Nihil Sub Sole Novum Series: Fat Shaming

Nihil Sub Sole Novum: Fat Shaming

[This is a new blog post series of mine. The idea for this series is partly from Tyler Cowen’s blog where he does informal series such as That was then, this is now or Markets in Everything. The idea is to have an ongoing discussion through blog posts tied together by the Latin phrase Nihil Sub Sole Novum – There is nothing new under the sun. Each day is a new day, but so many of the problems we face have deep roots and historical precedence. We constantly face new challenges and it can feel as if no one has faced what we or society face today, but the reality is that much of what we deal with has been part of humanity for centuries, and this series will explore that long past.]
– – –
In 1901 Frank Andrew Munsey purchased a newspaper in New York called the Daily News. Around that time Munsey was purchasing a lot of newspapers in an effort to compete with Pulitzer and Hearst, two titans of the news industry. Michael Tisserand writes about Munsey’s purchase of the Daily News in his biography of George Herriman titled Krazy because Herriman had recently started at the paper as a cartoon artist and illustrator. Herriman was born in New Orleans to mixed black and Creole parents, but passed as white, giving him a precarious position in a newspaper industry that was brutal toward its employees. To demonstrate this brutality, Tisserand shares a quote about Munsey who purchased the paper which employed Herriman:
Tisserand quotes Allen Churchill in writing, As soon as Munsey purchased a newspaper, he ordered all fat men on the staff fired, for he considered them lazy as a breed. Munsey even demanded that no smoking signs be put up, as he considered smoking a waste of time.”
Tisserand offers this quote to show that Herriman, who would not have been able to get his job if he could not pass as white, was always on edge about his identity and appearance. What I want to focus on, specifically for this article, is the idea of fat shaming in the quote regarding Munsey.
I am a fan of Marvel’s movies, and I admit that I found Fat Thor from the Avengers Endgame movie pretty funny. I am guilty of repeating the line “You look like melted ice cream” which was issued to Thor to criticize his appearance. However I am able to recognize the fat shaming, prejudice, and mockery which takes place in that scene and with Thor’s character through the movie. I recognize how an innocent joke can be quite harmful to individuals who find themselves in a similar situation in real life.
In our world today, we put a lot of emphasis on our weight and appearance. One aspect of Neoliberalism, a term used characterize the general political and philosophical approach of most people in the United States today, is a sense of hyper-responsibility of the individual. The individual is responsible for maintaining good health, for being productive at all times of the day, for paying taxes, walking the dog, playing catch with their son, attending every dance recital, and having an opinion on all current events. Society is not expected to provide anything, the individual is expected to be responsible for all of their affairs. Thor, facing PTSD and survivor’s guilt, couldn’t handle the personal responsibility that his failures placed on his shoulders, and his outward weight gain reflected his inward tragedy, but was played for laughs more than it was used to really explore the pressures he was crumbling beneath. Thor was fat shamed rather than counseled and supported by society.
Fat shaming is receiving more attention today (the name itself is relatively new) but it has existed for a long time. Munsey’s quote shows that fat shaming and the personal responsibility of Neoliberalism were present at the turn of the 20th century. Being fat was taken as a projection of laziness by Munsey. A person was judged from their body shape and weight, without regard for who the person was, what factors contributed to their health, or how hardworking the person actually was. Munsey may not have had anyone around to call his behavior fat shaming, but that is clearly what he was doing by firing the fat people at the newspapers he purchased – nihil sub sole novum.
We will see in future Marvel movies if Thor returns to being the muscular manly-man that he was prior to Endgame, or if he retains a body weight and shape that is not typical of superheroes. Either way, Thor can help teach us that our weight and body shape doesn’t just reflect how worthy we are but is influenced by trauma, by challenging life circumstances, and by complex social factors. Fat shaming is something we should be aware of and something that we should recognize has been a problem for a long time. We can continue to display coarse prejudices against fat people, or we can think about what being healthy really means and requires, what our body shapes say about us, and work to build more healthy communities that integrate healthy spaces for activity, healthy communities to appropriately work through trauma and stress, and healthy systems for eating. These are complex areas, and the struggles around them and resulting fat shaming is nothing new.
George Herriman and the Complexities of Racial Identity

George Herriman and the Complexities of Racial Identity

Race is a social construct. Genetic studies reveal how misplaced ideas of racial differences truly are. Individuals on the African continent sometimes have more genetic differences than individuals across continents, yet race throughout human history has been used, at a genetic level, to explain the differences between people, and in the worst of  times, to justify discrimination and biases. However, even though race is more of a social construct than a biological fact, humans still identify differences in appearance, customs, behaviors, and psychologies and treat individuals differently based on how they are perceived.
The book Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White demonstrates the power of this discriminatory way of identifying people, and how complex racial identities can be when we insist race is more than a social construct and use it to define people. Michael Tisserand, the book’s author, explains that Herriman existed at an intersection of white and black, and that he was able to pass as white to enter a professional world that excluded blacks. Doing so, however, meant that he had to abandon other identities, including those of his mixed Creole and black family from New Orleans.
In a sentence that demonstrates just how complex racial identification can be, Tisserand writes the following, “when questioned as part of court proceedings if he was colored, George Herriman Sr.’s {Herriman’s grandfather] brother in law, Charles Sauvinet, replied, when I go among strangers I am received as a gentleman. He added I never inquire whether I was received as a white or colored man.” Herriman’s family displayed ambiguous racial characteristics for several generations, and much of their racial identity was dependent more on how other people treated them than on how they chose to identify. Race was not within their own control and varied from place to place and situation to situation.
The implication in Charles Sauvinet’s response is that he was received as a white man, that people identified him and treated him as a white gentleman. His non-answer was effectively a way of saying he was white while simultaneously acknowledging that white did not capture the full complexity of his racial background. His identity, the race assigned to him, and whether he was considered a valuable and worthy gentleman or something less than was not dependent on his own personal qualities, but on how other people perceived his race. These ambiguous edge cases are helpful in exploring the role and power of race in the United States. The racial state of America today is improved over the days of Charles Sauvinet and George Herriman, but discrimination and racial bias still exists, and still fails to address the realities of people’s lived experiences and racial backgrounds, even if race is nothing more than a social construct.

Speakers are Eager to Impress

The last few days I have been writing about communication and asking what our communication is really all about if it is not just about facts and conveying information. When just talking to someone or communicating anything we seem to be including a lot of information that we are not even aware of. One of the things we are showing off in conversation is that we are someone who should be kept around, because we have useful insights and thoughts into the world around us.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler look at this point directly. They write, “Speakers are eager to impress listeners by saying new and useful things, but the facts themselves can be secondary. Instead, it’s more important for speakers to demonstrate that they have abilities that are attractive in an ally.”

 

In his episode of the Conversations with Tyler Podcast, Hanson describes it as showing off your backpack of skills and abilities. We want to show off that we know interesting facts so that people keep us around to hear more interesting facts in the future. We want to show how well connected we are with other allies so that people want to stick by us to get potential benefits from those insider connections. We also want to demonstrate that we are able to find out useful knowledge that might help someone else in the future. We might have just shared a simple or interesting fact about our experiences or something we learned, but it can demonstrate a lot more about us than we recognize.

 

Over time, we likely won’t remember where we heard information first. We likely won’t remember exactly who told us what, but we will remember who we have had good conversations with in the past, and people will remember that we had a lot of helpful things to say about a given topic. What we say in this moment doesn’t matter, as long as we develop a pattern of being helpful and insightful.

 

All of this is happening in our conversations without us realizing how much it is taking place. Conversation is natural, and we don’t want to seem like we are only engaging in conversation to get something useful from someone else, otherwise we won’t truly build any allies and friendships. The brain works better for us when it is not aware of its own motivations in this instance.