person dealing with obesity, and the fact that she was a celebrity made it a public issue. I think her agents or handlers or press people thought, for various reasons, this would be a good cause for Lizzo. But the cause was not the struggle to get thinner, the cause would be the radical new one—celebrating morbid obesity.
As far as I can tell, all Lizzo ever wanted to do was perform as a musician.
Instead of body positivity, Lizzo says she wants to herald a “normalization” of all body types. This is a recent concept that suggest we avoid fat-shaming or otherwise embarrassing people with divergent body types. Most of us who are now adults grew up in a world where fat kids got bullied. Skinny kids could get bullied, too. Short kids got bullied. Kids with big birthmarks got bullied. Kids who stuttered got bullied. Disabled kids would be bullied most of all. So we have a gut reaction to shaming and bullying that should make us feel compassion toward those struggling with any sort of physical issue. It seems unfair that some problems—such as depression or anxiety or antisocial personality disorder—are quite easy to hide, while obesity is on near-constant display. Even drug addicts, at least in the early stages of their struggles, can camouflage or hide their substance abuse from others.
Fat people are fat for the world to see. That makes them very vulnerable.
And fat people today are fatter than the fat people of yesteryear. If you’re older, you may remember Rhoda from the old Mary Tyler Moore Show. Rhoda was Mary’s “fat friend.” But look at her today and she seems what doctors call “normoweight.” Not fat at all.
Obesity rates are soaring and not just in the United States, although we do remain the epicenter of the super-size revolution. In 1999, 30.5% of Americans were obese (including morbidly obese and the new category of super-morbidly obese) according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but in 2020 (the last year for which we have data), it’s now 41.9%. Severe obesity, such as the sort that can confine people to bed and rob them of their ability to walk or go about normal life, is up to 9% in America. Nearly ten percent of the country could be called fat-disabled.
Lizzo is not disabled by her obesity. In fact, she’s pursuing a busy and successful career. But when does the transition happen from working fat person to disabled person? It seems that at certain weight levels the disability becomes inevitable.
The Persecution of Smokers
This makes me think back to the glorious 1980s and 1990s, when it was considered reasonable and fair to bully smokers. After years of smokers stinking up the world around them, suddenly we non-smokers got the upper hand. Smokers were relentlessly shamed, banned first from the good tables at restaurants and then from the restaurants entirely, and finally even from the bars near the restaurants. There are businesses and hospitals now that not only ban smoking in the buildings (there was a time when you could smoke in hospitals, even in the rooms of patients!), they ban smoking outdoors around the building as well. Smokers could not longer smoke int the cars of non-smokers and some smokers found themselves banished to the fire escape or back porch of their own homes. Smokers were humiliated because they smelled bad, their teeth were stained, and they were stupidly endangering their health. Non-smoking gradually became accepted, and many smokers quit. They had to; nobody showed smokers any mercy.
I used to work at a company that made smokers stand outside under a stinky little wooden shelter far from the main building if they wanted to smoke cigarettes. Rain or shine, the few undefeated smokers huddled there, heroically daring to light up in a world that shunned them. I used to think they would make a good statue or memorial to those valiant souls who would not kowtow to the prevailing social norms.
Turn the clock forward to the second decade of the 21st century and suddenly, with obesity at least, we tend to want err on the side of being wildly and unconditionally supportive. What we’re doing wrong here is swinging from one extreme (smoker-shaming) to the other (championing obesity). We have decided that it is fine and wonderful and even something to be exalted if you are obese, likely because, unlike cigarettes, obesity doesn’t necessarily smell bad. Fat people can go to a restaurant and not stink the place or make people sitting nearby cough. You can’t catch obesity, even if you drink from the same glass as a fat person.
Magazine journalists have argued that Lizzo is healthy and fit, which makes it seem like they are semi-apologizing for her girth by adding the disclaimer that she has an offsetting positive trait. Sort of like carbon offsets, but for the obese. And who can say if another person is “healthy”? Joe Biden’s doctors say he is healthy, too.
Medically, obesity is a dangerous condition. That goes without saying but like a lot of basic facts these days, we have to say it. Obese people are at higher risk for many types of cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, respiratory problems, and problems in surgery than people who are in the normal weight range. Morbid obesity is almost a guarantee for joint pain and arthritis. COVID deaths were higher in the obese population. Smoking was dangerous to health, but so is obesity. So how does body positivity fit into a world full of smoker-shaming?
There is a degree of misplaced compassion here. While fat-shaming and bullying people for their size, shape, or appearance is reprehensible, so is encouraging a blindfolded person to walk off a cliff. This does not mean lecturing or bullying people like Lizzo. Believe me, Lizzo knows she’s fat and my suspicion is that she would prefer not to be fat. I would go so far as to say that most fat people would prefer to be thinner. Most of us would like to lose some weight.
Lizzo’s weight and the whole body positivity cause threatens to eclipse her real persona. She is a musician, a classically trained flutist, a performer, a person. She’s not the fat lady at the circus, which is sort of how Vogue is treating her.
Whether willingly or at the behest of her agents and handlers, Lizzo is contributing to her fat persona. She has posed for some studio-type nude pictures and she’s showed her bare buttocks in press photos more than once. Those pictures make me think of the old Queen song, “Fat-bottomed Girls” (they make the rockin’ world go ‘round). Applauding Lizzo for her courage in posing nude is misplaced. Cheering Lizzo for being proud of being fat is wrong. We should accept her for who she is and where she is—and by that I mean a fat person who should be trying to fight her way out of her obesity—but not encourage her to bravely persist on a destructive path and call it a healthy way to live.
Coming back to Queen, the late Freddie Mercury was a great performer. He was legendary. He was also a smoker. The fact that he smoked did not make me appreciate his art any less. But I would never have put him on a pedestal solely because he smoked. So why celebrate Lizzo for being fat? Why not celebrate her for her talent?
We Americans are not very good at this. What we are good at is rage and bullying and shaming tactics, and we’re equally good at praising and embracing and applauding. Where our cultural skill set falls short is helping move imperfect people to more-perfect places. We should be able to appreciate Lizzo for who she is without shaming her, but to stop short of applauding her obesity.
It would be wonderful if we could appreciate people for who they are and where they are, without being blind to the fact that all of us could be a little bit better.
How many people could benefit from a Lizzo embarking on a campaign to lose weight, build endurance, and get trimmer? There are lots of Lizzos and near-Lizzos in the world looking for a role model. Morbid obesity steals health, it does not define it.