My research for the past several weeks has revolved around questions of body identity and the body as a receptacle of prescribed/subscribed cultural norms (as well as the site of cultural resistance) specifically in regard to obesity. My perspective and motivations are personal and my research by no means comprehensively reflects the vastness or complexity of issues of fatness in our culture, which involve questions of race, class, gender, and religion to name a few. I chose to frame my research through readings that investigated or enhanced my critical understanding of my own experiences as an obese, caucasian, American woman.
I began with questions about the cultural causes of obesity in the US and a desire to catalog and explain some of the popular stereotypes of obese people. Obesity in our culture is a problem; some experts call it an epidemic, verbally categorizing it alongside contagious diseases. The charged language around obesity reflects and perpetuates a cultural fear of fat, and has created a public perception of obesity that is technically out of proportion with the reported concerns of the medical community. In short, there is a sensationalist public panic brewing about fat. (This is not to deny the harmful effects of obesity or to deny that more Americans are obese today than ever before; I am simply noting that many current media reports on the issue have alarmist tones that are in stark contrast to the calmer, factual academic writing.)
It is commonly assumed that overweight people eat for comfort or lack the self discipline to lose weight. I can’t say that this is wrong exactly but it is an ugly truncation of a phenomenon that goes back several hundred years and is embedded in (and reinforced by) some of our most deeply held cultural values.
Today in poorer countries or communities (especially agrarian ones), fatness is associated with prestige and abundance. This standard of success and beauty has existed for thousands of years in most cultures (including Anglo and Northern European—think Venus of Willendorf) and is still held in developing countries like Nigeria and to a lesser degree in a few developed countries like Mexico, Italy and Greece. Anthropologist Rebecca Popenoe writes about the Nigerian Arabs who actually force feed their pre-adolescent daughters to swell their bodies to obesity by the time they hit sexual maturity around 13 and marry. The fattest girls with the most pronounced stretch marks on their bellies, legs, and arms are the most beautiful and will marry well. Plumpness in this context means that there is plenty to eat and not too much physical exertion—the signs of a wealthy man who can provide for his family.
America’s current beauty standard of slimness comes from a similar notion of demonstrated prestige during the Industrial Age. With the rise of industrialists a new standard of success was needed to visually separate the wealthy bosses from the stout, sturdy workers. That standard would become the slender body, one that was well maintained but useless in terms of having to perform hard (“low”) labor. In this context, a man was successful if his wife had enough servants to never have to lift a finger; she was pale from being indoors (enhanced by lead based white make up), and visibly fragile and incapacitated from lack of work. (I’m not saying thin people can’t work, just relaying the ideal of the day.)
One hundred years later the conversation around the virtue of thinness was taken to a new level by the writing of Sigmund Freud and backed by Victorian etiquette books. Freud and the Victorians saw the key to civilized culture to be mankind’s willful and resolute repression of its primal animal nature. Food and eating were coarse and deprived, and therefore had to be carefully monitored and restrained. Etiquette books of the time cautioned women especially to not eat “exciting” foods (those containing sugar or fat) that could stimulate them and invite unladylike behavior. A lady’s virtue was directly tied to what she ate; her slenderness was indicative of her moral uprightness. (Also linked to this analysis was the sexual availability of servant women to upper class men. These women’s robustness—perpetuated by diets heavy in meat and carbohydrates and long days of physical labor—were evidence of their loose morals according to popular belief.)
Today’s mainstream stereotypes about obese people are still fed by these post-industrial conclusions. Feminists like Susan Bordo study advertisements for insights on contemporary perceptions of fatness. What they observe is a continuing discussion of food as something to be wary of and something to be secretly enjoyed. The dialectics of food mirror those of sex, especially for women. According to advertisers, both food and sex are naughty, indulgent, and pleasurable; they are something to be enjoyed at home alone. There is an implied threat that one’s secret passion for this candy bar or that ice cream will be “discovered”—discovered in the sense of physical proof in the form of fat. Fat is the dreaded consequence of eating, like STDs are for sex.
I write all this background mostly to organize my thoughts and understanding of the materials I’ve been reading and also to explain that what I am interested in about obesity are the perceptions of it and the causes of those perceptions. At this point my goal is not to condemn or defend obesity but to truly comprehend it culturally. This goal is as much for me as a person as it is for my studio practice. I want to try to understand what it means to be a fat girl beyond calories and failed diets.