Was Plato too fat?

Rosemary Hill

  • Fat: A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life by Christopher Forth
    Reaktion, 352 pp, £25.00, March, ISBN 978 1 78914 062 0

My friend Katy used to be fat: not medically obese, but what our mothers would have called ‘pleasantly plump’ with a wink and a remark to the effect that ‘men like something to get hold of.’ But to our generation she looked fat, so she went on a diet and lost weight. This gave her access to more fashionable clothes, but it also changed her relationship with her friends: they no longer assumed that she would be happy to do tedious things like being the designated driver. She heard herself referred to less often as ‘good old Katy’. People who have met her since she became slim tend to call her Katherine.

All animals make assessments on first encountering one another. In humans the basic categories – dominance, mating potential and the chance of being eaten – are woven into a complicated web of cultural, moral, religious and historical factors that give rise to first impressions that are finely calibrated on several scales and consequently are often ambivalent. Fatness can signal cheerfulness, friendliness or warmth, or it can be seen as weakness, unhappiness and social stigma. As a metaphor it is similarly ambiguous. A fathead is stupid but a fat cheque is welcome. A fat chance is smaller than a slim chance.

Christopher Forth begins his inquiries at the most visceral level, by considering responses to the substance of fat both in and out of the body. It is, he suggests, the capacity of fat to be both in and out that contributes to the widely varying attitudes to it. When it is outside coming in, it is generally good. Fatty food is tasty. Oils are rubbed into the skin for pleasure, relaxation and healing. They may also act as a medium to connect the body with a realm beyond the corporeal. The British monarch is anointed at the coronation to signify the sacred nature of monarchy and its place as part of a divine order. In the Catholic Church, Extreme Unction at the approach of death involves anointing with holy oil the portals between the body and the material world – the eyes, nose, lips, ears and hands – to mark the end of the senses’ dealings with the things of the earth. Conversely, fat coming out of the body, in decomposition, is disturbing and disgusting. Fat that is excreted by animals and used as manure feeds crops that then go into human bodies, but that is not a connection we care to dwell on. A person so grossly fat that they appear to be on the point of bursting brings together the polar extremes of the life cycle, arousing anxieties most luridly illustrated in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, when the enormous Mr Creosote is goaded into accepting one last ‘wafer-thin mint’ and then explodes, deluging the restaurant in a wave of vomit, guts and blood.

When races, nations or classes wish to slander one another the three most usual insults are that the others are smelly, sometimes explicitly ‘greasy’, that their food is disgusting and their sexual practices are depraved. All of these are allegations about the way the body makes contact with external matter, going in or coming out. This sort of xenophobia, as Forth demonstrates, can easily extend to fat-shaming. The Greeks, with their highly refined ideal of physical fitness and beauty, despised the Scythians, whose lives in the unvarying climate of central Eurasia had failed, so the Hippocratics thought, to grant them either physical or moral resilience. Their libido was accordingly as flabby as their stomachs. They were too fat to have sex even if they wanted to, and if they did, the women, in addition to being ‘personally fat and lazy’, had so much internal fat that ‘the mouth of the womb [was] closed’ and they were unable to conceive. How the Greeks accounted for the fact that the Scythians didn’t die out is not explained, but possibly, like many such instances of revulsion, it was less an objective assessment than a reflection of Greek anxiety. Plato’s generation worried that they were less fit than their grandparents, that, as Plato argued, too much readily available food and wine was undermining the health of the state.

This is one of several themes Forth identifies that go back a long way. Another is the worry that the army is getting too fat. Epaminondas, the Theban general, purportedly fired a soldier whose stomach was wider than his shield, and in Britain earlier this year it was announced that obesity rates in the army were so high as to pose ‘a threat to national security’. Pizza has now been replaced in the military diet by avocados and smoothies, shrewdly styled as the ‘warrior breakfast’ to avoid any association with effete hipsterdom. Diet and weight have gendered and class aspects. Real men don’t eat quiche. Anti-Brexit demonstrators can be put down as hummus-eating Waitrose shoppers. This quagmire of anxieties about food and fatness suggests that social ideals of body size and shape have generally been at some remove from the norm. One self-enforcing advantage of power and status has always been the ability to command a flattering reflection. If anyone thought that at 54 inches around the waist, Henry VIII was fat, they thought twice about saying so and in Holbein’s portraits of the king his bulk is translated into an image of monumentality and strength. The female pharaoh Hatshepsut was portrayed in sculpture as slender with delicate features. The discovery in 2007 of her long-lost mummy revealed that she was enormously fat.

At the heart of Forth’s account of attitudes to fatness and beauty is a reassuringly consistent pragmatism. In most times and places it has been considered dangerous to health to be obese, as also to be too thin, and both extremes are generally understood to affect fertility, at least in Western culture, which is the focus of Forth’s analysis. The corollary of this emphasis on similarities and continuities is that he makes too little of the ambivalence he identifies in attitudes to fat and of those differences and developments that would justify his subtitle of ‘cultural history’. The queasiness about human tissue and the fatty substances that are essential to life reflects a persistent unease about the human condition. The question of what, if anything, makes us different from other animals – how, if at all, we are more than sentient meat – has been reframed throughout recorded history. The Middle Ages had the soul, which left the body at death to be reunited with it at the Last Judgment. The Lateran Council of 1215 declared that everyone ‘will rise with their own bodies, which they now wear, so as to receive according to their deserts, whether these be good or bad’. The resurrection of the body, derived from St Paul, is still part of Catholic doctrine, though it has always posed problems. Will the resurrected bear the marks of whatever illness or injury killed them? What about widows who remarried? Will some people be older than their parents? There were always exceptions to the rule. The bodies of some saints were thought incorruptible and so were, and still are, preserved as objects of veneration: the pure, intact body the sign of a pure soul.

Then there was the curious matter of the king’s ‘two bodies’, a peculiarly English theory, which dictated that the monarch had both a physical body and another one that was politico-mystical. A pragmatic as much as a metaphysical doctrine, it was designed to stabilise both state and monarchy. As set out in Elizabeth I’s reign it decreed that

The King has in him two Bodies, viz, a Body natural, and a Body politic. His Body natural (if it be considered in itself) is a Body mortal, subject to all Infirmities … But his Body politic is a Body that cannot be seen or handled, consisting of Policy and Government, and constituted for the Direction of the People, and the Management of the public weal, and this Body is utterly void of Infancy, and old Age, and other natural Defects and Imbecilities, which the Body natural is subject to, and for this Cause, what the King does in his Body politic, cannot be invalidated or frustrated by any Disability in his natural body.

Thus for the theocentric world the body was largely a problem, something to be overcome, transfigured or explained away. It was not in itself a subject for much inquiry even at the most straightforward level of weighing and measuring. It was an indication of the antiquary John Aubrey’s remarkably curious mind that he wanted to find out his height and weight. His careful accounts of weigh-ins take note of what he was wearing, whether he was carrying a sword and what he had in his pockets. When it came to his height, however, he was defeated. There was no easy way of doing it and according to his biographer Kate Bennett, Aubrey was reduced to saying that he could get one hand between the top of his head and the hat of his friend Thomas Hobbes, who was notably tall.

The ways in which the so-called new learning of the 17th century turned the inquiry into the human condition towards the body is the subject of Roy Porter’s Flesh in the Age of Reason (2003), an important study unaccountably missing from Forth’s bibliography. Porter discusses Descartes, who arguably began the preoccupation with fat as both symptom and symbol, with his use of wax to demonstrate the changeability of matter. Cartesian dualism had ‘the rational soul’ connected to the body only through the pineal gland and so, as Porter writes, ‘in a single intrepid stroke of thought Descartes had disinherited almost the whole of Creation – all, that is, except the human mind – of the attributes of life, soul and purpose.’

Hobbes, Porter’s ‘fly in the philosophical ointment’, in turn exploded the theory of the autonomous pre-eminent soul, arguing that there was no ‘immaterial spirit’: all was ‘corporeall, that is to say, body’. Despite which the responses and refutations of Cartesianism echoed down to the turn of the 19th century. The permanent cultural shift at that point, Porter argues, was towards an overwhelming bias in favour of youth. As the soul seemed to vanish in the face of science, so the body, if it was all that was left, was to be celebrated in full bloom. The New Learning replaced the wisdom of the ancestors. ‘Till about the yeare 1649,’ Aubrey wrote, it was ‘held a strange presumption for a man to attempt an innovation in learning; and not to be good manners to be more knowing than his neighbours and forefathers.’ As the Christian narrative of the Fall gave way to a sense of history as progress and steady enlightenment, the young who represented the future were more to be admired and imitated. By the same token, fat, with its associations of deliquescence, was also undesirable. By the end of the 18th century thinness was more or less permanently in. A fat Romantic was anathema, as Byron, who constantly battled with his weight, knew. Even royalty could not escape the pressure for a youthful silhouette. The immensely vain George IV found that the glass of fashion would not flatter him as it had Henry VIII, for he lived in an age when monarchs had less power, and fashion, in a society that was increasingly urban and wealthy, had more. The padded doublet and hose of the Tudors, which could make a virtue of bulk, had given way to breeches and then to extremely tight trousers. Portraitists did their best and caricaturists did their worst. From every angle there was no avoiding the fact that the king was fat and hence to a degree ridiculous. At the turn of the millennium not much had changed. In 2000 when Simon Russell Beale played Hamlet at the National Theatre, several reviewers muttered about too too solid flesh. Beale didn’t look neurasthenically thin enough to play a tortured young intellectual.

Throughout the 19th century attitudes to the ‘stuff of life’ were increasingly entangled with the ever expanding life of stuff. The sheer quantity of material goods produced and consumed created minute gradations in status that could be deduced from a person’s curtains, or their waistcoat, or the size of the waistcoat. It was now easy to weigh and measure yourself and, moreover, to know the correct weight for your height. Weight-reducing diets and diet pills became more popular while the normal diet grew heavier and indigestion became endemic. Good digestion, said Sydney Smith, ‘is the great secret of life’. The science of nutrition was slow to catch up. The Carlyles’ doctor’s advice to avoid vegetables did nothing to relieve their constipation, as Jane recounted in her journals. In expanding cities space was under pressure. It was important both literally and metaphorically to keep one’s elbows in and not take up too much room, or, as Forth puts it in a typically opaque phrase: ‘the growing containment and closure of bodies … was not only a matter of visuality but part of a developing kinaesthetic that contributed to the lived experience of containment and closure.’ At one extreme this led to anorexia and the fashionable consumptive look that was the forerunner of heroin chic. It also, perhaps, though Forth does not put this argument, marks the point at which fat becomes first a predominantly female and subsequently a feminist issue. While men continued to be allowed a hearty Pickwickian girth a Victorian heroine had to be slender.

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In the Victorian city there was no escaping effluvia. The Thames was an open sewer and mills and factories poured out smoke and waste, some of which hung in the air and settled on the skin and got into the eyes and nose. In Bleak House Dickens offers the quintessential example of Forth’s theory about what belongs inside and what outside the body. It is ‘a fine steaming night to turn the slaughterhouses, the unwholesome trades, the sewerage, bad water and burial grounds to account’ when Mr Snagsby and Mr Weevle notice something out of the ordinary in the atmosphere:

‘Don’t you observe,’ says Mr Snagsby, pausing to sniff and taste the air a little; ‘don’t you observe, Mr Weevle, that you’re – not to put too fine a point upon it – that you’re rather greasy here, sir?’

‘Why, I have noticed myself that there is a queer kind of flavour in the place to-night,’ Mr Weevle rejoins. ‘I suppose it’s chops at the Sol’s Arms.’

‘Chops, do you think? Oh! – Chops, eh?’ Mr Snagsby sniffs and tastes again. ‘Well, sir, I suppose it is. But I should say their cook at the Sol wanted a little looking after. She has been burning ‘em, sir! And I don’t think’; Mr Snagsby sniffs and tastes again, and then spits and wipes his mouth; ‘I don’t think – not to put too fine a point upon it – that they were quite fresh, when they were shown the gridiron.’

What hangs in the air is all that remains of the villainous Krook, who has exploded in an instance of spontaneous combustion. By the time Dickens was writing, the theory that the body might combust in this way was largely discredited, though he defended his use of it, and the scene exactly captures the revulsion that can be caused by fat as Snagsby sniffs and tastes the liquefying viscera and the reader realises with dawning horror what is happening.

It is surprising, then, that Forth doesn’t mention Dickens in his discussion of spontaneous combustion. This is one of many failings. His book is part of a growing area of academic ‘fat studies’. Since the first recorded use of the term ‘globesity’ at the beginning of this century to refer to a supposed epidemic or public health crisis of obesity, the topic has, as it were, ballooned. Forth’s book joins, among others, David and Fiona Haslam’s Fat, Gluttony and Sloth: Obesity in Literature, Art and Medicine (2009), Sander Gilman’s Obesity: The Biography (2010) and Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting over 2000 Years by Louise Foxcroft (2011). All of these are concerned in various ways with the redrawing of the line between mind and body. Is our present state a disease or a physiological disorder, and hence free of moral implications? Or is the problem social and personal, a result of ignorance and lack of self-control and hence a moral failing? Was the past different in its attitudes, or merely differently ambivalent? None of these questions plays much part in Forth’s account, which is too generalised to contribute usefully either to the present debate or to history. The tortured monotony of his prose is occasionally relieved by sensational mistakes, disappointing in a book by a university professor. Describing, for instance, the force-feeding of imprisoned suffragettes he first confuses them with the ‘suffragists’, who were committed to protest within the law and so were never force-fed, then announces that they were ‘force-fed with a tube three times a day while being held down on a bed, naked, by male warders’. It’s true male doctors were responsible for the force-feeding, but as many first-hand accounts relate, the warders were female and there was never any question of the women being naked.

Most troubling is Forth’s conclusion, in which he returns to the Christian idea of the resurrection of the body, which, he claims, is still a topic of anxious contention. He cites, in support, the views of a number of female churchgoers from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. One is worried that she will get to heaven ‘thirty pounds overweight and stay that way for ever’, while still hoping that the excess weight will fall off ‘when she walks through the pearly gates’. Another resents the idea of losing her ‘marathon shape’ after death having worked on it so hard, and yet a third astonishingly stupid woman is apparently looking forward to transferring her whole plus-size physique to Heaven where she will ‘zoom around … in a big impressive body’. The source Forth gives for these findings is larknews.com, and if his common sense had not alerted him then a few clicks would have revealed that Larknews is ‘a satirical website which lampoons contemporary American Christian culture, specifically evangelicalism’. With its Prayer Request Gossip Line dealing with demon-possessed guitars and its ‘God’s word for you today’ section, it was funny enough to win the Grady Nutt Award from the Gospel Music Association in 2005, and now, in Forth and his book, it has another joke.