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Fat Boys: A Slim Book
Sander L. Gilman
Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.
$27.95, 310 pages, ISBN 0-8032-2183-5.

Kevin Hunt
University of Nottingham

After the “gluttony” murder in David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), Detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) meet with the Police Captain (R. Lee Ermey) to discuss the case. Somerset describes how the already obese victim was force-fed to bursting point over a twelve-hour period and suggests: "when you want somebody dead, you drive by and shoot them… you don’t risk the time it takes to do this unless the act itself has meaning." With his palms held open and an incredulous tone in his voice, the Captain responds: "come on, somebody had a problem with the fat boy and decided to torture him—simple as that."

But fat is not a simple issue. It carries a whole range of social, political, cultural and medical meanings, all of which shift and change throughout history. This is, in essence, the subject of Sander L. Gilman’s Fat Boys: A Slim Book, in which he offers an analytical reading of fat men in Western culture and what their fatness has connoted at different times. The title is lifted from Elmer Wheeler’s proposition to write The Fat Boy’s Diet Book in the late 1940s. This suggestion was met by his (apparently quite rotund) publisher’s disapproval because dieting was, at that time, coming to be seen as "women’s stuff" [p. 6]. Gilman argues this mentality developed into the 1960s and that ever since "the standard model for the study of the relationship between gender and obesity has focused on women’s bodies" [p. 1].

Consequently, the modern assumption "that fat is purely a feminist issue" [p. 4] has meant that "there have been very few detailed studies of the complex history between men and fat." As a theoretical starting point Gilman therefore pushes his thesis towards the other extreme by stating that "in terms of the widest range of historical and cultural interest, it was the fat boy who claimed center stage in the obsession about fat bodies for most of Western history" [p. 4] and that this was the case "even in texts written for women readers" [p. 5].

Depending on how you interpret this shift in emphasis from the female to the male body, it could be seen as either a positive step, whereby the male body is put on display as the object of the gaze, or a negative one that reasserts a patriarchal centre to Western society—maybe it can even be both. Whatever your point of view, the now fully mainstream concern with "aesthetics and health" [p. 31], which has recently made Morgan Spurlock’s low budget documentary Super Size Me (2004) into a super size success, indicates that fatness and obesity are currently high on the political and social agenda—with fat being targeted as "the epidemic of the twenty-first century" [p. 31]. Gilman’s "tentative exploration of the world of male body fantasies," as he refers to the book on the jacket cover, therefore attempts to provide a back-story to the recent cultural phenomenon of widespread Western obesity as well as an original take on how we define masculinity.

As Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Medicine at the University of Illinois, Gilman’s particular interest is in how medical theories relate to cultural productions. Hippocrates (440-340 B.C.E.), for instance, "based his notion of health and illness on the balance of the (four) humors" [p. 35]: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. A natural predisposition to phlegm, as the dominant humor, would have "resulted in fat" [p. 36]. Each humor also determined temperament; "the phlegmatic person (who was also fat) was pale, lazy, inert, and cool in character" [p. 36]. So, from the earliest cultural and medical accounts fat and fatness were imbued with particular connotations. Even Socrates, with his portly figure and pug-faced appearance, agreed with a physiognomical assessment that he should be "inwardly dull, brutish, sensual, and addicted to the vice of drunkenness" [p. 39]—although he also stated that he could "rise himself above his temperament through the persistent pursuit of learning" [p. 39].

This capability to overcome or alter perceptions means the concept of fatness is always fluid and capable of change. Until the twentieth century to be plump was often to be prosperous [p. 11], it also indicated good health in eras when consumptive diseases, such as tuberculosis, were a major threat to life (p. 32]. Louis XIV even "padded his body to look imposing" [p. 12]. Society, however, imagines a gap between healthy plumpness and morbid obesity and "these two categories are constantly shifting in relation to one another" [p. 11]. At certain points in time pleasing plumpness becomes morbid obesity and a new standard of acceptable plumpness is created. Furthermore, this is constantly offset against the Western image of masculine perfection, carved in statues and recorded in Greek literature, which has consistently represented the benchmark for the idealized male body form.

How the ever-changing fat boy relates to the concept of masculinity is therefore also continually in flux. From the licentious Western gods of Bacchus and Silenus, whose proportions indicate sexual prowess and drunken debauchery, to the secular (American) image of Santa Claus, whose fatness renders him asexual and non-threatening, body size is read and reread with different implications [p. 22]. With this wide range of issues to consider, Gilman’s subtitled acknowledgement that this is "a slim book" is a cognizant one. Nevertheless, his lucid writing style and capability to draw from a diverse set of texts, taking in both high and low cultural sources, suggests the breadth and depth to which his various arguments and interpretations could be applied.

Some figures are considered relatively fleetingly, such as Fatty Arbuckle, John Bull and the eponymous detective/psychologist in Cracker, where others are analysed at length; a chapter on fat ball players takes a detailed look at Babe Ruth while Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff, the "exemplary fat boy" [p. 11], receives a whole chapter to himself. This approach offers both a range of potential figures worth analysing and possible tools with which to analyse them. Falstaff, for instance, suffers from "fatty degeneration" [p. 138] as he moves across time—changing from a healthy figure to a comical one to an ailing and pitiable soul. The downside to this breadth of analysis is that the historical specificity between medical theories and contemporary male figures sometimes becomes lost in favour of critical interpretation.

As such, the value of this book lies in the versatility with which it can be used in relation to cultural studies, rather than building a completely convincing relationship between medical history and the arts. There are ideas here about cultural icons, such as Marlon Brando, Elvis and Orson Welles, as well as more broad based literary figures—notably fat detectives and fat villains (p. 153]. By referencing television shows (Ally McBeal, NYPD Blue, Perry Mason), films (Touch of Evil, Copland, The Nutty Professor), literature (Don Quixote, Lord of the Flies, The Secret Agent), operas, plays, philosophy and religion, Gilman builds a compelling study of what fatness has been and what it could yet become.

On the negative side, although he avoids a Eurocentric image of the West and chooses a more original cross-section of figures than those offered by, say, an art historical study, Gilman’s examples are predominantly white. This is surprising, given, for instance, the number of influential black musicians, such as Fats Domino or rappers like Notorious B.I.G. and Fatman Scoop, who present a link between their weight and their identity. Issues relating to sexuality also tend to be skirted over relatively quickly, which is surprising in a book about the male body, and it would have been fascinating to hear more about the comparative treatment of fat boys in the East considering that Buddha [p. 21] and "sumo wrestlers" [p. 194], to select the more obvious, are both listed in the index but barely mentioned in the text.

Interestingly, as a product of the growing concern over obesity (which has triggered a burst of scholarship relating to the politics of the body), Fat Boys places the issue of health relatively low on the agenda. While Gilman’s cultural study does not condone morbid obesity, he is careful not to jump on the bandwagon of making fat into a moral issue. His intention is to consider how fat and fatness have been constructed and reconstructed as masculine cultural concepts and how this can be understood in relation to science, not to lecture about the value of fitness.

However, when considering the connection between gluttony and the moral panic developing over Western weight gain, Fat Boys does indicate how the contemporary frenzy over obesity relates back to "the Christian abnegation of the body" [p. 66], practised by St Paul, and the writings of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas (when scientific reason was dominated and influenced by religious thought). Guilt, judgement and sin are closely associated with fatness (as evidence of gluttony and pride) in the Christian tradition [p. 52]. Therefore, in the quick-fix era of liposuction and stomach stapling, the modern day crusade against obesity, and the implications this has for our current conception of the fat boy as social pariah, no doubt reveals something more significant about contemporary culture than a sudden desire just to get fit, and Fat Boys: A Slim Book provides an insightful introduction to what those implications might be.



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