Fat: The BIG issue

They've been called chubsters and metabolically challenged. Now the Magic Numbers have walked out of 'Top of the Pops' after one jibe too many. How hard is it to be fat and famous? Michael Bywater weighs into the debate
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The Independent Online

Fatty. Fatty. Fatty-fatty-fatty. Not to mention Porker, Hoggy, Hippo and Pig. Also: Four-eyes, Wanker, Barmy, Knob-Nose, Swottie, Gimpo, Spazzer, Ten Men, Porgy, Scaff, Mono, Slob, Girly, Creepy, Speedy, Dogsarse, Weeper and Snitch...

Ah, the cries of the playground, homing in on any oddity, idiosyncrasy, feature, colour or mark. I was Barmy. Once, briefly, I was Four-eyes. For a couple of years, following a small but painful foot injury, I was Crip. (Originally, I was Spazzer, but another boy, who didn't so much limp as twitch, was assigned the moniker Spazzer and I became Crip.)

I didn't mind. Everyone copped it. It was the price of admission; It was what schoolboys did, and still do. English men do it, displaying their affection through personal abuse, and scarring each other for life. I still cannot walk into a room with confidence, knowing that the distinguished, imposing man I am today is surrounded by a phalanx of shameful avatars: Barmy, Four-eyes, Spazzer and Crip.

They wouldn't stand a chance now. Now, I would be Fatty. Fatty is what you can get away with. Most insults are intolerable now. Tell me, as a friend did this week (honestly and not without good reason) that as the years passed, I looked increasingly like a grumpy old Jew, and you move beyond the pale of political correctness. I might sue. Others might sue. Hate legislation would be invoked, and outcry.

But Fatty... Fatty is still, somehow, OK. Unless, that is, you are in The Magic Numbers, who walked off Top of the Pops this week after the presenter allegedly described them as fat. Glistening with outraged rectitude, the band announced that: "Due to derogatory, unfunny remarks made during the guest presenter's introduction to our performance, we felt we had to make a stand and leave. It was an important day for us and should have been special. We didn't take this decision lightly but stand by it."

The "insult" itself was almost inane. "What do you get when you put two brothers and sisters in a band?" the presenter supposedly said in rehearsal. "A big fat melting pot of talent."

Unfunny? Yes. Probably not even meant to be funny. But derogatory? "Derogatory" is not the word which springs to mind in this case. Words which spring to mind include "grow up", "get over yourselves," "attention-seeking self-pitying silly-billies", and "all the better for a good hard smack".

Yet their marvellously narcisso-solipsistic, 21st-century willingness to be affronted and take offence, is unsurprising. They are, after all, in show-business, and the name is no mistake. It's not called "look-business" because it's not about us looking, but about them showing. The music is just a soundtrack for them; a jingle for the artefact which is, in these visual, post-literate times, their real product.

There are some things that you can't be if you want to be a visual product. Just as you can't sell dog food for people to eat, you can't sell fat people to consumers of the picture perfect, unless of course it is ironic or political (think of Fat Actress) or unless what is being sold is the fatness itself (think Richard Griffith, who sells it to us in much the same way that we buy Pedigree Chum for our dogs: it's not for us, you understand...)

In other words, you cannot be normal and fat. And nothing is more normative than pop. Its idiosyncrasy and rebellion are merely graphic designs, seductive packaging on a product of such uniform, market-tested conformity as would horrify a bowler-hatted civil servant or identikit clerk of Days Gone By. They were themselves, out of hours. Now, even in their rooms, the consumers of popular image make obeisance to the laws of market conformity.

And at the end of the chain of slender, full-lipped, moody rebellion sit the industry sages, Buddha-like: middle-aged men who are themselves neither thin nor young. Because they can be. Because they have reached Nirvana; they are behind the image, and so have transcended it.

They can, if they wish, be fat. And we can call them fat.

We can call anyone fat; perhaps because anyone fat somehow doesn't really count. The insult operates like a magic bullet, only harming certain targets who had it coming anyway. Call me fat and I will merely smirk, and think fondly of the women I have known and you have not. Call a Famous Person fat - and by "famous" I mean in the postmodern sense, someone whose image is the most important (and possibly the only) thing we know about them - and you attack their very reason for existing, and the very possibility of their continuing to do so. But Famous People themselves don't count. They have put themselves in our hands, and so become neither free nor slave, but subject to our collective will. If they fall, we are merely entertained, which is their job.

There is little enough opportunity for insult otherwise, God knows. Appearance, colour, height (or lack of it), being black, being white, being brown, being Chinese, being red-haired, wearing glasses, being of dubious legitimacy: all these are simultaneously too specific and too diffuse to be used any more. To criticise someone's physical appearance, race, religion, habits or accent is now - correctly - seen as an invasion of their decency, a denunciation of that which they can do nothing about. And perhaps failure really is deferred success.

But, in such a mealy-mouthed world, the chance to to call someone something is a relief. Fatso, Porker, Lard-arse, Whale, Blubberguts: yes! The last target of acceptable insult! And we can claim some moral altitude into the bargain. The Hog is undisciplined, his wobbling gut an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible disgrace. The Whale probably smells, wheezes, snores; chapped damp fungal skin infest his vents, folds and outpouchings, and by refusing to attend to it (diets, bran, the gym) he proves he is doing it on purpose, to annoy everyone else. Look at the Hippo, stuffing his face, burger-grease splashing down his nine shiny chins: he could be different but he doesn't want to be. He won't make the effort. He would rather be Vile, in his sportswear.

Pernicious drivel, yes, but aestheticist drivel, confusing form with substance. And timely; we are all aesthetes now, driven by the misogyny of the frock magazines, in turn driven by the relentless body-sculpting of the gay scene (where bodies are all there is), itself a parody of the cheap tricks of the romantic novel, where all heroes are lean, with rippling muscles hard as whipcord. But whipcord is cloth, for heaven's sake, saftig... and so women and men alike fall bodily victims to a failed simile. In the postmodern age, when everything is text and we are all actors, it is curiously appropriate.

But in refusing to play, in distancing himself from this fascist system of differences, the Fatso stands as a reproach to the tribe of images like dog-food pie in a lo-cal sushi bar. If the Fatso doesn't care, is everyone else being fooled, as they pick at their lettuce leaves and go nowhere slowly on the Stairmaster?

And when the last Fat Man, stung by insults, has gone over to lettuce and joined the gym, who will we pick on then?

Voices of substance

Ewen MacIntosh - Big Keith from The Office

"I've never felt being fat was an issue for me. I'm a character actor and, though weight is often an element of the parts I play, I just get on with my job. And I turned down Celebrity Fit Club because I didn't want to go down that route on prime-time telly. I've been very lucky with the public. I've never had any stick from anyone. I'm sure that's because people have such affection for The Office and my character. And Richard's a friend of mine, so I'm sure he didn't mean to offend anyone."

Ann Widdecombe - MP and agony aunt

"Calling someone fat is purely descriptive. The exception would be if someone deliberately intended it to be insulting. I'd say [the Magic Numbers] were being over-sensitive. I don't think there is anything wrong with calling someone fat. If people take it as an insult then that is down to them reacting badly. They should do something about it."

Andy 'The Viking' Fordham - former darts world champion and star of Celebrity Fit Club

"I have close friends who say stuff about my weight and I know they're just mucking about. But then I get strangers walking into my pub saying things and they don't even know me. A lot of people seem to think it's all right. After Celebrity Fit Club I had loads of e-mails from people saying I'd given them more confidence. It's lovely. I get people coming up to me in the street saying, 'well done'." Andy's wife, Jenny, adds: "The way people talk about fat people is like they've got no feelings. It's the wording I don't like. It's when they say things like 'guzzle-guts' and 'gut-bucket' that I don't like. Who would say to someone on stage: 'You're ugly'? Just because he's fat doesn't mean he's greedy."

Aldo Zilli - Italian chef

"In this country you have this joke thing about being fat. It's not a joke, it should be taken seriously. It's a serious problem. I've been overweight for 10 years. I didn't want to carry an extra three stones around everywhere I went. I look at photos of me a while ago and I Iook like my dad. I wanted to get slim and stay slim. It's hard work but it has to be done."