Fat is a contentious issue

January 31, 1997

Professor Klein (Praise the Lard, THES, January 24) is right to criticise anorexic fashion and the dangerous slimming mania it has spawned. But his history is confused and glib. To establish past standards of human beauty we need to study the actual choices of those with the power and freedom to make them.

Slick readings from what painters painted, without any analysis of their intentions, predelictions, and the constraints upon them, merely reproduce weary old platitudes. Rubens personally liked fat women, he was fascinated by the play of light on ample flesh, and he believed the higher beauty resided only in the taut male figure; sophisticated contemporaries were contemptuous of his peasant-like Flemish models; a quick comparison of his women with those in analogous mythological paintings by Van Dyck confirm that the women Rubens painted did not conform to any universal ideal of the time.

For real choices, let's start with Catherine the Great: she went for slim young guardsmen, not fat retired generals. Perhaps the first male pin-up was Byron: he knew the appeal of slimness and had his own slimming potion - vinegar! Klein's invocation of Edward VII is risible: Tum-Tum (not a sobriquet which connotes beauty) got his women solely by royal prerogative (study them - they are not remarkable for their fatness).

Notions of what precisely constitutes fatness have changed, and have recently become absurdly rigorous, but the evidence (copiously cited in my book, Beauty in History, Thames and Hudson, 1988) indicates that ideals of beauty, as distinct from fashion, have remained notably constant, with the youthful appearance always prized, fatness never.

Arthur Marwick, department of history, The Open University

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