Chapter 8 Making Arguments230
Cruelty, Civility, and Other Weighty Matters Ann Marie Paulin
As with most engaging essays, Paulin’s originates in personal circumstance. (See her invention writing on page 248.) Also, as with most engaging essays, the writer extends her thinking into the public sphere. As you read “Cruelty, Civility, and Other Weighty Matters,” notice how Paulin puts forth an argument while keeping herself in the background, only briefly referring to herself in the essay’s introduction and conclusion. As you will see, Paulin goes beyond the increasingly common argument against the media’s portrayal of women; she reveals something about the subtle effects of that portrayal. Paulin, who teaches English and gender studies at Owens Community College in Toledo, Ohio, shows that a writer’s voice matters—that savvy use of voice actually creates layers to an argument. That is, her voice rehumanizes the issue and the people involved. If the media have dehumanized “fat people,” Paulin does more than argue against the media; she strikes back with an intense, multifaceted presence.
I swear, if I have to sit through one more ad proclaiming that life is not worth living if you aren’t thin, I’ll slug somebody. So much for the theory that fat people are jolly. But, contrary to what magazines, talk shows, movies, and advertisements proclaim, we aren’t all a bunch of sorrowful, empty losers with no friends and no self-esteem, either. As with most complex issues—religion, politics, human relationships—most of what we see in mass media is hugely oversimplified and, therefore, wrong. So, if many of us recognize the media are notorious for getting things less than accurate, you might wonder why I let these images bother me so much. Well, if you were one of the millions of fat Americans living in a culture where you are constantly depicted as some sort of weepy loser, ill-dressed buffoon, or neutered sidekick, your good nature might wear a bit thin as well. But far more important than my ill temper is a creepy sense that these inaccurate images have shifted our vision of what is
A strong, emphatic (but informal) voice.
“You” makes the voice more informal.
“Our” is a direct strategy to create public resonance.
Complete the auto-graded quiz for this reading.
“Cruelty, Civility, and Other Weighty Matters,” by Ann Marie Paulin. Reprinted with permission of the author.
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231Ann Marie Paulin Cruelty, Civility, and Other Weighty Matters
important in life way out of whack, so far out that people are being hurt. What I’m proposing here is that we need to get some perspec- tive on this issue.
First of all, let me make it clear that I’m not advocating that every- one in America go out and get fat. According to the news media, we are doing that very handily on our own, in spite of all the messages to the contrary and the shelves of diet food in every supermarket. (One of my colleagues came by today with a newspaper article on the Krispy Kreme Donut chain; evidently, Americans eat three million Krispy Kreme donuts each day. We may talk tofu, but we gobble glazed.) Americans all need to work on eating healthier and getting some exer- cise. Of course, the thin fanatics claim to advocate a healthy lifestyle as well, but I question how healthy people are when they are living on low-calorie chocolate milk drinks, or taking herbal supplements containing goodness knows what, or loading up on the latest wonder diet pill. Remember Fen-phen?
And most diets don’t work. An essay by Rebecca Puhl, Ph.D., and Chelsea Heuer, MPH, in the American Journal of Public Health, cites studies which found:
Most weight losses are not maintained and individuals regain weight after completing treatment. Patients who have lost weight through lifestyle modification typically regain 30% to 35% of their lost weight during the year following treatment, and regain most (if not all) of their lost weight within five years. (“Obesity Stigma” 1021)
The authors go on to quote from a study by Mann, et al. “Dieters who gain back more weight than they lost may very well be the norm, rather than an unlucky minority” (qtd. in Puhl and Heuer 1021). My point here is not to argue that overweight people should not try to lose weight for health reasons. Indeed, even a modest weight loss of ten percent of a person’s body weight is beneficial to one’s health (Puhl and Heuer, “Obesity Stigma” 1021). But such modest weight loss, while healthy, is rarely enough to earn a person fashionably thin status. And despite what the cultural messages suggest, most of us fat folks are trying to eat more sensibly, but the environment does play a role. In a culture where most of us are rushed from work to classes to other activities, the temptation to grab fast food is huge. Sugary or fatty foods are often available in grab and go packages that are so much easier to take to work or eat in the car than making a healthy
The writer qualifies her point (My point here is not . . .), makes a concession (Indeed, even a modest weight loss . . .), and then counterargues (But such modest weight loss, while healthy, is rarely enough . . . .)
An important qualifier: “I’m not advocating that . . . .”
Integrates (introduces) informa- tion from an authority for support.
Long quotes—more than four lines—are indented. This is called a “block quote.”
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Chapter 8 Making Arguments232
snack. And, there is evidence to suggest we may even be wired to pre- fer junk food. Brownell and colleagues, in an essay in Health Affairs, cite studies which show: “Animals given access to food high in sugar and fat—even when healthy food is freely available—consume calorie-dense, nutrient-poor food in abundance, gain a great deal of weight, and exhibit deteriorating health” (379). I know, I know. We aren’t rats. We are thinking beings, but this article goes on to point out that it is not so different for people: “Research has shown con- sistently that people moving from less to more obese countries gain weight, and those moving to less obese countries lose weight” (379).
So we are surrounded by a culture, even an infrastructure, that encourages obesity, yet the culture also breeds a prejudice against fat people. Various articles and news magazine programs have reported that Americans of all sizes make far more than simple aesthetic judg- ments when they look at a fat person. Fat people are assumed to be lazy, stupid, ugly, lacking in self-esteem and pride, devoid of self- control, and stuffed full of a host of other unpleasant qualities that have nothing to do with the size of a person’s belly or thighs. But, as
Integrates information from an authority for support.
Engages the reader by antici- pating a reader’s response.
Takes the reader from one claim (culture encourages obesity) to another claim (culture breeds a prejudice against fat people).
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233Ann Marie Paulin Cruelty, Civility, and Other Weighty Matters
anyone who has ever been the victim of such prejudice can tell you, the impact such foolish notions have is real and harmful. For exam- ple, Marilyn Wann, in her book Fat! So?, cites an experiment in which “[r]esearchers placed two fake personal ads, one for a woman described as ‘50 pounds overweight’ and the other for a woman described as a drug addict. The drug addict received 79 percent of the responses” (59). So, in spite of the agony addiction can cause to the addict and those who love her, people would rather get romantically involved with an addict than a fat person. And not much has changed. In a 2008 article, “The Stigma of Obesity: A Review and Update,” Puhl and Heuer report:
One study asked college students (N5449) to rank order six pictures of hypothetical sexual partners, including an obese partner, a healthy partner, and partners with various disabilities (including a partner in a wheelchair, missing an arm, with a mental illness, or described as having a history of sexually trans- mitted diseases. Both men and women ranked the obese person as the least desirable sexual partner compared to the others. (10)
While it is certainly good news to see that people can look beyond disabilities, such as a wheelchair or a missing arm, and see the value of the whole human being, it is distressing that Americans refuse to do the same for a person’s weight. Why would anyone want to date someone who will land them in the STD clinic? How dangerous is that? And yet, such a person is clearly seen as a better romantic choice than a heavy person. Here is a case where weight prejudice is certainly more dangerous to the person with the prejudice than it is to the fat person. Another area of discrimination based on weight is in employ- ment, both in getting hired in the first place and in receiving equal pay for equal work. In 1998, Wann pointed out that the average fat woman earns about $7000 less per year than her thinner sisters (80). Today, things are still not improving. As of 2004, a study from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth found that obese men and women suffered a “wage penalty” for their excess weight. For men, wages ranged from 0.7–3.4% less than their slimmer cowork- ers, while for women the wage losses ranged from 2.3 to 6.1% (qtd. in Puhl and Heuer, “The Stigma of Obesity” 10). Here, as in other areas, we find that obese women are penalized more by society than obese men. Either way, in many jobs, a person’s weight has noth- ing to do with the quality of their performance. In my case, I teach
Introduces an example by integrating information from a source.
Comments on the idea from the source.
Invites the reader to think about disabilities, weight.
The first sentence is a claim. The rest of the paragraph is support.
Information from sources supports the claim.
The essay writer comments on the support information above.
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Chapter 8 Making Arguments234
English at a community college. Jobs in academia require an advanced degree, so I happen to have a Ph.D., which has nothing to do with my body size, unless you want to count the weight I gained from thousands of hours sitting reading, sitting at a keyboard, sitting grading papers.
At the least, given the reports and studies, we can conclude that weight prejudice is not merely aesthetic judgment. It’s an alarming trend, just like obesity itself, that hurts real people. When people are denied a place to live or a means of support not because of any bad behavior or lack of character or talent on their part but because of someone else’s wrongheaded notions, then we need to get our minds straightened out.
The messages are particularly insidious when they suggest that being thin is more important than a man’s or, more often, a woman’s relationships with her loved ones or even than her health. The media churn the images out, but the public too often internalizes them. For example, in one commercial for Slim Fast, the woman on the ad is prattling on about how she had gained weight when she was preg- nant (seems to me, if you make a person, you ought to be entitled to an extra ten pounds) and how awful she felt. Then there is a shot of this woman months later as a thin person with her toddler in her yard. She joyously proclaims that Slim Fast is “the best thing that ever happened to me!” The best thing that ever happened to her?! I thought I heard wrong. What about that little child romping by her heels? Presumably, there is a daddy somewhere for that little cherub. What about his role in her life? The thought that losing that weight is the most important thing that ever occurred in her life is sad and terrifying. It’s even worse for the folks who share that life with her. I kept hoping that was not what she meant. I’m sure her family is really most important. But she didn’t say, “Next to my baby, Slim Fast is the best thing that ever happened to me.” Advertisers don’t spend millions of dollars creating ads that don’t say what they intend them to; this message was deliberate. Granted, this is only one ad, but the message is clear: The consumer is the center of the universe, and being thin is the only way to ensure that universe remains a fun place to live. The constant repetition of this message in various forms does the damage to the humans who watch and learn.
While we can shrug off advertisements as silly, when we see these attitudes reflected among real people, the hurt is far less easy to brush away. For instance, in her essay, “Bubbie, Mommy, Weight
Allusion to a popular item, Slim Fast, as support for the claim above it.
Thinness ads damage minds lives.
Addresses an opposing point: that ads are harmless.
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235Ann Marie Paulin Cruelty, Civility, and Other Weighty Matters
Watchers and Me,” Barbara Noreen Dinnerstein recalls a time in her childhood when her mother took her to Weight Watchers to slim down and the advice the lecturer gave to the women present: “She told us to put a picture of ourselves on the ’fridgerator of us eating and looking really fat and ugly. She said remember what you look like. Remember how ugly you are” (347).
I have a problem with this advice. First, of course, it is too darn common. Fat people are constantly being told they should be ashamed of themselves, of their bodies. And here we see another of those misconceptions I mentioned earlier: the assumption that being fat is the same as being ugly. There are plenty of attractive fat people in the world, as well as a few butt-ugly thin ones, I might add. Honestly, though, the real tragedy is that while few people in this world are truly ugly, many agonize over the belief that they are. Dr. Pipher reported: “I see clients who say they would rather kill themselves than be overweight” (91). Pipher wrote of these attitudes in 1995, but there is not much evidence to suggest we have become any more reasonable or sensible. In fact, in the article “Stigma and Discrimination in Weight Management and Obesity,” Brownell and Puhl cite a 2001 study which showed that “28% of teachers in one study said that becoming obese is the worst thing that can happen to a person” (21). Statements like this make me despair for my pro- fession. We are supposed to encourage critical thinking, not mind- lessly parrot nonsense and pass it on to the younger generation. And if people think being fat is the worst thing that can happen, they have not watched the world news lately. How would people feel if the attitude was reversed: The worst thing you can be is thin. All those skinny students must be lazy and stupid. They haven’t got enough sense to eat enough or to look the way we want them to. Why bother with them? And don’t think that idea doesn’t apply to fat prejudice. Brownell and Puhl cite another study that shows “controlling for income and grades, parents provide less college support for their overweight children than for their thin children” (21). What is up with that? A person’s weight certainly has nothing to do with his or her intellect or curiosity about the world. Plus, based on the data I’ve reported so far, we plus size folks need all the education we can get just to struggle up to a living wage.
And don’t think teachers are the only educated people with crazy ideas about overweight folks. Based on my research, the medical profession is full of people who despise us. “Stigma and
Provides an example, from an essay, as support.
Analysis of the opposing logic.
Transition from the field of education to the medical profession.
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Discrimination in Weight Management and Obesity” reports that “24% of nurses say they are ‘repulsed’ by obese persons” (21). That’s a virulently negative attitude to get from someone upon whom your life may depend. And according to Puhl and Heuer, things are just as depressing with the doctors: “In a study of over 620 primary care physicians, 50% viewed obese patients as awkward, unattract- ive, ugly, and noncompliant” (“Stigma of Obesity” 4). But how many people are willing to be compliant with someone who makes them feel awkward, unattractive, and ugly? The article goes on to explain that “one-third of the sample [of doctors] further character- ized obese patients as weak-willed, sloppy, and lazy” (4). That’s a lot of judgments to make after a ten-minute office visit. Shoot, my doctor is a republican, and if I’m willing to overlook that, the least he can do is overlook a few extra pounds. But, all kidding aside, this prejudice may have real and dangerous effects. Overweight people often do not seek medical care, especially preventive care. Puhl and Heuer go on to report:
Several studies show that obese persons are less likely to under- go age-appropriate screenings for breast, cervical, and colorec- tal cancer. Furthermore, research shows that lower rates of preventive care exist independently of factors that are typically associated with reduced health care use, such as less education, lower income, lack of health insurance, and greater illness bur- den. (“Stigma of Obesity” 7)
This bullying of the overweight is not only coming from professional and public life. Sadly many people face the cruelest ridicule from family, those we count on most for love and support. Another example of this bullying comes from Pipher’s book Hunger Pains: The Modern Woman’s Tragic Quest for Thinness. Pipher recounts a conversation she overheard one day in a dress shop:
I overheard a mother talking to her daughter, who was trying on party dresses. She put on each dress and then asked her mother how she looked. Time after time, her mother respond- ed by saying, “You look just awful in that, Kathy. You’re so fat nothing fits you right.” The mother’s voice dripped with dis- gust and soon Kathy was crying. (89)
Pipher goes on to suggest that Kathy’s mother is a victim of the culture, too, because she realizes how hard the world will be on her
Support from various sources is introduced and cited.
Family, too, may ridicule the overweight.
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237Ann Marie Paulin Cruelty, Civility, and Other Weighty Matters
fat daughter. Unfortunately, what she doesn’t realize is how much better her daughter’s quality of life would be if she felt loved by her mother. Puhl and Heuer cite the results of a 2006 study of 2,449 overweight and obese women. “Participants were provided with a list of 22 different individuals and asked how often each individual had stigmatized them because of their weight. Family members were the most frequent source of weight stigma, reported by 72% of partici- pants” (qtd. in “Stigma of Obesity” 10).
And the familial insensitivity doesn’t stop at adulthood. In Camryn Manheim’s book Wake Up! I’m Fat, the actress discusses her battle with her weight. She expected many of the difficulties she encountered from people in the entertainment industry, which is notorious for its inhuman standards of thinness for women. But when she gained some weight after giving up smoking, she was stunned when her father told her she should start smoking again until she lost the weight (78). In The Invisible Woman: Confronting Weight Prejudice in America, W. Charisse Goodman cites a 1987 study that concluded: “When good health practices and appearance norms coincide, women benefit; but if current fashion dictated poor health practices, women might then engage in those practices for the sake of attractiveness” (30). Like taking up smoking to stay slim.
Certainly everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion of what is attractive, but no one has the right to damage another human being for fun or profit. The media and the diet industry often do just that. While no one can change an entire culture overnight, people, especially parents, need to think about what they really value in the humans they share their lives with and what values they want to pass on to their children. We need to realize that being thin will not fix all our problems, though advertisements for diets and weight loss aids suggest this. Losing weight may, indeed, give a man or woman more confidence, but it will not make a person smarter, more generous, more loving, or more nurturing. It won’t automatically attract the dream job or the ideal lover. On the contrary, people who allow the drive to be thin to control them may find that many other areas of their lives suffer: They may avoid some celebrations or get-togethers because of fear they may be tempted to eat too much or the “wrong” foods. They may cut back on intellectual activities like reading or enjoying concerts or art museums because those activities cut into their exercise time too much. The mania for thinness can cause a person to lose all perspective and balance in life. I know. It happened
The writer continues her claim/support approach, beginning the paragraph with a claim then using authorities (Manheim and later Good- man) as support.
The closing paragraph drives home the argument:
• everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion
• but no one has the right to damage another human being for fun or profit
• the media and diet industry do that
• no one can change an entire culture overnight
• but people, parents need to think about what they really value
• we need to realize . . . .
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to me. My moment of revelation came about twelve years ago. I was a size ten, dieting constantly and faithfully keeping lists of every bite I ate, trying to lose fifteen more pounds. While I was watching the evening news, a story came on about a young woman who was run over by a bus. I vividly recall that as the station played the footage of the paramedics wheeling the woman away on a stretcher, I said to myself, “Yeah, but at least she’s thin.” I’ve been lucky enough to have gained some wisdom (as well as weight) with age: I may be fat, but I’m no longer crazy. There are some things more important than being thin.
Works Cited Brownell, Kelly D., et al. “Personal Responsibility and Obesity: A
Constructive Approach to a Controversial Issue.” Health Affairs, vol. 29, no. 3, Mar.-Apr. 2010, pp. 378–86.
Brownell, Kelly D., and Rebecca Puhl. “Stigma and Discrimination in Weight Management and Obesity.” The Permanente Journal, vol. 7, no. 3, Summer 2003, pp. 21–23.
Dinnerstein, Barbara Noreen. “Bubbie, Mommy, Weight Watchers and Me.” Worlds in Our Words: Contemporary American Women Writers, edited by Marilyn Kallet and Patricia Clark, Prentice Hall, 1997, pp. 347–49.
Goodman, W. Charisse. The Invisible Woman: Confronting Weight Prejudice in America. Gurze Books, 1995.
Manheim, Camryn. Wake Up! I’m Fat. Broadway Books, 1999. Pipher, Mary. Hunger Pains: The Modern Woman’s Tragic Quest for
Thinness. Ballantine Books, 1995. Puhl, Rebecca, and Chelsea Heuer. “Obesity Stigma: Important
Considerations for Public Health.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 100, no. 6, June 2010, pp. 1019–28. PubMed Central, doi:10.2105/AJPH.2009.159491.
—. “The Stigma of Obesity: A Review and Update.” Obesity, vol. 17, no. 5, May 2009, pp. 1–23. Wiley Online Library, doi:10.1038/ oby.2008.636.
Wann, Marilyn. Fat! So? Because You Don’t Have to Apologize for Your Size. Ten Speed Press, 1998.
1. Why do you think Paulin refers to “overweight” people as “fat”? What is the effect of this word on readers?
Back to the personal situation and relaxed voice.
Sanity is better than insane thinness. The conclusion ties back to the intro.
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239Ann Marie Paulin Cruelty, Civility, and Other Weighty Matters
2. Paulin helps readers to understand her main ideas by stating them at the beginning of paragraphs. Find three paragraphs in this essay that begin with the main idea. Do those sentences also connect the paragraph to the previous paragraph? If so, describe how.
3. Paulin uses written sources to support her argument. In some places she directly quotes the sources; in others she paraphrases or summarizes (that is, she puts what the source says in her own words). Find an example of each (quote, paraphrase, summary). How do you know the information is from a source? Does Paulin make that clear? Notice how Paulin introduces the information and punctuates it.
4. Paulin’s conclusion does not merely summarize points she has already made. Reread the conclusion and describe how it goes beyond mere summary. What does it try to do?
5. Paulin seems to know that her audience needs to be nudged along to accept her point. In your view, what particular rhetorical strategy is most effective at nudging readers to see the real harm of the media’s portrayal of weight?
1. How is weight a public issue?
2. In her opening paragraph, Paulin says that inaccurate images about weight “have shifted our vision of what is important in life way out of whack, so far out that people are being hurt.” Then she calls for perspective. What support can you provide for her claim that our vision of what is important is out of whack? What support can you provide that people are being hurt?
3. Why should or shouldn’t comedians refrain from making fat jokes about specific individuals?
4. In her conclusion, Paulin says, “[P]eople who allow the drive to be thin to control them may find that many other areas of their lives suffer.” Apply her thinking to some other situation besides body weight, and explain how a particular drive has led to suffering.
IDEAS FOR WRITING
1. In what subtle ways are short people marginalized or dismissed in everyday life?
2. What are the quiet hardships of beauty? Focus on one particular struggle that traditionally attractive girls, boys, men, or women encounter.
If responding to one of these ideas, go to the Analysis section of this chapter to begin develop- ing ideas for your essay.
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