Any discussion of obesity comes down to the not particularly friendly contest between thick and thin, with the body as the chief battleground. Mostly the female nude, because that has been the main interest of heterosexual men, the principal arbiters. Women and homosexuals had far fewer votes in the matter of svelte versus corpulent, in art as in life. Thick or thin has been the great divide, as the expression “through thick and thin” encapsulates. Between them, they subsume the world
Let me state right off: I am a partisan of thin in human bodies as well as many other things. But let me make clear: slim, trim, slender, yes; but not spindly, emaciated, frangible, anorexic. It is, I believe, the majority view, excess being, as usual, undesirable. That majority view is exemplified in the history of painting and sculpture, but is the majority always right? Or do you think that intelligence lords it over stupidity, that sagacity outnumbers benightedness?
All right, you say, forget about majority, but what is so attractive about slimness? I suppose it is partly its suggestion of moderation, elasticity, embracableness. Also the practicality, the implication of flexibility, of not hogging too much space. And also gracefulness: how does a somersault by a fat woman compare with that of a slender one? Which one would you rather share a bed with or have plunk down in your lap?
And further: don’t clothes fitting snugly but not constrictingly look better than those stretched to bursting? But where exactly lies the boundary between just right and too much? Is the eighteen-inch waist so striven for by the girls in “Gone with the Wind” the correct ideal or is it exaggeration? Finally, are angels ever depicted as anything but slim, and what man would not cherish an angelic woman?
However, let us look at specific instances of thin versus thick. Even among animals, plants and objects, isn’t slim generally preferable? To be sure, among trees, a sturdy oak is as fetching as a willowy willow, merely in a different way. But that is a case where thickness means dependability in storms, a joy to be climbed up on, a potential for a tree house. In other words, function, even when merely implicit, may unconsciously color our aesthetics.
Consider another example of where thickness may beat out thinness. I am thinking of the beloved ante bellum Negro mammies of the era leading up to the Civil War. Their attraction lay in the capacious bosoms on which a hurt child might find refuge and solace. I am not thinking of the Hottentot Venus.
It may be argued that there were times and societies in which ample females were in favor: think Junoesque, think Rubens. But may it not be merely the consequence of some important personage, say a queen or some powerful aristocrat, having been stout, though she could just as easily have been thin as a rail.
Language, too, may play a role. The notion of “fat cat” seems to have an appeal beyond the mere rhyme—otherwise “bitty kitty” might have been the cat’s meow. But language does have emanations: if “large” did not have some positive connotations, would “largesse” be such a good thing? And does not “portly” carry fortuitous implications of “port,” something we all seek in our tempest-torn lives?
For my part, however, the capital sins are, in that order, wickedness, stupidity, cowardice, and obesity. To me, they are the Four Riders of the Apocalypse. I find relatively few things more painful than sitting on the subway opposite a truly obese person. I would risk an uncomfortably averted head just to avoid having to look at the fatso.
To be sure, there are the charitable souls who speculate that it may be a glandular matter over which the obese person has no control. I tend to think that it is rather a case of laziness: a careful diet and steady exercise are simply too much trouble. Yet even assuming that it is a problem of recalcitrant metabolism, it hardly makes fat acceptable. After all, stupidity is also a guiltless infirmity, yet we do not pardon it.
Now take dogs and cats. Doesn’t obesity in some of them—a belly that hugs the floor—strike us as offensive? Isn’t much of the beauty of leopards and panthers in their lissomness? But then what about elephants, whose bulk we do regard with admiration? There is something proportionate about their structure and a kind of lumbering grace in their movement. And their size itself fills us with awe akin to that with which we view loveliness. As for the whale, we may well want to save it, but not for its obese looks. And dolphins, however intelligent, are downright homely
in their chubbiness.
There are many things in nature that are obese. A melon, for example. But we do not value it for its looks, which it takes a still-life painter to make, conceivably, beautiful.
I personally find a well-made barrel attractive, but it may be only a transference from the good potables it contains. Usefulness may simulate sightlines.
But now take the case of pigs. Full-grown they are obese and unsightly. But piglets, even if you haven’t read “Winnie the Pooh,” may strike you as pretty. And so they are, not merely for their winsome smallness and roseate color. Isn’t a piggybank a pleasing object? There is a shape involved, and the shape is geometrically articulate.
This is the beauty of curves, which we find enticing. It suggests the undulation of a fair-weather sea, the hand-favoring rotundity of a perfectly designed pitcher. But they are beautiful only on a slender person, where they are perceived as such. On an obese person, we see curves only as lard. They function best in conjunction with firmness, say the firm flesh of youth or the perdurability of marble. Which makes a statue such as the ever-young Venus de Milo a paragon of beauty, even without a full complement, or armament, of arms.
And please don’t talk to me about inner beauty being more important than outer. So it may be, but it is the outer that usually leads the viewer to the inner. It is the pursuit of the outer beauty of youth that lures the aging virago and still cruising homosexual to desperate stratagems that turn them into grotesques. You cannot be young forever, but you can try hard, and more often than not successfully, to eschew obesity.