Pity the obese – the fatter they are, the harder they fall
Ever since the FBI’s nuclear strike against Fifa, I’ve been eagerly devouring the coverage of the unfolding story of Sepp Blatter and his cronies as they try and fail to hold the line against the rising tide of disgust at the organisation’s institutional corruption.
As I was reading an article in this week’s Sunday Times by Tony Allen-Mills about Jack Warner, the Trinidadian Fifa executive at the heart of the allegations, one passage sent me in a completely different direction:
“For much of the past two decades, Warner has been shimmying his way largely unscathed through endless corruption allegations, media exposes and Fifa scandals.
Aided for years by Blazer, his obese but cannily creative American partner, he turned a once-moribund Fifa federation…… into a money machine.”
Obese but cannily creative. Are we to take that phrase to mean that Chuck Blazer was cannily creative despite his obesity? And that the natural default of the obese is not to be cannily creative?
When I was a kid, I delighted in stories about Billy Bunter, the Owl of the Remove. He was a monstrously fat 14-year old who stopped at nothing to get hold of the things that made him fat.
His entry in Wikipedia sums him up:
“Bunter’s defining characteristic is his greediness and dramatically overweight appearance. His character is, in many respects, a highly obnoxious anti-hero. As well as his gluttony, he is also obtuse, lazy, racist, inquisitive, deceitful, slothful, self-important and conceited. These defects, however, are not recognized by Bunter. In his own mind, he is an exemplary character: handsome, talented and aristocratic; and dismisses most of those around him as “beasts”. Even so, the negative sides of Bunter are offset by several genuine redeeming features; such as his tendency, from time to time, to display courage in aid of others; his ability to be generous, on the rare occasions when he has food or cash; and above all his very real love and concern for his mother. All these, combined with Bunter’s cheery optimism, his comically transparent untruthfulness and inept attempts to conceal his antics from his schoolmasters and schoolfellows, combine to make a character that succeeds in being highly entertaining but which rarely attracts the reader’s lasting sympathy.”
A pretty good archetype for society’s prejudice against fat people, even if he is characterised within the unique environment of the English boarding school. You will see similar traits in books, TV shows and movies that portray fat people as stupid, sly and even evil. At best, weak-willed – unable to resist the jam doughnut, the second helping of cake and the super-size burger. Figures of fun, even when, like Hitler’s sidekick Hermann Goering, they epitomised the dark side of human nature.
These days political correctness prevents us from being rude about fatties, except presumably when the fatty has confessed to corruption on a massive scale. That doesn’t stop journalists from making subtle references to their subject’s corpulence, as though the very obvious physical evidence of the person’s “weakness” was more reprehensible than that of someone whose insides are rotted by alcoholism, smoking or drug abuse.
So poor Charles Kennedy, the recently-deceased former leader of the Liberal Democrats, attracts our sympathy because he was an alcoholic, whereas wicked Chuck Blazer only has himself to blame for the fact that he’s apparently dying from colon cancer at the age of 70. Must be all the eating, right?
Of course stupidity has nothing to do with the size of your girth. Nobody ever accused Henry VIII, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Marlon Brando of lacking brain cells. Or creativity for that matter. But, as Rob Broomby argued in a recent article on the BBC website, there’s an ethical dilemma facing us when we argue in favour of accepting obesity as “normal”. Because although it’s for the individual to choose what they look like, obesity can kill.
So can anorexia, yet we don’t seem to pour scorn over people who starve themselves to death as we do with the monstrously fat
Whatever the public health concerns, society’s disapproval is rarely based on the damage fat people are doing to themselves.
Over the ages people have looked down on the obese on moral grounds. Gluttony, after all, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins that were dreamed up by the early Christian Church to keep us on the straight and narrow.
Even before Christianity, excessive eating was frowned upon by ancient Greek and Roman society. Hence Vitellius, one of the three Roman emperors that followed Nero in AD69, who was best known for his herculean eating habits, earned the contempt of Suetonius, the author of the Twelve Caesars.
The idea that overeating is sinful remains with us to this day, as Salman Rushdie, in his early career as an advertising copywriter, realised when he coined the phrase “naughty but nice”.
Not for nothing is guilt the universal instrument of control and manipulation.
I sometimes find myself at the receiving end of society’s implicit disapproval of fatties. Like the majority of middle aged men who have the means and the time for self-indulgence, I’m a few pounds heavier than I should be. I frequently find myself being complimented by people I may not have seen for a while with the words “you’ve lost weight haven’t you?”
This is actually a ritual. The person is usually looking to say something nice, even if they don’t mean a word of it. The obvious opportunity is to focus on one’s appearance. I’ve done it myself, so I know.
I also freely confess to an innate prejudice against the fat – in other words those fatter than me. I look at people waddling down the street and feel righteously horrified at how deeply unattractive they are. If, in the days when I employed people, someone as wide as they were tall turned up for a job interview, they would have a very hard time convincing me that their obesity wouldn’t affect their attendance and their energy levels. Last year I went on a Baltic cruise and was so stunned at the number of seriously fat people who were on the ship that I wrote about it in All Aboard the Good Ship Fatso.
These days the lessening grip of religious belief has resulted in there being fewer people who consider that eating too much will send you to hell. Instead we tend to blame obesity, along with just about every other human failing, on psychological root causes.
Thus there’s the assumption that if you’re fat you must have some underlying problem. “Does he eat because he’s unhappy?” That was the consistent refrain from my mother. “No”, my wife would reply, “he’s just a greedy sod!” Or, as I would prefer to explain, I just love my food. Not because someone abused me as a kid, or because I was labouring under the shadow of an elder brother or famous father, or because I was abducted by aliens as a teenager. I just love my food – too much for my own good.
So is it wrong to make snide remarks about the horizontally challenged? Does “fattism” belong in the same class as ageism, racism or sexism? Wrong question perhaps. There are enough laws against prejudice. They can moderate behaviour and expression, but not what lies in people’s hearts.
The real issue surely is human kindness. We don’t publicly mock people with long noses, knobbly knees or tiny chins. Nor should we mock fat people. And generally we don’t, at least to their faces. And when our prejudice accidentally slips out, the result can be mortifying. My wife and I still remember the occasion when she took our four-year-old daughter to the supermarket. The little one pointed at a large woman nearby, and said, in a very loud voice, “Mum, why is that woman so fat?” Maternal toes curled in embarrassment.
Sadly, the possibility that people might be fat for any number of reasons, just as the causes of suicide, violent behaviour, obsessions and compulsions are many and varied, doesn’t stop us from inwardly frowning at the sight of a grotesquely obese person waddling by. We can and usually do control the words that come out of our mouths. But it’s more difficult to regulate what lies in our hearts.
So should we lay off Chuck Blazer and his voluminous girth because he clearly has enough on his plate? Does the capricious cruelty of Kim Jong Un, the tubby tyrant of North Korea, give us licence to mock him for his treble chin? It seems that the bad guys are fair game, even if innocent people in supermarkets aren’t.
If we happen to be fat ourselves, do we use “proud to be fat” as a coping mechanism that masks deep unhappiness, or are we genuinely OK with not being able to see anything below our bellies when we get on the scales? Do we point out that in some parts of the world to be fat means you’re wealthy, and therefore worthy of respect? And that three centuries ago artists like Rubens portrayed fat women as the idealised essence of femininity?
Are we right to blame society’s disapproval of obesity on the wave of anorexia afflicting our kids? Is the fashion industry creating a generation of body fascists by insisting on using size zero models? Or did body fascism drive the fashion industry?
You would think that we had more important things to worry about, and you could argue that our obsession with fat suggests a self-obsessed, narcissistic society. The diet industry is worth billions. The celebrity industry, packed with physical perfection – whether real or the result of the airbrush – billions more.
Despite the supplements, weird eating regimes and the influence of god-like role models in Hello Magazine, western societies are getting fatter and less fit by the decade. Mother Nature, it seems, has her own way of limiting the world’s population. Whereas once she would send us the Black Death, these days she rewards us for our physical prosperity by clogging our arteries.
Personally, I couldn’t give a damn about the moral dimension. If I’m on my way to hell it will be for far more serious transgressions than a love of cream cakes.
As for the health issue, there are as many expert opinions on the effects of obesity as there are religions in the world. So who and what do you believe? Best to let your body tell you when you’re pushing things, and take whatever action seems sensible rather than be dictated to by some quack in California.
And if you think you will help yourself by lying on some therapist’s couch and delving into your darkest closets, fine. Just be careful that you don’t open some new can of delicious, sugar-coated worms in the process.
I’m guided by one principle, that it’s not the length of your life that counts. It’s the quality – and more specifically the use that you make of your time. And that, it seems to me, has little to do with the size of your belly.
For that reason I will not mock Chuck Blazer, as he trundles around on his mobility scooter and looks wistfully at those photos showing him with the great and the good, who these days will be avoiding him like the plague. When you’re surrounded by kleptocrats, surely the greatest hazard is that you lose your sense of right and wrong.
And that’s a moral dimension far more harmful than gluttony, which is why he deserves a little sympathy in his present plight.