If any time and place could rival our own for conspicuous consumption, it would be 1920s Berlin, where restaurants and bars competed wildly for the highest-spending punters. In this "anything goes" atmosphere, an entrepreneurial restaurateur hit on a novel way to woo customers. Setting up six glass cases in his dining area, he put a "hunger artist" in each - a person who would gradually starve himself, in full view of the customers, over days or even months. It was a strange scheme, but the restaurateur was clearly a whizz at psychology. Not only did more customers flock to his restaurant, but they all ate more, too.
It is easy to be shocked by this, and to believe that the historical fad for hunger artists (particularly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries) is too lurid for our more advanced age. Over the past year, however, the gossip magazine Heat has tested this notion by featuring a stream of emaciated celebrities in its pages. And apparently the words "skinny celebrities" on the cover (with the promise of shocking photos inside) boost its sales by 20 per cent, to as high as 600,000.
Which raises the question: just what is it that is so enticing about these pictures? Notably, all the celebrities featured are women. But what do we enjoy about the sight of them starving, heads wobbling disproportionately atop tiny frames?
To justify the photos, Heat often accompanies them with "caring" captions. "Donna [Air] is a pretty girl, but her skinniness is truly shocking - we only hope it doesn't get worse." Well, as a Heat reader might say: whatever. Heat exists purely for entertainment, so the intimation that it is acting in these celebrities' interests is, at best, disingenuous.
The truth is quite different. The fact is that these pictures - just like those old-time hunger artists - make us feel better about our own consumption. These images of starvation make us want to eat more, and to enjoy our food with more lip-smacking relish.
With such a large proportion of the British population now overweight, the pictures of fat celebrities that used to be so popular (and which still crop up at regular intervals) provide only a quick jolt of pleasure before reminding us, sadly, of our own burgeoning girth. There's no fun in eating a Mars Bar while staring at some celebrity's cellulite-riddled bottom. The schadenfreude in these circumstances is also at least slightly mitigated by one fact: in gaining weight, the sub- ject has probably had some degree of pleasure (on being photographed at 14 and a half stone, the American actress Kirstie Alley memorably said: "Well, hey, I ate too much. I had too big a party").
We live at a time when image, and thinness in particular, are of paramount importance, as in the 1920s. Paradoxically, our environment is so resplendent with food, especially fatty foods, that some experts have defined it as "obesogenic" - a place where it is almost impossible to avoid gaining weight. What these two warring elements create is a huge amount of guilt surrounding eating.
Thus, in a horrible way, looking at the pictures in Heat briefly relieves our guilt: for a few minutes, we can recline with a magazine and a KitKat and feel good about it. However overweight a person is, she or he can justify another chocolate doughnut with the thought, "Well, I suppose I could deny myself, but no one would want me to look like that," a finger hovering shakily over Tara Palmer-Tomkinson's raddled torso. Compared to an example of "unnatural" emaciation, our own consumption (even if that involves bingeing on fat and sugar) can seem the other side of the coin, the more "natural" alternative.
This attitude is heightened by current feelings towards celebrities. It is often remarked that today you can become rich and famous for doing nothing, but it is also true that today you can become rich and famous without anyone actu- ally liking you.
Featuring alongside the few actresses and singers in Heat's "skinniest celebs" issue are multiple daughters of rich peo-ple (Jemima Khan, Palmer-Tomkinson, Nicole Richie and Kimberly Stewart), as well as celebrities such as Donna Air, who was, uh, briefly in CBBC's Byker Grove. Among young people who crave celebrity (a recent survey put the figure at 89 per cent of all 15- to 19-year-old girls), these women who have apparently sailed effortlessly or nepotistically to fame inspire an understandable envy.
And so the fascination with celebrity is married to a deep, even dehumanising, contempt. In these circumstances, schadenfreude is always welcome - and there is ample opportunity for indulging in it when viewing images of emaciated celebrities. Not only do they look bad, but they had to suffer (sometimes quite significantly) to achieve it.
In an age of heightened confusion regarding food - an age in which the understanding of "natural" consumption has largely dissolved, to be replaced by food scares, fasting and phobias - the popularity of these pictures, however unsisterly and morally bereft, is likely to continue. Anything that can make us feel better, if only fleetingly, about our rising levels of consumption and expanding waistlines simply isn't going to go away.