Los Angeles–based stand-up comedian Guy Branum, who hosts truTV’s Talk Show the Game Show, has spent his life being told — both in television and in life, directly and indirectly — that being a fat person means you’re somehow broken until you become, as he puts it, “unfat.” In the below excerpt from Branum’s upcoming book My Life As a Goddess: A Memoir Through (Un)Popular Culture, Branum reflects on pop culture’s destructive depictions of the humanity of fat people and how it’s affected his own self-worth and perspective — plus the one thing he didn’t let it affect. Branum’s book hits stores on July 31.
The memory is of bracing clarity. It involves 20/20, a newsmagazine hosted by Barbara Walters, a dazzlingly famous person everyone talked about, and Hugh Downs, a man who exemplified everything we looked for in news anchors in the 1980s (which is to say he had no discernible qualities). That it was 20/20 also means it was Friday. It means I was pumped: An entire weekend lay before me, and for two whole days, I didn’t have to go to school and have my handwriting criticized by adults, nor my mannerisms criticized by my peers. It means it was ten p.m., and I had just watched two hours of very good ABC children’s programming. This was not TGIF — that quartet of hallowed sitcoms most readily associated with Full House or Family Matters — but the years before TGIF, when ABC could simply run a block of semi-bad family sitcoms without feeling the need to be so whorey as to brand it. Mr. Belvedere was probably involved.
I was having a pretty good night. Maybe my best friend, Ramon, had come over to play, as he did so frequently on Fridays. Maybe my dad had gone and picked up food from McDonald’s or another of my most beloved purveyors of victuals. We cannot know for certain, but I am setting the stage to make clear to you that I was in the rather delicious mood of a young man who was well fed, played out, and unbounded by the constraints of a bedtime. And then, like that, at ten p.m., 20/20 came on.
If you are under the age of thirty-five, you probably don’t really know what a newsmagazine is, but 20/20 was the gold standard. Back when we had only three to four networks, there was no cable news, so the worst parts of cable news — the sensationalist investigative stories meant only to make you upset, as well as celebrity interviews — became a nighttime fixture. Basically, Anderson Cooper 360 was one hour of television every week that aired opposite prime-time soaps. We loved it.
Also, we needed something to do with Barbara Walters before she found her true calling: making perimenopausal women fight for sport on The View.
20/20 began with its opening teases of what would be on the show, and Barbara, America’s non-rhotic news-reading sweetheart, started saying something about America’s obesity epidemic. They ran B-roll of fat people, as you do, and the B-roll featured fat people who were shot from shoulder to hip. I realized every time I’d seen B-roll of fat people, their faces had been cut off or pixelated. As a nine-year-old fat person, I didn’t entirely understand why they were doing that. Clearly, they were implying that being fat was so humiliating that no one’s identity or personhood should have to be associated with such an indignity. But didn’t they realize that we fat people spent our lives with our fat heads attached to our fat bodies? What were they trying to achieve?
They were trying to avoid shaming people by merely implying that their fatness was so horrible their identities needed to be obscured. “Oh, don’t worry, lardo, we’ll blur your face so people won’t realize you’re the wide load we’re talking about. You know, the way they do when they see you in real life.” This was the 1980s equivalent of the 1920s newspaper photos of men arrested in gay bar raids with black boxes over their faces to obscure their shameful identities.
The moment filled me with real anger, because it seemed evident to me that the result was basic dehumanization. Even today, when fat people are represented on the news, we are represented as meat. Lumps of meat and fat lumbering through a mall or parking lot. There is no story, no humanity. We are livestock.
I have always been fat. From my ten-pound birth to my grade school years of constantly outgrowing clothes, through high school weight training and football when I worked out four hours a day, through diets and self-hatred and sweatiness and people not wanting to sit next to me on the plane, I have been fat. So this was, I suppose, my first moment of realizing that this basic building block of my identity influenced the way people understood me.
The clearest message sent to me by popular culture is that, as a fat person, I will not do important things. Fat people are not protagonists. We are not dynamic. We do not solve the problem. We are, in fact, often seen as the problem. We can be the friend or associate of the person who is solving the problem, but we are usually too cowardly or lazy to assist that person properly. The very premise of the Eddie Murphy iteration of The Nutty Professor is that the lead character, Sherman Klump, is so docile and incompetent as a fat person, he must be transformed into a not-fat person, Buddy, to be brave and “get the girl,” Carla. When Sherman defeats Buddy through an internal war for self-acceptance, the resolution doesn’t involve Carla falling for Sherman, just a platonic friendship and a chaste dance. We need not discuss Sherman’s family, the perpetually eating, perpetually farting, fat-suit-wearing Klumps. Just know that we are children, ruled by our appetites, incapable of anything else.
You’ve got Otto von Bismarck and Winston Churchill and Catherine the Great and Oprah Winfrey just sitting there in history, proving to us that fat people are perfectly capable of forging a German nation or media empire out of blood and iron. We don’t usually think about those people, though. We think about fat the way 20/20 told us to: Fat people don’t have heads, and heads don’t have fat people.
The best example is the NBC reality competition show The Biggest Loser. On the show, a dozen or so fat people showed up to stop being fat. They had no other characteristics. They had race and gender, I guess, but you never got a sense that they had a life worth living. They had loved ones who worried, but not careers that rewarded them. They were sad and long-suffering, not exciting or full of ideas. The fat people who came to be on The Biggest Loser were arriving to have people, real humans, yell at them until they, the competitors, lost enough weight to be human beings.
There was always a moment with every competitor when one of the trainers would come and yell at them about how they weren’t trying hard enough and were complicit in their own suffering. Then the fat person would blubber about Their Sad Truth. Sometimes it was a tragic loss of a family member, or someone who had never loved them, or something about food being love. The point was, we were led to believe that every fat person had a Freudian closet containing some issue that, when revealed, would break the spell, allowing them to unfat and finally turn into a real boy or girl.
We watched them lose weight by being yelled at and humiliated on-camera, then drugged and dehydrated off-camera. When someone won, we cried because we believed fatness was a dragon that could be slain, and then the person went off and gained all or most of the weight back. They never got to have a personality then, either.
This narrative illustrates the complex, nearly Calvinist construction of obesity with which America is in love. We need to believe that fat people can lose the weight. We cannot accept that it might be an aspect of their — our — lives created by genetic predisposition or circumstance. We need to know fat people could lose the weight, because if they don’t, it’s a choice. It’s a question of morality. Being obese is dangerous and bad and must be opposed with every fiber of your being. And if you do that, you will be transformed. If you just eat less and exercise, you can be saved. Salvation through starvation.
Kate, the fat sister on NBC’s This Is Us, is a fictionalized version of a Biggest Loser competitor. She has no qualities. She’s thirty-seven years old and is wholly devoid of skills or passions other than kind of liking singing. While one of her brothers earned a graduate degree and the other bounced between acting jobs, Kate did nothing of note or merit. We can assume her time was spent romancing wheels of Camembert and being too scared to talk to a boy because she knows she’s too fat to be loved.
Have any of these people met a fat girl? A real Kate, in the real world, would be awesome. She’d have tons of gay friends and go to drag bingo a lot. She’d have learned to be fearless with fashion, because people are going to judge her anyway. She’d have a joke to make when she’s too sweaty. She’d have broken a chair before, and she’d know what to do when it happens the second time. Chrissy Metz gives great soul to the character, but as she’s written, Kate is a cul-de-sac of a human being who has tasted nothing of the world except cheesy fries. That ain’t any of the fat bitches I know.
The reason the writers of This Is Us cannot imagine Kate doing anything valuable is because her existence as a fat person means she is doing things that are unvaluable. If Kate is fat, she cannot have been journeying toward unfatness with all of her power. If she, say, had become one of Canada’s most beloved stand-ups, or become a New York Times columnist, or become the most powerful human being in world media, we might have to contemplate the idea that her time was well spent. We might say, “Yeah, she got fat, but she had some shit going on.” Kate is deserving of personhood and dynamism only during those times when her singular purpose is unfatting herself.
Famously, this is a part of Chrissy Metz’s contract. She is required to lose weight so that she can tell Kate’s story of triumph. Happiness and success are there for Kate, but only in her future, only as part of her narrative of losing fat, and only if she doesn’t fail.
And we need fat people to fail. We need them to be so dumb and lacking in willpower that said salvation is never actually achieved. We need to know that their immorality is inherent so we can believe our own thin morality is inherent. Our narratives about conquering fatness aren’t about saving fat people, it’s about letting thin people feel like they’re already saved, members of the chosen people.
We fat people are bound to live our lives tied to this struggle. Until we’re done being fat, the trying has to be all of who we are. We are told that we must seek exercise to rid our bodies of their fatness, but we also know we’ll be ridiculed for exposing our gross bodies at a beach or gym. We are told that inside of us is a thin person screaming to get out, and we must thereby know our bodies are prisons for some other, better people.
This narrative is deeply damaging. I know you think you’re doing something great when you tell me my weight predisposes me to diabetes or knee deterioration, but what you’re really telling me is that I should fear using my body as it is. One time in my mid-twenties, I went to a new doctor who told me that my weight was more dangerous to my health than a crack addiction. At that moment I had to step back and legitimately consider, should I get a crack addiction? I’d definitely lose weight, and the good doctor did say it was healthier than my baseline existence.
Popular culture demands that we fat people recognize our existence as an overwhelming crisis. It’s a thing to be expunged, not managed.
When I go on a hike or some other group physical activity, I’m always freaking out. Will I get too exhausted? Will I sweat too much? I’m not worried about it being painful or inconvenient for me. I’m worried about the extent to which my different physical reaction to situations will mark me as Other.
On a recent vacation, I went on a snorkeling trip. It was a physical activity with which I wasn’t familiar, and I began cycling through questions about how my body would fail me this time. My traveling companion and I went to get flippers from the resort, and I discovered that they did not have any to fit my gigantic feet. They told me I could go without them if I wanted, but that it would be hard to keep up with everyone else. I slid further into panic. As the boat took us out to the coral reef we were going to swim around, I started preparing myself with the stories of shame and fatness I was certain to encounter. We got to the reef and jumped out, and I started working with determination to overcome the inadequacies of my body so I wouldn’t be ashamed.
Wanna know what? I was fine. I’m a strong swimmer. I have big feet, so I didn’t need flippers. I kept up with everyone. My traveling companion, the very image of masc gay gym muscle, panicked the moment we got in the water and climbed back up in the boat, but I did just fine. Nevertheless, it took me until halfway through the expedition to realize I didn’t need to keep bracing for the moment my fat body would fail me.
Western literature’s greatest fat character is Tracy Turnblad, the Baltimore high school student at the center of the 1988 John Waters film Hairspray and its ensuing stage adaptation. Tracy is distinct from most other fat characters in that she is very good at something. Fat characters are typically slow and sad, needy and childish. They’re generally some version of Shelley Winters in The Diary of Anne Frank. They are obstacles for nonfat heroes. Tracy, however, is talented and she knows it. She’s the best at something. She gets to be confident, she gets to challenge the social order. She gets the guy, and we understand why. Tracy is like the fat girls I know.
And the thing Tracy is good at is dancing. Her skill is her body. Fat people are told we are supposed to be obsessed with our bodies but never take pleasure in them. Our bodies are supposed to be enemies we’re calculating against. Not Tracy. Her body is a source of power and pleasure. The bigots at The Corny Collins Show want to hate her for her poverty and her weight, but once Tracy starts to Madison, they have to admit that girl’s the best.
It’s also significant that the conflict of Hairspray does not, in any significant way, rest on Tracy’s fatness. This isn’t a story of a lonely girl longing for a boy who doesn’t notice her thick body, and it’s not about a sad girl who longs to dance on TV with the thin beautifuls. No, she just wants to be on The Corny Collins Show and impress people with her dancing, and she achieves it pretty quickly. (The main conflict, in fact, centers on the segregation perpetuated by the show she’s on.) The movie isn’t about Tracy’s fight for her inclusion. Rather, it’s about how her inclusion is marginal and conditional as long as others are being excluded.
I’ve always been a very good dancer. I know this isn’t something you’re supposed to say about yourself, but you don’t know me, and it’s true. People frequently tell me this, and when they do, it always sounds like they think I don’t know or maybe have never heard it before. That’s because they’re surprised. They don’t realize what they’re implying, but it’s that they don’t think a body this large is supposed to be fun. I’m not good at loving my body. In truth, my body and I have a stormy relationship. It’s always growing and shrinking and not fitting into places, and I get mad at it and feel ashamed. Several times I’ve marshaled the resources of my life to losing weight. I make it a priority, I eat only lean meats and vegetables, I work out multiple times a day. I lose weight, but I’m still fat. I’m still too fat to be human, and my efforts don’t exactly add up to loving my body.
I’m not good at believing I’m attractive. I’m not good at making space for physical recreation in my life. I want very deeply to emphasize that my relationship to my body and/or my fatness are not fixed or anywhere close to being healthy. What I want you to know is that I’m a very. good. dancer.
In so many ways, I haven’t been there for my body along the way, but it’s always been there for me. Turn on the music, and it knows what to do. Though I played sports in high school, that was never natural to me, and any skill I had was me just being very, very large and strong. The only thing that my brain and body have been able to collaborate on effortlessly is knowing where to put my feet when a Curtis Mayfield song is playing. But it’s what I’ve got, so I’m going to be proud of it.
People will continue to look at me and tell me that I’m doing it wrong. They’re going to talk down to me about nutrition and exercise.
They’re going to treat me like a baby who cannot manage his desires. They’re going to expect that inherent in my fatness is a lack of agency and capability. They’re going to tell me I’m doing myself a disservice by not waging war on the 40 percent of my body mass that isn’t lean. I am always, on some level, going to think they’re right.
But I will also love my body. I’m going to have fun with it.
And I’m going to dance. A lot.
Copyright © 2018 by Guy Branum. From the forthcoming book My Life As a Goddess: A Memoir Through (Un)Popular Culture by Guy Branum to be published by Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.