Fat Betty

“Poor Betty!”

I actually said that out loud last night when, at the end of this week’s “Mad Men” (spoiler alert, I suppose), Betty’s Thanksgiving plate contained a single Brussels sprout, several cubes of stuffing, and a few paltry slices of white meat. Betty carefully cuts a bite for herself, puts it in her mouth, and chews methodically–counting each chew–until she swallows it down and moves on to the next precious morsel.

Betty’s struggle with weight may be the single most affecting I’ve ever seen dramatized. Traditionally, stories about the overweight start with someone who, as Frank Bruni might say, was “born round”; from “Jelly Belly” by Robert Kimmel Smith (which I remember reading as a kid) to Tracey Turnblad in “Hairspray,” the overweight are almost always presented as permanent manifestations of obesity, rather than complex human forms of fluctuating girth.

Betty Draper is a fascinating case because we watch her go from an exquisite object of desire to a plumper version of herself. Since most of us put on weight as we get older, this shouldn’t be particularly surprising or, even, dramatic; but what the show gets so perfectly right is the way it portrays the world around her. Don’s new wife is younger and skinnier than Betty (something Betty experiences vividly when she comes to pick up the kids and sees Megan in her underwear); and while some of the women in Betty’s world have careers and talents that give them confidence (Peggy Olsen, for example), Betty has only ever had her looks. And now she’s losing them.

Part of it might be medical (something that was explored in a previous episode), but then, last night, we see Betty go into the refrigerator, take a canister of whipped cream, shoot it into her mouth and spit it into the sink. Which suggests that, for Betty, food accomplishes what alcohol accomplishes for so many of the men in her world: it offers comfort, release and escape.

What makes Betty’s food struggles so particularly relevant is that, for the typical American woman, things have only gotten worse. Back in Betty’s day, magazines didn’t hunt down the “Worst Beach Bodies” or ask “Who Looks Worse In This Dress?” T.V. shows didn’t belittle the overweight with makeovers and interventions and boot camps; housewives existed with a lowercase “h,” as opposed to the capital H sort with their botox and tummy tucks and boob job enhancements.

Even the internet’s reaction to “Fat Betty” (which has essentially become a meme, hence the title of this post) has been mocking and cruel. I mean, yes this video is funny:

But it makes me wonder how many women of “Fat Betty”‘s size (which, in reality, isn’t that big) are secretly shrinking into their chairs at all the derision.

Mostly, though, I keep thinking about Betty at her Thanksgiving feast (which she presumably cooked herself) nibbling on tiny morsels of food, counting each chew. If I saw someone doing that at a Thanksgiving meal that I cooked, I’d probably rise out of my chair and say: “This is a feast…now feast, dammit!” But Betty’s story has made me see things differently–it’s helped me really connect with a person’s tortured relationship with food–and next time someone at my table spits their whipped cream into their napkin, I won’t say a word.