Suzi Feay: The fat have to take it on the chins

It's perfectly all right for a pop star to go, 'I'm mad, me, out of control', as long as they watch their food intake
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The Independent Online

But it's hard not to sense the genuine regret in the statement they issued about their walkout. "It was an important day for us and should have been special," they declared. (And hard to suppress a smirk at their comment: "We didn't take this decision lightly.")

Some have found their action deplorably wet: Ann Widdecombe credited them with "a degree of sensitivity not normally associated with the pop world". Clearly Widdecombe, who "last watched Top of the Pops in 1966", hasn't heard of Jeff Buckley, Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis or Nick Drake, none of whom was known for his breezy, devil-may-care outlook on life. But they were all thin. Some sensitivities are more acceptable than others.

Fat, Widdecombe maintained, is merely a descriptive term, not a derogatory one. This is the unlovely point of view once put forward by the Brimson brothers, football hooligans turned authors, who maintained that calling a footballer a "black bastard" was surely no different from calling him a "fat bastard". The Magic Numbers have been known to joke about their heftiness. There seems to be a contradiction between their relaxed, take-us-as-you-find-us authenticity and their sudden decision to take umbrage with Bacon. But then making the odd self-deprecating quip is a bit different from being presented to the nation by someone who's so keen to get the word fat into the sentence that he forgets to make any sense.

Accept yourself as you are, say the diet books. It's the only way you'll be able to change. But in his thoughtful new book The Hungry Years, Atkins dieter William Leith attacks the myth of fat acceptance. Even Dawn French, at the launch of her own range of roomy clothing, was not interested in talking to Leith about size. "Dawn's done all that now," her publicist said. "She wants to steer away from that." Leith concludes: "Nobody accepts fat people. Not even fat people. Particularly not fat people."

Robbie Coltrane didn't want to discuss the obvious either. Leith tried to talk to him about his weight and its emotional roots during an interview. "The feelings were locked up in an oubliette deep inside his brain ... with a fat person, there is an elephant in the middle of the room, and nobody's allowed to mention it."

Leith's book looks as if it's hit a nerve in the way that Susie Orbach's pioneering Fat Is a Feminist Issue did. Fat still speaks, just as it did to Orbach back in the 1970s, but nobody wants to hear what it's got to say. It's perfectly all right for a pop star to go, "I'm mad, me, out of control!", as long as they control their food intake. Would a pie-eating Pete Doherty still be NME's coolest man on the planet? If it weren't for the cheekbones, would we listen to the frail wailing of James Blunt?

Both Leith's book and another recent fat memoir, Judith Moore's Fat Girl: A True Story, demonstrate an alarming degree of self-hatred. "When I pull my T-shirt over my hot, swollen torso, it feels like rolling on a condom," says Leith. "I am a short, squat toad of a woman," writes Moore. Both Leith and Moore find the roots of their fat problems in childhood. Putting on weight was a scream of despair. Slim people, who don't wear their traumas on their bodies, are culturally permitted to act them out. Fat people, who do, are only allowed to be jolly, and to take jokes about "big fat melting pots" on the double chin.

Susie Orbach demonstrated decades ago that fat is a visible sign of emotional pain, but if that was a bid for compassion, it failed. There are 300 million obese people in the world today. Can fat ever be innocent again? No wonder Dawn French didn't want to talk to William Leith.