Fat Acceptance and Fat Coercion

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The novel Justine is set in Alexandria, Egypt, in the period between the two World Wars. Author Lawrence Durrell describes certain women of that time and place:

Fed in darkness on jams and scented fats they have become tuns of pleasure, rolling on paper-white blue-veined legs.

A tun is a large barrel, and these women became huge not because they wanted to, but because there was literally nothing else to do. Required to stay indoors, attired in voluminous robes, restricted by a male-dominated theocracy, they were like cattle fattened for the slaughter. According to the men who owned them, this enforced obesity was fashionable. What the women felt about it, no one asked or cared. But all that was a long time ago, right?

Wrong. Culturally mandated obesity is still going on. In Mauritania, for instance, young women are force-fed to prepare them for marriage. It is a process of great brutality, Abigail Haworth tells us via Marie Claire. For a while, it seemed as if the tradition might be weakening, but a regime change erased all progress.

Haworth says:

Now big women are back in vogue, and the custom of funneling rich food into young girls like geese farmed for foie gras is once again thriving unchecked… ‘The practice is re-emerging because men still find mounds of female flesh comforting and erotic,’ explains Seyid Ould Seyid, a Mauritanian male journalist. ‘The attraction is ingrained from birth.’

Just as Western women have been programmed to seek surgical enhancements to their figures, Mauritanian women have bought into the “fat is beautiful” myth. How’s this for peer-group pressure? Girls cooperate with the fattening-up process because, otherwise, people will think they look “sick,” which in Africa implies mainly one thing: AIDS. This was reported by BBC journalist Pascale Harter, who also stated that because of food shortages, women buy pharmaceuticals intended for veterinary practices, because these pills will bloat the body up to a respectable size.

Harter wrote:

A pill-seller said he could not count the number of women who buy steroids meant for cattle. ‘Some come and buy 20 boxes in one go,’ he said. But if force-feeding creates problems for women in later life, the cattle steroids can be an instant killer. Side-effects include renal failure and heart attacks.

When girls are force-fed by their own mothers with the full blessing of society, this is way more than fat acceptance, it’s fat coercion. True, women in many countries are subjected to even worse treatment. But it doesn’t mean this health hazard should be ignored. How can customs like this be changed without enormous conflicts over national sovereignty issues and religious traditions? Can the World Health Organization make any difference?

Then there is the whole industrial side to consider. With some products, manufacturers have had to go back to the research and design stage, and retool their factories, to accommodate the growing girth of American children. Here is the sad news from journalist Madison Park:

To accommodate larger kids, some schools have instructions for teachers to provide separate chairs and desks for students who cannot fit into the pupil chairs. And school furniture makers are increasing the size of chairs and desks to accommodate larger students… Chairs made for older and bigger students are being used in middle and elementary schools to comfortably fit overweight and obese students. Schools prefer the ‘big and tall’ sizes for educational furniture… In the past five years, the biggest seats have been selling better than the standard sizes… These items also cost more.

Is this a good thing or not? Some believe that creating new products for bigger people, and especially for bigger kids, is the moral equivalent of aiding and abetting the worldwide obesity epidemic. How much size acceptance is healthy for the self-esteem of obese people, without crossing over the line into glorification?

Here are some of the lyrics of “Dare to Be Fat,” a song by Root Boy Slim:

Dare to be fat! Fat is where it’s at!
Dare to be fat! Fat is where it’s at!

She’s got a shape that makes me drool
Lord I’m just a fat girl’s fool
She weighs in at two-oh-two
That’s fine with me, I’m portly too

You got put on a pedestal highly elevated
Back in medieval times — You’re Rubenesque, baby

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Forced to Be Fat,” MarieClaire.com, 07/21/11
Source: “Mauritanians question the ‘fat’ look,” BBC News, 04/26/07
Source: “Obese kids outgrowing child sizes,” KXAN.com, 02/15/12
Image by quinn.anya (Quinn Dombrowski), used under its Creative Commons license.

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