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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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