On Kummerspeck, the German Word that Literally Means "Griefbacon"
The German word Kummerspeck translates literally to “grief bacon,” and actually means “the excess weight gained from sorrow.” The phrase has a sort of perfect black humor to it, the words grief and bacon functioning with the perfect formal efficiency of a well-told joke: Grief, in all its heavy and self-serious pathos, the set-up, and bacon, in all its frivolous and vulgar silliness, the punchline. I don’t particularly like bacon, but I do like the word Kummerspeck. Griefbacon seems appropriate to me, somehow correct in its equation of abject emotion with fatty breakfast meat.
Both grief and bacon are embarrassing. They have to do with being too big, outsize and disallowed, spilling outside of where the lines are supposed to keep things neat. Grief is overwhelming, an emotion that halts the progress of day-to-day routine, demanding energy and time and attention. Grief doesn’t care who is looking. Unlike sadness or sorrow, grief isn’t pretty when it cries. Our griefs often become, at their most abject, funny—it’s common for people to start laughing at funerals, unable to figure out what to do with weight of bereavement, falling out of the logic of demonstrated emotion, the very size of loss an absurdity.
Many of the same things are true of bacon, a food so over-signified that it’s no longer a food as much as it is a discrete emotion. Bacon is decadent and absurd, dwelling squarely in the realm of the abject, the over-reactive, and the hyperbolic. Bacon is pure indulgence, absolute gluttony like a gleeful middle finger to the expectations of a polite, restrictive culture. Bacon itself has become a meme, and in its meme form it often signifies a sort of disgusting overindulgence. To eat bacon is to refuse the pure clean minimal function of eating, to refuse food as a utility, to refuse health as aspirational. Bacon is both permission and refusal.
Grief, too, is permission and refusal at once, sorrow so large that it overwhelms the obligation to logic and good manners. There’s something luxurious about grieving, an odd and unexpected relief in the way that a large enough loss or sorrow allows us to ignore and find unimportant all the petty concerns of the day-to-day, all the responsibilities that loom so large when the things that really matter are going fine. Grief takes us apart, and to fall apart is a luxury, the same kind of soggy and disgusting indulgence that one might feel at eating a lot of bacon all at once. Grief and bacon collide in a term that perfectly indicates the unruly and ungovernable body. Physical grotesquerie is at the center of what grief and bacon on their own indicate—grief mortifies the body, as does the consumption of bacon.
In our culture, the two things women are most warned not to become are fat and sad. As visible from daily evidence on the internet, the worst way you can insult a woman is to call her fat, and the best way to call a woman’s legitimacy into question is to accuse her of being emotional. A large body is an emotional body, leaking and spurting and feeling things, while a smaller, minimal body is restrained and unemotional. Scientifically and logically, these links and assumptions are completely unsupportable. Large bodies have nothing in particular to do with demonstrative emotion. In both advertising and social media, however, many of us are bombarded with images that use women’s bodies to depict emotion and weight in a one-to-one ratio. Bacon is feelings and feelings are bacon.
Weight-loss advertisements and misogynist media depict women’s bodies as quivering sacks of fat and emotion, squawking and getting in the way of serious people trying to go about their serious, unemotional business. Emotional eating is depicted as the greatest possible humiliation a woman can inflict on herself, and female appetite is always linked to outsize and grotesque emotion, be it sorrow or sexual desire. A voracious woman disgusts and repels, her body transforming into animal horror. To be taken seriously, we must shrink ourselves down, divest ourselves of both bacon and grief, paring away all excess. Griefbacon then, even in its indicated sadness, feels not only like luxury, but a triumph—to seize with both hands all that one is not supposed to have. To refuse to shrink oneself, to refuse to make one’s body inoffensive or one’s emotions neat and invisible, to insist on taking up space, on being an inconvenience.
My second-favorite tweet is a now-famous nonsense phrase, a slow burn joke that reveals itself as the reader realizes to whom the text refers:
Although Miss Piggy is ostensibly meant to entertain kids, her legacy is really the purely joyful hatred she inspires (another emotional state for which there’s probably a German word). I never quite understood Miss Piggy as a kid, when I watched any kind of Muppet media. As a girl, I could guess that she was the character with whom I was supposed to identify, but she was also patently a figure of terror. She was always screaming, and I was never quite sure why, nor was I sure why she was supposed to be funny. Like much humor purportedly for children, it was a joke I only got much later, as a adult: Women, particularly women actively seeking to be beautiful, are harpies made of bacon. Women are large and shrill and going to terrorize the earth. They do not leave the lizard alone. It was a joke I only got once I’d been alive as a woman long enough to have become accustomed to being called too large and too loud on a regular basis. Miss Piggy is living Griefbacon, feminine excess taken to a nightmarish extreme.
We use the word pig as shorthand for excess—“pig out,” “like a pig in shit.” Miss Piggy is hyper-feminine, and shrilly emotional, a pure misogynist fantasy of a woman whose emotions take up infinite space, a side of bacon that won’t stop yelling. She is what we’re supposed to fear and revile. Miss Piggy is an object of ridicule, much in the way that the collision of the words grief and bacon make us laugh. But, like Griefbacon itself, she is a refusal to shrink or be silent.
I still don’t find this character funny, no more than I find grief funny, but I do find her to be a useful reminder. Images of women eating or emoting are images of shame. Indulgence as a form of celebration is usually relegated to men, and bacon itself is one place where this divide occurs. Bacon’s wild popularity on the internet has been noticeably gendered male. The first instance of bacon’s appearance as something larger than a breakfast side-order option in culture may have been in Pulp Fiction, when John Travolta says “Bacon tastes good. Pork chops taste good,” a quote I still remember my middle-school boyfriend and his best friend putting on their yearbook pages where inspirational words were meant to go. Cooking shows promising a testosterone-soaked alternative to the traditionally feminine realm of the kitchen often focus obsessively on bacon—any Guy Fieri show has a reverently pornographic shot of bacon frying at least once between each commercial break. Bacon has a kind of masculine swagger. Abject emotions such as grief, also have a strange sort of strut to them, allowing the aggrieved person to step outside social niceties. But women, told to restrain ourselves, are traditionally shut out from this kind of emotional bacon-swagger.
There’s a reason that crying in public, or at least the concept of it, has become a meme in a way similar to bacon’s online popularity. Unlike bacon, this meme circulates primarily among women on the internet, and it’s one I’ve embraced, because turning the thing I’ve tried hardest all my life to stop doing into a funny, shared joke feels enormously powerful. As someone who’s often been told to calm down, or to make myself smaller, I find it even more urgent to insist that our grief should leave marks on us; our bodies are records of where we have been and how we have grappled with living. The constant sneering at women’s confessional writing, for instance, is a good reminder of how women are told to keep quiet, to avoid fatty, luxuriant confessions. But our grief deserves luxury and remembrance. Our experiences demand to be made material in our physical bodies. I find I return to the term Griefbacon for this reason, because it offers an understanding of grief that is neither restrained nor elegant, in which abject emotions are at once as serious as grief and as silly as bacon. Connecting the two in a linguistic one-liner is a reminder that food is always about feelings: sorrow exists on the same absurd animal plane as our hunger for bacon.