“Events, dear boy, events”: controversies no longer happen in the spirit of Macmillan’s fearful maxim. Less bolts from the blue than coolly-crafted press releases, they slide in as implants of a cultural complex intent on narrowing the ratchet on historic norms. Among its recent squeezes is Tess Holliday, the portly Mississippi mermaid abutting the trend that being fat is “positive” on Cosmopolitan‘s October cover.
But what is fat positive in relation to? What end-game could enshrine obesity as excellent? Lifted from the Greek ideal of kalos kai agathos (or kalos kagathos in its apocopated form), the old terms for it relayed notions of the good and beautiful roughly equivalent to those the future uomo universale of the Renaissance would be judged on (i.e. good in battle and in study, in the forum and in bed). However, these ideas are being jettisoned with nothing to replace them other than a vague idea that inclusivity —the opposite of civilisation, which relies on discernment i.e. the ability to divide with good judgement— is a virtue in itself.
The Tess “controversy” could have tapped into an interesting debate. Thinkers like Umberto Eco and Roger Scruton have touched on the flexible and inflexible elements to what constitutes beauty. Harking back to classics like the Venus de Milo, other rest-stops typically include the weeping Virgin at St. Panteleimon of Nerezi and Hogarths’ gin-soaked crones; not to mention Titian’s buxom babes, so glibly used to justify obesity as sexy via Schamaesque contortions. But quite apart from the fact that Titian did not, in fact, attempt to make fat sexy —Rona Goffen’s Titian’s Women notes how the size of the artist’s ladies conveyed riffs on matrimony, the politics of public roles and visibility, the agency of the divine in crafting bodies and how the greater features of their femininity were designed to overwhelm their facile eroticism— the intellectual contest is less sidelined than ignored today.
This is because history –as few bother to read it— is slowly losing its powers to bestow legitimacy. The past is pitched increasingly as a source of barbarism, not insight. And as the market sniffs out growth, the Left is approached to act as its handmaiden, since only its ideology can presently legitimise Mammon’s fresh cuts. In this process, historically hostile pedigrees are shunted aside so that socialists can celebrate their narratives being obeyed —and capitalists cheer as the dollars hit their bank accounts. It really is a win-win for anybody with a vested interest.
In reality, Tess is morbidly obese. She either suffers or will likely suffer in the future from diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, respiratory problems, hiatal hernia and heartburn, gallstones, osteoarthritis, heart disease, infertility, urinary incontinence, depression or cancer. Evolution or common-sense has programmed most of our species to observe that such a list should stir concern rather than night emissions. But watch the TV, read the newspaper or –to the best of your ability— digest your Twitter feed, and you will find that few frame the debate on such intimate terms, despite claims for representation.
It all comes down to indiscriminate and monolithic moral statements with few keyholes into people’s lives. But the signals are there, packed among the noise, and Occam’s Razor should be taken to it liberally. I suspect, for instance, that a group photo of the Cosmopolitan editorial team’s spouses would probably reveal few sumo wrestlers or dart-players; making its staff a modern-day alternative to Puritans who upbraid public smoking as they sanctimoniously puff at their pipes.
Of course, it’s not all gloom and doom. The Left is providing valuable market narratives to many who have been historically neglected by a world that is still geared to a West that industrialised first. It is not just that Joe Bloggs at the pub can openly admit that he prefers Beyoncé to Bündchen, but African ‘fros, Mongolian cheekbones, Indian eyebrows —even vitiligo— have gained status as worthy idioms in the international forum of beauty. The difference is that not one of these differences affect health. Most would surely shame a Chinese person who defended foot-binding, pre-Columbian hipsters who demanded that we bind our children’s skulls into Geigerian shapes, or Europeans who prescribed leeching our skins to a deathly pallor. Yet somehow obesity is fine.
I should not be facetious and reduce the Cosmopolitan cover to a health issue. Like with most cultural realms, food is not really about itself; it’s part of a dance of values. Some seems more virtuous than it really is. Cereals, for instance, are sold as a healthy breakfast, though a brief look at their boxes shows that most are three parts sugar to each of grain. Chocolate enjoys a notoriety that’s disproportionate to its ingredients (especially if it’s over 50% cacao). Diets are proxies for lifestyles. I like an hourglass figure not just because I’m hardwired to, but because it expresses discipline, self-knowledge, self-respect. Conversely, and regardless of whether it’s true or not, fat folk hint at avarice and lassitude –attributes rarely propped on online dating profiles— or evidence or proneness to disease.
To an older generation, this article is worthless. Obesity in the postwar years of rations was a moral failing; a failing to properly order one’s life. You no more got fat than replaced all the violins with trombones in an orchestra. But, as Orwell famously wrote in “Facing Unpleasant Facts”: “We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”
And why? Because first principles are under attack. The paradox is that as the world at large becomes more educated and connected, most don’t have the time –or means— to keep abreast of events and books, discoveries and mindfulness. The work is delegated to opinion “markers” and “makers” and subordinated to pursuing money. As opposed to desired results, we actually become more insecure about inclusion, and the herd instinct takes over. The world is not as advertised, full of entrepreneurial mavericks and freethinkers. It brims with masses looking for the most efficient ways in which to state their orthodoxies; their belonging.
The Left should be wary of where this is heading, as well, since it may imperil control of the narrative. What is there to stop the circus soon absorbing lepers or meth-heads in the name of inclusion? Perhaps it is reactionary not to include their ghoulish semblances in beauty’s bounds? Have we privileged bright eyes, fresh cheeks and strong teeth for too long? Though mockery is a (very) short-term brake; the market is the driver behind the Left’s wheel, and the logic of all markets is the same: to integrate whatever has financial power to its path. In the mid-to-long run, this means once the Left’s sub-narratives have been consumed, they will be just as readily ejected.
The pendulum will swing its full half-circle and from the ashes of the Every-Body/Any-Body models will arise a phoenix of exclusion. Distinction and contrast will command not just respect, but response, as people strive to distinguish themselves from what had once been hip but has since grown pedestrian, lifeless and banal. Once this happens, the Left will be forced to run rings around itself in order to legitimise displays that, like physical prowess, are fundamentally exclusionary and inimical to its egalitarian line. Its complaints will amount to no more than a hosepipe in a brush-fire, as the ancient principle of excellence, or arete, rears its cyclically stylish head. All that for fifteen minutes and some glossy covers? A minor coup in a long kulturkampf.
A regular contributor to Lapsus Lima, Henry Hopwood-Phillips is a Byzantine historian, travel-guide hack(er) and book reviewer. Follow him on Twitter @byzantinepower or at Excvbitor (www.excvbitor.com) for jottings.