Fat and Time
by Hillel Schwartz

Fat most often has been situated geographically: so much of it here, so much there, in fortunate or forbidden latitudes of the body. It has also been situated topographically: in rivulets, rises, mounds, foothills, and mountains of flesh, or contoured along thighs, terraced along hips, rounded above the waist. And it has been situated geologically: in deposits, strata, outcroppings, volcanic flows, fault lines.

Such a mapping of fat and, by analogy, of fat people, makes for a stereotype of inertness. Geographically, fat and fat people, women especially, become surfaces on which to inscribe and indulge a superficial, dogmatic, numerological story about inches, indolence, and intransigence. Topographically and geologically, the mapping of fat invites those invasive sorts of modern sculpture known as liposuction, breast reduction, and tummy tucks, and those police actions called supervised fasting and stomach stapling.

The more we allow fat to be depicted as a series of alluvial deposits, unstable ledges, or ominous waste dumps, the more that fat and fat people will be seen to be ready sites for medical crusades, bioscientific enterprises, pharmaceutical adventures, and the planting of colonies of self-proclaimed consultants on body-image and eating disorders.

We would do better to conceive of fat in terms of time, for if fat and fat people have a presence, that presence is imposing and enduring. Indeed, though fat can be mapped as geographically and topologically passive, it is ordinarily (implicitly) clocked as cumulative and overpowering.

However much fat and fat people may be casually (mis)represented as slow and sloppy, in the longer prospect they are at once our origin and our mainstay. In times long past, so the current archeological tale runs, fat was not only crucial to survival during pre-industrial eras of endemic dearth but as aesthetically and sexually desirable as the steatopygous Venus of Willendorf. Fat may be how we were at our best, before corrupted by the taut dividing lines of patriarchy or by efficient rows of factory labor, by the looms of textile manufacturers or the runways of fashion designers, and by the rigid graphs of medicine and modern health insurance. Fat was happy before happiness was devalued, detached from its regular associations with blessedness and spiritual investment.

Not so long past, fat was evidence of fulfillment and of a healthy birth. As the fat man was a satisfied man and the fat woman a woman rich with charity, so the fat baby appeared on January 1st of the new year (and the new century) in contrast to the caved-in old man of New Year's Eve, gnarled hands holding to an hourglass and a rusty scythe. Death was thin as a dieter's swizzlestick; life, ongoing and additive, was fat as a festive goose. Fat visibly anchored both the start and the strut of things; it was an assurance that, yes, life could amount to something.

In other, more exalted words, fat was the fullness of possibility.

True, the "fat cat", of the 1800s was castigated as an absentee landowner, but the "fat of the land" still betokened opportunity. True, the fat man has for two centuries been a stage and screen comedian prone to pratfalls and headscratching, but until recently the rotund man was also the buoyant man, stable, unsinkable. True, the fat woman has during the last century been drummed out of the ballet corps, but there she is, in 1995, bathed in floodlights and spotlights, singing the most lilting of operatic arias, loving, vying, dreaming, dying.

Even today, we have at hand enough cultural resources to insist upon fat as an antidote to the anxieties of apocalypse. Fat may be that steadfastness, and steadfastness which we all have need of at this century's (and this millennium's) nervous, disillusioned end. When diet-takers look for and diet-makers promise a miraculous conclusion to an old body and the beginning of a new life, despite studies always showing that a massive preponderance of dieters will be disappointed, what can be more analogous to that disappointment with numbers on the scale than the disappointment of expecting too much from numbers on the calendar moving from '99 to '00 and '01?

Fat in this context may be a less disappointing, more reasonable way out of the interminable cycle of time (and of yo-yo dieting) on which the fin de siècle puts the grimmest, most despondent of faces. Fat as a formidable presence in and of itself would do away with the hectic double-mindedness and illusiveness of those before-and-after icons that control the economic and political lives of Americans no less than they determine campaigns for physical and mental fitness.

If those statistics are reliable which suggest that fat people are less likely than thin people to attempt suicide, perhaps the reason has to do, at heart, with the unusual relation of fat to time. Fat is neither precipitous nor detached nor momentary. Fat is, literally, physiologically, replete with energy; it is equally replete with the power to deny whim, to take time in longer swatches.

About that long swatch called evolution, I doubt that a single gene determines human obesity-itself a term of high cultural relativity and of no universal standard. Whatever the genetic component involved in establishing the number or layering of fat cells and the path or pace of a person's metabolism, "fatness" as a condition has nothing to do with chromosomes; it has to do with social constructs and cultural ideologies about nutrition, skinfolds, poundage, body shaping, disease-and time. Fatness, insofar as our microbiologists may discover its genetic origins, will in point of American cultural fact prove to be substantially a disorder of time: that is, the fat person will be one whose body does not process its nutrients at the same rate, or with the same rhythm, as "normals"-or the fat person's message system between central nervous system (appetite zones, shut-off points) and digestive system will operate at unusual intervals, with significant delays.

What needs most to be remarked about fat as a constitutent of the body is not its evolutionary or genetic markers but the degree to which it produces ambivalences that are, in the last analysis, ambivalences about time. Current representations of fat people as large bundles of inner-outer contradictions-outwardly loving but inwardly lonely, outwardly patient but inwardly impatient, outwardly robust but inwardly fragile-rest upon fears that fat is as much a temporal as a topographical divide. What happens slowly on the visible outer boundary of the fat person must be happening with alarming quickness on the inside, wherefore the (otherwise unfounded) assumptions of strong connections between fat and emotional volatility, fat and sudden heart attacks, fat and sudden death.

Or vice versa: the fat person is outwardly ticklish but inwardly stolid, outwardly jovial but inwardly sad... and what happens quickly on the visible outer boundary of the fat person must be grinding to a halt inside, wherefore the (otherwise unfounded) assumptions of strong connections between fat and conservatism, fat and depression.

Either way, the fat person's social disorders are disorders of temporal incongruity: time on the surface proceeds at a tempo directly contrary to the time being marked within. For societies like ours whose physicians and social workers value physiological consistency and social predictability, fat people are therefore most troubling.

Such trouble derives from what is essentially a geological bias against temporal irregularities. The central premise of modern geology is that each of the various geological processes (other than catastrophes such as volcanic eruptions or meteoric impacts) always takes roughly the same amount of time. From the rates of decomposition, sedimentation, glaciation, and so on, one can estimate the age of rocks and the age of the earth. Fat people stand accused of reckless disregard for consistency. They have unpredictable or irregular metabolisms, they gain or lose weight at unusual rates, they don't always look "their age." Consequently, their fat must be hiding internal inconsistencies which are, at the least, unpleasant.

One could, however, resist the geological bias, and applaud fat as insusceptible to any single, tyrannous timeline-either for losing weight or for living one's life. The movement for size acceptance must be a resistance movement against the notion that fat is out of time. When all is said and the bells rung, fat may be just in time. ß

HILLEL SCHWARTZ received his Ph.D. in history from Yale University. He has taught history, religious studies, and dance improvisation at several universities, including the University of California at San Diego. He currently lives and writes in Encinitas, California. His book "Never Satisfied-A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat" is regarded as a milestone in the Size Acceptance movement.