Looking Backward
by Hillel Schwartz

It’s the turn of the year and nearly the turn of the century, so I am going to look back more than a little and attempt to assess our progress. I want to quote in full an Associated Press article entitled “Fat Boy Found Wanting In Academic Ambition,” from October 10,1935. There is, to be sure, a deadly irony to the fact that, ten years later, the first atomic bomb was nicknamed “Fat Boy,” but I am not quoting the article primarily because of that irony, nor am I quoting the article because it appeared in our national newspaper of record, The New York Times, and is consequently available all across the country on microfilm, for posterity. I am quoting it, rather, because it gives us an excellent historical anchor by which to judge the progress of the fat acceptance movement—for men. Herewith:

Fat Boy Found Wanting In Academic Ambition

Ann Arbor, Mich., Oct. 9—The University of Michigan has completed a study of the fat boy and found him wanting—in zeal and ambition.

The conclusion may not vary greatly with the commonly accepted theory that obesity is akin to indifference, but Professor William B. Pillsbury, head of the Department of Psychology, said he did not undertake the study to upset popularly accepted ideas, but to find out why there was such a scarcity of fat boys in the academic life of the university.

The research did not refer to the subjects as fat boys. Science knows them for "pyknics."

Under Professor Pillsbury’s direction, he disclosed today, research workers’ comparisons and the records of students show that over a period of years a greater percentage of pyknics were dropping out of college than “asthenics,” the tall slender type.

A study of the class room records of fat boys, Professor Pillsbury said, failed to justify the theory they were lacking in intelligence.

He said they displayed either an attitude of indifference or a nature so easy going that it could not be stimulated by hope of scholastic honors.

On the surface of things, one might observe that little has changed in the last sixty-three years. We are still familiar with the presumption that fat people are not easily inspired or driven to achieve—because, of course, if they were more easily inspired or more driven to achieve, the first thing they would do is diet and shed the pounds that keep them from success. We are also quite familiar with the presumption of a close correlation between body type and personality, even if we do not use the same early-20th-century terms to describe body types. And although we are presently willing to grant drive, ambition, intelligence, and honor to computer “nerds” of whom we made much fun only twenty years ago, these modern heroes are far more often depicted in the media as thin shy guys (or gals) than fat genial guys (or gals).

Below the surface, not so much has changed either. We are less willing than we were sixty-three years ago to grant older men their portion of fat and poundage, and our image of college youth is certainly not one of bulk, except for a few football tackles. Indeed, the perpetually renewed “wars” on fat tend to put the pressure on males of younger and younger ages to belly up to a thinner bar and a lighter bar than ever before.

It would, these days, go against the political grain to argue that people of any physical type or race are inherently less intelligent than another—and yet that very argument has been put forward recently with an array of fallacious genetics, misread population statistics, and misleading university demographics in two controversial books, the rebuttals to which never received the attention that the best-selling books themselves received. So I suspect that a rather large percentage of the American population would today be willing to go a step further than Prof. Pillsbury (the dough boy?) and—in private, at least—propose that fat boys are not only indifferent and easy going but, yes, less intelligent.

Prof. Pillsbury, by the way, did not immediately suggest that the University of Michigan inaugurate a scholarship program or remedial program to increase the proportion of fat boys who stick to their books and graduate from college. The newspaper article has about it the tone of a minor discovery confirming a major prejudice: that fat boys are part and parcel of a supremely natural attrition in the race of the fittest to survive academia.

One could, I suppose, continue along this vein with anecdotes about the hazing and maltreatment of fat boys at universities, or one could discuss the stereotypes of the fraternity fat boy which were perpetuated through to the 1970s and 1980s by John Belushi. I am however going to take another approach—a deeper analysis of the last line of the article. What does it mean that a fat boy is either so indifferent or “has a nature so easy going that it could not be stimulated by hope of scholastic honors”?

First, that a fat boy, no matter how intelligent, is somehow subservient to the it of his underlying nature. Second, that a fat boy rarely abides by the set of values of any institution—not that he is a dangerous hood or a reprehensible rake, but that he will rarely be swayed by the higher rewards and nobler purposes of our human institutions. He is a creature of his own private comforts.

Dropping out of college is then but a sign of the fat boy’s general if genial detachment from the society. Call it indifference or call it easy-goingness, his nature is to be more natural than cultural. A being with the powers of reason, nonetheless he seems to allow himself to slip back toward the animal and away from the life of the mind. Animals—non-human animals--are neither ambitious nor delighted with scholastic honors; they are, in the wild, pretty much at ease with themselves except when they are hunting for food, water, or a mate, which hunt they pursue with zeal.

Strangely enough, there is no evidence presented in the article that the proportion of pyknics admitted to university is far less than the proportion of asthenics in the general population, or that the proportion who applied to university is far less than the proportion of asthenics who applied. More strangely, there is no comment on the tendency of tall slender types to be less healthy, all around, than pyknics—which was one of the assumptions of the 1930s. No, what we have here is evidence simply of the tendency of fat boys to give up, regardless of how well they were doing in class. Fat boys don’t stick to anything important.

In this sense, they are condemned by the American Horatian (Alger) ethos of pulling-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps and pursuing a dream. The dreamy are doomed. The peaceful are doomed. (Was it irony or collective revenge on peaceful, dreamy drop-outs, then, to code-name the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima the “Fat Boy”?)

Have we come a long way, baby? Although the idiom is chauvinist and “baby” is idiomatically specific to women, the word “baby” is neuter and can pertain, in other circumstances, to a male, so I want to push the question. The Associated Press article seems to lead us to imagine the fat boy as a rounded baby, easy going and unwilling to shoulder adult responsibilities. The Fat Boy is not merely wanting in academic ambition; he is wanting in maturity.

Given our contemporary set of media assumptions about fat men as easy-going, babyfaced, never-quite-grown-up comedians—current despite the work of such actors as, e.g., Sidney Greenstreet in “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) and some of the work of John Goodman in the 1990s, it would seem that in sixty-three years we have, as it were, regressed.

To this day, being a fat man is no picnic. Back to (the) Depression.



Musings