My last essay, on fat as fact, was, as some have suggested, very "heavy" -meaning, I trust, that it was serious or profound. This month I want to meditate on that word, "heavy," and on the cultural paradox that heavy people are not taken seriously.
I had assumed that as an adjective connoting seriousness, "heavy" might be a recent addition to adolescent cant and adult conversation, but I was wrong. Such a connotation appeared in English as early as the 16th century with Shakespeare's line, "Trust him not in matter of heavie consequence." Even earlier, however, in medieval (or Middle) English, the word had moved from the physical to the metaphorical: from the physical difficulty of heaving or lifting something to that emotional difficulty we call melancholy or sorrow. The passage from a heavy bucket to a heavy heart was evidently easy.
Why? For three reasons. First, because heaviness implies a burden, and the burden of a heavy object is often expressed physically (by countenance or posture) in the same manner as the burden of a melancholic thought or terrible trouble. Secondly, because physical heaviness implies ponderousness, and sorrow slows one down. Thirdly, because physical heaviness implies inertia, and sadness often immobilizes.
If roundness has implied jollity or complacency, and fatness voluptuousness or laxness, then it has been left to heaviness to carry the darker, drearier implications: clumsiness ("heavy-handed"), stupidity ("heavy-headed"), slothfulness ("heavy lidded"), oppressiveness ("heavy" clouds, colors, or clothes), grievousness (a "heavy" blow to one's pride), obsessiveness (a "heavy" drinker), and dejection (the "heavy" heart). Although by equally straightforward extension from physical experience, "heavy" can also imply gravity and momentousness, and is used in this way today, our take on heaviness as seriousness has been corrupted by more widespread, pejorative connotations of "heavy."
In consequence, to say that a book or an essay is "heavy" is not the compliment it might have been, centuries ago. Heaviness as a thoughtful or historical seriousness has been so compromised by parallel equations of heaviness with dullness, awkwardness, and depression that it can no longer stand proudly on its own. A "heavy" essay may be particularly meaningful, but it is also and certainly ponderous, i.e., hard to make one's way through; dreary, i.e., mired in unhappy thoughts or confounding issues; and distressful, i.e., arriving at disturbing conclusions.
Along the way, seriousness too has been compromised. It is more and more difficult these days to be respected as a "serious" person. Just as American society has lost its regard for "heavy" books, it has lost its appreciation for "serious" people--who are apparently too gloomy in their approach, too complex in their thinking, or too considered in their speech to be acceptable as our public advisors, let alone as our leaders. Seriousness is for special and somber-occasions only: a funeral, a serious natural disaster, a confession, a serious crime or trial, an act of atonement, a "serious" international political crisis. Even then, we tend to view seriousness as a temporarily appropriate behavior rather than an inherent way of being.
Given more than a century of Western fears of fatness and heaviness as inherent, permanent states, it would (and does) follow that being regularly "heavy" or continually "serious" has also become suspect. Reserving heaviness and seriousness for certain sporadic, extraordinary moments, we tend to resent an ordinary heaviness and a regular seriousness for what these might demand of us each day. We therefore project upon those who are physically heavy that fierce risk of mortality which "heaviness" and "seriousness" would otherwise put in jeopardy for all of us, aptly and painfully. The fatalism imputed to those who are too "heavy" or "serious" is translated into a high mortality rate for those who are obese or "seriously overweight." The oppressive sobriety imputed to those who are too "heavy" or serious is translated into a compulsive eating disorder. The tedious persistence imputed to those who are too "heavy" or serious is translated into a profound emotional (hormonal) imbalance, rooted in one form or another of (sometimes, suicidal) melancholy.
Diets mean to lighten things up, to release us at once from the physical burdens of heaviness and the existential burdens of seriousness. Diet books are written in the form of classical Roman comedies. They start with cases of mistaken identity (you are not the person you see in the mirror), proceed through farce, mischief, mayhem, and travail (behavioral conditioning, crazily rearranged meals, special gourmet recipes, careful exercise) to a well-plotted conclusion in which the heroines at last recognize who they really are (thin, light, lithe, vital, energetic, romantic) and, as a result, are redeemed (healthy, successful, confidently attractive, socially acceptable). Diet books are never "heavy" or serious -they never criticize our Western culture of consumption, nor do they examine the international food situation or national nutrition policies, and rarely do they reflect upon notions of personal fulfillment in a capitalist economy. In the most profound of senses, dieting is a joke.
Of course, dieting is a joke on heavy people-a serious joke, not just because weight-loss diets in the long-term are ineffectual and often dangerous, but also because diet regimes imply that heavy people will not be taken seriously until they are light. Once you have shed those many pounds and regained that slender youthful figure, say our diet experts, you will be trustworthy, believable, admirable, and influential; until then, the heavy person is a social and political joke. Americans can accept fat, heavy comedians since fatness itself is a joke (although fat comedians are less successful if they are critical of society~only thin, lightweight comedians may be irksome social critics, like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl). We can envision heavy tyrants and demagogues, since they are neither trustworthy nor admirable; they are, as is said in the theater, "heavies" or villains, recognizable as much by their heft as by their glower. We can go so far as to esteem heavy football players, since they afford the more agile and graceful stars some protection and room to maneuver. But, paradoxically, the run of the-mill heavy person carries no weight in our society.
Some might protest here that American society is indeed beginning to take fat and heavy people seriously. What are all the recent announcements of a national campaign against obesity if not a sign that Americans have begun to take heavy people seriously? Well, such a campaign disregards the fat person and takes seriously, as a threat to the nation's health, her/his intolerable bulk. Basically, the campaign is directed against heavy people as, again, theatrical "heavies," jeopardizing the country's morbidity and mortality statistics and its sense of well-being. Amidst recurrent scientific research demonstrating the considerable degree to which adult fatness and heaviness are the result of genetic predispositions, such a campaign scarcely attends to the physiology and life course of heavy people. What it takes seriously is what it is most accidental and least essential to the humanity of a person.
Others might argue that fear is seriousness. To the extent that Americans fear heavy people, they are taking them seriously, whether as "heavies" (villains), bullies (minor villains), bodyguards (adjuncts to leaders), or blockers (adjuncts to football heroes). This is hardly persuasive. The fear of heavy people is simply a fear of their physical presence and consequent power, not a fear of their inner resources or their intellectual wherewithal; it renders the fat heavy person essentially anonymous.
Diet experts promise that you can and will become a person. Diet books offer an avenue away from anonymity and personlessness at the same time that they hold out the warm prospect of fitting in, unremarkably, among all the other beautiful people. There are then two cultural paradoxes at work, the first being that we take heavy people lightly, the second that we take them to be the more remarkable and threatening the more they are anonymous. The two paradoxes are paradoxically intertwined, for anonymity drains people of meaningfulness even as it makes them monstrous. The more they are anonymous, the more they can be disregarded; the more they are disregarded, the more they may clump together into one terrifying mass.
How do we all, light or heavy, thin or fat, break out of this double paradox? By making common cause as members of the same community, that human community which desperately needs all of our help now, to keep our waters potable, our air breathable, our land arable, our lives sustainable. It's time to get serious and take on some social and political heft. Heavy people of the world, unite; all you have to gain is your weight. 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. Dr. Schwartz' deeply philosophical perusings of size issues are a treat to those who appreciate true brilliance.