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Kim Kardashian at the Met Gala in 2019 and Venus of Willendorf, circa 30,000 BCE. Photos/Reuters, left; Getty Images, right

What the cultural history of fat says about modern society

Our obsession with body shape and fitness has accelerated since the late 19th century, when food became less scarce. But, throughout history, fat has been used as a weapon of social and political control.

Modern society is set implacably against fatness. The medicalised, wellness-obsessed West in particular sees fat as a mortal enemy, something to be overcome or purged. Twenty-first-century fitness culture glorifies ancient physical ideals, exemplified by the legend of the Spartan warrior, and views obesity as evidence of a lack of willpower or self-control. Indeed, it has been more demonised than sexual orientation, mental illness and addiction.

It wasn’t always this way. A powerful person in earlier times – a man in almost all cases – who carried excessive weight might, instead of being seen as, say, lazy, greedy or morally suspect, have been perceived as potent, monumental or representative of a healthy fullness. Largeness also suggested that one had the financial wherewithal to be able to eat well.

Today’s hard-line attitude to fat is only about 50 years old, says Christopher Forth, author of a myth-busting new book, Fat: A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life, which examines cultural attitudes towards fat through the ages. For much of history, society’s views on being fat were more complex. “It’s not as if there was a time when there was full acceptance then intolerance. It was more a matter of ambivalence and circumstance,” says Forth, a professor of history at the University of Kansas.

Christopher Forth. Photo/Supplied

Christian reformer Martin Luther was a slip of a thing in his youth, but became so large that he was effectively immobilised during his time in seclusion at Wartburg Castle. Yet his supporters were so successful in presenting him as an “icon of immovable force” that although some of his Catholic enemies depicted him as a pig, they found it impossible to wrench back the meaning of his bulk to suggest sluggishness or corruption. Luther himself distinguished in his writings between good and bad fat, viewing bodies as admirably solid or flabby and bloated.

“In the distant past, one could be very large and if one was able to apparently master other people and not allow himself to be dominated or conquered or shown to be weak, he instead could project strength and monumentality. In that sense, his fat probably almost seemed like hardness,” says Forth.

Now, humanity is in more of a social and physiological quandary: we have no excuse for not knowing the many health risks of being overweight. Science has demonstrated that the concept of healthy obesity doesn’t stand up. We also know that a lot of children are obsessed with avoiding fatness, that fat shaming leads to psychological distress and body hating, and that diets are a heartless treadmill that most will fall off. And we harbour strong suspicions that “wellness” is a euphemism that cloaks pernicious ideas about women’s size and shape.

Right back to Greek and Roman times, largeness had the potential for negative connotations such as disgust, greasiness,  moral corruption, indolence and animality. Fatness could signal softness or a loss of vigour, a kind of feminine pollution of the male ideal. Context and one’s actions, deeds and demeanour mattered.

Winston Churchill. Photo/Getty Images

Forth cites John Bull, a stout, waistcoated personification of the UK from the 18th century, who projected resolute masculine strength. Which brings to mind the short and solid cigar-chomper Winston Churchill. “Certainly during the war his size seemed reassuring. The immovability and potential to project the ability to hurt: I think a lot of these things are implicit and we don’t really articulate them much.”

Even today, it’s occasionally possible for the powerful to escape judgment for being overweight, says Forth.

“Donald Trump is fat,” he says, “and on late-night talk shows they keep going after him about this.” At his professed height of 1.9m (6ft 3in) and about 110kg, the US President is just under the body mass index (BMI) measure of obese, though experts judge him to weigh more than that. “But he’s able to project something other than corruption with his height, with a good tailor – almost a monumentality. It was the same thing that was done with Henry VIII [see sidebar below].”

Women make the shift from large to monumental less often, although Queen Victoria emanates a stern solidity and power in her public portraits. “Actually, I didn’t encounter many monumental women,” says Forth, “and the few that spring to mind are Egyptian pharaohs, such as Hatshepsut.

“It probably isn’t relevant, but the final battle scene in Hell Boy II inexplicably features a massive copy of the Palaeolithic Venus of Willendorf figurine, which threatens to topple over and crush the men. Monumental and deadly.”

US President Donald Trump. Photo/Getty Images

The ability to be seen as strong applied only to those with wealth or political power. If you were poor, or foreign, all bets were off. European colonialists, particularly in the Indian subcontinent, frequently contrasted their “civilised” white, moderate bodies with those of their “indolent” subjects.

Rudyard Kipling slipped easily from descriptions of “immorality, stench and decay to the spectacle of vicious corpulence”. At various times, writes Forth, the Chinese, Turks, Australian Aborigines, Eskimos and especially Africans were all described in reference to fatness.

Even if there was always potential for the overweight to be judged as idle or corrupt, Christianity brought gluttony, ego and desire into the equation. “Early and medieval Christianity plays up this connection between fat and dirt, and filth and sexuality, in ways that are probably not as pronounced in Greco-Roman or pagan cultures. And I think that this persists into the present day.”

There are many different versions of Christianity, Forth notes, and suggests this idea is more pronounced among Protestant Christians than Catholics.

“The idea that fat is a kind of sin – obviously, you don’t see that with Judaism; the Greeks and Romans don’t talk about it that way. What I found particularly interesting about Christianity is the way in which they imagined what the perfect body should be. The body after the resurrection for them is almost a Greco-Roman model of the body.”

Queen Victoria in 1882. Photo/Getty Images

Children of the corn

Attitudes to fat shifted clearly and swiftly about 50 years ago, Forth believes. “In the 1970s, things became extremely intense, and I think that’s the world we’re still in.”

In fact, look at crowd pictures of the 1960s and you’ll see few fat bodies. Was the hardening line of the 1970s a reaction to growing obesity? Yes, he says, but also the rise of packaged foods and the explosion of high-fructose corn syrup. “But the 70s are also the period when you have the earliest glimmers of neo-liberalism, where the focus on the individual as the captain of his or her destiny really becomes central. So, on the one hand there are changes taking place in the food system and nutrition, but it was also a period where you see the explosion of interest in jogging and fitness regimes.

“There are different moments you can point to. For example, the late 18th century – it’s there that the focus on women’s bodies becomes really intense. Much of the history of fat is the history of man and masculinities.

“The late 18th century is where you get the convergence of the idea of fat as dirty and ungraceful and as non-white. What this bequeaths to the 19th century is a network of ideas that become hardened over time. The 1920s is another turning point; you have a shift towards very slender bodies.”

Plumpness as a marker of wealth lost its prestige around the late 19th/early 20th century, he says, when food became less scarce and more affordable. The large, well-fed body was not a status symbol and the middle classes were shifting to a more slender ideal.

The arrival of modernity pressed the gas pedal on changes of attitudes. Toil and hardship were extolled, modernity promoted “the virtues of self-control while creating the conditions for indulgence and excess”. Although it supposedly embodies the new, it nevertheless raids the past for many of its models, says Forth. That includes the idea that the Spartans valued fitness and virtue so much that they expelled fat men from society.

That old idea of fat marking feminine softness is a kind of folk wisdom in today’s gym culture. “When you think about the ways in which we approach exercise and diet today, there is a sense of turning fat into something good, into muscle. Some people still subscribe to this idea that if you don’t work a muscle then it literally turns into fat, which is, of course, not true.”

The idea of the worker as a perfectible economic unit arrived in the early 19th century. “They were trying to monitor the nutritional diets of working people to maximise their energy, the hours they could work, and minimise sickness and days off.”

These cost-cutting, productivity-enhancing measures were an early precursor idea to neo-liberalism, he says, “where our role in the economy is to consume. And yet, in order to demonstrate that we are not just mindless consumers, we’re also expected to remain slender and fit, so we’re in a kind of double bind there.”

Rubens’ Three Graces (1635). Image/Getty

Alien invasion

The 20th century saw the rise of evidence-based medicine, and we started talking in earnest about body mass indexes and the proven dangers of obesity, bulimia and anorexia. The diet industry exploded and laxatives were joined in the arsenal against weight loss by the likes of colonics, detoxes, liver cleansing and even liposuction. The ancient ideas of cleansing our bodies or shedding harmful excess gained fertile new ground.

“This is where this old idea of fat not just as surplus but as waste in the negative, dirty sense really continues. That’s why it’s fascinating to compare people who are into detox diets and things like that today with the 18th century, when they are thinking about fat as basically accumulated filth in the body that needed to come out.

“The Greeks really didn’t think that fat was part of the body. They saw it as a surplus, as something that wasn’t really supposed to be there. I don’t know that we have really ever overcome this suspicion that it’s not the body, that it’s not me.”

Forth writes that anorexia seems to contain the idea that fat is not part of the body in extremely exaggerated form, of being “inhabited or possessed or contaminated by something that is not me, a kind of alien”. Not only is the obsession with healthy eating grounded in woolly thinking about food, he says, “but in some cases it even perceives physical reality as a kind of enemy. Diets ostensibly aimed at forestalling death may result in lifestyles that treat ‘life’ as a problem.”

If this is sounding a little like religion, you’re not mistaken. British food writer Ruby Tandoh has noted that wellness and religious ritual are closely related: “Even the vocabulary of the church of wellness borrows from sermons. Look into diet plans, wellness cookbooks and clean-living tutorials and you find good and evil, miracles, cures, healing, hope, bright new futures and promised salvation.”

The secular quest for perfection manifests certain “spiritual” tendencies, Forth says. Early Christian theologian Augustine said believers would be resurrected in their perfect form, but even today there’s angst among evangelical Christians about just what version of their body will be taken up.

“What I find interesting is that this ideal of the body you should have is right at the centre of secular fitness culture. I think they share a kind of spiritualised image of what the perfect body should be. “As obesity levels have skyrocketed, a reaction of “body positivity” has risen in response. But, Forth says, the idea that you have to be thin to reach your full potential remains powerful. “Even today, fat acceptance is not something that most feminists will subscribe to. In fact, there continues to be a tension between fat-studies scholars, who are emphasising fat acceptance, and the mainstream of academic feminism where there’s still this lingering sense that to be healthy is not to be that. To be in control of oneself is not to be fat. Most feminists will critique, rightly, the so-called beauty myth that emerged in the early-20th century, and there were obviously earlier versions of that as well. Very often, they have not got on board with the idea of fat acceptance.”

In the book, he notes the suffragists on hunger strikes in 1917 were force-fed with a tube while being held down on a bed, naked, by male warders. “[Under such conditions], leanness and abstinence had taken on a new, sometimes heroic seriousness. Advocated by proponents of women’s rights as making female bodies healthy and strong, weight-loss techniques enhanced female agency even as they promoted submission to aesthetic ideals.”

Surely celebrities such as the Kardashians are resetting the dial on what is considered attractive? “I’m not really sure what to make of that,” says Forth. “I know that in African-American culture there is a tendency to emphasise big bottoms. There are women who are getting implants to approximate the perfect behind, à la the Kardashians. I see that as a variation on similar ideals. It’s not so much that everyone needs to be skeletally thin, it’s more a matter, I think, of fat in the right places. This is the classic hourglass figure, which is widely considered to be attractive.”

Places in the world where largeness is seen as beautiful are harder and harder to find now, he says. “In the classic case of Samoa and other Polynesian islands, this is certainly the case. But I do know that in lots of non-Western countries that, as they become more open to Western media and images, they start to change their habits – even in North Africa, where the culture of fattening girls for marriage is dying out, which I think is actually a good thing. But it’s dying out partly because of exposure to Western ideals about female bodies, which, of course, seems to be trading in one form of pressure for another.”

He’s not sure if one is better than the other, though in places where force-feeding of girls continues, the option to eat less is taken away from them. “In Mauritania, as a girl, you have no choice.” 

Henry VIII. Image/Getty

The fat and the powerful

Throughout history, largeness could signal power or status but always had the potential for negative connotations.

Henry VIII, the 16th-century English king, was active as a young man but after a tumble from a horse his weight ballooned. He eventually reached a waist measurement of 137cm and had to be transported between palaces in a mechanical sedan chair. The famous front-on portrait of the 188cm (6ft 2in) king, in 1540, by Hans Holbein nevertheless succeeds in depicting him as a man not to be messed with.

Earlier, nobles would sometimes have themselves deliberately depicted as fleshy. Emperor Galerius’ large body, for instance, projected monumental strength and battlefield prowess in the late Roman Republic. The potential always existed for such image management to be overturned: Christian writers, unwilling to forgive Galerius for his persecutions of their flock, would point to his size as evidence of illness and animality. A later adviser to the Christian emperor Constantine described Galerius as “a beast, with a natural barbarity, and wildness quite foreign to Roman blood … bloated to a horrifying size”.

French king Louis VI was transformed from “Louis the Glorious” to “Louis the Fat”, probably by resentful clerics. Nero suffered a similar fate. “Emperor Nero had himself depicted as fat, and he probably was pretty fat, from what I understand,” says historian Christopher Forth, “But he saw that as corresponding to an idea of power, of abundance, of monumentality. But that was all turned against him by historians in the other direction.”

Compare, says Forth, the treatment of Greek philosopher Socrates to Vitellius, a Roman emperor before Galerius. Vitellius is described as lazy and self-indulgent, an obese glutton, guzzling banquets four times a day and feasting on rare foods he would send his navy to procure. Socrates was often depicted as pudgy and ugly, sometimes likened to a fat, bald and drunk ancient woodland god. But the negative aspects didn’t really stick in relation to Socrates’ body, says Forth. “In other cases, one could be fat and condemned for it, and the fatness could be seen as a symptom of some kind of other weakness.”

This article was first published in the October 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.