OK, this isn’t entirely true. In fact, according to the Spanish government, they’re also in the midst of an obesity epidemic, which I find adorable. It’s rather like when I lived through a “drought” in Louisiana, which, as far as I can tell, just meant the banana trees were wilting a bit. So, yes, there are heavy people here, but, really, nobody does fat on the same scale (wokka wokka!) as the Americans.
I read a really interesting (and mind-bogglingly thorough) book about the U.S. surge in ass size called Fat Land that made a lot of interesting points. Sure, class contributes (ever see a nice outdoor park in a poor neighborhood in the States?), the lobbying of farmers forced to produce corn with nowhere to sell it contributes (hello, omnipresent corn syrup! and your progeny, Type II Diabetes!), as does the lack of money for cafeterias in public schools, the marketing of junk food to children, enormous portion sizes, and TV/video-game-based lifestyles. The one thing I found most illuminating in the book (OK, the farmer part was really interesting also) was the different manner in which weight in treated in the U.S., as opposed to the rest of the world. Namely, Americans see weight as a social issue, and the rest of the world sees it as medical.
I saw this reflected in a not-so-good book I read while at my parents’ in Sydney (they’re Bryson fans, I’m a Sedaris fan, and nary the twain shall meet), called French Women Don’t Get Fat. While largely touting recipes for watercress soup in boring-to-too-flowery language, I did see the mentality that Fat Land mentioned reflected therein, most notably when the author comes home from living the the States for a few months to a father who hugs her, then tells her she “looks like a sack of potatoes” before getting a doctor to prescribe her the aforementioned watercress soup.
Sure, the French may be nastier about it (insert your favorite joke about snotty Frenchmen here), but the same thing happens here. One of my officemates just returned from a trip to Mexico to exclamations of, “Look how fat you got! You really like those chilaquiles, eh?” It wasn’t meant as an insult–or really even as a judgment one way or the other–but merely as a statement of fact and nothing more.
Begging for more examples? Well, certainly! Here ya go: I work at a university, and I tend to eat with mostly students. Teenage-to-early-twenty-something girls are the QUEENS of body talk, constantly wondering if they look too fat in their jeans, if they are too fat in general, or if that guy over there is noticing how much they’re eating. In that sense, eating in the cafeteria here has been sort of like eating in a cafeteria on another planet. I sit and listen to the girls talk about an upcoming beach vacation they’re taking. No talk of tans to cover cellulite, no freakouts about eating a big lunch a week before being seen in a bikini, no obligatory back-and-forth pumping the other up while cutting yourself down (“I’d kill for your tits.” “No, seriously, my tits are nothing compared to your legs. My legs are lumpy messes.”).
This may sound normal to most readers (with phalli), but to the women out there, I will be one million dollars this sounds bizarre. This is because, in spite of all the attention female-based media pays to body image issues, believe me, women talk about it amongst themselves much, much more. It’s subtle, but it’s definitely always there. And, since being here, I’ve been struck by the deafening silence where once was a constant stream of self-effacing comments.
I suppose I noticed the sudden silence because I was engaged in lots of weight-based conversations during my pregnancy. My grad student at the time (a voracious eater who will never even grow into a size 2–it is worth noting that none of the other girls here say anything envious about this fact, or really talk about it at all) told me all the time that she’d noticed I hadn’t gained much weight. I’d tell her I was eating plenty (obviously; we were at lunch at the time, which is a 3-course affair here), but maybe walking around the city was burning it off. She’d just shrug, say that was normal for some people, and start asking me about day trips I planned on taking with Luna once she was born (“You have to go to Toledo! Oh, and Sevilla!” The Spanish are obsessed with internal travel, and never ever ever miss and opportunity to promote it to foreigners).
The same thing happened after I gave birth. I’m currently about 15-20 lbs. lighter than I was pre-pregnancy in spite of not setting foot in a gym since we left Louisiana (a fact I’ve strategically hidden from friends in the States, for fear of my life). Here, my sudden shrinkage has evinced several comments, though they are always said with the same tone people use when they notice Luna’s constantly runny nose. They just notice it, in the hopes of being helpful, and then move on.
This is not to say that the Spanish are immune to tabloid talk about celebrity bodies. As I speak, the cover of one of the local gossip magazines (there are maybe 100) highlights the best bikini-clad asses in celebrity-dom. What they don’t show, however, is a “worst” for every “best,” or an exhaustive list of what foods to eat or not eat in order to achieve said ass. Instead, Paz Vega and her ilk are treated like pieces of fine art: They are admired, but not thought of as models to which everyone should aspire. Paz looks like Paz, so you don’t have to (if you will).
I’m not sure how to start extricating the stigma about weight talk from our culture or our vernacular, but I’m fairly sure it’ll be a process. In the meantime, I’m going to see if I can keep Luna away from all that silliness. With any luck, she’ll continue to react to me complaining about the cottage cheese on my ass the same way a dog looks at the TV (head cocked to the side, expression of bemusement playing upon her wee lips, wondering when I’ll get around to feeding her).