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Dispelling the Artistic and Cultural Iniquities of Obese Identity:From Genesis to the Quotidian

“But let me, even in my sorrow, eat. There is no thing more shameless than the belly; however tried we are, whatever pain assails our heart, the hateful stomach claims its right to be remembered.”

In the lines above, Homer chastises the pernicious craving of Odysseus — the ‘brilliant’ protagonist of his saga the Odyssey — for which he desists, at least temporarily, his awaited homecoming. Composed sometime between the eighth and seventh century BCE, this vignette pinks the bromide that surrounds the stigmatised notion of ‘obesity’, and also, perhaps, the tandem sophistry which associates moot moral negligence with the same.

Over time, as the society evolved from nomadic and semi-nomadic encampments to sedentary dwellings, so did gradually materialise the contemporary human dream of access to unlimited food and delicacies from across the globe, with minimum energy expended to attain them. However, claiming that this transition from hunter-gatherer societies to an urbane culture is what merely gave genesis to the omniscience of the words ‘fat’ and ‘obese’ will be an oversimplification, an attenuated truth. Obviously, the smirch befalling someone who is fat is more complex than a simple paradigm of available food and the effort spent to obtain it, as will be evident from a study of its cultural history.

Evolution of Obesity In Art

One of the earliest instances of attaching aesthetic and cultural connotations to an obese body comes from female figurines dating more than 20,000 years ago found across Eurasia. Venus of Willendorf, one of these figurines, featuring a ‘squat body’, with ‘bulbous contours, pendulous breasts, and prominent belly’, offers evidence of prehistoric goddess worship centred around fertility, femininity, and motherhood. The female fat body was, therefore, adulated affirmatively in prehistoric times and linked with sexual attractiveness and fecundity. Several similar figurines, called ‘the fat ladies of Malta’ unearthed from Maltese islands, have been found buried with the dead. In contrast to the dross corpses, they allegorise a desired bodily form, associated with a ‘perfect’ afterlife. The Egyptian God Hapy, the divine representation of annual flooding of the Nile river and, thus, the harbinger of prosperity has also been depicted with ‘sagging breasts and large belly, which were meant to represent his fecundity.’ The scarcity of resources, during this time, certainly had a deteriorating impact on health, making an obese body a symbol of affluence and beauty rather than a miasma.

At the dawn of the first millennium, with the spread of Christianity, arose a condemnation of ‘gluttony’, a term often confused with obesity. In Christianity, gluttony became a shameful and sinful act that could have the grim consequence of inhibiting the very possibility of an individual’s salvation. This is reflected in Philo’s (of Alexandria) description of Eve’s inability to spurn the temptations of the snake leading Eve and Adam “out of a state of simplicity and innocence into one of wickedness” marked by an inability to refuse earthly temptations. From a tousled desire, the definition of gluttony became linked with abject overindulgence and rapaciousness; there, however, exists no sin in corpulence or a fat body.

Parallel to the castigation of greed in medieval Europe, religious authorities in medieval Japan viewed the lending of money at high interest (a sign of selfishness) as a moral fault that was vigorously criticised. A picture frame from yamai-zōshi, picture-scroll of illnesses of medieval Japan, portrays an obese woman money-lender who suffered moral downfall due to the misbegotten abundance and wealth. Her degrading physical health was seen as retribution. Thus, an obtuse trend is observable: to a visually aesthetic and affluent image of an ‘obese’ body was added the egregious blot of moral religious sinnings.

However, till later times, a ‘beautiful’ female body continued to be conceived in phrases like “fat, white, and tender”; even the “gentle, beautiful maiden” of the Romance of Rose — a French poem of the later middle ages — is “rather big”. Similarly, full and rounded women in paintings of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1643) gave rise to the adjective ‘Rubenesque’ for plumpness and female sexuality rather than a ‘stigmatised excess’.

From Bad to Ugly

My waist is monstrously wide, I am as square as a cube, my skin is red, speckled with yellow.

In one of her letters from the end of the seventeenth century, Elizabeth Charlotte, the Palatine Princess, gives the reader this image of herself.

The increased attention to physical traits now came to be accompanied by a more pointed criticism of size. Literature from the fifteenth century onwards also began to mock gourmand individuals in great detail — greatly dilated faces with small eyes, heads hunched into slumping chests, round shoulders, and prominent stomachs. For example, Commynes mocks the English king Edward as he dies in 1483 for being “choked” by his own weight: “He took pleasure more than one ought, fearing no one, became fat and full, and at a young age his excesses overtook him and he died suddenly of apoplexy.” Noticeable here is a metamorphosis in beliefs as not only is the notion of an obese body assimilated to the deadly vice of gluttony, but is also ridiculed as a dangerous falling.

Beauty, though not openly expressed in correlation with a slim body yet, was gradually budging towards the same through indirect inferences. The sixteenth century, for instance, witnessed a development detrimental to the image of the obese as the ‘corset era’ era commenced. This ‘flagrant’ fashion trend that jeopardised health compelled women to sport a tightly laced attire, presumably, to get a slender, ‘attractive’ waist. Anne de France, a French princess, wrote of a young woman who is “so tightly strapped into her clothes that her heart gives out.” More importantly, new adjectives like slowness, oafishness, laziness, and ignorance came to describe fatness from the Renaissance period onwards. Hence, we see formation of an identity of the obese that somewhat resembles contemporary anathemas and connotations of ‘the sinned, the ugly and the unfit’.

Inimitable or Inimical?

Instances like these point to ossified inferences of undesirable, rather ‘displeasing’, imagery that now surrounds obese people. Making humiliative or derogatory comments on someone’s physique and body weight or size have come to constitute a culture of ‘body shaming’. Unintentional and even jocund remarks on diet and eating habits may invigorate deep-seated atrocities and make the person self-conscious.

Souvik Biswas, a second year undergraduate student at Hindu College, shares his traumatic experiences of being an obese student:

I have been a healthy child. It was smooth sailing as I was the cutest child, and grabbed everyone’s attention and affection. As I grew older, this affection turned into repugnance as the tag of ‘being fat’ was attached to my body.

School should be a reformative space. But during my school years, I faced a lot of harassment in Physical Education (P.Ed) periods. In class 4, as I was running a round of the track my classmates began to mock my manoeuvres and started calling me names like ‘small elephant’. I was vexed and embarrassed at the same time. The weighing machine is what I dreaded the most. In secondary school, I was asked to stand on the weighing machine in order to calculate BMI. The entire class laughed and ridiculed my weight, calling me pregnant. Consequently, I avoided all school fests or picnics. This was when I realised that being fat cannot coincide with beauty.

As an obese boy, I always get adviced to hop on to the gym. Whenever I visit a doctor in case of illness, I get harshly criticised for not losing weight. These stereotypical societal wisdoms have sadly been planted into our brain. Body negativity started entering my life through the P.ED period.

There are, however, many cultures and traditions ubiquitous in small communities across the world, which stand in conspicuous dichotomy to the stigmas attached to the fat body. An ancient African custom called ‘Leblouh’, still prevalent in Mauritania and some other Saharan countries, involves force feeding girls from a tender age and making them fat to gain ‘prestige’ in the community. Strenuously obese and ‘tender’ women symbolise beauty, wealth, and high stature, while their slim counterparts are cast out of social and conjugal stature. They believe that body size equals the space a woman occupies in her husband’s heart! Petite women are considered a disgrace. Nauru, a tiny island country in the South Pacific, boasts of the highest rate of obesity in the world. Apart from feminine beauty and fertility embraced in obesity, rotund men are preferred in the Nauru society for strength competitions. Similarly, the French Polynesian Island of Tahiti practices ‘Haapori’ (lit. ‘to fatten’) where young women are plumped and presented to the chief for fertility and beauty inspection. More recently, the Korean ‘mukbang’ trend has attained global viewership and imitation.

From an outsider’s perspective, this significant reversal in the attitude towards obesity may appear enticing in contrast to a society that denounces fleshy and fuller bodies. But what value does this ‘alternative’ society hold if all this comes with the deprivation of one’s liberty? However one may perceive these traditions, they reflect nothing more than an untoward and prejudiced behavior based on one’s body size.