By tacit conceit, being overweight isn’t simply unhealthy but a sin. This moral taint may help to explain why even in these elaborately sensitive times, it is still often thought acceptable to make fun of fat people.
But is fat a moral issue? One can make the case that obesity is costing Western health systems a fair whack of change (up to $7-billion in Canada), and those who keep trim and fit might reasonably resent footing the bill for sedentary snackers. But this argument, however valid, is not at the bottom of the ludicrously convoluted interpretations we make of our own and each other’s size.
Haughtiness about junk food and indignation about high health-insurance premiums too often disguise a fundamentally aesthetic disgust.
Western standards of beauty have become strictly defined in terms of size, a ruler that is especially brutal with women but is increasingly applied to men as well.
Two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and they must be tired of being denounced as indolent and degenerate; they must be tired of having objections to their health-care costs used as cover for revulsion. As homophobia has classically been driven by fear of being gay oneself, fat-phobia thrives on a similar projection.
A natural rebellion against this incessant hectoring – you don’t eat enough broccoli so your very character is defective, you’re a burden, you’re weak, you’re a source of corruption, get away from me, whatever you’ve got I don’t want to catch it – helps to explain why being overweight isn’t necessarily a disadvantage for chunky male politicians, whose constituency is anyone with a BMI of more than 25.
Yet people are heavy in every economic stratum, and just because the guy is fat doesn’t mean he has a feel for your working-class woes. There may be the odd viable conclusion to draw about character from figure – Mr. Obama is a control freak, and he can be aloof.
Still, plenty of big people aren’t lazy, and work very hard. Nothing about a little padding means some bloke is bound to be good company at a bar, or jolly, or not judgmental.
Fat having become so culturally and morally freighted only makes obesity as a health issue harder to solve.
Meanwhile, the terrain has become such a minefield that pretty soon anyone in the news will have to convene a focus group to decide whether to eat that second biscuit.
Lionel Shriver’s new novel Big Brother is now out with HarperCollins. She lives in London and in Brooklyn, N.Y.