THE FAT PEOPLE AND THE SKINNY PEOPLE
The fat people braised collard greens with cubes of ham.
The skinny people braised collard greens with cubes of ham.
The skinny people controlled their portions.
The skinny people exhausted themselves. The fat people exhausted themselves.
The fat people indulged in gossip and won people over with their charm and the power of their personalities. They indulged themselves and felt victimized. The skinny people victimized themselves and felt something like the satisfaction of being indulged as they victimized themselves.
The organization had its share of skinny people and fat people. When disputes arose regarding performance goals, ethical quandaries, collegiality lapses, accountability, and smoking near the organization's buildings, the skinny people took a hard line. They held humanity, including themselves, to the highest possible standards. The fat people held humanity to high standards while often imagining, as medium people generally did, that they themselves exceeded those standards.
The organization's fat people gave their time at food banks and on the boards of charitable organizations. They spoke forcefully for human rights and for justice.
The organization's skinny people felt dizzy at the Thanksgiving party, unable to concentrate on what was being said because their heads swam with hunger.
The skinny people exercised and watched their sense of humor shrivel.
The fat people ate and watched their sense of humor shrivel.
Within the organization, it was always the fat people against the skinny people, and it was clear that neither side would win. In their less generous moments, the skinny people wished health problems on the fat people—diabetes, heart failure, sleep apnea, the mutiny of a gall bladder or other organ associated with bile and lipids. But these problems, in the minds of skinny people, took forever to arrive. Meanwhile, the fat people pitied the skinny people for their meticulous pecking after detail and their fascist tendencies. They shrugged and predicted nervous breakdowns for the skinny people any day now.
The skinny people thought they were fighting themselves and would insist as much if asked, but primarily they were fighting the fat people. The fat people knew they were fighting the skinny people but were experts at lying about it, especially to the skinny people.
The fat people encouraged each other. They bought flowers or alcohol for one another's birthdays—they made extravagant gestures. The skinny people cared about each other—in fact, they tried to care about everyone—but they were too busy to do enough for all the people that they knew.
The fat people professed to be happy with their bodies, really. Often, though, they were not. The skinny people professed to be happy with their bodies, really. Generally, though, they were proud but dissatisfied. They panicked if their weight rose unexpectedly, which it regularly did. The fact that their weight could fluctuate a pound or more from day to day filled them with anxiety: extrapolating meant that even the skinniest person could balloon to more than four hundred pounds between two birthdays! And who was there to stop them? Only themselves. Their burden was everlasting.
Occasionally, they loosened their grip on whatever kept them skinny and drifted and then, all at once it seemed, fell hard into not being in shape.
Then they began to climb back toward skinniness, but it would never be the same.
The skinny people developed allergies to rayon and balsa wood and certain hair conditioners.
The fat people were asthmatic. They parked their cars illegally to limit their walks. Those with mailboxes on suburban streets were prone to reaching into their mailboxes on their drives home, to save countless journeys down their driveways.
The skinny people listened to their bodies and poured out the last three ounces of their twelve-ounce sugary sodas, which they had purchased in bulk for a mere thirty-two cents per can, as opposed to paying $1.50 at one of the organization's vending machines for a twenty-ounce bottle. (Skinny people did not always avoid junk food as scrupulously as one might imagine.) They left several bites of already small portions on their plates and imagined these scraps were eaten by a second self they had somehow created, which by now was eleven years old and weighed seventy-eight pounds, and played in parks and near ponds and small streams, and did not care at all about what his or her body was like or how it was perceived.
The organization's skinny people responded to the drop in the stock market by cutting back on calories to save money and lose weight at the same time.
The organization's fat people were offended by the drop in the stock market and wanted it to go up again as soon as possible.
The fat people considered themselves healthy, and they were in certain ways. They resisted the medical establishment that proclaimed their weight a disease. They minimized the importance of willpower and cited studies on the role of stomach bacteria, brain chemistry, and genetic factors in a person's size.
The skinny people considered themselves healthy, and their exercising did release endorphins, and so for many days at a time the skinny people felt they were winning.
But then would come an afternoon when the organization's skinny people would realize they had been walking down a narrow windowless corridor for many years and this was all life would be, but all solutions or change seemed to lead more directly to death, and so the skinny people simply kept going down that graying, ever-narrowing windowless corridor because they saw no other options.
The organization's fat people saw options everywhere (some rather fun), though they were discriminated against. The fat people thought they understood TV better than skinny people, and they were right.
The skinny people were guided by Logos and believed in the market economy. The fat people lived by Eros, though sometimes they were devilish about it.
It is important to understand that within the organization some light people were not skinny people and some heavy people were not fat people. Some medium people felt like skinny people or fat people, depending on whom they were with. But what structured the politics of the organization were fattiness and skinniness.
There comes a time when the organization has to decide whether to adopt an incentivized health plan with a two-tiered premium structure based on certain lifestyle choices. The organization's Executive Steering Committee asks the organization's Benefits Analysis Forum (BAF), which is made up of representatives of key stakeholders (Facilities, Call Centers, IT, Direct Marketing, The Consultancy, Support Staff), as well as the CFO, to investigate and make a recommendation.
The BAF is chaired by Yvette Jenks, the director of Human Resources, a slight woman with a pageboy haircut and shoulders no wider than a horizontal sheet of paper. Her small facial features have a delicate, slightly unfinished quality, like recently budded leaves. She affects chipper friendliness because she has inferred that others perceive her as a cold, rule-bound bean counter. She isn't skinny so much as she has effaced the effect of having a body. Her pants suits move through the air below her neck and above her modest pumps as clothes appear in catalogs without models—with a sort of splayed and ghostly two-dimensionality.
Within the organization, when the boss is a fat person, the skinny people live in fear of being crushed by some vague and enormous and unreasoning force. Some become demoralized and gain weight. When the boss is a skinny person, the fat people feel persecuted; they are not right, but they become right, over time.
On "the BAF," as it is known, are three fat people, two medium people, two skinny people, and one person caught between medium and skinny.
The conference room is on the second floor. It was the boardroom when the organization was smaller, before the construction of the wing for the new executive offices, and is furnished with an array of worn, high-backed, black leather executive chairs. A long row of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooks a painstakingly landscaped courtyard with a fountain and small reflecting pool and benches where employees are invited to "re-balance" themselves. It is one of the most prized conference rooms in the organization and is booked from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, despite the fact that by 4 p.m., the scheduled starting time of this BAF meeting, the room's odor is a cross between a gym locker and the hallway behind the employees' cafeteria.
"Ralph and Rebecca aren't here yet," Yvette Jenks says in a light, high voice. "But let's get started."
Everyone understands that in Yvette Jenks's skinny mind, Ralph and Rebecca have just been severely shamed for their tardiness. It is four minutes after the hour. Yvette used to begin meetings precisely on the hour, but after self-examination, she has relaxed her values to accommodate the real-life situations of others and now offers a rather generous four-minute grace period should any lateness occur.
She passes out a sheet of paper on which she has printed an agenda for today's BAF gathering.
The first item on the agenda is "Greeting!"—which Yvette typed while reflecting on her reputation as a cold, rule-bound bean counter. But because of her slight internal kerfuffle over the tardiness of Ralph and Rebecca, she leaps right over a warm and personable welcome and straight to the second item, "Recommendation Update." She duly informs the BAF that the Executive Steering Committee has accepted the recommendation of the BAF to stay with Advantage Health Care, the provider they voted to switch to a year ago, a new market entrant whose bid undercut Blue Cross Blue Shield, the previous provider.
And the meeting is off and running.
In an effort to keep costs down, Yvette has been aggressive in annually seeking out new bids from competing providers, knowing that more times than not there will be a provider hoping to "buy the business" with a low bid. The logistical nightmare involved in changing providers every few years is part of the burden Yvette Jenks personally assumes, though few people acknowledge her efforts, except people like Ted Orton, who represents Direct Marketing on the BAF and tries very hard to encourage and like everyone and thus be universally liked himself.
As of now, neither Yvette nor Ted are well-liked.
"That's good news," seconds CFO Bill Felt, an affable, medium-sized man, for whom, as a member of the Executive Steering Committee himself, this is not news at all.
"It sure is," says Yvette. "OK," she adds breezily, "let's move on to New Business."
People assume new positions. Several yawn into loosely held fists. Howard Crain, Facilities, a barrel-shaped man with spiky black hair, blows air between his lips and sneaks a look at his smartphone. He is also wearing a walkie-talkie clipped to his belt which has in the past crackled to life with one facilities matter or another during BAF proceedings.
As if to fortify herself for the New Business to come, Meghan Hanratty, a heavy woman representing Support Staff, sips from her can of Pibb Xtra, the current incarnation of her all-time favorite soda, Mr. Pibb. If you go to the small house near the airport that Meghan shares with her heavily-tattooed bodybuilder husband you will find on display unopened cans of Mr. Pibb representing different graphic designs and soda formulas, as well as original Mr. Pibb marketing materials, dating back to 1972.
Yvette passes out stapled packets of papers in both directions around the table.
"All right," she trills. "This is interesting."
Everyone goes en garde—apparently in response to her use of the word "interesting"—and just then, Ralph and Rebecca make an entrance.
"Sorry I'm late," says Ralph, a database administrator representing IT. He is a medium-sized man wearing a cream-colored dress shirt over a white undershirt visible at his neckline. His navy blue pants are so tight that his pocket openings flare from his medium hips like the ears on a stuffed animal. He carries zero awareness that Rebecca has also entered with him.
Rebecca walks in with an unfocused look in her eyes, her lips slightly pursed as if she is part humming, part murmuring to herself. She is a big woman who manages a call center and is wearing a waistless, scoop-necked dress. She walks slowly and deliberately, with a slight side-to-side motion.
She and Ralph take the two empty chairs flanking Yvette, which brings her some emotional balm, as Ralph and Rebecca did have the option of taking seats far away from her at the foot of the conference table.
"We're just getting to Roman numeral three on the agenda," Yvette says, with renewed happy-go-luckiness. She slides both of them an agenda and a handout.
People flip pages.
"Now we all know," Yvette continues, "that Advantage is built around a proactive, managed care philosophy, and that fits really well with our wellness program."
"No pun intended," Ralph sniffs.
"Yes, of course," Yvette perseveres. "And I want to introduce to you today—just something to consider, something we can just talk about. Just to take a look at their incentivized premium structures for their Choosing Wellness Plus plans. Now the top sheet is an overview, comparing the four plans, and then—"
"This says we can't smoke," says Meghan Hanratty, who likes to smoke on her porch and watch planes take off and land while enjoying an ice-cold can of Pibb Xtra.
"It doesn't say you can't smoke," Yvette starts.
"Well, it says you have to pay more if you smoke."
"I think it's better to think of it as you can pay less if you don't smoke," Yvette says, directing her smile around the table like a flashlight in a scary basement.
"What this is, and I'm sorry to have to say it, but this is a wake-up call from the future," Ralph says in his subterranean bass voice. "It's a tough pill to swallow but we can't let something like this get our shorts in a twist—it's just reality. In the past five years premium costs throughout the industry have increased on average about 6.9% per year. Like it or not, we've got to find some creative ways to cut costs. I'm as wary of Big Brother as the next guy—"
"Exactly!" Rebecca interjects. "This is an attack on personal freedom!"
"Well, now, again, let's just walk through this," Yvette says. "We don't have to recommend this. It's just interesting to consider."
"I mean, they're using the BMI here, for a healthy weight, and that's kind of been discredited," says Howard Crain tentatively. "Hasn't it?"
Charlotte Webb, who represents the Consultancy, bobs her chin while opening her mouth several times in a row without saying anything. She is skinny with a light-bulb shaped face and her blonde hair pulled back so tightly there is an alarmingly seamless forehead/hairline transition. She has a horrific travel schedule that often means she will miss meetings of the BAF, but when she does miss she will read the minutes and send a point-by-point commentary to everyone via email.
"For athletes," Charlotte finally breathes. "BMI is not reliable for athletes."
"What can I say," Meghan Hanratty says. "My partner and I enjoy eating."
And suddenly it's impossible not to think of Meghan Hanratty sitting on her sofa in her underwear, eating from a pasta bowl brimming with fettuccine Alfredo, layers of flesh settling conically on the spindle of her spine like soft-serve ice cream, while her bodybuilder husband struts back and forth in a unitard, eating from his own heaped and steaming pasta bowl, both of them watching Ice Road Truckers. It's just impossible, that is, for the skinny people not to have this vision, which they do collectively, with amazingly similar details. "I mean, eating is a part of life," Meghan continues. "Are you saying that we can't eat anymore?"
"Oh no," Yvette says, shaking her head with real feeling. "Of course not."
"Now, no one knows what's going to happen with Obamacare," Bill Felt offers, "but we're staring down the likelihood of serious premium increases for the foreseeable future. Just sayin'," he adds nervously.
Ted Orton, teetering on the border between medium and skinny, sits with one elbow on the table, contemplating his open hand like Hamlet holding Yorick's skull.
"Ted, what do you think?" Yvette asks.
A tireless but erratic manager in Direct Marketing, Ted is disturbed by the fact that he is able to tighten his buttocks and then grip both of them in the span of one below-average-sized hand, holding them together in a shape that he feels represents their true volume. He is holding out his open hand and marveling that its span essentially represents the width of his absurdly small ass, which he is terribly self-conscious about due to a mocking comment made by an attractive woman during an ill-fated skinny-dipping episode in college.
Ted is aware that he has not followed the discussion very carefully to this point, nor has he been able to grasp the details of the handout in front of him. He does, however, understand how this topic is likely to embarrass fat people, whom he knows are already on the receiving end of more crap and scorn and thinly veiled moral outrage than he could stand, and he does not wish to add to their burden or offend them and have them like him less than they already do and yet he worries that poor health raises premiums for all. He launches himself into speech with only a dim idea of what he wishes to say:
"Well, I think if we think of the concept of insurance, what it does, what it's trying to do, this is pretty complicated. I mean, we all do things that impose on each other, in that we create costs by what we do and don't do. But, I mean, that's what insurance is for, right? I mean, what we do collectively, to each other, and what it costs? If I get in a car accident, that'll cost everybody else money, to fix me, and that's OK, though I guess some impositions are not strictly accidental, but still, we can't control everything—we're all basically accidents, I think, at some level—I mean, not in a bad way." Ted's face flushes. "So, really, this plan, the Plus plan, and its permutations, which honestly, I'm not sure I get all the variables and differences yet, is just another example of what insurance is."
Yvette puts two fingers to each temple and closes her eyes briefly, as if she is receiving a telepathic transmission from outer space.
"Is there a way to not think about this," Howard Crain muses. "I mean—just to live and let live?"
"I don't feel safe," Rebecca says darkly.
"This is humiliating," Meghan says, beginning to cry.
"Insurance means never having to say you're sorry," Ralph intones. "Now let me explain what I mean by that."
And Ralph begins explaining.
This issue has placed the skinny people and the fat people in new and unfamiliar roles. The organization's fat people are used to being in the vanguard of progress—they tend to treat future possibilities with a strange possessiveness, as if they have called dibs on them. On the other hand, the organization's skinny people have tended to stand still on the small square floor tile of the past because that position has mostly worked or been the lesser of many evils; they see the possibilities of the future, and they are willing to proceed cautiously toward them via the old methods, but the way the fat people want to achieve new and outrageous goals sometimes seems heedless and impatient.
Yet now it is the skinny people who are changing the rules, who are stepping over what might be perceived as a personal boundary.
The fat people sometimes forget personal boundaries and resist the organization's rules because they sense that boundaries and rules, in general, are against them. The skinny people think that without rules we are nothing; without boundaries we are too much of everything. They feel that the two-tiered premium structure is simply the manifestation of a rule that has been latent for too long.
The skinny people want to be liked, and the fat people want to be liked. Even as they fight each other, the skinny people and the fat people both have virtues and foibles, many of which are un-related to body size. The fat people want to be liked for who they are; the skinny people want to be liked for who they are not, for what they resist, morally, and in terms of French fries.
With the battle lines drawn, weeks of bitter fighting ensue. In an apparent security breach, a report on the obesity epidemic from the Centers for Disease Control is spammed to the entire organization from an email address that proves untraceable. Rebecca replies all by challenging her colleagues to take a "Respecting Differences Inventory," which she has attached. Ralph replies all with the observation that the inventory contains what he considers to be "leading questions" about body size.
Ted Orton offends both sides with his awkward efforts to mediate the conflict.
"Heck, I could be healthier myself!" he cries at one meeting, and receives glares.
As the conflict escalates, the fat people begin to mirror the behavior of the skinny people, and vice versa. The mirroring mainly takes the form of name-calling and angry accusations that flare up in informal conversations throughout the organization, which as a whole is now well aware of the issue. The fat people accuse the skinny people of "fat shaming"; the skinny people accuse the fat people of "denying reality." Yet, physically, over time, they grow more apart. The skinny people get skinnier; the fat people get fatter.
Rebecca misses a BAF meeting to attend a school event for her child. Early in the following meeting, she takes a phone call, excuses herself and does not return. Then the following week she shows up only near the end, just as the BAF holds its final vote on the new plans. Seeing a pattern, Ralph takes umbrage. After the meeting, he accosts Rebecca not ten yards from the door of the still-emptying conference room and tells her that her "passive-aggressive tactics" are "unacceptable." Rebecca refuses to respond to Ralph. Instead, she runs (more or less) to her office and composes a lengthy email to the CEO of the organization threatening a hostile workplace lawsuit.
Yvette Jenks goes home to her husband and lets him enfold her in his large soft arms.
"I'm only trying to help them," she says, her hurt and disappointment pressing against her throat like a metal bar.
In the end, the BAF deadlocks four against four, which gives the Executive Steering Committee, composed almost entirely of skinny and medium people, leeway to adopt the Advantage Plus Accelerated Wellness Premium plan, because the skinny view is more congruent with the powerful social ideal of healthful living. And if the skinny people are about anything, they are about trying to live up to socially accepted ideals.
Back in their offices and cubicles, contemplating the news, the fat people call and text each other with bitter assessments and articulate expressions of personal pain and disappointment and emotional upset. They defiantly raid snack drawers and consider whether the situation is more Orwellian or more Kafkaesque.
But even though the skinny view has prevailed, it is not clear that the skinny people have won. Reflecting on the outcome in their offices and cubicles, the skinny people feel affirmed, on some level. They also realize they have brought more people into the long and ever-narrowing windowless corridor down which they proceed, a corridor that, unfortunately, sometimes figures prominently in their night terrors. The skinny people think, "Well, now the fat people will know what it's like to be me all the time."
"Welcome to hell," these skinny people think.
I got interested in dramatizing some of the assumptions and social conflicts that arise around body image.