The Fat Male Body in Eating Disorders Research

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what it means to be a binge-eater who is male…and fat. Gone are the days when my bingeing was disguised by the edifices of laxative abuse, starving and exercising 5-6 hours per day so as to ‘undo’ the calories I had forced into myself in desperation. We often focus on anorexia because of how obvious it can be to see, and how deadly it is in sman-boobsuch a relatively short time. But what about the slow-killer – being obese. What does it mean to occupy an obese body? One that is against our own will, not because we just love eating so much and get no exercise.

Gilmore (1994) frames male fatness as the polar opposite of the concept of masculine beauty. Corpulent men in history could be funny, affluent, powerful, even – but never comely, never sexy. It was the lithe, hard, intricately-shaped musculature of virile youth that was a beauty to behold, not the soft, rounded, plumpness of an older lipid-filled form of bloated flesh.  In my thesis I dwelt on this treatment of what it means to be fat, in these observations of wrestlers at a public event:

Thauvin, a fifty-year-old with an obese and sagging body, whose type of asexual hideousness always inspires feminine nicknames, displays in his flesh the characters of baseness, for his part is to represent what, in the classical concept of the salaud, the ‘bastard’ (the key-concept of any wrestling-match), appears as organically repugnant. The nausea voluntarily provoked by Thauvin shows therefore a very extended use of signs: not only is ugliness used here in order to signify baseness, but in addition ugliness is wholly gathered into a particularly repulsive quality of matter: the pallid collapse of dead flesh (the public calls Thauvin la barbaque, ‘stinking meat’), so that the passionate condemnation of the crowd no longer stems from its judgment, but instead from the very depth of its humours. It will thereafter let itself be frenetically embroiled in an idea of Thauvin which will conform entirely with this physical origin: his actions will perfectly correspond to the essential viscosity of his personage.

(Barthes, 2009: 5)

What this illuminates about men who are overweight, (in this case, I’m proposing, as a result of an eating disorder, is the following:

  • men who end up with fat flesh are feminised. In men, fat is equated pejoratively with femininity, and vice versa;
  • fat is synonymous with having a bad character;
  • male fatness arouses sickness and repulsion in those that are exposed to it, it is expected that the fat man will smell;
  • this disgust is not simply a superficial emotion; it is a visceral experience that emanates from our very core (our ‘humours’).
  • Therefore, we experience the disgust bodily, not just intellectually;
  • Fatness and ugliness go hand-in-hand. In my thesis, this was referred to as ‘fugliness’.
  • Fatness is not merely ‘unappealing’ it is configured with the Grotesque, like the strikingly carnivalesque picture I’ve chosen.

I included this quote in my thesis because it captures, so thoroughly, the disgust and revulsion that overweight men feel about themselves, let alone what they fear others think of them. And to fear what others think is indeed understandable, especially if it aligns even slightly with Barthes analysis of the public at a wrestling match all those years ago.

How does a man heal from here, without holding on to his disorder? Unlike the picture, this is no laughing matter…

References

Barthes, R. (2009) Mythologies. 1957. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang.

Gilmore, D. D. (1994) The beauty of the beast: Male body imagery in anthropological perspective In: The Good Body: Ascetism in Contemporary Culture.

Image credit: Roach, J. (1999) The Spy Who Shagged Me.