One of the worst things a person can be is stupid. Stupidity is one of the greatest conceivable evils. Yet it isn’t a sin at all. It is something no-one, with the exception of novelist Hasek’s Good Soldier Svejk, deliberately chooses to be. What is inflicted on you at birth, which you couldn’t help, did nothing to provoke, can hardly qualify as sin. And yet. . . .
Right next to it, as far as I’m concerned, is obesity—right up there with thievery, mendacity, cruelty to people and animals, rudeness and dirtiness. It may even head the list, along with stupidity.
Yet it too may (repeat: may) be something glandular that you cannot help. Of course stigmatizing it predicates belief in the beauty and goodness of its opposite, slenderness. I confess that I, as a lover of women—more specifically beautiful ones—consider slimness a sine qua non. This has to do with obesity being tantamount to ugliness. And surely such overweight is ugly.
The obese person is unsightly, and therefore shunned and unhappy. Consider the attention devoted by the ABC network to tracing missing children. Most of them are girls, which in itself is noteworthy, and almost all of them are overweight. One recently was five feet tall and weighed 200 pounds.
We cannot dispute the fact that for the vast majority of people the standard of beauty is set by Hollywood. Female stars have to be slender. I recall one movie magazine long ago naming the two most beautiful actresses: Hedy Lamarr and Ann Sheridan. They were both 5’6” and both weighed 118 pounds. I agreed that they were, each in her own way, true beauties. There may be something quaint about that 118, definitely not a rounded (in both senses) figure (again in both senses). But it surely worked for both those alluring actresses.
We may well ask what is so beautiful about slimness? There have been ages and societies whose standard of feminine beauty was much more ample. Never mind the Hottentot Venus or the paintings of Rubens and, worse yet, Botero; but think of our own Gibson girls, ideals not so long ago.
The beauty of slimness has something to do with proportions, symmetry, pleasing ratios, which remain steady even if details change. Already 5’6” may seem a bit ordinary nowadays, perhaps even short; we tend to admire a woman like the tennis star Maria Sharapova, who at 6’2” might not so very long ago been considered a giantess and not particularly desirable. But she is, today, a beauty.
Too much height in a woman, however, is a bit intimidating, especially to men who are shorter than that. But too little height is considered childish, cute, like kittens, puppies, or six-year-old girls. Only one thing definitely scorned in our time is obesity.
I don’t recall reading anywhere the weight of Angelina Jolie, widely held to be one of our greatest beauties, with or without breasts. But one thing she certainly, even remotely, is not: she is anything but obese. Now if you wonder why I concentrate on a particular kind of beauty, namely feminine, it is for the same reason that painters through the ages painted beautiful, often nude, women as the high point of beauty.
I realize that this is foolishly derided by many as sexist; but others will agree that it is a good place to look for beauty. To be sure, one hears about fatty lovers (or should it be one word, fattylovers?), but they are relatively rare. The rest of us value delicacy even in a vase and champagne glass and, particularly, flower; then why not in a woman? I don’t mean undernourishment, frangibility, flimsiness; but I do mean gracefulness, the sort of thing we get in a ballerina.
Something there is that loves slenderness. Think of the women of, say, Botticelli, Manet, Degas, Modigliani, and so many other artists, almost all gazelles. And the same in sculpture: there is a Venus de Milo, but a Venus de Gaston Lachaise is inconceivable.
Reflect now on the causes of obesity. It is very frequent, for example, in black women? Why? Because many of them are poor. If you can’t afford other good things, there is one that you must: food. But food isn’t just for survival; it is also for pleasure. And what food is cheapest? Junk food, which is notoriously fattening. Now what makes poverty a bit more bearable? Munching away on junk food. Consequence? Obesity.
Obesity, moreover, is comic. The comic is not beautiful. How many comediennes have been slender? A few; but many more have been—are--to put it politely, big. And funny is not sexy either, which is first cousin to beautiful. But funny can actually be obese, which is the reverse of beautiful. So obesity ends up being the opposite of beautiful, i.e., ugly.
Take the word porcine, which applied to a human is hugely insulting. Why? Because pigs are fat. They are, however, far from stupid, and, contrary to popular belief, would as soon not wallow in mud. But swinish, or piglike, i.e., obese, is what an unappealing person is deprecatingly called. Not equine, canine or feline. Porcine, i.e., ugly.
Americans rate very high on the obesity scale. But why are so many Americans flagrantly obese? Can you ride a bus without spotting at least one such? Or, more likely, several. This is because, compared to those in the rest of the world,
America’s poor are less indigent. At any rate, they can afford more candy and other fattening junk food. And don’t forget the proliferation and persuasiveness of American advertising plugging dubious comestibles. Result? Obesity.
Bear in mind the derivation and definition of the word obesity. In Britain, the Oxford English Dictionary points out, the word “obese” was first recorded in 1651; “obesity,” in 1612. They come from the Latin, perhaps via French, the adjective meaning, according to the OED, very fat or fleshy, or exceedingly corpulent; the noun, excessive fatness or corpulence. Note the signified more than mere fatness. Conversely, as rich a language as German, which of course has words for fat and thick, has no word for obese. This surely does not mean that Germans are less obese than Brits, but it does mean that the Anglo-Saxon, and hence also American, sensibility is more offended by vast overweight than that of some other nations. And rightly so.
We hate a walking tub of lard more than some other nationals do. We could be satisfied with fat and thick, with plump and pudgy, chubby and overweight, but no; we also want, for the greatest repulsiveness, the greatest shock, obese. Or is it that we have more fatties, greater unappetizingness (or bigger appetites) than other peoples? “Obese” is a word that exudes stricter disapproval, elicits stronger repulsion than any of those other synonyms or near-synonyms.
It does not help that we now know how unhealthful such superfatness is. Even the similarity in sound to the word “obscene” should give warning. Or the rhyming with “grease.” Or the negativity of most words beginning in “ob”: obscure, obscurantist, obstacle, objectionable, obsolete, obnoxious, obstructionist, perhaps even obligatory, which is at best indeterminate: some obligations are worthy, many restrictive and tedious. An irredeemably damning word then for an irredeemably damnable phenomenon.
Observe also how unwilling “obese” is to join up with something remotely positive as “fat” and “thick” can do, as in “fat and sassy” and “thickskinned,” which in today’s brutal world stands for something rather handy. Obese, however, stands alone and is bad business however you slice it, and, given its adiposity, is very appropriate for slicing.