“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.
The Capitalising Tendency
If we talk about urban and suburban areas, it is the capitalist players who have made the most out of the deadly ‘vice’ of ‘gluttony’ and the extravagance of both inexpensive and pricey food items. Fast food joints, international chains, and full service restaurants selling packaged food in an attractive manner, at relatively low cost and quick delivery become a habit, especially in young people. In India, a similar trend is evident from the growing success and competition of food joints like Subway, KFC, Wendy’s, Burger King, and so on. This novel culture has received a greater impetus during the pandemic with ‘work from home’ scenarios and reduced physical activities. Increasing consciousness about health led to leapfrogging demands for ‘slim shakes’, another adroit strategy benefitting international brands. The USA has, thus, been able to exercise enormous soft power through its consumer network with companies filling their pockets from both sides, i.e. food joints and slim shakes.
Another discomfiting addition to the identity of the obese has been the phenomenon widely known as the ‘fat tax’. The fashion industry conventionally practices ebullient discrimination against body types that don’t fall in the ‘normal’ category; this normal is more ‘aspirational than factual’. Plus-size customers are charged an extra fee on clothing for monetary benefits and for the ‘acceptance’ of their body types by the fashion industry, in the guise that “Okay, well, you're bigger so it takes more material” — a form of ‘inclusivity’ practiced exclusively for the plus-sized. The stigma of being fat follows a person even after death, as oversized caskets cost more.
Is there a way out?
The answer to this question is simple. There is no ‘way out’. The scorn and mockery detailed above has persisted despite tremendous endeavours and movements advocating body equality. The obese have mettled through social, cultural, and professional stigmatisation, and bullying.
Plus-sized models are now seen walking on fashion show ramps, an exemplary reminder of social acceptability. But unfortunately, the biases and stereotypes still faced by the obese in their everyday lives raise the question of whether they have actually traversed far enough to surpass these challenges. Apart from this, even cultures that see beauty in ‘fatness’ and associate a slim body with disgrace are no different than a society where the slim body is rejoiced. The ‘accepted’ body types in both these social formations have to undergo equivalent perils — be it through forceful eating or through deliberate skipping of meals to lose fat.
The solution, therefore, to this seemingly sisyphean task is the ‘way in’. Souvik shares his epiphany:
The Corona pandemic came like a blessing in disguise for me. I got time to think about myself and understood that obesity is an acquired trait. I drifted away from hating my own body and gradually developed a feeling of positivity within myself.
A positive body attitude firstly comes through the acceptance of one’s own body. It is only then that one becomes capable of appreciating other body types, thus, creating a socially acceptable environment. Secondarily, this can be instilled through proper educational attainment and awareness. Even the adoption of a people-first language can have a profound impact. Rather than calling someone “an obese person”, a more inclusive and positive image can be created by referring to them as “a person with obesity”. American singer, rapper, songwriter and flutist, Melissa Viviane Jefferson, known professionally as Lizzo, stands as a strong symbol of a positive body image. She states that self-love for her was not a choice, but “literal survival” and how she had to find a way through her teenage years to normalise her own identity to herself. “I'm going to continue to live in this body and survive in this body and be happy and actually enjoy life, I need to find a way to like myself.” Fat, curvy, slim, chubby, paunchy, lean, stocky, stout, lanky and slender people, among others, have existed and will continue to do so. Instead of ‘normalising’ a particular body type we should strive towards ‘sensitising’ the society towards all of them.
By Vibhuti Pathak and Souvik Biswas
Vibhuti is a student of History at the Hindu College. He is an enthusiastic learner, amateur writer, and diehard fan of the Joey-Chandler duo from the sitcom ‘F.R.I.E.N.D.S.’. He loves to venture deep into vague topics about polity, society, and history.
Souvik Biswas is a second year student of Hindu College, Delhi University pursuing History Hons. He currently works as a columnist in All Ears organisation. Being marked as a bibliophile and cinephile, Souvik states that he hates billionaires and dreams of a casteless and classless society.