Tag Archives: fat

You’re Fat! A Look at Global, Weight-Related Bluntness

OK, so I may have put on 10 pounds since I got married. This would have been fine had I stayed away from major gatherings like the wedding I attended yesterday.  But such was not my fate.  It was a very culturally diverse Los Angeles wedding and many in the crowd had not seen me since my wedding five months ago.  Reactions to my more “jolly” physique ranged from a quick look to the waistline to the obligatory “marriage treating you well, huh?” and I barely avoided the more direct, “You’re fat” that my wife says my mother-in-law is more than capable of delivering with characteristic Filipino weight-related bluntness.

How to react?

How do you bounce back from a bout of bluntness?  Do you laugh it off?  Do you take offense?  In answering that question it helps to remember what cultural context you are dealing with and whether the bringer of the bluntness meant for his or her statement to be offensive, whether it was a joke or whether it was meant as advice.

Direct vs indirect cultures

When I was studying Spanish in Latin America, I quickly learned that nicknames were often physical.  As people warmed to you they could assign you a completely arbitrary nickname like “gordo” (fat) or “flaco” (skinny) and you weren’t supposed to take it personally.  It was a sign of endearment.  Sometimes the descriptions didn’t quite fit – as in someone called “gordo” wasn’t too tubby in real life.  I was lucky to have friends that explained the custom to me.  If you tried calling random friends “fat one” in Swedish culture you would quickly discover a less charitable side to the Scandinavian experience.

The difficulty in knowing whether something is culturally appropriate is that general assumptions about direct vs indirect cultures don’t always apply.  For example (and this statement is going to revel in stereotype), American culture and communication is often seen as being fairly blunt and Filipino culture is seen as being concerned with face-saving and polite indirectness.  If you are in need of help from a friend in the US, you probably would just tell the friend you need help.  You may end up doing the same in the Philippines, but depending on the situation and how sensitive the actual verbalization of the need for help, Filipinos may want you simply to see their situation and offer to help.  This is obviously a tough one to navigate and most non-Filipinos have to learn how best to handle sensitive situations through trial and error.

Here’s the catch though:  A newcomer to Filipino and American culture may decide that since American culture is “blunt” and Filipino culture is “indirect”, it’s OK to tell someone they are fat in the US but that you can’t do so in the Philippines.  NOT SO.  Most Americans would rather do themselves bodily harm than have a heartfelt one-to-one with a chubby friend regarding his or her weight issues.  Walk into a Filipino Christmas gathering though and a number of aunties will take it upon themselves to, regardless of your gender, ask you “What happened?  Why are you so fat??”  It’s mortifying but true.

Chime in or stay out of it?

So do you join in as a newcomer?  Should you, as a traveler in Latin America or crasher of Filipino potlucks, declare friends and acquaintances fat or skinny?  I would go with a cautiously adventurous approach.  Often there’s an initiation period when you move somewhere or otherwise join a cultural group.  Much the way it can be annoying when someone joins your friendship circle and starts trying to use clearly “inside” humor too quickly, trying too hard to be funny or to fit in, often backfires.  Take some time to settle in, spend your social capital carefully and get some local advice when in doubt about what to say.

And now I’m going running…




Bjorn Karlman


Quick Solution to American Tubbiness? Fat Chance.

fat person

“Would you give the fat guy next to you the same deference as the tall guy behind you? Why or why not?”  Slate asked the question after the Twitter/media storm surrounding director/actor Kevin Smith’s February 13, 2010 ejection from a Southwest flight for being too fat.

“Dear @SouthwestAir – I know I’m fat, but was Captain Leysath really justified in throwing me off a flight for which I was already seated?” Smith tweeted.  As he landed in Burbank, after being seated on another flight, Smith followed up with “Hey @SouthwestAir! I’ve landed in Burbank. Don’t worry: wall of the plane was opened & I was airlifted out while Richard Simmons supervised.”.

And Smith did not stop there.  “Go F**k Yourself , Southwest Airlines” was the title of his SMODCAST (116) in which he blasted the airline for being the “Greyhound of the Air” and swore he would never fly with them again.  Wikipedia claims that Smith pummeled Southwest with 24 further YouTube videos about the event.

Southwest apologized to Smith and responded on its blog in a post titled Not so Silent Bob, citing the comfort of other passengers and the priority of a “timely (emergency) exit from the aircraft” as priorities that led to their actions.  Smith’s Twitter followers were divided in their response to his anger.  Of course, Smith had sympathizers.   But Slate did a good job of compiling the comments of some of his followers that felt Southwest was justified in its actions and that Smith’s tubbiness was the actual problem:

1. “sitting next to someone bulging into my seat for 6 hours is agonizing”
2. “unfortunately each ticket is
allocated a weight.”
3. “access 2 every option for weight loss yet
u don’t take advantage. why?”
4. “You’re big, you’re rich,
pay for the 2nd seat and stop griping.”
5. “why weren’t you
first class(?)

These replies may be appropriate for Twitter but the PR nightmare that hit Southwest from Smith’s new media-savvy fury was enough to remind any company that anything that even vaguely resembles discrimination against obese people has huge firestorm potential.  The anti-PC crowd will jump on this as another example of what they see as the gutless tendency of mainstream culture to label issues as taboo and therefore necessitating extreme tiptoeing and denial.  But then this is the same crowd of buffoons that blasts gays, thinks racial humor is funny and speak nostalgically of a time when shooting your mouth off was the norm.  “Eat less” would be their advice to the Smiths of the world.  “Talk less” seems to be society’s reply to them.

So how do you appropriately treat the issue of obesity in American culture? On the one hand we push fad diets and the lean ideal, and on the other, our lifestyle (left unchecked) leads straight to plus-sized waist lines.  If you attempt systemic change through education, you could end up like Michelle Obama, who, in her campaign against childhood obesity, was heavily critiqued for speaking of her concern for her own children’s body mass index (BMI) woes. Denial won’t work either: It will only ensure that our next 50 years look like the previous half-century of fast-food-fueled fatness.  It seems innovation and some risk-taking could help.  For all their faults, Americans have an impressive ability to rise to the occasion and rethink life.  This could come in useful.  Until then, lift your armrest for Kevin Smith.



Bjorn Karlman

Fat, obscene and pervy… your post-Christmas guide to Santa

Santa Claus

Christmas has come and gone.  As the festive fuzzies are replaced by a cold, bleak and broke January, consider the following about Santa to help you get over Christmas:

Santa is crude and scary

Recruiting firm Westaff encouraged its 2007 Santa trainees in Sydney to replace their traditional greeting of  “ho ho ho” with a blander “ha ha ha” because the former could scare kids and, as Australia’s The Daily Telegraph put it, “One would-be Santa has told The Daily Telegraph he was taught not to use “ho, ho, ho” because it was too close to the American slang for prostitute.”

Santa encourages obesity.

Santa is way too fat and, as such, is a bad example for kids. Acting US Surgeon General Steven K. Gallson said in 2007 that Santa should lose his body fat, start eating carrots instead of cookies and wear a helmet when conducting activities on the roofs and in chimneys.

Santa spreads diseases

Now that we have swine flu to further spread Christmas cheer, Australian academic Dr. Nathan Grills says in the Chicago Tribune: ‘“Unsuspecting little Johnny gets to sit on Santa’s lap, but as well as his present he gets H1N1 influenza… Santa continues on his merry way and gives the ‘present’ to a few more 100 kids before coming down with influenza himself.”‘

Santa is a pervert

What is it about Christmas that makes it OK for strange old men in musty costumes to sit around with unsuspecting minors in their laps for days on end at the mall?  Remove the context of Christmas and it is downright disturbing to consider placing children in the lap of a tubby stranger who is said to “see you when you’re sleeping” and “knows when you’re awake”, who makes out with mommy and has a thing for a reindeer with a shiny nose.

Santa runs a sweatshop

Santa is a hell of a taskmaster.  His poor elves pull brutal shifts as they scurry around making toys and loading sleds for all the children of the world.  What do they get for this herculean feat?  Christmas cookies.  Not cool.


Bjorn Karlman