Beguiled by the beautiful, our obsession with the body has worn a little thin
"You will never look better than you do right now." It was Broadway and West 106th Street in Manhattan, the summer of 1978, right after I graduated from college. As if the older gentleman who volunteered that comment snapped a photograph, I remember exactly what I was wearing: a sea-green leotard, an eggshell wraparound skirt, high-heeled cream sandals. Though he'd effectively passed a death sentence - it was all downhill from there - in that moment I felt beautiful.
Whatever I actually looked like, feeling beautiful is a subjective sensation you can't argue with. Yet this fleeting thrill thrives on an audience. Sure, there's a muted home-alone version, but feeling beautiful is largely a social experience - of wielding a small power, of having something that other people covet but that you couldn't give away even if you wished to. It is a short-lived little crack high that I would argue we overrate.
Still, rail against it as you might, the concept of physical beauty - thus, alas, also of homeliness - is implanted in early childhood and fortified every day. Coded images of beauty and beastliness bombard us from billboards, films, TV, the internet. Even as tots, we picked up stray comments about the size of someone's thighs. We noticed that a dainty moppet got doted on, while the tubby kid was ignored.
Multiple studies document that children from Iowa to Italy have established a powerful aversion to fat - and to fat children - as young as age three. Shown drawings of peers who are disfigured, missing limbs, on crutches, in wheelchairs, or obese, kids say they least liked the "fat" child. (Warning: I will employ the word fat. Physiologically and geometrically accurate, the adjective is nice and short, and in principle I don't believe in reversing bigotry with euphemism. It doesn't work).
By college, this prejudice is entrenched. Interestingly, male students are even more prone to reviling fat than female ones. Researchers suppose that women, more apt to bear the burden of such intolerance, may be more empathetic. Alternatively, women may be more keenly aware that especially expressing dislike for fat people is frowned upon, and they therefore display an "explicit reporting bias". Translation: They lie.
Historically, celebrations of the male physique have consistently portrayed men with broad shoulders, firm waists, and well-defined muscles - think Michelangelo's David. The feminine ideal has been more subject to fashion. Rubens famously painted soft, heavy-hipped sirens who would now be regarded as chubby. While in the '20s a more boyish figure grew chic, the hourglass silhouette of Jane Russell reigned through the war; generous breasts and flared hips remained in vogue until the mid-'60s. Only post-Twiggy has a quasi- (and not-so-quasi-) anorexic model dominated fashion photography. While girls in my elementary school spurned muscles as icky and unfeminine (I didn't; I wanted to beat my brothers at arm-wrestling), at least this generation favours women who are toned and fit. Nevertheless, the female ideal hasn't varied that much. Even Rubens' ladies of leisure aren't obese.
In literature, fat has persistently marked a character as disagreeable. The corpulent John Reed in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Mrs Van Hopper in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca are both bullies. The rotund Mr Bumble in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist is wicked. Pudgy and victimised, Piggy in William Golding's Lord of the Flies is sympathetic, but also weak and pitiful. So the prejudice goes way back. And it continues: J.K. Rowling's Dudley Dursley and Aunt Marge in Harry Potter are loathsome, their burgeoning bellies outward manifestations of interior defects. A wave of contemporary novels that take on fat as central subject matter - Big Ray; The Middlesteins; Heft; my own novel Big Brother - don't portray obesity neutrally as an acceptable lifestyle choice but as a problem to solve (or fail to).
Readers at my events for Big Brother have objected that most authors exclude fat characters from the cast altogether. Even when novelists do include them, characters never just happen to be heavy, casually, like just happening to have dark hair.
Guilty as charged. Being fat, like feeling beautiful, is a social experience and would intensely affect how a character feels about himself or herself and how that person gets treated. Though slim in the present, Edgar Kellogg, the protagonist in my novel The New Republic, was fat as a kid, and the ridicule he suffered in childhood gives the reader insight into why Edgar in adulthood is so wary, defensive, and hostile - prone to leaping to dislike his colleagues first before they can dislike him. Psychologically, his history makes these off-putting qualities more understandable and a measure more sympathetic.
In Big Brother, the narrator's brother, Edison, poses a mystery: once drop-dead handsome, he shows up at the airport and his sister doesn't recognise him. In the four years since the siblings last saw one another, he'd gained hundreds of pounds. What happened? Edison's weight gain turns out to be a form of self-vandalism. Disappointed that his career as a jazz pianist in New York has gone south, angry that his nobody sister has suddenly achieved national prominence, Edison has gone on a bender of self-destruction. His overeating is a form of protest, like Tibetan self-immolation - a "suicide by pie". His sister realises, "In the same style in which he'd schemed to succeed, so also would he fail: on a grand scale."
For Edgar, fat explains character; for Edison, fat displays character. I'm unlikely to make any character incidentally, unimportantly fat because of my own experience as an eyesore. I may never have been very heavy, but I did have buckteeth as a child, so I can attest that fat people haven't cornered the market on mockery. This is a cosmetic past I gave to the protagonist in The Post-Birthday World, Irina, who (as I did) eventually got braces, only to discover that once they were removed everyone treated her "like a completely different person". She despairs, "It was sort of horrifying."
People who've always been good-looking, she says, "haven't a clue that how they're treated - how much it has to do with their appearance. I even bet that attractive people have a higher opinion of humanity. Since everybody's always nice to them, they think everybody's nice. But everybody's not nice. And they're superficial beyond belief ... Ugly people, fat people, even people who just aren't anything special? They have to work harder to please. They have to do something to prove out, whereas when you're pretty to look at you don't have to do anything but sit there and everybody is plumb delighted."
So making characters just happen to be fat would be socially naive. In truth, fiction writers' biggest mistake is to create so many characters who are casually beautiful. When in doubt, describe primary characters (especially women) as physically striking - on the assumption that Irina is right: being eye-catching will make them more likeable. Beauty also gives characters a power to ply, which can come in handy in explaining motivation (say, why another character would give this perfect stranger a ride home) or advancing the plot. Would Sam Spade have taken on the dodgy case of the sultry "Miss Wonderly" in The Maltese Falcon if she weighed 130 kilograms?
Fat activists who campaign to overthrow the despotism of the diminutive make some sound points. Poking fun at big people is no more acceptable than any other cruelty. One can maintain a serviceable, disease-free body at larger sizes. The projection of interior flaws onto heavy people - that they're lazy or self-indulgent - is unfair. Our accelerating absorption with weight, and appearance in general, qualifies - as I've written myself elsewhere - as "evolutionarily regressive".
But "big is beautiful" is a hard sell. Even if we should find a splendour in amplitude, that doesn't mean we will or we can. Beth Ditto on the runway may have seemed like a victory for the convex everywhere, but she's unlikely to inspire little girls to want to grow up to look just like her. To the contrary, nearly half of girls aged three to six worry about being fat.
With the population getting only heavier, the yawning chasm between the real and the ideal is a formula for widespread discontent. Yet the solution can't be to artificially fiddle with standards of beauty as if they can be adjusted like the width of the margins in word processing. The solution is to get a grip and put human beauty in perspective.
In an era of liposuction and proliferating plastic surgery, biology is no longer destiny. The body is viewed instead as infinitely mutable, as a work of art in progress, both temple and sculpture. Frank Bruni observed in The New York Times in July that the personal trainer rather than the psychotherapist is "the new priest". The 20th century's popular adage "You are what you eat" has implicitly been replaced by the 21st's even more animalistic "You are what you weigh".
But fitness fanatics, serial dieters, and elective-surgery addicts erroneously assume that to perfect the body is to perfect the self. As a novelist, I may appreciate that the body can both affect and, to a degree, reflect character. Yet as a person, I philosophically reject a linear relationship between this mortal coil and the soul it houses.
For me, having my teeth straightened at 15 was instructive: I was still the same person, yet suddenly my classmates were kinder. To be sure, no longer feeling self-conscious about my front teeth has made me more confident - but that just means that being spared all those cracks about Bugs Bunny has helped me to be more completely myself. In kind, I spoke to a lovely young woman at an event for Big Brother who confided that she'd lost 90 kilograms after bariatric surgery. She said the weight loss had changed her persona in company. She'd become less cheerful and jokey, since when she was fat she was always trying to put others at ease about her weight. She'd grown more serious, quieter. No longer battling other people's discomfort with her size, no longer feeling she had to live up to their expectations of a jolly fat person, had enabled her to more fully inhabit her real self.
Socially, cosmetic transformation makes a big difference - an appalling difference. And maybe the discipline of regular exercise builds mental muscles for the pursuit of more important goals. But beyond that, our contemporary equivalence between the self and its ever-corrupting, malady-prone shell profoundly diminishes what it means to be a human being. After all, it's hard to imagine ever commending one friend to another, "Oh, you'd just love Nancy, she's so thin!"
Beauty is especially prone to assume the status of be-all and end-all to those who believe they've been denied it. In truth, feeling beautiful is an elusive sensation - dangerously dependent on other people, sometimes mystifying or even disquieting, and forever undermined by insecurity that, with one fatal tub of ice-cream or forgone set of sit-ups, it's over. For many whom others regard as hot stuff will squander their attractiveness on scrutinising themselves for flaws, fearing their looks have faded, and, these days? Feeling fat.
A complex, conflicted relationship to the body isn't the exclusive preserve of the overweight. To a modest extent, we can control its contours and influence its functionality, but in the main the body is a card we've been arbitrarily dealt. Looking in the mirror, we both recognise ourselves and don't. Are we what we see? What unpleasant surprises about our true natures will emerge when the body falters from illness, age, or accident? Whatever our sizes, in time the body will betray us all. Thus it's in everyone's interest to maintain a sharp distinction between, as my narrator in Big Brother puts it, "the who" and "the what".
Besides, as I get older, I grow less involved with feeling beautiful than with finding beauty. I am happy to inhabit the eye of the beholder. I spot a young woman strolling down Broadway, smooth, lithe, bronzed from the summer sun, clad simply in a skirt that suits her, and I want to call out, "You will never look better than you do right now!" NEW YORK MAGAZINE