As we enter the Digital Age, we are readily exposed to media’s idea of beauty. The media slowly implants its distorted view into our minds that we can only be beautiful if we have long legs, voluminous hair, and curves in all the right places. We find ourselves valuing heavily on the information and advice from magazines on beauty, fashion, and diet plans. These unrealistic standards pressure us into thinking that the media’s definition of beauty is the only definition of beauty. Both Andre Dubus’s The Fat Girl and Flannery O’Connor’s Good Country People reveals how societal standards cause weakened mentalities, insecurities, and desires to change our figures. By extension, the two authors imply that beauty comes in all forms, so we should learn to completely accept our current body image for the right reasons. Dubus’s use of images of the characters, character foil, and numbers and O’Connor’s use of purposeful names, kitchen setting, and point of view contribute to each author’s unique take on the same message.
Since the beginning, Dubus has been smuggling in descriptive images of every female character to contrast body shape expectations with reality. For example, Louise’s mother is “slim and pretty” and “ate very little” (45). Genetics place this high probability that Louise should be slim too. Even though her mother is slim, she has determination and strong will to resist food temptations. In another example, Joan is “thin, gangling, and flat-chested” (46). Dubus mentions the flat-chest last to prime the audience into thinking that Joan has the ideal body up until we read about her only physical flaw. It is implied that society believes that women with big breasts are attractive. All the females in this short story are skinny, including the unnamed mysterious girls from college. This causes Louise to hate her body, ultimately forcing herself to commit to a strict diet plan. Although Dubus relates body image with the success of getting married, he argues that Louise should be losing the weight for herself, not to seek a marriage partner.
Another contrasting technique is the meaningful character foils. It is evident that Louise’s parents are mirrors of each other based on their dialogues and the way they treat their daughter. Her father says, “Oh give her a potato,” but her mother argues “If she has a potato, she shouldn’t have dessert” (45). Her father then suggests that she should have both. We see that the mother as someone strongly cares about how her daughter is presented to society. She believes that if Louise has a nice body, she will get better treatment from boys. Her body type would ultimately determine whether she will be married or not. However, the father believes that boys should love Louise for her personality, not her figure. It seems like her father is nurturing her the right way because it does not promote Louise’s sneaky habits of eating. However, Louise should learn to accept her figure by eating publicly. The society and her mother enforces Louise’s desire to lose weight. If she does have the this intention, she should slowly decrease the food consumption before strictly limiting herself to a set number of calories and meals per day.
Finally Dubus uses numbers to indicate the significance of the weight number to a female. Every time Louise weighs herself, we see some sort of reaction from herself, her family, and her friends. For instance, after jotting down one hundred and sixty-two pounds in her notebook, Carrie was “afraid if Louise went home at Thanksgiving she would lapse from the diet” (52). This number evokes fear in Louise and Carrie because they know how easy it is to succumb to good food. We learn that dieting requires compassionate support and continuous efforts. On Easter Sunday, when she was one hundred and twenty pounds, Louise “felt she was being friendly with a recalcitrant enemy who had once tried to destroy her” (53). This is an analogy: Louise is to food as friend is to enemy. Food may be harmful to her body, but Louise reminisce the times where she could just indulge in her cravings. The “recalcitrant enemy” is an oxymoron. As long as Louise eats accordingly, the food or the enemy will not fight back and ruin her shape. In this case, Louise has control over the detrimental effects of the enemy. During the period of dieting, we do not see any increase in weight. Louise slowly becomes obsessed with her weight number and scaling herself has become a habitual routine.
Now onto O’Connor’s side of the spectrum: he uses purposeful names to highlight their characteristics. Mrs. Hopewell names her daughter Joy, which places expectations on a infant that hasn’t even started living her life. She changes it to Hulga because of its “ugly sound” and her “vision of the name working like the ugly sweating Vulcan” (3). The Vulcan is a biblical allusion to the god of fire and also the dark star companion of the Sun who sparks religious wars. All this reflects Hulga’s miserable life filled with inevitable obstacles like her weak heart, her amputated leg, and her suffocating routine. It’s her wooden leg that physically isolates her from society. Others perceive her as an outcast when in fact she is one of them, with feelings, thoughts, and dreams. Although she cannot retrieve her leg, she can prove her capability. That is why she worked studiously for a Ph.D. In philosophy. However, underlying the name that sounds like the female version of the Hulk is her vulnerability. Instead of trying to disprove society, Hulga should accept her disability and slowly start interacting with the right group of people outside her household who will also accept her as a regular human being.
Next, by not mentioning any scenes from the other quarters in the house, O’Connor actually amplifies the importance of the kitchen setting. Whether it is breakfast, lunch, or dinner, Mrs. Freeman “always managed to arrive at some point during the meal and to watch them finish it” (2). Mrs. Hopewell, Hulga, and Mrs. Freeman are trapped in this awkward space. Hulga needs an emotional escape from this routine and a physical escape from this household. Hulga blames her leg for hindering her from taking action and inhibiting her from experiencing happiness. Therefore, when Manley Pointer comes into her life, Hulga eagerly follows him and escapes into a delusional happiness. Had she accepted her condition, she could have made some friends who would share genuine quality moments with her bounded by trust.
Finally, O’Connor uses third person omniscient point of view to reveal the thought processes of Hulga and Mrs. Hopewell and their awareness of the image the leg gives off. Her mother thinks that if Hulga “would only keep herself up a little, she wouldn’t be so bad looking” (3). Mrs. Hopewell believes that the wooden leg should not obstruct Joy from finding a marriage partner. She has the potential to lure a male in if she would just groom herself, dress more femininely, and style her hair. To Hulga, however, that leg is her vulnerability even though she appears to be arrogant and independent. After Pointer tenderly takes off her leg, she repeats “give me my leg” (13). Although Hulga learns to accept her artificial limb, face her insecurities, and entrust it with Pointer, she did it for the wrong reasons. She desperately wants someone to love her entirely and even imagines erotic scenes with him because she wants to experience normal dates that other teens experience at her age.
There are many reasons why we are drawn to The Fat Girl and Good Country People. A close analysis of the self-image problems evident in these two short stories shows us how relatable they actually are. One argues for the justice of fat people while the other argues for the justice for disabled people. Fat people should not be ridiculed for their body shape. Even the media thinks that top models are still not perfect enough and thus resorts to Photoshop. On the other hand, disabled people should not be ostracized for something they have no control over. Either way, both fat and disabled people are still humans with humanistic qualities. They should not be subject to society’s negative influence if they do not want to be. We have to remember the rule we learned as kids: do not judge people based on their appearances. Even if the media makes it difficult for us to follow this rule, we have to learn to value their intrinsic qualities.