Edison’s Cupcake

I have not read Lionel Shriver’s most recent novel, Big Brother. And given the state of my present reading list, I quite frankly don’t imagine that I am going to read it anytime soon. However, I’ve listened to several interviews with Shriver discussing her book, and her stance on obesity (and our cultural/cultish obsession with skinny) is blunt and provocative.

In one interview, Shriver considers how social feedback systems themselves reinforce patterns of over-consumption:

I have total understanding of how [obesity] snowballs. There’s actually a passage in the book where Edison explains: When you’re slim you have a social resource to protect: it gives you a certain power that you don’t want to lose. And therefore, you are motivated not to eat the cupcake. But if you are already fat, there’s really nothing socially to lose by getting fatter. You eat the cupcake. Why not? And furthermore, if you’re already incredibly heavy, and you eat a cupcake, you look in a mirror and nothing has changed. I mean, what difference does it make? And I see how once you’ve entered a certain area, the idea of doing something about it seems so insurmountable. And honestly, I don’t think there is much worse — besides chemotherapy — in the world, than losing weight. It is mind-numbingly dull. It doesn’t even qualify as an activity, because its something you’re not doing. (Lionel Shriver, Obesity, Food and Family)

It may not be politically correct to describe body weight as a means of social leverage, but our collective hesitancy to critique our own biases about weight is only amplifying the stereotypes that, in turn, give so much power to our unspoken judgments and assumptions. Thereby cementing certain arbitrary norms into invisible by hyper-real cultural decrees.

At least in her interview talking points and article writing, Shriver tackles the social dimension of body weight head on. And, of course, she’s generated no little controversy in her wake. One way or another, she’s struck a nerve.

Again, I haven’t read her book, but I appreciate two things in particular from what I have read/heard from Shriver. First, her compassionate perspective that no two stories are the same: she goes out of her way to reiterate that the causes of over/under-eating are complex, usually involving a convergence of biological, psychological, and social factors. Second, I appreciate her underlying thesis that a culture full of people obsessing over their BMIs (whether it be too high or too low) creates a world that is not particularly helpful for anyone involved:

If you’re thin, you’re a kook; if you’re fat, you’re a failure. You can’t win. In fact, nobody in this game is winning. (Shriver, in a May 11, 2013 Guardian article)

I agree that we need to drag the body weight discussion out of the gossip tabloids and into a space for a more critical, detached, and objective analysis. What we are presently doing to ourselves, collectively, does not make much sense at all.

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