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The World Wasn’t Always This Fat Phobic


Once upon a time, the world didn’t hate fat or fat people and dieting wasn’t a $72 billion US industry. Take yourself to an art museum or thumb through an art book (not modern) and see for yourself. Or read Ken Mondschein’s article, “Fatness and Thinness in the Middle Ages.” 

To be sure, fat has been associated with greed, gluttony, excess, and other negative traits. However, he says, there were times when fat was viewed more positively:

  • “So, too with foreign lands—the fictionalized John of Mandeville tells of how foreigners ate inordinate amounts, and the romancier Rusticello has Marco Polo report on the prodigious appetites of the mighty men of Zanzibar.”
  • “There was no shortage of defenses of largeness, or even positive depictions, in the less well-born. Peasants rarely got enough to eat, so positive associations between fat and plenty—‘fat’ soil, the ‘fat’ of the land, and the pre-Lenten ‘fat Tuesday’ feast—are not surprising . . . In the eyes of commoners, friars got fat off the hard work of others—but their largeness was something to aspire to.”
  • “First, plumpness was by no means considered a bad thing in medieval women. Vigarello, in his Metamorphoses of Fat, sees largeness as the sine qua non of female beauty in early medieval romances. The late fourteenth-century Goodman of Paris says that a horse ought to have four qualities also found in comely maidens: a handsome mane, beautiful chest, fine loins, and large buttocks.”
  • “By the seventeenth century, painters such as Peter Paul Rubens or Charles Mellin’s, in his famous portrait of the hefty Italian general Alessandro dal Borro, were unapologetically portraying body fat.”
  • “However, we can find ambiguity about fatness even in the courtly tradition. Andreas Capellanus has a woman in one of his dialogues criticize a man with fat thighs as being unbeautiful—to which the man responds that fat legs are not incompatible with virtue.”

You may be saying, “So what. Who cares what people thought of fat hundreds of years ago? I live in the world today. I have to cope with all the fat hatred that’s going on in the present.” This is true, and one way of coping is to recognize, sometimes through gazing back through history, that views of our bodies change. Just compare the physiques of Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe or Sophia Loren to Twiggy or the waif pop stars of today. We happen to live, as I’ve often said, in the most thin-obsessed, fat-phobic period in the history of the world.” You have to live and cope with now, yes, but you don’t need to buy into it’s fallacies that fat is bad and always has been. 




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