Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession

Can’t recommend it enough. It’s a collection of essays, mostly by anthropologists, on the variety of cultural norms about body size. This bit from Slate provides a good intro:

One problem with this brand of global feminism is how closely it resembles narcissism on a global scale: Women everywhere mirror me. Instead, Ensler should have interviewed a few anthropologists since according to Kulick and Meneley’s Fat,bodily attributes like pot bellies actually have entirely different cross-cultural meanings. Fat connotes very different things in different cultures or in subcultures like fat activism, gay male chubby-chasers, and hip hop. Fat may be a worldwide phenomenon—and increasingly so—but not everyone is neurotic about it, or they’re not neurotic in the same way.

Take the chapter by anthropologist Rebecca Popenoe, based on her fieldwork among desert Arabs in Niger. This is a society with no media influences or beauty industries, where women strive to be as fat as possible. Girls are force-fed to achieve this ideal; stretch marks are regarded as beautiful. Yet somehow this beauty norm doesn’t create the same sense of anguish that afflicts Western women striving for thinness, leading Popenoe to suggest that it’s the Western obsession with individualism and achievement that bears the blame—not media images, not a top-down backlash against feminism, as Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth has it. In Niger, failing to achieve the prevailing beauty standard isn’t a personal failure; it just means someone has bewitched you, or you have a thin constitution.

But reading Popenoe won’t reassure anyone seeking an exit route from female body anxieties. Where the Nigerois fatties and the dieting-obsessed Ensler find common ground is that all are striving for sexual attractiveness in the context of heterosexuality. The Nigerois women fatten themselves to be more desirable to Nigerois men. Women here may pant, “I’m doing it for myself” while strapped to their treadmills, but the fact is that the beauty culture is a heterosexual institution, and to the extent that women participate in its rituals, they, too, are propping up a heterosexual society and its norms. The problem for a feminist is that historically speaking such norms have worked out far less advantageously for women than for men.

The slate review makes it sound dry as hell, but it’s not. You can’t help but alternate between chortling and anger at the absurdity.

Take the essay on Argentianian middle class women. Their obsession with fat makes the US look tame - endless plastic surgery, diet pills that make you leak fat out your ass - and the leak is a moment of triumph! The tiny middle class there (something like 80% of the population is poor) lives in terror of falling into the underclass and diverts that into an obsession with whitening treatments and weight loss as a salve to convince themselves they’ve made it. The author spends a good five pages dissecting a single television ad for a sugar substitute to help you lose weight. Boring, whatever - except that everything in the ad that’s good and holy is white, white, white. White teeth, white cups, white tables, white shirts; it’s a klan weight loss rally wrapped around selling fake sugar.

Or the Swedish high school girls and their pecking order. Their lives are a 24/7 bitch session about how fat they all are, it’s used for bonding and reinforcing the norms, yeah yeah, whatever, right? The whole essay leads up to the devastating observation that only skinny girls are allowed to talk like this. Fat girls have to keep their damn mouths shut; if they talk about how they’re fat and need to loose weight, or join in the “oh we’re both so fat lets good lose weight at the gym” back-and-forth, it’s a social nuclear weapon - ostracization from the group is immediate. The worst possible insult is to talk like this either as or to someone who’s actually not rail-thin - for god’s sake, it might be catching then!

Also included: Hawaiian Spam culture, Portuguese women who achieve underground sainthood by eating nothing but the eucharist for decades, an examination of Lard (the pig fat) pride in Italy, the mechanics of desire in gay chubby porn, fat activists who demonstrate by accosting strangers on the street and demanding an answer to the question “Am I fat?”, Seattleites who get coffee with non-fat milk and then put whipped cream on top, the rapper translation of enormous size into provider ability and street cred, and the Peruvian conspiracy theory that rich first worlders are hiring people to literally stab them with needles and suck out their body fat for sale.

Fucking awesome, I tell you.

I’m pretty sure they sell those pills in the US under the name “Alli”. One of the warnings they mentioned on the early commercials was that you might want to wear dark pants when taking the pills (to, you know, hide the poop stains).

In related news, it’s remarkable how mean Baldur’s Gate I is to fat people. Every town has a few enormously obese villagers who do nothing but talk about how obsessed they are with food.

Force feeding children to make them fat still seems a bit obsessive. I guess it depends on where the line is drawn. I actually dislike really skinny women. In fact, I find Boticelli women incredibly sexy. And no, I’m not overweight myself (5’10, 165).

Being overweight will kill you - being thin won’t.

Of course just having a bit of flesh on your body isn’t being fat and being unaturally skinny isn’t healthy. But while the obsession with being skinny is a real problem it shouldn’t overshadow the much larger problem of the obesity epedemic in the west and most notable the US.
We certainly don’t need to force feed our kids, only the small minority of (mostly) girls who have eating disorders.


Is that the condition where you’re only able to read the first sentence of the post you’re responding to?

It’s interesting about the Nigerois. I feel like we don’t totally understand the intersection between cultural norms and sexual desire. There is some insistence amongst some white men (the ones who populate craigslist, for instance) that thin is beautiful and fat is ugly, and that is an immutable truth, end of story. I’ve been every size under the sun, from extremely thin to plus size, and I can personally vouch for the fact that desirability and weight do not have the linear relationship that those men insist, even amongst American men. I suspect that they doth protest too much, to be perfectly honest.

I can joke now that I have a great body image - I think I’m thinner than I actually am! - but I think it’s mostly that I’ve become more confident as I grew up and learned the power of a good haircut. I see pictures of myself as an adolescent and I’m so gorgeous, so beautiful, but I had no clue. I thought I was monstrous, and so I gained and lost and gained weight at an apalling clip. It’s the nature of the beast, for American girls. And it’s probably terrible for our health and destroys most hope for a normal relationship with food and exercise. My only hope is that if I have daughters, I can raise them to have some sanity about their weight, but I’m not quite sure how to pull that trick off.

You’re probably being facetious, Hanzii, but no one treats an eating disorder by force feeding. They might use a feeding tube to keep women from dying, but “curing” an eating disorder (to the degree it can be cured) takes therapy. Lots of therapy and nutritional counseling.

That’s a fancy word, but that’s probably what I am.
Forcefeeding isn’t a cure, it’s how you make foie gras…

Yeah, facetious is it. :)

…leading Popenoe to suggest that it’s the Western obsession with individualism and achievement that bears the blame

…and to the extent that women participate in its rituals, they, too, are propping up a heterosexual society and its norms.
What the hell? I didn’t realize people still published stuff like this.

What’s wrong with it?

Hawaiian Spam culture

Yes, a lot of Hawaiians are fat, and yes they really enjoy spam but I didn’t think there was that much of a correlation. I’d think it would be more of the ginormous meal portions and prevalence of fried (non-Spam) meat.

When we landed in Maui for our honeymoon, I have to admit I was terrified of the female airport tarmac employees.

You’ve never been in an English department, have you?

I can’t read this article at work, but one thing that always seems to escape feminist writers, (probably because true introspection always seems like the hardest thing for women to do, even in academia), is recognition that female sexuality is a reflection of men’s desire. For whatever reason, but probably power issues in a postmodern, post-feminist, deconstructionist intellectual framework that is criticism today (but also because female sexuality is unconsciously reflexive), this assertion infuriates and blinds women to the point they’re often not even willing to talk about it anymore. But i pretty much guarantee if the men of the world decided to band together to make the world’s greatest practical joke and declare that only women dressed as circus clowns were sexy, it wouldn’t be long before red noses were the hottest thing on the Paris fashion runways. And there would be plenty of female apologists for women’s following the prevailing sexual trends.

A few of the writers discuss that but they basically shrug, as they stop at the analysis throughout the essays.


Living there in the '90s, it was creepy how many of the true Hawaiians had wood for spam. It was like the Monty Python spam sketch.

Nothing compared to our Philippino neighbors, who were willing to eat anything – mongoose, dog, the sketch ass Portuguese sausage things I sold for my karate class, anything. If it looked like meat, it went on the grill. They were awesome.