Saturday, 21 May 2011


Here's William Ian Miller on the subject ['Gluttony', Representations (1997), 93]:

We are somewhat conflicted about the precise moral status of gluttony. Indeed, as we shall see, so were earlier ages, although the grounds of their ambivalence were rather different from ours. Among us the sin of gluttony is the sin of fat, whether it lolls about men's paunches (note that fat transforms stomachs into paunches, pots, or beer bellies) or else squiggles loosely about women's thighs, or clogs the arteries in a gender-neutral fashion. Gluttony for us is the sin of ugliness and ill health, but chiefly ugliness. Except for philosophers and theologians, most of us have never managed to distinguish too well between the good and the beautiful, between the ethical and moral on one hand and the aesthetic and pleasurable on the other. As a matter of practical morality, ugliness remains, despite centuries of pious exhortation to the contrary, a sin. And the very cachet of gluttony's historical pedigree as an honored member of a select group of capital sins helps relax the grip of those niggling scruples we may have acquired about blaming the fat for their obesity. There is nothing quite like the sin of fat. Its wages, we are told, is death-physical, moral, and social. The author of a best-selling how-to-raise-your-adolescent-daughter book reports that 11 percent of Americans would abort a fetus if they were told it had a tendency to obesity. Elementary-school children judge the fat kid in the class more negatively than they do the bully. In this life, the fat are damned, the beautiful (who manifestly are not fat) are saved, and we are not sure that this ordering doesn't also anticipate arrangements beyond the grave.

But this is a very recent historical development, for when the poor were thin, fat was beautiful. And when poverty came to be characterized less by insufficient calories and more by too many calories of the wrong kind, fat became ugly. In a perverse way, the poor determine fashion by providing an antimodel of the ideal body type that the rich then imitate negatively. I will discuss these issues more fully later but let me not loosen my grip on this morsel of an argument without adding the following tidbit: although not all gluttony leads to obesity, nor is all obesity the consequence of the voluntary indulgence in the vice of gluttony, we antigluttonous moralists are never quite willing to pardon fat. The burden of proof, we think, is upon fat people to adduce evidence that they are not gluttons, for fat makes out a prima facie case that they are guilty and thus owe the rest of us an apology or an explanation for having offended.
Of course this is true, something with which excuse-making (it's not me it's my glands! I'm not fat I'm big-boned!) tends only to reinforce, a kind of counterproductive collaboration with prejudice. But what if, as seems to be the case, the ethical valences of the traditional seven deadly sins are being reversed. Capitalism makes greed good; anger is harnessed by politicians and revolutionaries all the time; contemporary erotic discourse prizes lechery as a healthy component of modern existence, and medicalises or therapizes individuals for insufficiency of lust. I make no moral assertion in saying this, either way -- arguably it is inevitable. But gluttony, and its physical index 'obesity', must surely follow: in twenty years time fat will be attractive, and thin not.

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