09 November 2015

Sometimes fat is bliss

I've been re-visiting Hillel Schwartz' columns for Dimensions, published 1997-1999. That magazine always struck me as the budget Playboy-wannabe for fat admirers, rooted in the anti-feminism that has cramped fat activism since the early days. I can't say that I was ever much of a fan of it, but I like Schwartz' work on fat very much and his Never Satisfied was a revelation to me when I first read it in the early 1990s. To say the author and historian is eclectic is an understatement. I am currently reading his self-published work about caring for people when they are dying. But I regard him as a founder of Fat Studies, as someone who took fat seriously as a subject when few others did so.

Schwartz is notable for claiming that obesity is bliss. Even after 40+ years of fat feminism, it is still hard to imagine a woman of any stripe saying this and meaning it. The pleasure that fat people, especially those who identify as women, might take in our embodiment is always tempered by hatred. The entrenchment of obesity epidemic rhetoric means that men, all genders, now suffer and Schwartz' original statement seems more unlikely than ever.

I'm usually pretty critical when fat activists invoke an idea that to be fat was acceptable "back then, in history" because this overlooks lots of variables. A painting by Reubens doesn't convince me that once upon a time fat people frolicked gaily amongst the flowers and nobody gave a shit. But I understand why this argument is thrown in, it's to challenge the idea that fat hatred is universal. This is a good argument, there are lots of variables in how fatphobia plays out, there just needs to be better historicising.

It's with this in mind that I watched an animated interview with Jim Morrison talking about how he felt when he put on weight whilst at university.

I really enjoyed listening to Morrison, a man whose weight went up and down at various points in his life. I'd heard him denigrated as "bloated" many times as he got older, but I'd always thought this was about his drug and alcohol problems and that beard rather than to do with his being fat. Now I see things differently. Even Jim Morrison is not immune to fatphobia.

But this interview took place in happier times and what I loved about it was the juxtaposition of his familiar, arrogant voice with his apparent surprise that being fat was pleasurable and fun. Dead white guys are not my usual port of call for insight into being fat. This proud, confident rock star is the last person I would ever have pegged as a fat activist. I don't buy his attack on thin people or the assumption that all fat people are fat because we are constantly eating, but it was fabulous to hear him say that he wouldn’t hear a word said against fat, his ribbing of the interviewer, his delight in his own physicality.

It struck me that you rarely hear sentiments like this made in public by cool people. "I felt like a tank, you know. I felt like a large mammal. A big beast." I relate! I want to hear more like this, not about how hot it is to be fat, but about anti-social joy, our amusement at our own bodies, the power we feel in being fat, the stuff that emerges through living our lives. I can't be the only woman who feels this, or who expresses it in private. Fat is indeed bliss.

Schwartz, H. (1986) Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat, New York: The Free Press.

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