As someone who is employed for the expressed purposes of describing—”sketching,” as they say— the words, actions, behaviours and appearances of public figures, I am a keen student of community standards as they relate to physical description. And so, of course, I have been watching with great interest the discussion that has resulted from the printing and retracting of Stephen Marche’s description of Toronto mayoral candidate Rob Ford as “fat.”
This description—”great deflated tires of defeat,” Mr. Marche wrote quite illustratively—has provoked a great deal of consternation and, indeed, condemnation. To the greater community, the use of the term “fat” is apparently offensive. And on those grounds, Mr. Marche has been soundly and publicly rebuked. We have, as a society, identified a line over which it is unacceptable to tread.
So be it. But we should not let this pass with that as the only result. Here, indeed, is a teachable moment—a chance to ask ourselves pseudo-intellectually serious questions about how we describe the shapes, sizes and features that constitute the human mosaic. If, indeed, we are to describe them at all.
For if it is wrong to describe a politician as “fat,” is it equally wrong to describe a politician as “skinny?” If not, why not? If so, what about a euphemism like “lanky?” Could Mr. Ford be described as “round?” Is he tall enough to qualify as “huge?”
What about describing the colour and style of a woman’s hair? Or the shape of a man’s jaw? Or the tremendousness of an individual’s eyebrows? Is it okay to note that someone is “attractive?” How about “not unattractive?” These might not seem anything to be ashamed of, but surely they diminish by stressing the superficial, no doubt they create something of a caricature. Indeed, what about caricatures?
(Tangentially, how about describing the physical characteristics of a politician’s preferred sexual partners? Out of line? Or perhaps allowable if invoked for the purposes of attempting to make a larger point?)
What should be done when a politician changes his or her physical appearance? Should that be noted? Can it be scrutinized? Would it be fair to speculate on the motivation? Would it be all right, say, to consider the political implications and larger, no pun intended, meaning of a prime minister’s weight, as has been done in recent memory? What if that same prime minister employs a stylist? Is there a difference between weight lost and weight not lost? If Mr. Ford loses a significant number of pounds, will it be all right to consider the implications of that? Should it go unmentioned or simply unconsidered?
And, most important, what does all of this say about the good people of New Jersey?
As it is, I confess I sit here—looking pale and skinny, if a little soft around the middle—feeling conflicted. On the one hand, if we were to treat our politicians as nothing more than the sum of their words, promises and actions, we might eliminate much of the superficiality that has come to infect our discourse. On the other hand, we would thus deny that they and we are, in most cases, human beings.
Indeed, for the former perspective to rule, a total ban on visual depictions of political candidates would also have to be enforced. Were commentators, in that case, to start commenting on the tone, tenor or accent of one’s speech, audio recordings would also have to be banned. We would have, essentially, to reduce these figures to written statements. This might somehow be purer. But it would also be less interesting. It would, in fact, be completely incomprehensible to our species. How many of us could confidently cast a ballot for a candidate without first seeing and hearing them? Maybe who we are is not only our word and deed, but also what we are and how we are.
Perhaps then to deny the size, shape and weight of Rob Ford is to deny ourselves.