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

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.