Allure of the Denied Food and Fat Stereotypes

This post comes after reading the most recent post at a comedy blog that I love called Hyperbole and a Half.  The author, Allie Brosh, also posts on The Gloss and her simple MS Paint drawings add a depth of humor to her incredible prose that usually leaves me rolling around with tears of joy streaming down my face in between my guffaws of laughter.  Indeed; for fully 90% of this most current post I felt the same giddy sense of joyful amusement. Her insights into some of her own experiences and the world around her are often a fun, and intelligent at times, story to read.

In this post Allie relates an experience from her childhood.  I’ll pause to let you read it if you want so I don’t ruin it if you like….read it?  Good.  Moving on.

Now, unless you have had experiences similar to those of my husband*, you may have also really been amused at the drawings of a younger Allie in her childish antics, trying in vain to get more cake once she had one bite and become bitten by the Allure of the Once Tasted and Thence Forbidden Fruit.

I laughed not only because I could all too easily imagine Allie’s determination but also at how well the simple drawings managed to capture precise moments: that vehement glare when being sent to play, the sullen look while being forced to play with her toys rather than eat cake that wasn’t hers to eat.  Also, I laughed at how accurate her depiction of cravings one can experience when denied what you want can be.  Her intelligent determination to find a way TO EAT THAT CAKE at all costs was actually rather commendable.   She was like a mini cake-craving McGyver.

However, what left me with a sour taste in my mouth was the very end of the comic/post.  All through the comic (and indeed through the life of the blog) Allie draws herself as a young, thinnish blond girl in a pink dress.  Not for those last two panels.  No.  Once she has gotten and then EATEN the entire cake; she is drawn as a rolly-polly ball of a thing in a dress, smeared with cake.

Now if she had always drawn herself that round, I’d have no issue with it.  Heck, she makes a cute fat girl with that little blond ponytail.  No, I take issue with the fact that after all of this post about how this thin, sugar-crazed little girl succeeds against all odds and manages to snag her prize and EAT that gloriously desired cake; she is depicted as fat.  Why?  Not because eating that cake made her immediately that large (though her self-admitted feelings of over-fullness might have made her FEEL that round).  She was drawn as fat because that is who we picture when we think of someone eating a whole cake.  Not a thin, sugar-greedy little girl; a fat little piggy incapable of “self-restraint” in the face of cakey goodness.  So that’s what we see.  Self-fulfilling prophecy much?

I’ll admit that I felt a little let down.  It is ENTIRELY possible that Allie meant it as a cute drawing.  But that is part of the problem.  See, the trope that a person is only Fat because they lack the self-restraint and willpower not to Devour the World is precisely WHY I found the end of her comic so problematic, not so much for itself but as a reminder and indication of just how PERVASIVE these sorts of stereotypes are; right to this damn moment.  When someone says they ate an entire cake, of COURSE they will next be drawn as a chubby kid smeared with frosting!  I mean, that’s all Fat Kids do, right?

It’s like there’s this disconnect where we almost can’t imagine seeing that last panel as just the same thin girl smeared with pink frosting, looking not the least bit remorseful.  In order to BE thin, you can’t do the very thing that this thin girl did, right?  It’s not like thin folks ever have bad eating habits, only the fatties! As though, in order to have done that particular over-eating action she HAD to have, for the moment, become a Fat Kid; and not just a normal damn kid determined to eat a whole cake.  That’s what has always been rammed down our collective throats:  being Thin means you’ve Done Good; being Fat means you’ve Done Bad. That’s what I take an exception to.  The perpetuation of the idea that Allie’s action of eating an entire cake is one that can only be associated with Fatness.

So on the one hand I was excited to see someone post an amusing look into the way a child can become obsessed with foods to which they are denied access.

The allure of the forbidden tasty treats is so clearly outlined here and could be a fabulous example of why I don’t think sneak-ventures like Chef Boyardee’s new ads are valid or a good idea at all: (Obviously Delicious, Secretly Nutritious) proudly boasting that they are full of “hidden vegetables” so you can SNEAK them into your kid’s diet as a Secret Weapon (because, you know, lying to your kids is awesome for getting them to do shit, right? Battle those young minds, fight back against their insatiable desire to learn what they want to eat on their own by blindsiding them with VEGGIES hidden in (arguably) tasty foods!)**

But I digress.

On the other hand, after this fascinating and amusing look into the dark side of the forbidden cake hunt, we end with a scene that clearly depicts the fat kid as the end result.  It is a message which tells the reader loud and clear and (in a totally expected This is Just How it Happens sort of way): This is what would happen to me had I continued to eat in this manner forever.  Because, you know, that’s exactly how every single overweight, obese, morbidly obese, fatty McFatterson has “gotten where they are”.  And I call bullshit. Allie’s own story tells the opposite truth.  It wasn’t the fat kid at all who ate that cake. It was the thin child (who has grown into a thin woman).  And it is these small, tiny, seemingly inconsequential “Just take a joke, will you?  It was just a funny drawing!” sorts of moments which; when added all together, make for a culture in which people refuse to believe that people can be fat without having Gotten There via copious self-faulting moments like Allie’s.

It is these exact small jabs, ever-present in day-to-day life, which makes for a world in which assumptions about dietary and exercise habits are par for the course.  Fat Body?  Well of COURSE that means Fat Habits…and THAT is why every instance of stuff like this needs to be pulled out.  Because it DOES matter.  I may not be able to point out each and ever single one of the plethora of examples such as this that surround us; that would be a serious undertaking.  But every time someone does step up to point out how these little snide things make for a large over-arching belief systems which works to denigrate existence as a fat human being makes perhaps just ONE more person take a step back and reconsider WHY they might have found such portrayals funny…and why that might be not so funny the next time.

So in my open shout-out I say: Allie, you can do better.  You were a thin kid at the beginning and, though you might have felt like exploding from sugar and cake overload at the end of your successful mission, you were STILL a thin kid at the end of it.  Do not sully your work by falling into the hateful tropes about how Fat automatically equals Overeating Food Zealot without any concept of Self-Control when faced with Forbidden Sugars.  Okay?  You’re better than sneaking in (perhaps unintentional but still hurtful nonetheless) pot-shots at fatties to make a point.  Your image of a frosting-smeared Allie would have been just as good a punch-line had you remained your normal size.  Perhaps even better since, as I’ve laid out above, you would be relying on the story of wanton cake eating to tell your story; instead of a clichéd and tired trope about how eating that whole cake means you were somehow magically transformed instantly into a fat child.  Tell your stories.  They are amazing and well-told.  Refrain from making a poke at others’ expense to fuel your humor.  In the end your stories will be even better for it.

*Adam D actually grew up with 2 cousins who acted very much like Allie and always ended up ruining any family gathering with cakes or deserts by running fingers through frosting, taking handfuls of whatever they pleased and never feeling remorse.  It left him not quite as amused with Allie’s youthful actions as I was; having never had to actually experience such actions from the other end!

**Why not acknowledge instead that making something a Sinful Treat or a “Sometimes Food” makes it all the more desirable for its forbidden nature???  Why not address children as capable of thinking and understanding and try working WITH them?  Perhaps that would not have worked with Allie in this case, so smitten with the sugar-bug; but I fail to see how denying a child’s desires as if they can’t know their own body (or LEARN from doing things that make their body feel wretched) helps anyone in the long run!  But then again, I’m not a parent no matter how many child-rearing or child-feeding blogs I may read so feel free to chime in with thoughts on this!

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22 thoughts on “Allure of the Denied Food and Fat Stereotypes

  1. I think you might be reading too much into it here. I’m VERY sensitive to that kind of thing, and it didn’t hit me at all that way when I read it (I’ve been reading her stuff for a long time now). I think she was trying to show how bloated she was after eating an entire cake…which anyone would be, fat or thin. That’s just common sense, that if you jam too much food into your gut, you’re going to pooch out.

    Besides, the result, as she said, was that she spent quite a while hurking everything back up, something we fatties generally don’t do when we eat. At least, *I* don’t ;-).

  2. I’m with you, April. While I think Yorkie has a point that perhaps the fatness was meant to illustrate the bloated feeling, that certainly could have been accomplished by adding a touch of green about the gills to the already thin character, and perhaps her tongue sticking out to indicate how ill she feels. After all, she’s sick from eating far, far too much. Sick and fat aren’t the same thing.

    Oh, and I’m glad someone else hates those Chef Boyardee commercials as much as I do! After all, I have known plenty of kids who love veggies just fine without having to be tricked into eating them… and any kid who does is going to turn down food because there are veggies in them has probably seen those commercials, too.

    Of course I was the kid who always requested spinach for her birthday with the brother who always wanted Brussels sprouts.

  3. I thought it was strange to draw herself fat from eating a cake too. I also wasn’t keen on this oft repeated assumption that in this kind of situation, we eat a whole cake out of spite or stubborness, that’s more about your personal interpretation. The underlying urge is the thwarting of appetite provoking those signals to increase. If the mother had given the child a sweet, she might have been OK with that.

    The intrepid climbing through the window is precisely what those elevated signals are for to help you overcome to reach your goal of attaining sustainance. Imagine being in a place where there is no food, you have to keep going and overcome any obstacles to get to a source of food. Its about survival.

    Sorry, I had to say that because we need to stop treating hunger as if it is some kind of moral impulse full of rages and sly emotions, rather than a basically mechanical urge which adjusts itself according to how intelligently and effectively you respond to it.

  4. I like that point, Wriggles. It gets really old and wearing, feeling guilty about every bite of food one puts in one’s mouth. There’s always the idee fixe of, “Do you REALLY need that? Couldn’t you be eating something healthier? Isn’t this why you’re so big to begin with?”

    Really old. Like 30 years old. Way too long.

    • Yeah, hunger as an extension of our innate charater or morality is needs to go, whether it’s presented as ‘revealing‘ us as guilty, bad, furtive, rebellious etc.,

      NO PEOPLE, its just something that tells you to refuel and nourish yourself for goodness sake.

      Your character and personal moral code affects the ways you interpret and respond to it, it may even shape and influence it, but it does not create it.

  5. When my dogs were puppies they would bloat up to be quite roly poly after they ate. I think that’s what she meant. I mean my pups would go from skinny with no bellies to the roundest little things after eating. I don’t think it had anything to do with fatness actually, IMO

  6. I admit to being a bit offended by the suggestion that ‘most’ fat people do not vomit if we eat more than we can comfortably handle..that in itself seems to be expressing the belief that fat people CAN & DO eat any amount of food on a regular basis & never feel the need to relieve their discomfort by vomitting. Of course, I am coming from the position of a person who HATES eating large amounts of food at any one sitting. I have never binged in my life (I spent years accepting the popular wisdom that fat people eat constantly & huge amounts & that we all have compulsive eating disorders, reading several books which promised to help me cure myself of an eating disorder which I finally realized I DID NOT HAVE); I could never & would never eat a whole cake, unless you mean a whole cupcake. Of course, I have given myself permission to eat whatever I want whenever I want for many years, including cake. I don’t attach morality to food or eating, so I may take a piece of cake, have a few bites, & not finish it. After all, it is nothing special or magical & if I want more tomorrow, I can have it.

    I agree with you, April, & I find this portrayal of what happens when you give in to your cravings to be offensive. I find your post timely for me, too, since I was just recently irked by the statement by someone who is supposed to be a ‘fat activist’ that exercise helps determine health (up to a point, maybe, but more fitness than actual health), but that eating determines weight. Ah…no, just no, as many of us know from long, deep personal experience, & as so many long, deep scientific studies have also shown. There is, at best, a very tangential relationship between what we eat & what we weigh & you can in no way tell anything about the eating habits of a person based on that person’s size, any more than you can weigh his/her health or value as a human being.

  7. I honestly just took it as a visual representation of just how incredibly overfull a four year old girl would feel after eating an entire cake. Seriously, how much bigger was that cake than her actual stomach at that point? I didn’t see any kind of fat-bashing in it at all. Her head was about the same size as in the other drawings– only her belly was bigger.

  8. For me it’s just a representation how full she felt after eating an entire cake. Just thinking about it makes me feel how that final picture looks…bloated and uncomfortable!

    Having said that, I can see where you’re coming from. She could have just drawn the same figure with the empty plate, but I’m not convinced it would have been as funny.

  9. I didn’t see anything offensive about the last panel– just a little girl literally stuffed with cake.

    On the other hand… immediately after I read it I said “Allie is lucky she isn’t fat and drawing stories like this.” Can you imagine how quickly her legions of worshipers would turn to mocking hate if, heaven forbid, she portrayed a fat kid eating a cake? Hello thin privilege.

  10. She could have still portrayed a full, bloated tummy from all that cake without making the whole child fat. I mean, we’ve all seen someone who has eaten so much that they’ve made their tummy bulge out from the rest of their body, or done it ourselves!

    But no, the image had to be that little fat piggy, pig, pig, didn’t it? Because if someone eats a whole cake, by default they must be a fat person.

    Like others have mentioned above, I’ve never eaten a whole cake in my life. Yet I’ve got not-fat friends who most certainly have!

    • I tend to agree that even if Allie wanted to show a bloated or otherwise sickly feeling child; she could have done so with just a slightly bloated belly and perhaps a bit of greenish pukey look in the face. Instead, it is (as sleepydumpling says) a little fat piggy that is, for some reason, how she ends the comic. As if it wouldn’t be as FUNNY if it WASNT such a fatly round little kid we see by the end. If that, in itself, doesn’t speak to the trouble I have with such prevalent images I don’t know what does. Just by saying “It would be less funny if she wasn’t so huge” or something similar speaks to just how wired are brains are to accept that OverEat of Food = Fatness. THAT is the problem that I think needs to be pointed out over and over as such images and thoughts come up so easily.

  11. I feel like such a party-pooper… I did think the drawings were awesomely expressive, but I found the story depressing rather than funny. Maybe because I know a mother-daughter pair like this? I get so tired of watching the mom be the Sugar Police, and go on and on (right in front of her child) about how her daughter “is obsessed with sugar” and “can’t stop eating it once she stops” and “it makes her crazy” and “if I let her, she wouldn’t eat anything but cake” and “she’s JUST LIKE ME around sweets.”

    Talk about self-fulfilling prophecies.

    It’s like I’m watching an eating disorder being programmed into this preschooler. Watching the mom teach her own disordered eating mindset to the next generation. And mealtimes and potlucks and buffets become a depressing drama of rationing, policing, chasing, recruiting other adults to watch the little girl’s plate, scolding other adults who didn’t notice when she grabbed more sweets… UGH.

    (aren’t I a ray of sunshine for a first-time poster! But I really like your blog.)

    • Heather I think that might have been part of my problem with the comic as well because it just felt like maybe if little Allie didn’t spend her life thinking that cake was a forbidden thing; she might not have acted that way? But, then again, not having kids at all I still do realize that all of them respond differently so it is entirely possible that Allie’s mom wasn’t policing Allie’s habits persay but just trying to save that poor cake…who knows… still an interesting point to mull over: is it a self-fulfilling prophecy to call your kid sugar-crazed if you always deny them sugar, thus making them uber-excited to GET said sugar, thus further perpetuating the cycle?

    • But the cake is for Grandpa’s birthday! Not for Allie to pull handfuls from.

      Allie’s mom probably told her that she could have some at the party, LATER, but having been a little sugar monster myself, I know that that just would not have been good enough. CAAAAAKE. CAAAAAAAAKE. SUUUGARRRRRRR.

      Allie’s mom’s big mistake was not hiding it away immediately so that Allie never got a handful in the first place. It’s easier to hear, “Yes, you can have some–AT THE PARTY” when you aren’t already tweaking.

  12. The kid in the story was four – her Mom was trying to save the cake for the grandpa. I have five kids and have had to hide cake too – not to deny them the sugar because they surely would be getting a piece later, but to save the cake for the birthday boy/girl.

    I saw the illustrations as I am sure Allie meant them – to show fullness from eating a cake in one sitting. It was not a bash on the overweight people of the world. Are thin people going to have to be forever apologetic because they choose to draw, infer, say they were “fat” in a particular situation? Just because people are overweight doesn’t give them the right to word, illustration or scenario.

    I am saddened that people can read so much into a trite and inconsequential humor piece. To have your world colored in such a way that you see the bad before the good must me incredibly difficult – as if you are waiting for the next slap around the bend.

    That has got to suck.

    • I think it is clear that there are really MANY different views on how that one comic could be interpreted and that, alone, I find fascinating. Skippymom I am perhaps so used to hearing overweight/fat used as a stand-in for overeating that yes, maybe I AM just waiting for the next occurrences to show up. That doesn’t mean I’m necessarily wrong though when they DO appear. Isn’t there some line about just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean “they” aren’t out to get me? I’m always expecting there to be someone out there ready and willing to slap the “Fat” label on some activity or moment of their life. I’m HOPING it isn’t the case and perhaps that makes me hyper aware of every single time that it DOES still happen. Maybe that makes me a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy? Interesting to think about!

  13. In a recent series of “Curtis” comics, there was a character named Michele who is usually drawn as quite thin. She loses a bet with a friend and has to eat a whole pan of lasagna. When we next see her, she appears to have gained 100 pounds. She makes some money advertising a weight-loss product on tv. Then she got thin again, not from the product, but from exercising a lot and eating little. If I knew where the darn comic was archived on the net, I’d link to it.
    I mention it because I think it would illustrate your point about fat people depiction better. In fairness, fat is not always shown as a bad thing in this comic. Characters are allowed to have a larger variety of body types than comics typically feature.
    In the comic you referred to, my opinion is that the girl was shown bloated from all that cake, not magically and permanently turning into a little fat girl. And yes, it would have been a good idea to add a little green to her cheeks to emphasize the effect.

    • Mulberry that comic does sound worth examining. If you find it let me know!

      I think, overall, it comes down to my thoughts that Allie (who I’ve always found to be, as you indicated, rather diverse in characters in her comics/posts) could have done a bit better here to show a bloated/sickly full child (ie: greenly ill, etc) without resorting just to a giantly bloated body alone to convey the message of having over-ate.

  14. I found a few Curtis comics at http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/comics/index.html?feature_id=Curtis
    For fat Michelle advertising “Waist-Away” diet products, see October 4 – October 8.
    For the usual thin Michelle just being herself, see October 12 – October 15.
    Don’t feel too sorry for Curtis though – there is a girl at his school who is sweet and lovable and is crazy about him whom he thinks of as “just a friend”…
    For a positive fat character, see September 29.

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