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Buldging Through History

by Dawn Debeli

We are born, live and are held prisoner in our bodies. As a collection of bodies, we like to look at pictures of ourselves, whether it is in a painting, a photograph, a movie or on TV. Likewise, since the beginnings of art, the human body has been the primary subject. Yet while the body as subject remains a constant, the form the body takes has varied greatly over time. In general the form of the body in art reflects the culture in which the art was made, for art is a reflection of a culture as much as a product of it.

The earliest works known are large obese nudes with exaggerated breasts and buttocks. These sculptures are believed to have had ritual or religious significance relating to fertility. In this sense the body image reflected in the work did not relate to an actual human form, but to an imaginary, magical one. The anatomical elements were distorted to give the work a symbolic and spiritual power. Later in the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome the body was also used in art to represent mythical gods. However in these cultures the representation of the body was not exaggerated. Rather than use distortion to symbolize and harness the magical unknown powers behind existence, the Greek and Romans depicted the human body in a very realistic manner.

fert.jpg (13966 bytes) Venus of Willendorf

One of many prehistoric fertility figures believed to have had ritual capabilities.

These realist sculptures were the images of their gods, who they imagined looked just like themselves. These god beings, while idealized, were human and did not leave much to the imagination of the viewer. Narcissistic self-worship continues throughout western art and culture. Historians consider medieval Europe a deviation, as the realist form was replaced with a standardized, stylized one, but fundamentally there was not much difference from Classical art. The image was still both human and the image of a god, only the method of portrayal had been altered. The stylized medieval images reflected the self-image of the day, which was less rational than the reason based self-image of Classical Greece and Rome. This is not to say that medieval kingdoms and robber barons were any less materialistic than the ancient Greeks, perhaps they were more so. What is reflected in the art, is not so much the material actuality of the culture, but its psychological self-identity or self image.

Historically, while the method of portraying the body has changed, the image has remained consistently healthy, trim and reflecting the ideal beauty of the time. There are moments in history, such as we see in the works of Rubens, or Renoir, when a bloated figure was seen as desirable. Yet unlike today such mass was not seen as a sign of ill health. To the contrary, in these times before the discovery of saturated fats, trans-fatty acids and heart disease, such plumpness was seen as a sign of wealth and good health.

In recent times, the obese body image has been used in art to reflect the growing obesity of modern western culture. At no other time in history has the ideal body image so differed from the social norm. The ideal body type, pounded into our brains on a daily basis through a mass proliferation of advertising images, is that of undernourished, stick-like super models, and chiseled, weight lifter male models. Yet the reality is that overweight and obesity is an alarming public-health problem in the United States, affecting 97 million American adults, an astonishing 55% of the population. Between 1960 and 1994, the prevalence of obesity in adults increased from nearly 13% to 22.5% of the U.S. population, with most of the increase occurring in the 1990’s. These findings are recorded in the first federal guidelines on the identification, evaluation and treatment of overweight and obesity in adults, which was released by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) in June, 1998.

The increase in obesity was observed across all age groups, ethnic groups, educational levels, and regions of the country and is reaching epidemic proportions. The highest increase occurred among the youngest ages (18 to 29 year-olds), people with some college education and people of Hispanic ethnicity. The proportion of obese children also doubled with 4.7 million American children (10.9%) between the ages of 6 and 17 overweight —up from 5% in the period 1963-1965. By region, the largest increases were seen in the South with a 67% increase in the number of obese people. Georgia had the largest increase, a whopping 101%!

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Rubens, The Bacchanal

Approx. 1618, oil on canvas. The body of Rubens day was abundant, bulbous bellies and buttocks hang loosely with cellulite dimples.

Overweight and physical inactivity account for more than 300,000 premature deaths each year in the U.S., second only to tobacco-related deaths. "Obesity is an epidemic and should be taken as seriously as any infectious disease epidemic", says Jeffrey P. Koplan, director of the Center for Disease Control, "Obesity and overweight are linked to the nation’s number one killer—heart disease— as well as diabetes and other chronic conditions."

Aside from the health concerns, all this obesity has political implications. While Americans pig out at McDonalds and Burger King, 1.5 billion people on the earth are malnourished, 40,000 children die daily due to malnourishment and/or disease, and 2 billion live in poverty. The bulk of American calories and fat come from a diet high in animal fat and proteins. Americans, it has been shown, typically have three to four times as much protein in their diet as is necessary. Since animals are inefficient converters of plant material into protein (more people can be fed if plant protein is consumed directly rather than wastefully passed through farm animals for conversion into meat), American gluttony becomes not only selfish and unhealthy, but environmentally destructive. Currently, around 1/4 of worldwide cropland is devoted solely to producing grain and food for livestock, and a massive 38% of the world’s grain is fed to farm animals. Ruminant livestock - principally cattle and sheep - graze (and degrade) approximately half the Earth’s total land area. The production of animal-derived foods also wastes water. To produce an average of 35 liters of milk a day, a cow must consume up to 100 liters of water (more in hot conditions). It takes about 500 liters of water to produce 1kg of potatoes, the same amount of beef uses up 100,000 liters.

To feed the growing bellies of America, the world suffers economically and inequality grows throughout the world, both between countries and within countries. As of 1996, 89 countries (out of 174) were worse off, economically, than they had been a decade previously. In 70 developing countries, incomes are lower now than they were in the 1960s and 1970s. The level of inequality is already astonishing. For example, in 1996, 358 billionaires controlled assets greater than the combined annual incomes of countries representing 45 percent of the world’s population (2.5 billion people). Between 1961 and 1991, the ratio of the income of the richest 20% of the world’s population to the poorest 20% increased from 30-to-1 to 61-to-1.

Within the U.S., inequality is wider than it has been for 50 years, and it is getting worse. The U.S. now finds itself among a group of countries, including Brazil and Guatemala, in which the national per capita income is at least four times as high as the average income of the poorest 20 percent. In the U.S. between 1980 and 1990, inequality of income increased in all states except Alaska. In 1977 the wealthiest 5% of Americans captured 16.8% of the nation’s entire income; by 1989 that same 5% was capturing 18.9%. During the first four years of the Clinton presidency the wealthiest 5% increased their take of the total to over 21%, an unprecedented rate of increase. Inequality in the distribution of wealth in the U.S. is even greater than the inequality in income. In 1983, the wealthiest 5% of Americans owned 56% of all the wealth in the U.S.; by 1989, the same 5% had increased their share of the pie to 62%. Today the increase is even more staggering.

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Slowinski, Fat Black Guy

1995, acrylic on canvas.The black figure in Slowinski’s painting is symbolic of urban black America, tortured by McDonalds, Kentucky Fried and government sponsored lotteries.

In spite of this reality, Americans drown themselves in even more food. Rather than reduce their size, Americans are building larger houses and buying larger vehicles to hold their bloated forms. A quick search on the Internet under "fat" or "Obesity" does not reveal statistical or medical information, but an abundance of organizations and personal sites on "fat acceptance" and helpful information for those of "largess." One site offers helpful information on how to get an accurate body weight:

One option is to use two regular bathroom scales. Put one foot on each scale and add the weights indicated on each of them. This method may give you a slightly inaccurate weight. To minimize the inaccuracy, put the scales as close together as possible. Another option is to find an accurate outdoor freight scale, and use it after hours to weigh yourself. You will probably need to bring someone else along to read the weight, since the display is usually physically separated from the scales themselves.

Another web site offers information on the politics of fat acceptance:

The political side of size acceptance includes calling for public accommodations and public products to be accessible to all people, regardless of size. (This means, among other things, that movie theaters should have seats that are wide enough for large folks, and clothing stores should carry attractive clothing in large sizes.) Size acceptance addresses the discrimination that fat people often face because they are fat; promotes a wider range of beauty standards than is usually shown in the media; publicizes the studies that indicate the harmful effects of dieting; and educates people (e.g., doctors) about interacting respectfully with large folks.

Another promotes International No-Diet Day:

A day to declare a moratorium on diet/weight obsession. Learn the facts about weight-loss dieting, health, and body size. Celebrate the natural beauty and diversity of our sizes and shapes. Affirm every*body*’s right to health, fitness, and emotional well being. Recognize how dieting perpetuates violence against women.

A personal testimonial reveals the self-obsession of Americas obese and lack of concern with the political and moral implications:

I’m a fat guy — always have been. I’m not "big-boned" (surprise, there’s no such thing), I don’t "carry it well," and I’m neither "husky" nor "just a little heavy." There’s nothing wrong with any of my glands. I’m not a victim in any way. I’m a fat guy because I eat too much. If I ate less, I’d lose weight. But I don’t, because I love food (and I even eat food I don’t love, because I love the mere act of eating). I’m a fat guy, as in I could lose 50 pounds and still be fat, as in I’m 5-foot-10 and 350 very apparent pounds (plus or minus 10 pounds depending on what I ate that day). I’m a fat guy, and I’m not alone.

More and more Americans are not only becoming obese, but they are defiant in accepting the condition as normal. Every argument from genetics to "I just love to eat, so what," is used to support the condition. As obesity becomes the norm, the ideal super model body image promoted by the media becomes less a realistic reflection of the cultures body image and more of a marketing tool. Keeping the obese public focused on the unattainable goal of the super model supports a billion-dollar industry in diet drugs, diet herbs, diet plans, diet books and diet doctors. The resulting frustration and despair also keeps the public eating more to attain some level of self pleasure and satisfaction. This conflict between the real obese body image and the ideal super model body image, has resulted in a body phobia that pervades the culture. The condition and preservation of the body has become a mass cultural obsession. Inherently hopeless, this obsession results in mass depression and the proliferation of Prozac-like drugs, for the decaying power of time on our fragile mortal forms can not be arrested.

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Jeramy Turner, Moon over America

1991, 65" x 65", oil on canvas. In this painting, even the hills have morphed to reflect the national condition.

This painting was stolen from a Chicago gallery in 1991. Anyone who has seen this painting please call the artist at 718-499-7274

As a mirror of culture, the fine art of our time reflects these bodily conflicts and conditions. While the super model may fulfill the role Aphrodite did in Ancient Greece, a fantasy ideal to which the public should aspire, the fine art images of today deal with underlying social issues. Thus the use of the obese nude in contemporary art is becoming more commonplace. Unlike the nudes of Rubens and Renior, the obese contemporary nudes are not presented as large, healthy beauties, but are used symbolically. For example, an obese figure in a Slowinski or Turner painting, is not a lone figure, but a symbol for cultural obesity and bloated social conditions. As symbolic representations of these conditions, these figures have a kinship to prehistoric and ancient classical models in that they are not used to portray individuals, but are a symbolic of the society in general. Today dieting and obesity are reflected in the art, just as fertility and religious mythology were in the past.

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