Last week, Target got nailed to the wall a little bit when a Twitter user discovered that the website description for the plus size version of a particular dress was marked as “manatee grey,” while the misses size version was just “heather grey.”
Cue outrage -- understandable, certainly -- that Target was having a laugh at the fat ladies’ expense, by comparing them to manatees.
Anybody who’s spent any portion of their life fat -- or even not-fat -- um, ANYBODY WHO’S SPENT ANY PORTION OF THEIR LIFE IN A BODY has probably faced the animal-based insult at one point or another. I have heard it often, from being called a whale regularly in middle school to a boy on the bus my freshman year shouting “THAT GIRL IS AS BIG AS A HORSE,” to my horrified shame, on the first day of school.
Animal comparisons are troubling on some level because they really serve to dehumanize people. I mean obviously. You are literally comparing a person to an animal, and in so doing you’re kinda dismissing their personhood, making them a thing instead of an individual. Things don’t get the same dignity and respect as individuals.
So when that kid called me a horse on the bus, my heart sank because Fuck, this is the first day of school and the tone has been set, that I am going to be the bus punching bag from now on -- before anybody here even gets to know me enough to realize I’m also a person.
Ultimately, it didn’t turn out that way (there was another girl who got on at a later stop whose chronic failures of hygiene took some of the bullying pressure off me, sadly enough) but that was my expectation, and I expected it because that had been my experience in the past. Once somebody calls you out as the fat not-human? It’s hard to convince the masses that there’s more to you than that.
My point being that I have some background on this. And yet, I was unoffended by Target’s manatee flub -- for which they have since publicly apologized, explaining that “manatee grey” is a common color name for many of their products, but that the dress should not have been named thusly. I get why some shoppers would have been put off by it, certainly. But it didn’t bother me.
Because there is nothing fucking wrong with a manatee.
Manatees are awesome. They’re calming. They spend their lives floating lazily in shallow water in warm climates and eating 10% of their body weight in vegetation every day. They perform yearly migrations and tend to cluster in Florida in the winter, like retired New Yorkers, and they can hypothetically live to 50 or 60 years of age, although most will die before they’re 30 owing to the loss of their habitat and human intervention.
Unfortunately, hundreds of manatees die as a result of being hit by speedboat propellers every year -- they’re not quick swimmers so they can’t always get out of the way in time -- and this is especially troubling because manatees are an endangered species. They’ve been under federal protection since 1973, but even in all that time, as of January 2011 it is estimated that there are as few as 4,800 manatees left.
Manatees are also kinda magical. Back in 1493, Christopher Columbus spotted three manatees off the coast of what is now the Dominican Republic, and mistook them for mermaids, calling them "not half as beautiful as they are painted,” which could be a slam except for the fact that Columbus was a huge asshole who oversaw a lot of the enslaving, raping and murdering of practically all the native people he met so frankly I think his disdain for the beauty of manatees is pretty in keeping with the man he was.
You meet someone who thinks the humble and placid manatee is unpleasant to look at? That oughta tell you something. Yeah, that's right, I judge the manatee-haters.
I’ve had a manatee fixation for much of my life, helped along by my childhood in South Florida, where many waterways are lined with signs warning boats to keep their speed down and watch out for these rad creatures. So I have a hard time hearing “manatee” and thinking of it as an insult.
For the same reason, I also have a difficult time getting angry when anyone compares me to a hippo, because hippos will fuck you UP. Hippos kill almost 3000 people a year in Africa. You do not interfere with a hippo. But when the word is used as an insult, many people recoil, because the hippo’s size becomes representative of a generalized form of digusting fattery, and we all know that disgusting fattery makes you a bad person. Everything else hippos can do becomes less important than their ability to represent fatness.
But hippos, like manatees, are amazing animals (is it weird to call them role models?). So I don't get upset. While it’s not okay that the hypothetical insulter is trying to injure me, in my case it is kinda awesome that they will inevitably fail, because I don’t respond to the insult as an insult. (The same thing happens when someone just calls me fat. It doesn’t bother me, because I AM fat. It’s not a word that hurts, since I have spent years using it myself in a value-neutral way. I might be mad that the speaker felt entitled to make a public comment at me in the first place, but the comment itself isn’t particularly upsetting.)
I'm suggesting that our kneejerk offense at even the most tenuous reference to large animals -- as in the Target kerfluffle -- is another manifestation of our deep-rooted social revulsion toward ANYTHING that implies fatness.
I mean, even a direct manatee insult is always dependent on their size. If I get called a manatee, I know the person speaking is not referencing the fact that I eat a lot of vegetation and enjoy swimming, although both of these things are true. It’s inevitably a reference to the manatee’s perceived fatness, because their fatness is ostensibly the most central feature of the species (as can be socially true for fat people as well), and the hyperbole is meant to make me feel badly about myself. You're so fat you're not even a person anymore. It doesn't work, because I know better.
So while there are definite problems with these animal analogies, and while I'm not saying people aren't allowed to feel their feelings about it, I just can’t get worked up about the whole deal. Sometimes life is too short to think of a manatee as anything but a rad thing to be compared to. You can call me a manatee anytime and I’ll take it as a reminder to connect with my zenlike inner sea cow self -- something I should do more often anyway.
And really, the Target incident isn’t about calling fat people animals -- it’s hard to make a case that this was anything other than an unfortunate mistake, as Target has no reason to alienate the people to whom they’re trying to sell stuff. I think this is really about our cultural imperative to perceive ANYTHING THAT COULD BE READ AS FAT as a negative aspect and a blight on our character. Instead of being able to just accept that fatness is a neutral attribute that sometimes exists, whether we like it or not, in animals and in humans.
This is what fat-hating body culture has wrought; many of us are super defensive, all of the time, and it’s an exhuasting way to live, albeit one that is often necessary for our survival. Thus a manatee isn’t a beautiful stout mermaid of vegetable-eating leisure, and a hippo isn’t a powerful people-devouring warrior-beast. They’re just fat. There’s nothing else to them. Our social and cultural fat-loathing bleeds into our perception of everything, and sometimes it even causes us to overlook things that are secretly beautiful, underneath all of our cultural assumptions and impositions. Like manatees. Or ourselves.