The Magazine

Flesh Is Weak

The science and philosophy of putting on/taking off weight

Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By KEVIN R. KOSAR
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Reports have surfaced of a professor with a mania for self-examination. His line of inquiry, however, is not of the Socratic philosophical sort. An expert in computer science, he is collecting data on his bodily functions. To improve his diet (and reduce his weight) he tracks what he eats down to the calorie. He straps sensors to his body to measure his caloric burn while exercising. Unsettlingly, it has been reported, the professor “is deep into the biochemistry of his feces .  .  . [keeping] detailed charts of their microbial contents [and has] been known to haul carefully boxed samples out of his kitchen refrigerator to show incautious visitors.”

Bacchus depicted by Peter Paul Rubens (ca. 1640)

Bacchus depicted by Peter Paul Rubens (ca. 1640)

It would be easy to wave off this news as nothing more than another sideshow in the human carnival. But after reading The Metamorphoses of Fat, the case of the coprological computer scientist seems less strange. Indeed, instances of eggheads obsessing over their bodily inputs and outputs go way back. Sanctorius, a professor at Padua during 1611-24, erected a “weighing chair” and, for 30 years, used the room-sized contraption to tabulate his weight and attribute the fluctuations to what he consumed and excreted. The research methods may be peculiar, but the topic of study is not idiosyncratic: Who among us has not counted calories or tried a diet (South Beach, Atkins, paleo, etc.) in the hopes of improving one’s appearance, elevating one’s energy, lengthening one’s life? The quest to comprehend the relationship between eating and health is commonplace.

George Vigarello shows, often amusingly, that the Western world has always drawn associations between human constitution and the size and weight of the body. Whether being fat or thin or somewhere in between was desirable has depended on the basis for the judgment. The dearth of real knowledge as to the operations of the body invited conclusions based on a variety of factors.

At the dawn of the second millennium, for example, overweight men were derided as womanly or weak. Thus, William the Conqueror was mocked for being so fat that he looked pregnant. The French King Louis VI (“the Fat”) was ridiculed in 1135 for being too portly to mount a horse. Very different conceptions of fitness came to the fore in the 14th and 15th centuries: Europe was a world of “hunger, severe restrictions, and food shortages.” Failed harvests, the plague, and other pestilences, as well as crushing poverty, generally contributed to “raising the accumulation of calories into an ideal.” Paradise was imagined as a place where “beer and wine flow like rivers [and] stews and roasts seem to pop out of the soil.” For men, a big belly was a sign of vitality. Long before Rubens, artists celebrated corpulent women. The 14th-century Parisian’s Household Manual (known in English as The Good Wife’s Guide) states that both horses and women should have “beautiful loins and big bottoms.” The fat woman was the fertile woman; the thin one was imagined to be barren. 

The aesthetics of body shape varied widely for the next few centuries. The stout were sometimes considered mighty and at other times sick. The scrawny were never considered powerful and were sometimes thought feeble or diseased. Words were invented to distinguish between desirable and undesirable amounts of fat. The French term rondelet, for example, appeared in the “middle of the 16th century to designate a moderate, entirely ‘natural’ roundness.” Meanwhile, lourd conveys an undesirable thickness and torpor.

Notions of virtue and vice entered the mix. Fatness became associated with greediness. Rolls of heft indicated insatiability, an “infinity of oral desire” that demonstrated moral degradation and slovenliness. Class also became a consideration. Fatness went from being a trait of the wealthy to a characteristic of “fieldworkers and mule drivers.” The image of the lower class as obese, ham-fisted brutes became popular by the 17th century: “Beautiful Alison,” a sardonic song from 1633, mocks Alison for having “chubby arms like a mustard barrel” and “a stomach [like] a frozen cabbage.” Not long after, depictions of potbellied bankers and plutocrats flooded paintings and cartoons. 

The insight that food digested was converted into energy, which the body then could expend or store, was not widely held until the 20th century. In the meantime, hypotheses about the causes of weight gain and loss were based upon metaphors, and ancient notions dominated. Fatness was said to be related to blood, phlegm, and humors; other scientists attributed it to the types of food ingested, an excess of bodily fluids, or a preponderance of internal “winds.” Thirty years of data collection did not get Sanctorius very far: He continually found that the weight of the food he consumed exceeded the weight of his urine and feces, yet his own weight remained steady. In the equivalent of an intellectual tossing-up of the hands, he attributed the difference to “insensible perspiration.” 

Over time, Vigarello demonstrates, eating a lot was viewed less as a sign of vigor and robust health than a condition worthy of abuse. Shakespeare’s Henry IV has Prince Henry unleash a quiver of anti-fat barbs against Falstaff in Part One, Act II: “whoreson round man,” “horseback-breaker,” “huge hill of flesh,” and “swollen parcel of dropsies.” Fat, then, became increasingly stigmatized with the passage of time.

Combined with ignorance about digestion, the stigmatization of fat fostered a market for tinkerers, quacks, and just about everyone else to peddle remedies. One eminent man of knowledge in the 16th century directed that fat people reduce the pain of swollen legs by cutting their toenails so low that blood flowed. This would, he postulated, lesson the excess of fluids responsible for the swelling. A physician, C. J. A Schwilgué, “proposed a cold bath” with an electrical current running through it to tighten the body and force out excess fluids. Women were sold corsets and men used leather straps to depress their bellies. One 17th-century actor took the stage with a “cerclage made of wide and rigid iron” that flattened his girth.

Mercifully, science finally began to get matters right. Settled systems of weights and measurements enabled the collection of data on body shapes and sizes. These data were aggregated over time to develop averages, which could be used to create a baseline for “normal” heights and weights for every age. Industrialization helped make the scale a household item. 

Tracking one’s weight became democratized. Sometime after 1830 Adolphe Quetelet developed a formula for finding the ratio of weight to height that we know today as the Body Mass Index. Thanks to numerical precision, the present-day stout individual who visits a physican’s office might learn that he is “obese,” “severely obese,” or “morbidly obese.” The accumulation of scientific studies has re-centered the popular discussion of excess weight on medical conceptions. Nary a week passes without the press reporting on the latest study showing the increased probability of diabetes, impotence, and/or cardiac arrest from excess heft. The scrawny, meanwhile, might become centenarians.

Still, despite the march of science, old notions about body weight remain. Depictions of obese people as jovial and lazy live on, and the words “fat” and “slob” are often heard together. Whether these critical notions will ever depart is difficult to say. We all know people who have lost weight through exercise and diet changes, and we tend to attribute weight loss to force of will, to individual choice. The basic calculus of fatness strikes us as self-evident: Consume more calories than you burn and you become fat. Eat less, exercise more. 

What could be simpler?

 

Kevin R. Kosar is the author of Whiskey: A Global History