The question itself may be as deeply offensive as asking whether you can "smell a nigger (or a kike, or a paleface) a mile off" or whether you can "feel the presence of a gook (or a chink, a limey, an arab, a redneck, an okie, a hick) long before you see him (or her)." Nonetheless, the question is worth examining for what it-and some of the answers-may tell us about the social positioning of fatness in our society.
The question I have posed, of course, is really shorthand for, "Can you hear a fatman (or fatwoman) coming?" I can list some instances where similar questions entail answers which are meant to be complimentary: you can hear a president coming by the shouting of folks along the parade route; you can hear a dancer coming from the taps on her feet; you can hear a pretty woman coming by the wolfwhistles that follow her. But I can list many more instances where similar questions ential snide answers: you can hear a lawyer coming by the oil dripping from his wallet, you can hear a gossip coming by her incessant chatter, you can hear a miser coming by the squeak of his cheap shoes, you can hear a bad driver coming by the backfires or squealing breaks of her car...and so on, generally slanderous of one or the other gender as well as of profession or skill.
There is worse than slander to the question, "Can you hear a fat person coming?" For the moment, though, let us take the question literally. Why might someone in our society believe that he or she can hear fat coming?
Because, as is commonly thought, fat people waddle, and waddling is as much about noise as it is about imbalance. Fat people waddle because they have feet too big for any decent pair of shoes. Or because they have bad knees and ankles from trying to carry all that weight. Or because their thighs rub together and cause rashes unless they walk with their legs spread.
Because, as is commonly thought, fat people wear clothing that does not fit, and their clothing makes noises even when they are not waddling. Fabrics of the necessary magnitude rustle and billow. Or specific fabrics are strained by the bulk they must hold in, so they make irritating sounds like the earth shortly before a quake. And the pants, skirts, blouses or shirts of fat people are always ripping and tearing, due not only to the severe shearing forces but also to perspiration so profuse that you can almost hear the acids of their bodies eating away the fabric.
Because, as we all know, fat people huff and puff and wheeze just walking down the street. They have emphysema, which is why they got fat in the first place-or because they are fat they have bad hearts, cannot exercise much, and therefore breathe hard under the least duress. They are frequently asthmatic, for like allergic asthmatics, they have been raised by overprotective mothers who used food as a substitute for love. Don't fat people also have a remarkable habit of breathing through their mouths, as a result perhaps of the weight of their triple chins pulling their mouths open, or as a result of their sad confusion of breathing with eating?
Because, as is commonly observed, fat people tend to eat with open mouths, so make eating noises which are impolite and can be heard from a distance. Their fat hands make them clumsy eaters, with or without utensils, and their gluttony makes them incautious eaters: two more reasons why they are so loud when they eat. They smack their lips in delight, slurp their soup and ice cream, and eat in such gulps that they end up hiccuping, coughing, or gagging and choking. And since they are almost always eating, they are often to be heard eating, hiccuping, and, choking in public.
Because fat people, always hungry, perpetually broadcast stomach noises (the medical word for which is "borborygmus"). Their borborygmus is louder and more annoying than the stomach noises of others because their cavernous bellies make superb echo chambers for the rumblings and grumblings.
Because fat people, eating hastily and hugely, fart a lot. This is indisputable, isn't it? Their farting, although low in tone, is extensive and extended, and is one of the prices they must pay for being such indiscriminate diners.
Because fat people, as most movies show us, snore. Having eaten so much, fat people sleep a great deal, and something in their enormous physiology prevents them from sleeping quietly. Possibly it is the phlegm in their throats from undigested bits of food, possibly it is the fat floating around in their system which obstructs their noses, possibly it is a wind that, when not expressed as flatulence, must issue in some other way.
Because fat people, awake or asleep, break and crush things as they waddle or as they take a siesta and turn and snore and turn and snore. Fat people cannot see the ground, so they cannot see where they are walking; furthermore, they are constantly distracted by aromas and glimpses of food, so they are constantly bumping into things and shattering them. Asleep, they may even inadvertently roll over and smother their children. (No one hears this at the time, but everyone has heard about it.)
Because, making love, fat people cannot help but be loud. A pair of fat bodies together in bed force the springs to creak (or the water to roil), the frames to crack, the walls to shiver, the floor to buckle. (This can be heard and felt by anyone in a vaguely neighboring apartment, or across from one tract house to the next.) And, to be blunt, you cannot help but hear fat people coming: they are as noisy in their lovemaking as in their waddling and their eating-huffing and puffing and wheezing and groaning and moaning, every sound inflated by their large lungs and cavernous bellies.
Because, all in all, fat bodies are inefficient bodies, and inefficient bodies, like inefficient machines, make noise. Physical noise: fat people drop things, stumble across doorsteps, get caught in revolving doors. Social noise: unable to fit into modern life, they are always complaining about something-the temperature indoors or out, the size of airplane seats, the narrowness of stairs, something.
So, certainly, you can hear fat coming. In a culture where obesity is configured as a characteristic which pervades every aspect of the individual, fatness must be clearly detectable by each of the senses., Fatness is ugly, the fat person a visual blight. Fatness is putrid, the fat person a stinking morass. Fatness is repulsive to the touch, the fat person a jelly-like mess. Fatness is awkward, the fat person an oaf. And fatness is audible, the fat person a noisy presence.
Fatness is positioned in American society not simply as a feature of physical appearance but as the core constituent of some human beings, who are identifiable through and through by their evident bulk and weight. Americans may in fact be trained from an early age to sense the approach of fat people so that they may keep their distance from something so horrible and dangerous.
To claim to be able to hear a fatman or fatwoman coming, therefore, is to do more than to slander fat people. It is to confuse physical traits (accidental or genetic, temporary or permanent) with intrinsic identity, a confusion which is as lazy as it is vicious, for no checklist of stereotypical measurements, contours, and skin colors can stand in for the long, hard, important work of getting to know a person on his or her own terms.
Racists, especially racist leaders and propagandists, have claimed for themselves a preternatural sensitivity to the odors and effluvia of lower beings. Their hypersensitivity, and their confusion of the physical with the moral or spiritual, allows them the paranoid luxury of keeping their distance from those they most hate and most fear. That selfsame distance, of course, means that they can never find themselves.
Note: As we do not live in a cannibalistic society, I can make no direct comment on fat people and taste-except to say that in the metaphorical sense fat people are seen to be in every violation of good taste, and that the ideal food is fat-free. ß
HILLEL SCHWARTZ received his Ph.D. in history from Yale University. He has taught history, religious studies, and dance improvisation at several universities, including the University of California at San Diego. He currently lives and writes in Encinitas, California. His book "Never Satisfied-A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat" is regarded as a milestone in the Size Acceptance movement. Dr. Schwartz' deeply philosophical perusings of size issues are a treat to those who appreciate true brilliance.