You have to first think that this sentence is announcing some sort of scientific breakthrough: products that fatten themselves. What products need fattening I’m not sure, but now they don’t need us to fatten them. If this is in fact the message of the sentence, then the women must be among the scientists who developed the products, or discovered a chemical that triggers self-fattening in inanimate objects. Well, hurray for our side!
Of course this is not what the writer meant. And of course I knew what he (probably) meant.
My student was writing an essay using a group of articles on fast food, some of which linked fast food directly to the obesity problem in America. The specific mention of women here leads me to surmise that he was addressing an argument in one of them that, at least for some women, obesity may be a conscious choice in defiance of society’s celebration of thin women, or as a way of coping with unwanted pressure to become sexually active. This was an interesting argument that most of my students couldn’t follow; some of them nevertheless wanted to use the article, and proceeded to write rather bizarre discussions. This student seems to have been one of that group.
What he meant to say, I imagine, was that women were buying fattening food products and therefore shouldn’t accuse fast-food manufacturers of “making” them fat. Certainly this was a point a number of students made in response to other articles in the section: that people should blame themselves for eating fattening food, not fast-food restaurants for selling it to them.
He may have chosen “themselves” rather than “them” for fear that “them” might be mistakenly assumed to refer to “products.” Or he may have chosen “themselves” because student writers do seem to like to add “self” to pronouns—and that tendency isn’t limited to student writers: I’ve received many an e-mail and many a marketing letter that ends “please feel free to call the secretary or myself.” The “-self” has ceased to do its reflexive or its emphasizing work if it itself attaches itself to every pronoun in sight. Has “me” come to seem naked or incomplete, that it turns so often into “myself”? Or are writers afraid to choose between “I” and “me” (because they can’t tell the difference between a subject and an object, a doer and a done-to)? For whatever reason, a trend is definitely trending, and so I can’t assume that my student was concerned with clarifying pronoun reference.
If he was trying to keep the reference clear, he made exactly the wrong choice. Had the sentence ended “fatten them,” the reader would not have entertained the possibility of self-fattening products, partly because products generally don’t become fat by any means and partly because “them” would clearly modify the principal and only human noun, “women.” It was the addition of “-selves” to the direct object that reflected the action onto the subject of the verb in its clause; and as the subject of this verb is a pronoun (“that”), the reader goes to the noun modified by the adjective clause and finds “products.” The women disappear as possible referents, and we get the amazing self-fattening products. What those products may be is irrelevant; a self-fattening hamburger is no more imaginable than a self-fattening hairbrush, DVD, snow shovel, or Game-Boy. If we can set aside a few singular products such as the self-“plumping” hot dog, we have an impossible sentence.
It’s pretty impossible in reality, anyway. But in my imagination, and in many a cartoon, I’ve seen things get bigger and bigger and bigger until they burst, and they haven’t all been balloons, dependent on someone to blow them up. From proverbial frogs to people’s heads, they swell dramatically in imaginary landscapes. The only thing I’ve ever seen that has fattened itself, though, is something capable of eating: a puppy, a person—sometimes even a woman.
I suppose I should consider the possibility that slender people might ingest a “product” that fattens itself after being consumed. Wow, what a story: “No, honey, I haven’t been binging on beer and birthday cake; I must have accidentally gotten one of those self-fattening carrots in my salad!”
This is too horrible to contemplate. I’m going to content myself with imagining a store whose owner has to add shelves every day as the products that sit on them get fatter and fatter, all by themselves.