Talk: Fatness in Culture, Art and Language***

Fatness has always been used as materialization and a symbol of what we hate. Thinness has always embodied and symbolized all that is good in the world. But new times are in front of us as we fight for bodily equality.

Tore Hallas is a graduating and award-winning artist from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. His video work AND GOING AFTER STRANGE FLESH circles around fatness, homosexuality, religion, shame, and guilt. The work shows us two tableaus of beauty, each with a fat man and a slender man who is sexually attracted to fat men. The work simultaneously shows recordings from the desert in Jordan where the ruins of the mythical city of Sodom were supposedly placed. While seeing the beautiful and stylistically perfect zooming in on the men next to the course recordings from the dessert we hear harsh words of fictitious as well as experienced situations of fatphobia and how homophobia and fatphobia collide when you have both othernesses.

AND GOING AFTER STRANGE FLESH is exhibited at the Kunsthal Charlottenborg’s current exhibition AFGANG 19. Tore Hallas invited Dina Amlund for the event AFGANG LIVE to talk about how the fat body is displayed in art, culture, and language. Dina is a cultural historian and a fat activist, and this is the talk:

We have the idea that it was quite OK to be fat in the old days. That’s not true. Thinness has always been worshipped and fatness used as a symbol of what we do not like. Constantly repeating that fat was OK in the old days – is just another layer of fatphobia. It becomes synonymous with fatness belonging to a time of less knowledge and common sense than now.

Western culture starts with the Antiquity 5000 years ago, where we see slenderness in the sculpture tradition, in the ceramic paintings and in the descriptions of the gods. We also see shapewear in the Antiquity.  A combination of a vest and a belt to make the body thinner. In the Middle Ages, it is also slenderness that is the ideal, which we see in art, literature and fashion.

There is a widespread notion that fatness was worshiped in the Baroque era and somewhat in the Renaissance. People think of the little angles with fat faces. But they were painted like very small children. We are repeatedly told that in other and less informed and enlightened times it was a symbol of status for men to be fat and for women, a symbol of fertility and beauty.

That is not so. I found out because I went hunting for painting, fashion and literature with fat people throughout the ages.

The term Rubenesque confuses people. In our contemporary language, it is used to describe fat people, fat women particularly. But look at his models. They are not fat. People are literally amazed when they look at Rubens’ paintings and seeing how not fat they are. We have been told that they are fat – so, that is what we see.

We need to look at Peter Paul Rubens, the origin of the term Rubenesque. He lived from 1577-1640, in the Dutch Golden Age which is associated with fatness in paintings.

These are two of his painting. The Judgement of Paris from 1638-40. It is the famous story of Prins Paris who were to give an apple to the most desirable of the three most desirable goddesses, Aphrodite, Athena and Hera. The other painting is The Elevation of the Cross from 1610.

These paintings are typical for Rubens. And what is interesting is that when he painted the most beautiful and desirable women, goddesses, he chose slender models. They look like Kate Winslet and Drew Barrymore. They are not as skinny as Kiera Knightly or Twiggy. But they are definitely not fat.

And looking at Jesus. It is worth noticing that the concept of woman as “the fairer sex” had not yet been invented at Rubens’ time. At this time man was the most beautiful gender. Because the man was made in the image of God and the woman was made out of man’s rib. They did not mean man is in mankind, they meant the male gender was made in the image of God.

And so, man is the most beautiful of all God’s creatures – and most beautiful of all was Jesus because he was both God and man at the same time.

I assure you that if it had been in any way admirable and a symbol of status to be fat Jesus would have been fat in every single painting and on every single crucifix hanging in churches. Just like Aphrodite and friends would have been depicted as fat. Jesus was painted as thin and white because that was the ideal.

Yes, paintings of fat people exist. But they don’t prove much other than that fat people existed. The level of fatphobia in the eras leading up to and following the baroque era was perhaps worse  – but that does not mean there was no fatphobia during this era with all the thin Jesuses. Fatphobia was very much a structure during the Baroque period as well as all other periods. Visiting SMK, the national art gallery in Denmark, they have a really big collection of paintings from this era including several Rubens paintings. There are two paintings with fat women, not very fat, but ok, I’ll call them fat. There is also a Michael Kvium painting of a fat woman being ridden and whipped by a thin man, there is an art nouveau statue of a very slightly fat woman. And a portrait of a somewhat fat man from the 18th century. That is it. The rest of the bodies on display at SMK are thin. Lots of bodies. Four paintings and a statue portraying fatness.  And yes, Rubens did paint some women slightly larger than these three, but not big enough to be categorized as fat. They would still be able to buy clothes in today’s clothing shops in the West.

And there are a few paintings of fat men amongst Rubens work. He painted Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and intoxication. But he was not Jesus, majestic and beautiful. He was painted with a kind of funny expression and surrounded by chaos, for instance, a naked boy urinating and an elderly man gulping down wine. Not well-behaved people in that painting, not portraying Bacchus as ideal.

We still see slenderness used as the embodiment of what we like and fatness used for what we don’t like. Have you seen Danmarks Sønner, now playing at cinemas and recently received some award somewhere in the world? It is not a coincidence that the evil nazi is played by a fat actor and that the characters we sympathize with are played by slender actors.

We see it in satire and have always seen it in satire, even before the printed press as we know it today. If you are on the left-wing there is the evil capitalist, of course, he is fat. On the right-wing we see the fat unemployed leeches sucking money out of the welfare state. If you want to criticize the Gay Pride Parade – whether you are on the outer right wing not wanting queerness to be flaunted or whether you are on the outer leftwing not accepting the commercialization and normativity and lack of queerness in the pride, you will see fat pride caricatures. When someone wants to criticize Denmark and the Danes in a newspaper they draw fat people wearing football hats from 1992. If you want to criticize the church they will depict a fat priest who is either evil and judgmental or ridiculously out of sync with the rest of the world. Whatever you want to ridicule or criticize, whichever your position on the political landscape or elsewhere – fatness is how you get your visual message out that this is something we hate or should hate.

That is why I am very happy to see the beauty in Tore’s work. It is so very beautiful and the words kind of clash with the beauty, the words are so harsh because they tell you about the fatphobic structures. For instance, having a partner who thinks you will never leave them because they are per size definition better than you because they are thin and you are fat.

Lastly, I will touch upon language when dealing with fatness. You may have noticed the word fatness in the catalog text about Tore’s work, in Danish Tykhed.

Fat is the neutral word in English, Tyk is the neutral word in Danish. Some people believe that Fed is the translation of Fat – but it isn’t. Because not only is Fed a very hateful adjective, the noun is Fedme which translates to Obesity. Not neutral at all. Fatness and tykhed are the neutral nouns.

Overweight, overvægtig are often how people believe they go about fat and fatness most accurately and most politely – but please think about the social construction of the word overweight. It is created to be the polar opposite of normal weight. Placing fat people outside the norm. Obese, Obesity, Fedme – words that are created to pathologize fat people. The obesity epidemic, for instance.

The way fat people are discussed in Western Culture today is very similar to how the west debated homosexuality 50 years ago.

They were obsessed with counting how many homosexuals there were; Are there more now than before? What happens if there becomes more of them? More of them than of us? What is this lifestyle? Wy don’t they just pull themselves together and stop being like that? Why are they like that? Were they born with this malfunction or did they have a bad childhood? It was probably a dominating mother! How can we treat this? Let’s mutilate their brains with electric shock therapy! They should pray to god! They are disgusting! If it is a disease then they can’t help it, the poor people…

Those are the exact same things being said about fat people today. Except for electroshocks and castration, they do different types of gastric surgery, mutilating the stomach and intestine system of fat people, deliberately creating a disease that prevents healthy bodies from taking in nutrients from food.

We need visual representation everywhere and we need a language that moves fat people away from pathologization.

WHO removed homosexuality from the list of mental disorders in 1992. Very recently WHO came out with a report saying that fatphobia – they called it weight stigma – is damaging to fat people’s health. That is the first step to removing fatness all together from their list of pathology and instead focusing on how damaging it is to the health to have to live under fatphobic structures. I am optimistic that we are on the path to better times!

In this context, I see Tore’s work as a political work. It is identity politics, it is a representation, it is a statement and it is bearing witness. And I am looking forward to seeing where Tore Hallas will go after AND GOING AFTER STRANGE FLESH!

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