Sofie Hagen is a young Danish comic I admire. I didn’t see her most recent show, Dead Baby Frog, but I saw her win the best newcomer award at Edinburgh in 2015 and I was happy for her. I liked her sweet face and her fury. The audience treated her as a benign oddity. Because Sofie is fat.
I say this with no judgment, for I am fat myself, but I am not as upset about it as she is. I make no attempt to spin my fat into a matter for universal sympathy and something to be admired. It is, as the adult self says, what it is. Even so, I used to write about being fat so often that other columnists told me to stop it, for fear I was monetising self-hatred. To which I say — what else are you supposed to do with it?
I used to think that my relationship with my fat was complex and confused with sexual and other anxieties (truthfully I wondered if I should blame men or, more specifically, Nazis) but now I am middle-aged I realise that I am simply greedy and lazy and I would rather eat too much than approve of my reflection. I made that choice and I must live with it. Apparently Gwyneth Paltrow used to eat nuts naked in front of a mirror to ensure she didn’t eat too many nuts, but I think that is, well, nuts.
I would conclude that my fat is a matter worthy of a brief burst of private shame, but nothing serious. But is it? Cancer Research UK has a new campaign. It is a series of posters that ask: what is the biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking? The answer is obesity but Cancer UK tactfully block out some of the letters so the answer is OB_S__Y. I would not have been so tactful. It is a public health announcement designed to save lives in a country where the majority are heading for ob_s__y, and children — children — are the worst affected. It follows other successful campaigns against smoking (sm__i_g) and flies. Or rather f__es.
Hmm, said I when I saw the warning. I must at some point try to remember to lose a vast amount of weight so I will not become immobile in my fifties and die shortly afterwards of a disgusting disease due to my laziness and greed. Thanks for reminding me, donors to Cancer Research UK! Perhaps I should eat naked in front of a mirror even if I think it is crazy? But won’t it put me off my food?
That was not Sofie’s response. Rather, she tweeted this: ‘Right, is anyone currently working on getting this piece of shit Cancer Research UK advert removed from everywhere? Is there something I can sign? How the fucking fuck is this okay?’
Comics have been moving into opinion journalism for some time, and this is what they have come up with. Let’s no-platform science if it wounds us. Whatever happened to proper jokes?
Two things then happened. The first was that Sofie got an appalling amount of online abuse in the way in which women who write online do, and this is woeful. The second was that her comrades in the Body Positive movement (they began seeking a healthy weight, but now any weight that’s yours seems fine) joined in and tried to derail Cancer Research UK’s campaign. One woman wrote a column suggesting that fat people die young because the medical profession hates them. And that, for me, is when pity turns to fury and I say: your denial gets to kill you. It shouldn’t kill — or defame — anyone else.
I am fat, as I said, and an alcoholic — this is called Broken Top Trumps and I can play it all night — and so I can say with some certainty: no one can shame a woman as effectively as she can shame herself. I think the campaign hurt Sofie not because it isn’t true, but because it is. And no one should have to avoid truth to save themselves from that shame, because it’s selfish. You can’t be fat-shamed by your cancer cells, but you can be killed by them. It’s obvious what’s worse.