On Monday, Marie Claire posted this short piece from Maura Kelly: Should “Fatties” Get a Room? (Even on TV?) Superficially a review of the new CBS sitcom Mike and Molly (which features two overweight actors in the title roles), the article was a festival of fat-loathing and body-shaming. Because it may well be triggering for someone to read, the rest of this post is all below the fold.
Among other jaw-droppingly hurtful things, Kelly wrote:
So anyway, yes, I think I’d be grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other … because I’d be grossed out if I had to watch them doing anything. To be brutally honest, even in real life, I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room â€” just like I’d find it distressing if I saw a very drunk person stumbling across a bar or a heroine (sic) addict slumping in a chair.
Within hours, more than 1000 comments of protest had appeared on the site, and Maura Kelly quickly put up an apology, which appears below the original piece. The story of her deeply unfortunate and offensive take on Mike and Molly has been much discussed in both the mainstream media and the feminist blogosphere over the past three days.
I glance at Marie Claire, one of the handful of truly global women’s magazines, but rarely read the online edition. And at first when I heard about the Maura Kelly piece, I couldn’t place the name. But then I remembered. Kelly, who is among other things the magazine’s “dating tips” correspondent, contributed an excellent essay to an invaluable recent anthology on anorexia: Going Hungry: Writers on Desire, Self-Denial, and Overcoming Anorexia. Published in 2008, it features some truly marvelous essays, including an offering from the great poet, Louise GlÃ¼ck. And as I remembered, among the better pieces in the very fine collection was one from Maura Kelly, detailing her own devastating battle with an eating disorder.
I re-read Kelly’s essay from Going Hungry this morning. Hers is a familiar story with a number of unique twists. When she was only eight, Kelly lost her mother to cancer. Beginning with the onset of puberty, she describes dieting as “a perverse way of mothering herself” (a family systems therapist might have said that her longing to avoid the onset of physical puberty and keep the body of a little girl was linked to the longing to remain always as her mother had last seen her, though Kelly never says that herself.) Living in a household with her widowed, emotionally withdrawn Irish Catholic father and a succession of housekeepers, Kelly finds order and structure and power in the counting of calories and compulsive exercise. Hers becomes an extreme case; she falls down to an unfathomable sixty-seven pounds and is hospitalized for several months during her freshman year of high school.
Kelly is honest about the difficulty of her physical and emotional recovery. Now in her early thirties, she still struggles with this most insidious of disorders; she notes, tellingly, that she’s “still waiting to regain feelings.” And as I thought about her own story, and the sheer cruelty of her Monday screed against the overweight, I thought of what another contributor, Ilana Kurshan, wrote in Going Hungry:
Anorexia rewired my brain and my aesthetic perceptions, and so while I am at a normal weight, my mind’s eye is still not completely refocused… I can always pick out an anorexic in a crowd, and when I pass a frighteningly skinny jogger in the morning, I turn my head to follow her with my eyes a bit wistfully.
Those aren’t Maura’s words, but they’re not just Ilana’s either. I’ve worked with a great many people who’ve suffered from eating disorders, and time and again I hear of both internalized and externalized body dysmorphia. Someone with internalized body dysmorphia might look at herself in the mirror and think “God, I look disgusting” when in fact she’s both healthy and attractive; externalized body dysmorphia is what you get when someone like Maura Kelly writes “I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room.” That overweight person, of course, symbolizes the deepest fears of the person whose body image perceptions have been distorted. As Kurshan wrote, anorexia rewires aesthetic perceptions — and anorexia rewired Maura Kelly’s.
I’ve not read all of Maura Kelly’s insights on the singles scene, which is her usual Marie Claire beat. I do think that both she and her editors should have thought carefully, however, about assigning the Mike and Molly piece to someone whose own body image issues remain unresolved. On the one hand, I feel deep empathy for Maura, and I honor her struggle and the tremendous candor she showed in her wonderful Going Hungry essay. On the other hand, she’s a woman in her thirties with many years of recovery who writes for a magazine aimed at women. She has a moral responsibility to remain cognizant of her own vulnerabilities and the “distorted aesthetic sense” that lingers long after healthy eating patterns have returned to an anorexic’s life. That responsibility is as much to others as to herself. The cruelties that she spewed forth on Monday did real harm, as the reaction to her piece showed.
Maura partly acknowledges this in her mea culpa beneath the original post
… a few commenters and one of my friends mentioned that my extreme reaction might have grown out of my own body issues, my history as an anorexic, and my life-long obsession with being thin. As I mentioned in the ongoing dialogue weâ€™ve been carrying on in the comments section, I think that’s an accurate insight.
Yes. But Maura needs to do more than acknowledge the accuracy of the insight. Speaking as a writer and as someone in long-term recovery from a cluster of intersecting addictions, I get how our own “issues” shape our words for good or for ill. But because our perceptions are still distorted by our histories, those of us who have that long-term recovery have a serious obligation to get independent feedback before we write about a subject so closely connected to our disease. Good editors do more than clean up our grammatical infelicities, they are attuned to the way in which our own troubled experiences may have twisted our views.
Maura Kelly was right to apologize. But she needs to do much more, including perhaps publicly acknowledging the ways in which the anorexic after-effect of aesthetic distortion continues to manifest.