The War on Fat

Edition: December 2002 - Vol 10 Number 12
Article#: 1376
Author: Repertoire

With this month’s focus on the bariatric market, Repertoire fortuitously stumbled across an article called “The War on Fat” from the Sept. 4, 2002, edition of the Atlantic Monthly, a portion of which follows.

America's weight consciousness probably emerged in the 1890s, when the excesses of the Gilded Age spawned consumer guilt, causing conspicuous gluttony to go out of style. Scholars have traced to this time the first known pairing of the words "fat" and "slob." Thinness became not only a fashion statement, but also a sign of virtue.

Those who could not lose that well-fed look eventually grew tired of hiding under tight vests and corsets, and clothing manufacturers recognized a new niche. In 1919 an anonymous Atlantic writer was astounded to come across a ladies' dress advertisement celebrating “Stylish Stouts” -- an early example of plus-size fashions. It was only an ad, but the jubilant writer saw in it the dawn of a new era, "an epochal adjustment of fashion to fact." He declared, "The anti-fat nostrum, the recipes for rolling, the panting mountain climb, all the many-doctored advice, all the beauty-parlor pummeling—all this is obsolete, for obesity has come into its own.

On further contemplation, the writer noticed more evidence of feminine stoutness coming into vogue. Novelists were beginning to introduce plump heroines, for example. This he took to be a sign that Westerners were finally catching up to "the Orientals," who had long held that the obese make for more pleasant company. "Knowing that fat women are good to live with," he claimed, "the harem husband long ago persuaded himself and the ladies that they are equally good to look at."But the writer complained of an unfortunate double standard: portly men still were not getting their share of respect. He speculated that this was a particularly American hang-up. "This ideal of masculine slimness," he wrote, "is explained by our fondness for thinking of our men as lean wrestlers with frontier conditions, for the fact of the frontier is still a pleasant figment of our fancy." He was optimistic nevertheless that "in due time the fat man, like the fat woman, [will] be made heroic in fiction and fashion-plate."