Fat chance

Science - Fat is not a disease, so don't try to cure it, argues Ziauddin Sardar

There is nothing better than wholesome, voluptuous fat - like the fat around the midriffs of all those busty heroines in Indian films who nourished my imagination during adolescence. The heroines of most subcontinental and Middle Eastern cultures have nearly always been generously wrapped in fat - such as the late Umm Khultoum, the last word in Arabic pop, or Madhuri Dixit, the current superstar of Bollywood. We have little time for the emaciated stick insects that grace the catwalk. Indeed, sickly, skinny women (the likes of Calista Flockhart of Ally McBeal) are our definition of poverty and ugliness. In much eastern thought, thin and skeletal is an aberration, representing famine of the mind and famine of the body. Fat portrays health, wealth and wisdom. Omar Khayyam would have approved of the liberally proportioned woman in the Marks & Spencer advertisement, who runs naked up a hill and shouts: "I am normal!"

But fat women are not considered "normal" in contemporary western society. No one wants to be fat, yet everyone seems to be believe that they are. Fat has become an all-encompassing issue, a war of images fought out in the mainstream of popular culture. And the last grand ship appears to have been sunk. The British actress Kate Winslet, the ample star of Titanic, who raised a highly publicised clarion call against the monstrous regimen of dieting, has succumbed. Admitting the real prospect that she might never again be cast in a Hollywood film, Winslet recently vowed never to eat lunch again.

Dieting has become an epidemic. At any one time, two in five women in Britain are on a diet. One in ten, according to some estimates, ends up dying in a desperate attempt to lose fat - hardly surprising, when you consider that some popular diets advocate starvation rations of 1,000 calories a day. In the world's poorest countries, such as India, women consume on average more than 1,400 calories a day. So, fat may or may not be a "feminist issue", the mantra of Susie Orbach, but it is certainly a big business issue. Even by conservative estimates, the fat business has an annual worth of around $38bn.

And it is about to expand drastically. If we are to believe a paper recently published in the International Journal of Obesity, fat people may be infected by a virus. The virus in question is adenovirus-36, one of the 50 human adenoviruses, which cause such ailments as cold, red eyes and diarrhoea. In a series of experiments, researchers from the University of Wisconsin inoculated chickens and mice with adenovirus-36. After several months, the infected animals weighed only 7 per cent more than those without the virus, but their bodies contained more than twice as much fat. An earlier study at the same university showed that out of 52 obese humans, ten were infected with a chicken adenovirus called SMAM-1, which is known to cause obesity in chickens.

So the scene is set for a cure-all to obesity and fatness. Medicine seems to be going through a trend of discovering bacterial and viral links to all sorts of diseases. A few years ago, the bacterium Helicobactor pylori was identified as the cause of stomach ulcers. Then the Borna virus, an animal adenovirus, was implicated in depression in humans. It is even suspected that heart diseases may have viral causes. Antibiotic pills are already available for treating stomach cancers; anti-depression pills aimed at the Borna virus are being developed. So we shouldn't be surprised if a pill for fatness soon appears on the market.

This is science touting for a good business opportunity. But even if a successful pill could be developed, would it actually cure obesity and fatness? Would it necessarily be a good thing? The problem with such cures is that they transform a state of being into a disease, and hence a matter for pharmacological and medical intervention. Even obesity, which is strictly limited to industrialised countries in general, and the US in particular, is a state of being. It is a product of overconsumption. The Worldwatch Institute in Washington has estimated that there are 1.1 billion obese people in the west, almost as many as are plagued by hunger in the developing world. In the US alone, one in three adults is classified as obese, the result of a lifestyle based on an insatiable appetite for junk food. These people don't need pills; they need to get a life. Their only cure is a radical change in consumption patterns and lifestyle.

Where does all this leave fat women? Has the definition of obesity blurred the distinction or totally eradicated the normality of the pleasantly plump? Think of "gone pear-shaped", a popular epithet for "gone wrong": yet pear- shaped is the average lot of womankind. We see this in the Venus of Willendorf, a carved figure made by palaeolithic hands and discovered in 1908. Not only is this early image of the female form well endowed and fat in a big way, but the modelling emphasises the fertile zones of her genitalia. These palaeolithic figures have been found all across Europe and western Russia. Originally nicknamed "les poires", the pears, they soon acquired the more ideologically charged name of venus impudens, immodest Venuses.

Later western representations of the female nude, in which various distributions of fat emphasise women's lush fertility, echo the proportions of the Venus of Willendorf. From the 15th to the 17th centuries, big ripe bellies were fashionably erotic and can be seen in the paintings of Rubens as well as the school of orientalist painters. The early 19th century favoured plump faces and shoulders, progressing to generously dimpled buttocks and thighs towards the end of the century. The only deviation was in the representations of infantilised women favoured by the pre-Raphaelites, who took their inspiration from the sleek, flowing lines conventional in the medieval art that they venerated. In medieval times, the purpose of art was to emphasise ethereal, spiritual themes, rather than the humanist corporeal - or indeed corpulent - earthly facts of life. Fashion and fat often march to the tune of philosophy.

It is only with the advent of the 20th century that, as the art historian Ann Hollander has noted, "the look of sickness, the look of poverty, and the look of nervous exhaustion" became the aesthetic for the female form. It is no coincidence that such an aesthetic coincided with the legal emancipation of women in the west. The thoroughly modern Millies of the 1920s used androgynous, flat-chested, uncluttered silhouettes and rising hemlines to declare their fitness to compete in a male-dominated world. Femininity and androgyny became linked in a new philosophical complex.

The ideological battle between femaleness and androgyny has raged for the past two decades. The victor, as we all know, has been the gross, emaciated ideal of femininity projected everywhere by popular culture - she of the toned, honed, hard body with not one iota of fat. Where, as recently as the 1970s, there was little between the weight of an average woman and that of a fashion model, now the weight of a supermodel can be less than half that of most women. As women become more articulate politically and economically, notions of beauty become increasingly ascetic and perverse and, for the majority of women, positively detrimental.

Fat is healthy. Look at the endemic conditions of anorexia and bulimia in western nations. Both are mainly gender- specific: 90-95 per cent of sufferers are women. Britain's 3.5 million anorexics, their ranks swelling at the rate of 6,000 per year, are walking encyclopaedias of disease. Anorexics are likely to suffer from hypothermia, oedema, hypertension, infertility and death. The medical effects of bulimia include dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, epileptic seizure, abnormal heart rhythm and death. Combine the two and you get tooth erosion, hiatus hernia, abraded oesophagus, kidney failure, osteoporosis and death. Not surprisingly, only about half of anorexics recover (while two-thirds of famine victims in Africa recover fully). Equally unsurprisingly, fat people tend to live longer.

Fat is also sexy. Fat tissues store sex hormones, so low fat reserves are linked to weak oestrogens as well as inactive ovaries. The Ally McBeal syndrome is less about sexual escapades than fantasy, not of sexual fulfilment but unending, impossible quests for mutually contradictory ends.

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Please, sir, we girls want some more