Sunday, November 11, 2007

Review: The Strange History of Suzanne LaFleshe {and Other Stories of Women and Fatness}

The Strange History of Suzanne LaFleshe {and Other Stories of Women and Fatness} edited by Susan Koppelman. Foreword by Alix Kates Shulman.

In this anthology about "women and fatness," fat women eat, exercise, laugh, cry, love, give birth, and are abused and exploited. In fact, they experience the joys and tribulations of women everywhere, but what defines them, or sets them apart, is their body size.

The American interest in fitness seems to have begun in the late 1800s, when urban sophisticate May Welland of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence was compared to the hunt goddess Diana and noted for her slimness and athleticism. By the 1920s, thinness was firmly established as the fashion, with characters such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jordan Baker (The Great Gatsby) representing the slender, athletic, almost boyish ideal. In Koppelman's collection, Octavia Thanet's "The Stout Miss Hopkins's Bicycle" (1897) is an early example of how women suffered socially for their weight and how they began trying to manage it through exercise—an unthinkable notion for ladies of previous generations. One hundred years later, 1997's "The Strange History of Suzanne LaFleshe" (Hollis Seamon) also pairs two woman who to the world appear to have eating disorders—Suzanne Brown, who prefers the fullness of flesh, and Theresa, a teenager with apparent anorexia.

Some stories, like "Fat" (Grace Sartwell Mason) play purposely to the popular stereotype. Mrs. Payton Tierney substitutes a constant supply of rich foods for the love that no longer exists between her and her husband. Food is the problem and the solution as "The prison of her flesh received her" and the story ends in a surprisingly predictable way.

Stories like "Good-Bye, Old Laura" (Lucile Vaughan Payne) and "Skanks" (Rennie Sparks) capture the respective times and experiences of their teenage protagonists. Laura and Janine are complex characters whose peers influence their feelings about themselves and their bodies, with disturbing results for both. "The Hershey Bar Queen" (Elena Diaz Bjorkquist) is a teenage revenge fantasy, although the protagonist's food obsession and child-like simplicity and gullibility make the supernatural ending disappointingly ineffective.

If Mrs. Tierney, with her bonbons and distaste for exertion, is the stereotypical fat woman, the husbands in "The Feeder" (Maria Bruno) are alpha males whose wives fight back by taking control of their food, their bodies, and their weights—the thin wife consciously, the fat one less so. This story stands out for the disturbing image of a trapped, dying bird, wings broken, that is not worth saving to the insensitive husband.

"Perfectly Normal" (Lesléa Newman) is about the fat hatred and other prejudices of an anorexic wife. After making her promise not to get fat like her active, happy, lesbian sister, her husband sends her to a sanitarium before she wastes away even more. The combination of the wife's first-person perspective and the extremities of her opinions ("The least she [sister] could do was rip out the labels [of her clothing] so she would not have to be embarrassed" [about her size]) puts this story at the border of two-dimensional for the sake of making a point.

That is part of the problem with any focused collection like this; the focus on food, fat, and fat attitudes casts a blinding glare on the issues rather than truly illuminating them. It's interesting to see attitudes over the past 100 or so years, but questions arise, such as: How do those attitudes compare to those toward fat men, or to those who are different physically in other ways? If, as is claimed, only 10 percent prefer a fat partner to a normal-sized one, can the bias against fat be so definitively said to be social and cultural? Are those influences that widespread and strong? If the claim is true, are fat women really powerful erotic symbols to any but a few? It's mentioned that Lillian Russell, at more than 200 pounds, was a sex symbol of her time—but is that because she was fat or despite the fact she became fat with age?

In her defensiveness about fat, Koppelman writes, "There is nothing in women's fiction to affirm the calamitous claims of health risks made by the bariatricians, the exercise gurus, and the weight reduction mavens." Koppelman cannot be so single-minded as to confuse what appears in fiction with what happens in reality. Obesity, like other extremes, not only comes with serious health risks (for example, diabetes and all its complications), but also can limit the fat person's activities in ways that have nothing to do with societal bias (for example, I am too heavy for horseback riding, which I would love to be able to do). Koppelman's logic seems to be that, until a woman writes fiction about obesity-induced illnesses, they are not an issue for women.

The big question here is, "What does fat mean?" To the 5'7" patient in "Perfectly Normal," it means weighing more than 100–115 pounds. "The Hershey Bar Queen" weighs more than 400 pounds, as must the sideshow attractions in "Noblesse" (Mary E. Wilkins Freeman) and "Even as You and I" (Fannie Hurst). Suzanne LaFleshe weighs a little over 200. It's an important question because an active, confident, 200-pound woman, while fat by medical and social standards, may fall within the realm of normal deviation, while a girl like "The Hershey Bar Queen," enormous and obsessed with food, is a clear case of pathology. People fear pathology, whether it's morbid obesity, autism, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The Strange History of Suzanne LaFleshe {and Other Stories of Women and Fatness} is hampered by the restrictions and biases of its focus. A few stories stand out, but many are slices of life that lack depth, context, and subtlety. Another issue is that the book copy was not proofread; there are numerous typographical errors throughout, sometimes several on a page, so that the trustworthiness of the texts is in doubt—an unfortunate problem in a work produced by an academic professional like Koppelman. Still, it's worth reading for the handful of gems.

Sunday, 11 November 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

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