There’s a photograph taken by Lionel Wendt of a woman’s torso – her abdomen is divided into neat, long rolls of fat. Clearly, he saw some beauty in it, that voluptuousness that traditional cultures all over the world have prized as a sign of prosperity and health. “Ideas of what is beautiful change from generation to generation and even from country to country,” says Dr. Piyanjali de Zoysa, Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology, University of Colombo. “Chubbiness was nice because it showed prosperity. It’s good to be rich and so it was good to be plump.”
In the past, for the many women who could be politely described as zaftig (adj: having a full, shapely figure; plump. From Yiddish zaftik meaning ‘juicy’) their fat was a point of pride - they could survive a famine and illness, they could bear healthy children, they stood as solid evidence of their husband’s prowess as a provider.
“There were also evolutionary preferences – women with hour glass figures were seen as more fertile,”says, Dr. de Zoysa. From the Paleolithic figurine known as the Venus of Willendorf, to the heavy hips of the Hindu goddesses and the luscious weightiness of the Ruben’s women, it was clear that fat was once fabulous. (I should confess that the significance of the Venus figurines are hotly debated – sure, they could be a prized symbol of fertility, alternately they might be inspired by a mushroom cult.)
Then things changed – apparently, somewhere in Paris, a designer declared breasts were “out” and within a few decades, models like the iconic Twiggy and later Kate Moss made the semi-starved pre-adolescent look the most sought after. The Rubenesque women of the world began to feel fat. “Now if you look slim and sporty it’s because you have the money to go to the gym,” says Dr. de Zoysa, adding that our views on beauty continue to be tied up with our perceptions of what it means to be wealthy. And of course, fashion is a business. Designers in cahoots with mainstream media continue to determine who qualifies as ‘beautiful for the international markets.’ “The media decides what’s going to be in,” says Dr. de Zoysa.
Now, ever so slowly, the tide has begun to turn – and you can see it happening in mainstream media. As early as 1979, there was the BBW Magazine (filled with Big Beautiful Women) and in 2006, Twiggy’s heirs were summarily thrown off the ramp when Jean-Paul Gaultier and John Galliano used plus-size models to showcase their spring collections. These were fairly isolated rebellions though – Fashion T.V remained the province of the young and the anorexic. However, of late, ‘plus-size models’ have appeared on the pages of Harpers Bazaar, Elle, Marie Claire, Glamour and even on the cover of Vogue. Models like Tara Lynn and Crystal Renn are put into clothes that showcase each roll of fat, each thunderous thigh, each pendulous forearm in loving detail.
Their rise to popularity, it is believed, has less to do with haute couture and more to do with a grassroots movement among young ‘fatshionistas.’
The web is filled with these blogs. There’s 24 year old Gabi Gregg who blogs at ‘Young, Fat and Fabulous’ (http://www.youngfatandfabulous.com/). In one blog post she offers her readers advice on what to do about ‘chubrub’ (thigh chafing) and in another encourages them to wear bikinis: ‘Newsflash: you don’t have to lose weight to look good in a swimsuit... Don’t let other people dictate what you wear. If the sight of my body makes people cringe, that’s their problem, not mine,’ she writes. There are many, many others: Christina Lewis at www.musingsofafatshionista.com who told The Guardian newspaper, “I’m never afraid to put myself out there with what I wear. I always tell people I don’t dress to look slim, I dress to look amazing!” You can find more of the same at www.fatshionista.com, confessionsofafatgirl.typepad.com and http://curiousfancy.com)
People like Christina and Gabi might just have the right idea, says Dr. de Zoysa. “Basically if you think of yourself as good looking it impacts many things – how you walk changes, you hold yourself well and when you seem more confident that will attract other people to you,” she explains, adding that “believing yourself to be attractive has a rewarding effect…there can be people who think they’re good looking, who behave that way, and who have lots of admirers.”
Still, it’s a rare woman who can’t find a flaw in her body. Magazines are filled with suggestions about thinking positive and accepting yourself, but these attitudes are easy to embrace but much harder to maintain. “It’s like a hot water bath but then afterwards, you again feel dirty,” says Dr. de Zoysa, sharing her belief that our attitudes are moulded during critical childhood years.
A practical step is to embrace a healthier lifestyle – a diet that emphasises health and vitality will bring a glow to your skin. Another is to objectively evaluate your attractiveness. Dr. de Zoysa says she asks her patients to attempt the occasional ‘behavioural experiment.’ For instance, she suggests you count the people who come up to you at a party or show some sign of interest. The results might challenge your preconceptions.
“The feeling you may have, of being fat and unattractive, may not go with your reality.”
In the end, she offers a word of caution: “celebrating being fat can be as negative as wanting to be thin,” she says, referring to the spectrum of diseases associated with obesity. “To overcome society’s fascination with thinness we should not develop a fascination with fatness. Instead our preference should be for a healthy body.”