"In summer," wrote the German literary philosopher Walter Benjamin, "fat people are conspicuous, in winter thin." This was one of a series of aphorisms from a highly aphoristic essay entitled "One-Way Street." German caricaturists of the 1920s, during the middle of which Benjamin wrote his essay, played fast and loose with the fat and the thin, depicting fat men as war-profiteers or fat-cat industrialists, thin men as Bolsheviks or starving artists, fat women as madames, thin women as starving whores. Inflation and bitter political feuds would take the Weimar Republic into the Depression sooner and more precipitously than any other European nation, and eventually into a Nazi winter from which would come, in the end, the most terrifying pictures of World War II: concentration camp survivors too thin, really, to be alive.
Cultural anthropologists and archeologists, digging through the levels of midden heaps left by past civilizations, find that at the tag-ends of civilizations, their dendritus and deposits of garbage are relatively barren and uninformative. Why? Because then and only then, trying to forestall an unwelcome end, the people with ever greater thoroughness recycle what they had for centuries simply tossed away. The more barren the midden heap, the more hard-pressed the social and political economy.
The fat that cushions the human skeleton may be, biologically, a reserve against scarcity, but its conspicuousness is, I would argue, less a question of medicine or aesthetics than of Time. The fat and the thin may be alternately conspicuous in tandem with alternating seasons of dearth and plenty, as Benjamin suggests. I figure, more radically, that one could reasonably plot the rise and fall of cultures and civilizations according to the degree of attention they pay to fatness and to thinness.
It would be no simple-minded correlation such as has been mouthed so often by media consultants. The historical record does not show, across cultures and continents, that wealthy or well-fed societies necessarily prefer thin people to fat, or conversely that poor or poorly-fed societies prefer fat people to thin. Indeed, in most societies there are class distinctions as well as age, gender, caste, and ethnic distinctions that make any determination of ideals of visible healthfulness and physical beauty bewilderingly complex.
In most societies, several different and contrary ideals of body type and physique run concurrently, just as in our own society the tall thin female fashion model has played out one set of ideals concurrent with the luxuriantly voluptuous centerfold and the rosy-cheeked energetic young housewife (or the tall slim-hipped exotic male fashion model concurrently with the body-built well-hung stud and the strong-but-faithful young husband). No, what I am suggesting is that the concern for both thinness and fatness tends to rise toward obsession when a culture or civilization feels itself in decline. Fatness and thinness become conspicuous, literally and figuratively, when people become anxious about the unbounded acceleration or deceleration of Time and the passing of their own bounds, their own comfortable times. Literally, they develop new techniques for measuring and assessing the heft and volume of bodies as they begin to worry about the heft and endurance of their society. Metaphorically, they adopt fatness and thinness as larger categories of social and cultural criticism as they begin to feel that their society is bloated or weightless, wasteful or drifting, polluted or insubstantial.
Our mounting concern with clinical obesity and with anorexia, with bulimia and with food contamination, with adult "eating disorders" and with infant "feeding problems"-all this has been accompanied by a mounting concern with ecological wastefulness and the scarcity of natural resources, with political selfishness and the necessity for altruism on an endangered planet at the end of a millennium. Only during the last two decades have fat people begun vociferously to protest against size discrimination, and only in the last half-century has starvation become as much a political as a humanitarian issue. Would it be obscene to observe that the current campaigns for size acceptance, as well as the resurgent biomedical and pharmaceutical campaigns against obesity, run in parallel with international campaigns against kwashiorkor, that severe malnutrition characterized in part by protruding bellies, traditionally mistaken as evidence of overindulgence? Am I right in sensing a peculiarly millenarian urgency and angst to the newest sociomedical programs for feeding up anorexics and for reducing the weight of the clinically obese, as for feeding the poor of the world and ridding ourselves of Pollution and waste?
The resumption of certain late-19th-century biotechnical explanations for fatness, especially for fatness in women, reflects our present midden-heap mentality. Either fat people are more economical with their calories, able to store in their bodies more of the energy from their food; or they are more economical in their movements, using less energy; or their metabolisms are slower, such that they require less energy to begin with. Today, fatness may be at once a symbol of utter wastefulness and of supreme economy; like thinness, which is at once a symbol of emotional/physical loss and of energetic action, fatness is fully implicated in the paradoxes of a culture which feels itself to be at the end of a millennial rope. Because of the paradoxes of the midden-heap mentality, in which one saves what one can after so much has already disappeared, theories apparently contradictory can be put forward and successfully maintained despite each other: thinness is cheerful vitality, since one has been disembarrassed of unwanted and ungainly burdens, yet fatness is also cheerful vitality, since one carries an obvious reservoir of quick energy and good humor. Vice versa, thinness results from compulsiveness and shame, since one puts unwarrantable demands upon one's body to be inhumanly "perfect," yet fatness also results from compulsiveness and shame, since one eats to cover over the defects and accommodate the insatiable hungers of a "wounded" psyche.
Sensing an ending, our society tends to be equally and highly sensitive to both the very thin and the very fat. They are, for American society, now, in the 1990s, conspicuous symbols of failure: a failure to appreciate limits, a failure to stand up to them. So we surround both the thin and the fat with the statistics of death: the sad, sullen wasting-away of anorexics; the coronary infarctions of the incorrigibly obese. The more anxious we are about our own wasting-away and cultural collapse, the more thinness and fatness appear equally and ominously suicidal. The more we bemoan the dilapidation of our national infrastructure and the crime on the streets, the more that the very thin and the very fat seem to be not only signs but sources and sorcerers of our discontent, and we begin to charge them with treason, the betraying of our sturdiest values (thrift, self-respect, mobility, independence, rationality). At the extreme, our medical experts and welfare authorities tacitly charge those who are too thin and too fat with the gravest of murders, infanticide: the too-thin mother delivers a low-birth-weight baby susceptible to the syndrome called Failure to Thrive; the too-fat mother rolls over atop her infant and smothers her, or otherwise contributes to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Clearly, these charges against fatness and thinness are as serious as they are subtle. Whatever their actuarial or social or judicial (in)accuracy and (un)fairness, the currency of the charges is a fair and accurate index to the fin-de-siècle milieu in which each of us must attempt to carry ourselves with dignity and direction.
The threat of a devastating nuclear winter seems to have diminished in the last decade, but we live still in the winter of our discontent, when people wonder about their own seeming Failure to Thrive and project for the next generation something horribly akin to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Our children, we encourage ourselves to say to each other, are out of shape, out of kilter, out of alignment, and out of whack, like us from whose bodies they came, too fat, too thin, too flabby, too fragile.
The habit of taking upon our bodies the burdens not only of the world but of our times is scarcely unusual, and I do not compose this essay in scorn. Whatever the various postmodern philosophers may be writing about the fragmentation of bodies and consciousnesses, it is still a testimony to the seriousness of our concerns that we take them, as we say, "to heart"-that we look to the body, and not to some free-floating abstraction, for cause and consolation. Our bodies are the concretions of our lives, and although we are all more than body, what more we are must rest upon flesh and bone. In other days neither the thin nor the fat would be scapegoated; in other days neither thinness nor fatness would be metonymic to the situation in which we find ourselves. To give ourselves, as a society, broad license to embrace any and every body, without compulsion or shame, that will take some time. Springtime. 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 1986 book "Never Satisfied-A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat" is regarded as a milestone in the Size Acceptance movement.