Friday, May 4, 2007

Shelley Winters Syndrome

If you have ever struggled with a weight problem, have you ever felt as if you had to be 10 times better than everyone else just to prove that you're "worthy?" To prove you're good enough to "compensate" for your size?

It's the Shelley Winters syndrome. In one of my all-time favorite disaster pics, Shelley Winters plays the fat lady stuck in the Poseidon Adventure (1972 version) after the ship hits the iceberg, turns upside down and six or seven of our fair heroes follow fallen priest Gene Hackman to their eventual rescue. The survivors are all "types." You have the fallen priest, the waifish girl, the gritty ex-cop with the reformed-hooker wife, the old man, the child, and the fat woman--which is where our fair Shelley comes in.

As they climb and climb to escape the rapidly water-filling ship, they make constant allowances for Shelley so she can get through the tight openings and manage to climb through the physical challenges. Shelley feels bad and is always saying how they're having to risk themselves for the fat lady. Then, finally, they come to a quandary--someone is going to have to swim underwater through a long flooded corridor carrying a rope so the rest can pull themselves through. Wait! says Shelley. I can do it! I once was a champion swimmer! Never mind she hasn't tread water in 40 years and 60 pounds.

But she does it, by gosh. She jumps in, swims and swims, secures the line, and then, of course, promptly dies of a heart attack. She has sacrificed her life to prove she was worth saving.

The reason I even began thinking about it was from reading this BBC piece about ethical dilemma questions. Two of the four questions involve sacrificing fat people to save other, presumably thin, people. I found the questions mildly offensive, but it did really make me start thinking about how often we sacrifice ourselves out of some misguided attempt to make people like us/think we're "good people"/think we're worthy of something.

How hard and how often do you try to "prove yourself?"

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