On the Evolution of Fatness
Christopher Forth on Religious and Utopian Figurations of the Human Body and Disgust
“’Oh, look, look!’ They spoke in low, scared voices. ‘Whatever is the matter with her? Why is she so fat?’” Such were the questions whispered by the aging but still slim and beautiful elites in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. They had just encountered Linda, who had recently returned from the Savage Reservation, where she had been sent years earlier to give birth to her son, John. The reasons for their discomfort were understandable. In a society where technology had made it possible to extend youthfulness beyond the biological norm, it stood to reason that they had “never seen a face that was not youthful and taut-skinned, a body that had ceased to be slim and upright.” Older than Linda by roughly 20 years, these “moribund sexagenarians had the appearance of childish girls. At 44, Linda seemed, by contrast, a monster of flaccid and distorted senility.”
An exaggeration of contemporary cultural trends for didactic purposes, the future projected in Brave New World gathers some of the corporeal fantasies that, in one form or another, have been articulated throughout Western culture. The nightmare that Huxley portrayed was a caricature of the utopian desires he saw manifested all around him: for youth, health, beauty and performance with few limitations, in a world where illness, ugliness and aging were coming to be managed by new technologies. As an unsightly sign of age and perhaps sickness—troubling reminders of human finitude but also inescapable facts of organic existence—fatness was but one of the many aspects of “life” that a technological utopia would attempt to engineer out of existence.
This wish for a more or less fat-free world, at least for elites, is hardly novel. Visions of an earthly society or heavenly afterlife inhabited by perfected human forms have inspired health reformers and religious believers for millennia. Adjusted to match 17th-century expectations, would Linda’s aging and flabby body have seemed any less out of place had it appeared among the fit denizens of Campanella’s City of the Sun? While the means for achieving the ideal body were very different in that “vision of an early surveillance state,” the future that Huxley feared placed a similar premium on youthfulness and longevity, as well as on the eventual elimination of non-normative bodies among the elite.
There is a distinctly modern dimension to such fat intolerance, at least when approached in terms of body size and shape. Historians agree that many of the core ingredients of our contemporary anti-fat prejudices had already fallen into place by the time Brave New World appeared. By then, bodily ideals within the West had become slenderer than ever before. With scientific advances from the mid-19th century placing food and other commodities within the reach of larger numbers of people, the plumpness that had once symbolized middle class social privilege lost much of its prestige. As fat bodies became increasingly commonplace, in the social hierarchy they were depressingly “common.” With fatness gradually becoming more associated with lower-class and non-white bodies,
external signs of wealth [were] displaced into other forms of consumption, [and] the cult of the thin, healthy, sportive, performing and ascetic body dominate[d] in the hierarchy of representations.
While the habit of ridiculing fat people seems to have been on the rise throughout the 19th century, this tendency was exacerbated by the expanding culture of advertising and mass consumption. The visual focus of this culture is obvious. Along with European cinema, Hollywood played a memorable role in an ensemble cast. Just as the silver screen projected images of ideal bodies around the world, motion-picture fan magazines shared with the masses the reducing diets and fitness regimens of the stars.With the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s, as well as the attendant “culture of bulimia” that coupled compulsory consumption with an equally insistent demand for self-discipline, fatness would become one of the most recognizable emblems of a loss of personal control and a social fall from grace.
The early 20th century is a useful site for contemplating our current views of fat. As Georges Vigarello quite rightly states, the “body of the 1920s is quite simply the herald of today’s body.” Henceforth, the Western image of corpulent bodies would represent an “aesthetic threat and a health risk” tied to 20th-century concepts of bodies as consumable objects on display as well as medical problems that would, in time, place burdens on healthcare systems.
Having been described as a life-shortening and disfiguring disease since the 16th century, “obesity” became even more vocally denounced by doctors as the harbinger of sickness, disability, old age and death. Demands that people curb their appetites while adopting healthy diet and exercise regimes transformed the body into something that had to be regularly managed through sheer acts of willpower. All of this reflects the paradoxes of a mass society that encourages consumption while simultaneously demanding greater self-control. This self-control, in a further paradox, requires purchasing fitness products and services that are part of the same consumer society credited with producing fatness.
These trends would develop more fully in the decades to come. With the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s, as well as the attendant “culture of bulimia” that coupled compulsory consumption with an equally insistent demand for self-discipline, fatness would become one of the most recognizable emblems of a loss of personal control and a social fall from grace. Even if its cultural roots are much deeper than this, our current disgust with fat has its most immediate conditions of possibility in the early 20th century.
But do these developments adequately address why responses to fat bodies became so visceral and nasty, as if their very existence posed a threat of contamination? Building upon centuries of accumulated misgivings about grease and corpulence, especially as these clashed with evolving ideas about cleanliness, whiteness, and civilization, modern disgust about (and fear of becoming) fat may reflect aspirations that are more utopian and transcendent than is usually thought. The word “utopian” is here used in its most basic sense. As defined by Ruth Levitas, the “essence of utopia seems to be desire—the desire for a different, better way of being.” She proposes that the sources of what some may call a utopian “impulse” lie in
the human experience of a sense of hunger, loss and lack: a deep sense that something’s missing . . . Everything that reaches to a transformed existence is, in this sense, utopian.
In this more or less “existential” definition, utopia is not a concept that depends upon representations of alternative or perfected worlds. Rather it “occurs as an embedded element in a wide range of human practice and culture.” This is why Levitas can maintain that “contemporary culture is saturated with utopianism, even (or especially) where there is no figurative representation of an alternative world.”Insofar as there may be plausible links between utopian and religious figurations and the kind of magical thinking that structures disgust, it is reasonable to see modern anti-fat attitudes as expressing a tendency towards bodily or corporeal utopianism and a desire for transcendence.
The family resemblance between utopian and religious wishes is fairly obvious. Both seem to have sources in the ambiguity of embodiment. Much as utopian hope may be grounded in the lived experience of incompleteness—including the universal human grappling with pain, illness, aging, and death—religion’s central concept of “transcendence” may also be said to be “anchored in the relative indeterminacy of our embodied existential condition.” Moreover, just as the concept of utopia does not require actual hope for alternative worlds in order to be expressed, transcendence need not be conflated with belief in divine beings or otherworldly realities. Indeed, rather than seeking to surmount the body altogether, this reflects Western culture’s recurring tendency to make use of the body as a vehicle for surmounting the limitations of the body.
Insofar as there may be plausible links between utopian and religious figurations and the kind of magical thinking that structures disgust—an emotion in which “we take the measure of the disjunction between how the world actually works and how we would like it to be”—it is reasonable to see modern anti-fat attitudes as expressing a tendency towards bodily or corporeal utopianism and a desire for transcendence. If we define “corporeal utopianism” as culturally inflected wishes for different (and, one assumes, better) forms of embodiment, specifically those that resist the degenerative forces of the environment and are less subject to the exigencies of organic life, then we can see how fat and fatness might emerge as unwelcome reminders of the limits of such wishes. The flight from fat and fatness is an effect of the pursuit of “perfect health,” which amounts to visions of a “new utopia,” if not a new “eco-bioreligion.”
Varieties of corporeal utopianism are evident throughout history, not least in attempts to explore and maximize human perfectibility and in ongoing attempts to extend human life, even to the point of defeating death. Hopes to overcome the limitations of ordinary embodiment could also inspire new plans for organizing society. Some have tracked the rise and fall of a “utopian” attempt to create working bodies that would not succumb to fatigue, a dream buoyed up well into the 20th century by attempts to maximize the machine-like capacities of workers.
The science of labor, which achieved its apotheosis in the Fordism and Taylorism of the 1920s and ’30s, sought to actualize “the daydream of the late 19th-century middle classes—a body without fatigue.” These machinelike bodies, it was hoped, would be pushed beyond ordinary human capacities so as to never grow tired or require much rest, a fantasy to some extent converted into 20th century athletics’ dreams of unlimited performance.
Reprinted with permission from Fat: A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life by Christopher E. Forth, published by Reaktion Books Ltd. Copyright © 2019 by Christopher E. Forth. All rights reserved.
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