Updated: Jul 9, 2021
Anna Katharina Schaffner considers the cultural histories of fat and fat phobia
In recent decades, the British population has grown in girth. The NHS England obesity report for 2017 found that 58 per cent of women and 68 per cent of the men were overweight or obese, as well as one in five children aged three to four, and more than one in three children aged ten to eleven. These weight issues are thus broadly in line with a perturbing global trend. The majority of the world’s population now lives in countries where obesity kills more people than does being underweight. Worldwide, obesity – defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of more than 30 – has nearly tripled since 1975.
Yet in spite of their steadily growing numbers, the overweight are still subject to contempt and discrimination. Notwithstanding concerted attempts to change latent or blatant anti-fat bias, fat-shaming remains the most widespread and socially acceptable form of discrimination based on appearance. Alarmist newspaper articles about the global obesity “epidemic” have contributed to the problem, creating the impression that our weightier peers are about to drag us all into a biopolitical apocalypse.
In 2015, a particularly cruel fat-shaming initiative made headlines. A group calling itself “Overweight Haters Ltd” distributed cards to unsuspecting victims on the London Underground, bearing the following message:
It’s really not glandular, it’s your gluttony … Our organisation hates and resents fat people. We object to the enormous amount of food resources you consume while half the world starves. We disapprove of your wasting NHS money to treat your selfish greed … We also object that the beatiful [sic] pig is used as an insult. You are not a pig. You are a fat, ugly human.
Although there was a collective outcry about this callous stunt, the card neatly sums up the key assumptions that, in the popular imagination, legitimize fat-shaming. Being overweight is frequently associated with disagreeable personality traits (greed, weakness, lack of self-control); the selfish wasting of resources (of food and precious NHS capacity); and an anti-social assault on the health, gene pool and future of the nation. It is also deemed an aesthetic attack on our visual sensibilities. Overweight people, the card suggests, provoke a disgust so profound that a derogatory animal metaphor cannot capture it. Not merely sub-human, their wobbly bodies are sub-animal, thus approximating the condition of abjection.
Common contempt for the fat rests on the assumption that being obese is a voluntary and deliberate lifestyle choice, and that slimming is nothing but a question of willpower. The willpower über alles narrative has of course been challenged, most effectively by psychologists, epidemiologists and sociologists. The former have suggested that overeating may be related to trauma and loss, with excessive consumption providing a buffer against repressed conflicts and anxieties, while the latter have identified a statistical correlation between obesity and poverty. Michael Marmot, in The Health Gap (2015), showed that the prevalence of obese women in the least deprived areas in the UK is 21.7 per cent, rising to 35 per cent in the most deprived areas. The statistical difference is even more extreme in the case of children. At the age of ten, 11.5 per cent of children are obese in the least deprived areas, while in the poorest it more than doubles to 25 per cent. Why should that be the case?
Research suggests that those in low socio-economic income brackets tend to focus more on short-term pleasures, wherever they can be found. One hypothesis (advanced by G. E. Miller, E. Chen and J. Parker in 2011) proposes that the chronic stress that goes hand in hand with poverty affects hormone levels and reward circuits in the brain so that the individual becomes predisposed to prioritize easier, immediate gratification. High stress levels are also linked to poor dietary choices. Yet Anthony Warner, known for his “Angry Chef” persona and his popular eponymous blog, which exposes pseudo-scientific claims about “super-foods” and diet fads, offers an even more troubling explanation for the link between obesity and poverty. People live for today, privileging often damaging short-term behaviours over long-term planning, he argues, because the prospect of endless tomorrows “is too much to bear”. “As the connection between poverty and obesity has strengthened, fatness has become a signifier of social class”, as well as a sign of moral failing, Warner suggests.
Written in the sharp and irate debunking-of-bad-science mode that has become his stock-in-trade, Warner’s book The Truth About Fat reveals that many of the most widely accepted views on the causes of obesity are simplistic, scientifically unsound or immoral. The book is a thought-provoking corrective to the idea that obesity is simply the result of eating too much and moving too little, which puts the blame squarely on the obese. With verve, mastery of the available data, and a gripping narrative, Warner demonstrates that obesity is a highly complicated problem that requires intricate strategies if it is to be addressed effectively. Books that take a complexity-theory approach are not normally an easy sell, given that they refuse to provide neat solutions to pressing problems, and Warner’s certainly pulls the rug of comforting certainties from under the reader’s feet. Almost all existing strategies in the fight against obesity are flawed and inefficient at best, he says, and may even be making things worse.
One of the merits of Warner’s book is that it shows obesity to be not only a scientific minefield – experts working in the same disciplines often profoundly disagree with one another, especially nutritionists – but also an ideological battleground. According to the “healthist”, and quintessentially neoliberal, assumption that we are all equally able to mobilize willpower to self-improve, those who do not manage to master their own health problems are deemed to be solely responsible for what are viewed as bad and entirely voluntary behaviours. Obesity seen through this prism is the result of moral weakness. By living primarily on junk food, the obese put a heavy strain on health services. From there it is a small step to denying the severely overweight health care, a policy that some NHS trusts in Britain are already practising. The NHS Herts Valley Clinical Commissioning Group and the NHS East and North Hertfordshire Group, for example, have attracted much criticism for their decision in 2017 to deny routine surgery to patients with a BMI above 40.
By analysing data on the roles of socio- economic background, stress, genetic disposition, hormonal imbalances, metabolic differences, sleeping problems, personality type, loneliness, the effects of social stigmatization and, paradoxically, constant dieting, Warner successfully challenges the ideological foundations on which the healthist view of obesity is based. Many factors that contribute to obesity are simply beyond the control of the individual. He also throws into question the data on which the popular narrative of an obesity “epidemic”, with its connotations of disease and contagion, is habitually based. BMI calculations are, he argues, inaccurate indicators of healthy weight in proportion to height, and have, in recent decades, been weaponized to create a moral panic. He also punctures the health and weight-loss claims of virtually every known diet – from low-fat to low-carb, Paleo, Ketogenic, South Beach to gluten-free – showing that not one of them works in the long term for the vast majority of people.
While all of this is both laudable and convincing, Warner’s book nonetheless has a curious blind spot. He explores numerous major and minor factors that may contribute to obesity, such as assortative mating (i.e. the fact that people with high BMIs are more likely to have children with similarly proportioned partners, and are also more likely to have more children than average-sized couples) and maternal age (the older the mother, the more likely the child is to become obese, apparently). And yet, he devotes hardly any attention to the aggressive marketing and cheap availability of highly calorific, nutrient-poor and often super-sized convenience food. Warner’s refusal to grace the role of the food industry with a chapter of its own is itself ideological, fuelling a narrative in which any guidelines on healthy food consumption are painted as patronizing middle-class disrespect for working-class lifestyle choices. “So go ahead, take away the chicken nuggets they were going to have for dinner tonight”, he writes. “The ones that they can afford and that they know their kids will eat. Replace them with something that you deem better, more acceptable, more middle class. See if that really transforms their lives.” But Warner clearly forgets that there is a middle ground between “Let them eat kale and quinoa” and the stance he takes, which is to deny that there is such a thing as bad food choices. Surely it is a problem if people live exclusively on calorie-dense and chemical-additive spiked crisps, chips, cake, chocolate and chicken wings, washed down with copious amounts of sugar-rich fizzy drinks? Yes, the reasons for someone making these choices are complex, and may well be driven by factors beyond their control. Yet, at a basic level, and in spite of all the nutritional warfare and ever-changing guidelines about what we should and should not eat, it seems perfectly fair to stipulate that nutritionally deficient calorie-dense foods, which contain too much sugar, salt and fat, should be kept to a minimum, and that it is likely to cause a major health problem if they form the lion’s share of one’s daily diet.
A recent study, published in the Lancet, argues that unhealthy diets are the single biggest global killer, responsible for 22 per cent of deaths among adults, and thus more harmful than any other risk factor, including tobacco. Diets that are high in sodium are the biggest killers. But Warner somehow manages to give the impression that the “evil food industry”, which produces and markets sub-standard foods, is a chimera invented by the political left. “The left”, he argues, frames the obesity crisis “as a problem of corporate irresponsibility, thus demanding regulation of the evil conglomerates that were themselves growing ever larger. They called for taxation to curb sales of the brands they despised so much, with no regard for how these taxes would hit the most vulnerable in society.”
Similarly, in his chapter on the environment, Warner’s analysis edges towards therapeutic nihilism, as he can only see potential problems in concrete interventions. A tax on sugary drinks, for example, is summarily dismissed as nanny-state meddling with the free market that would adversely affect the poor, although there is clear evidence that it works – not as a silver bullet, but as a small step in the right direction. Accusing interventionists of seeking to implement “authoritarian control over the food supply”, and of an arrogant imposition of elitist food choices on the working class, will lose Warner the support of many, while his rejection of the “fat is a moral defect” narrative will no doubt annoy staunch believers in individual responsibility. Perhaps more than anything, it is a shame that he dedicates only three pages to outlining an intriguing solution to the obesity crisis. What could have been the most constructive part of his narrative – in which he calls for a rigorously joined-up approach, linking interventions at the levels of individual health care, community, public health, policy, education and industry – is left very sketchy.
Whether we view the obese primarily as victims of poverty, childhood troubles, genetic predisposition, endocrinological imbalances, a ruthless food industry, or a failure of moral character depends, of course, on our perspective and politics. Yet deriding and blaming the overweight for a lengthy list of perceived crimes ranging from the aesthetic to the biopolitical is not at all a modern phenomenon. Our attitudes to fat have a long history that, as Christopher E. Forth shows so elegantly in Fat: A cultural history of the stuff of life, reaches back to antiquity. While Forth admits that the distrust of fat has grown more intense in the modern era, and especially since the early twentieth century, he emphasizes that people in premodern times viewed fat with ambivalence, rather than, as is often claimed, unqualified appreciation. Fat was never only a positive symbol of female fertility, vitality and life as, for example, the famously rotund Venus of Willendorf might seem to suggest. Fat was always bound up with questions of animality, power, decay, the unclean, primitive and foolish. If fat provokes disgust, Forth suggests it is because it reminds us of our animality and the inevitability of decay. Disgust is essentially a response to the facts of organic life, related as they are to both degeneration and fertility. The perception of fat as disgusting, he continues, is thus marked by a profound ambivalence to human embodiment, and by a perceived threat of contamination. Rejecting a purely constructivist position, Forth shows that, while our views of beauty and health are subject to change across place and time, our attitudes to fat are also grounded in the material qualities of the stuff. Paying attention to how the understanding of overweight people is related to the protean nature of fat, and also to agricultural processes such as fattening up livestock for consumption, or to the idea of “the fat of the land”, he explores the interplay between the material, agricultural and social. Fat, he reminds us, is a “physically and conceptually slippery substance”. It is greasy, oily, inflammable, and potentially luminous; it has the capacity “to shift between solid and liquid states”, as well as to dematerialize. It flouts all the rules we expect of solids and liquids. Oil, for example, does not really fit into the category of most liquids because it is too viscous, and solid fat is not really solid, squishy and sticky as it is. This can cause alarm. As Forth puts it: “Rather than passively yielding to a masterful human touch, fatty things seem to touch us back, adhering to surfaces and attaching themselves to our bodies”.
The link between fat and foolishness, dullness and sluggishness, Forth shows, can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, who associated fat people with the lesser animals. The Stoics in particular had a strong aversion to luxury and soft living, and viewed fat as the external sign of a lax, effeminate and morally dubious character. The Spartans were intolerant of physical difference, and punished bodies that drifted too far away from the lean ideal. Fat people were supposedly threatened with banishment if they did not mend their ways; heavy slaves were often executed and their masters penalized.
While the Greco-Roman conception of corpulent bodies was marked by contempt, early medieval Christians began to feel something more akin to the modern disgust, Forth suggests. Fat was thought to represent clinging to the earthly realm and to reveal “the sinful soul’s unreadiness for transcendence”. Judas Iscariot, for example, was often imagined as grotesquely fat, his flesh displaying “a corruption so extreme that it had become rank and rotten through and through”. His eyes were thought to be so swollen that he was literally unable “to see the light”. Fat symbolized a “downward tug on minds and even souls”, Forth says, a weddedness to the appetites of the body and the grease and filth of the material world. Belly-centred people were cast as sinful gluttons, unable to govern their own appetites. The “golden-mouthed” fourth-century Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, was particularly unforgiving of fat bellies and chubby limbs. He could imagine no more “disgusting spectacle” than a “man cultivating obesity, dragging himself along like a seal”.
In Europe in the Middle Ages, fat enjoyed a jollier moment, owing to a range of fat kings, whose majestic girths signalled power, nobility and authority. After the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror became so fat that, when he died in 1087, “his corpse had to be broken in order to fit into his sarcophagus”. The most famous of fat kings is, of course, Henry VIII, but although he eventually grew too rotund to walk or even to stand on his own, it was apparently still possible for his servants to lift him onto his horse to go hawking. Hans Holbein’s famous portrait of the bulky divorcee (1540) pays tribute to the link between size, power and nobility. In medieval Mardi Gras festivities, fat was a symbol for sensual pleasures and abundance. Carnival celebrated the victory of the fat over the lean. One need think only of those paintings by Bruegel in which well-built peasants dance and feast. Even in its heyday, however, the symbolic value of fat was unstable, and pejorative associations persisted.
At the same time, Forth explains, ideas on the proper size and shape of bodies were inspired by misgivings about corporeal looseness and softness – driven partly by a renewed interest in classical virtue, and as a reaction to the growing validation of material comfort and consumerism. There were anxieties about the “flabbiness” of modern life. A new emphasis on control over bodily processes and concerns about appearance were manifest in the advent of table manners, the spread of etiquette manuals and the rise of gastronomic discernment as markers of cultural elites – all of which contributed, Forth points out, to “deanimalizing the body of the gourmand”. With the advent of more readily available luxury goods, fatness became more widespread – more democratic – and people were increasingly expected to exercise greater self-control to distinguish themselves. With the eighteenth century came the “disenchantment of fat”, which was ever less frequently associated with life and vitality, and increasingly with dead weight and dirty waste. As Forth puts it, “grease was becoming antithetical to grace”. With imperial expansion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries fat also came be to viewed in racial terms. It was associated with the primitive, barbarous, savage and lazy, while slenderness spoke of white civilization, refinement, sophistication, industriousness and self-restraint.
By the nineteenth century, doctors had already begun to denounce fatness more systematically as a harbinger of all sorts of ailments, but modernity in particular is marked, Forth says, by the paradox that it “promotes the virtues of self-control while creating the conditions for indulgence and excess”. The modern revulsion at fat essentially reflects a utopian idea of the infinitely perfectible body, pure and transcendent. This vision is most evident in weight loss discourse, which often deploys quasi-religious imagery of rebirth and regeneration, and thrives on cycles of praise, confession and atonement. We have been here before: fantasies of purity in food and hygiene are not so far removed from those in sexuality and race. Above all, dietary control, whatever shape it takes, can offer an escape route from the messiness of organic life, and from our very creatureliness. Fat has traditionally divided feminists. On the one hand, campaigners such as the psychotherapist Susie Orbach rightly advocate that we free ourselves from patriarchal and repressive conceptions of female beauty, the dictates of the male gaze and misogynist forms of body shaming, and celebrate diverse and non-normative conceptions of loveliness. Agendas and practices of the body positive and the fat acceptance (or liberation) movement are closely aligned with feminist ones. While feminists burned bras in the 1970s, for example, fat acceptance activists burned diet books. On the other hand, fat has historically been associated with the roles of mother and matron, and thus with subjugation and domestic servitude, so slimming may also be seen as presenting a way of maintaining or regaining agency, control and power. This leaves women in a double bind. Keeping trim can be read as a submissive attempt to conform to the prevailing image of female beauty, while “giving in” to entropy and “letting oneself go” after having children could be read in the same way – as an act of conforming with the expectations of putting biological duties first, and accepting standardized gender models. These associations become even more complicated when we throw race into the mix.
In Fearing the Black Body: The racial origins of fat phobia, Sabrina Strings seeks to illuminate how our current fat phobia is rooted, specifically, in a fear of black women. She shows (as does Forth) that as early as the eighteenth century, fatness was being linked to ideas of African “savagery”, and argues that racial, moral and religious arguments were much more important than twentieth-century medical discourse in establishing the modern ideal of slenderness in America. Strings’s analyses of nineteenth-century women’s magazines are particularly illuminating. In an article entitled “The Sorrows of Fat”, for example, published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1897, Edith Bigelow describes fatness as a “crime” and a “deformity”. “Fatness”, she claims, “is a most undesirable state. It is dangerous to the vital organs, and it is destructive of vanity … I say that to be fat – to be, oh, awful word obese – is to be miserable”. A fat woman could only be considered fashionable if she repaired “not only to an earlier historical moment but to distant parts of the world”, Strings writes. In other words, fatness here is represented as regressive in both a temporal and an evolutionary sense, and as a marker of racial inferiority. A large society lady, Bigelow concludes, will not be a “social success” unless she can “burnt-cork herself, don beads, and then go to that burning clime where women, like pigs, are valued at so much a pound”.
Strings also demonstrates that fat phobia and “thin fetishism” go hand in hand. The myth of the savage fat black woman – with all its connotations of coarseness, greed, hypersexuality, immorality and unredeemable otherness – was essential in constructing the ideal of the slender civilized white woman, and of Protestant Anglo-Saxon superiority more generally. Crucially, she writes, this myth was used “to both degrade black women and discipline white women”. The medical establishment became interested in fat only after these associations had already been made, and medicine was subsequently deployed to legitimize existing racial, sexual and class hierarchies.
After having read Christopher Forth’s study, however, one is bound to disagree with open-and-shut statements such as “the contemporary ideal of slenderness is, at its very core, racialized and racist”. It is undoubtedly true, as Sabrina Strings herself persuasively shows, that from the eighteenth century onwards, the link between fatness, racial otherness and, especially, female blackness, looms prominently in the American cultural imagination in particular, and persists into the present. It may well be manifest in insidious medical biases of all sorts. But there are many other factors at play in our persistent fat phobia, some of which relate to class and gender, some of which reach back much further than the Enlightenment, and some of which, as Forth has shown, are grounded in the protean physical materiality of the stuff. Much more could, and should, be said about the factors that concern our unconscious responses to fat, and how they may relate to our own anxieties about helplessness and decay, stigmatization, loss of control and secret desires. As Anthony Warner demonstrates so aptly, single-cause narratives about the origins and meanings of fat cannot capture this slippery phenomenon.