What do you mean, our ancestors weren’t fat?

I’ve read a few times, around the internet, people who have asserted that “our ancestors weren’t fat”, and therefore, obesity cannot be hereditary.  I’ve been wanting to examine the evidence of this for a while.

The movie Fiddler on the Roof,released in 1971, was set in Czarist Russia 1905. One of the lines in the song “If I Were a Rich Man”, Tevye sings “I’d see my wife, my Golde, looking like a rich man’s wife, with a proper double chin” (about 2:41 into the video).

That’s a fictional character singing about fictional life in fictional Russia, you say?   Okay, I can understand that.  How many times has Hollywood gotten something wrong historically because it made for better pictures (don’t even get me started on the clothing in different movies set in the middle ages, we’ll be here all year).  So, how about some paintings from artists in the middle ages? 

Goldsmith Jorg Zurer of Augsburg

Goldsmith Jorg Zurer of Augsburg

This was painted by Christoph Amberger in 1531.

Portrait of a Lady, Jacopo Amigoni 1682-1752

Portrait of a Lady, Jacopo Amigoni 1682-1752

She definitely has the “proper double chin”.

Small Female Portrait, Angelo da Siena, painted between 1447-1456

Small Female Portrait, Angelo da Siena, painted between 1447-1456

Definitely a double chin, definitely not a skinny woman.

I’m getting all these links from The Web Gallery of Art, and am only halfway into the A’s.  I’ll stop at three pictures because any more and I know this will eat up the loading time of people on dial up.

One of the things I know about artists in the middle ages is that they were paid to make their subjects look good.  Much like commercial artists of today, if they didn’t make their patrons (customers) happy, they didn’t get paid.  They could even lose the patronage of powerful people.  So, painting these people fat shows that this was a desirable trait.  The “proper double chin” Tevye sings about in “If I Were a Rich Man”.

The point I’m making, here, is some of our ancestors were fat, just as some of us are.  People who think obesity just started in the 20th Century haven’t looked into history.  While I know that not everybody is a history geek like me, or likes geeking out at museums or on museum sites on the web, it’s very easy to find out what were common body types in ages previous to ours.  Paintings I didn’t post, but you’ll see if you go to that web gallery, will show thin, normal and fat people, in all walks of life, in all socio-economic standings.

Much like you see, in real life, today.  Amazing how we really haven’t changed a lot in a few hundred years.

13 Responses

  1. Most of us who are fat can look not only at the lovely art of hundreds of years ago, but also our own family history, to the personal ancestors of a hundred or more years ago who were fat. My grandmothers, both born in the 19th century, were fat, as were their mothers & grandmothers. Many of them also lived well into their 80’s & 90’s being fat; in fact, it was considered a good survival trait. The majority of my relatives have been fat &, no, we haven’t all lived together or eaten or exercised the same way.

    The original figure of the Venus of Willendorf is at least 30,000 years old & I seriously doubt that she would have been carved as fat if there had been no fat people around to look at. We have always been here, but there haven’t always been quite so many people who were hellbent on wiping us off the face of the earth. And God KNOWS that the world as it is now has no more pressing issues to worry about than the size of people’s waistlines!

  2. Patsy makes a great point. I’ve got an old photo of my Italian great- grandparents and their children (my grandfather was the youngest, a mere toddler at that point): here is a family from the Aquila region of Italy, mountain-folk, and my great-grandmother is at least 6′ 0, and about 300 lbs. Like…! 😉

    (oh, and one of my grandaunts in the picture? looks a lot like me).

    It’s the same thing on the other side of the family. Old pics from the 1910s of my English ancestors – all “plump,” and fairly tall.

    I ask, how in the heck did poor immigrants during the Industrial Revolution remain plump if not because that’s the way their bodies tended to be in the first place?

    In fact, one could make the argument that in America at least, our ancestors who survived the Industrial Revolution would be more likely, on average, to be a bit more *famine proof* than their counterparts.

    Which leads the issue of fat to class, yet again. You see, that’s really the issue — that’s all it’s ever been. Defining the characteristics of a lowly or deviant class, based on some of their coincidentally shared characteristics, like being more famine-proof than richer people, who never would have to worry about a famine (unless it was self-induced).

  3. As somebody whose forbears lived the life of Tevye and his family, (my great grandparents arrived in the UK during the period in which Fiddler On The Roof is set), I can assure any nay-sayers that my peasant ancestors were quite categorically fat. It infuriates me when the Obesity!Crisis! flobby attempt to justify their insane fear-mongering by insisting there weren’t any fat people in the good old days. As if all societies, ethnicities, cultures and social classes have lived identical lives since the dawn of time – frolicking slenderly together in some mythical rose-tinted Garden of Eden.

    Likewise anyone who claims fat is not hereditary can kiss my flat arse – which, along with my slim legs, broad shoulders, huge rack, very round midsection and sluggish metabolism – I inherited from my father’s side of the family, as one glance at any family photograph will attest. My family didn’t get fat once they settled in Glasgow and London, they were fat when they arrived. Decades of learning to survive on very little in immensely harsh conditions will do that to your metabolism. When I first discovered set-point theory it made immediate and total sense to me.

  4. what’s really interesting about the venus of willendorf is that there’s a theory right now that she was used as a pregnancy guidepost. i took an archaeology class last semester and we read an article about the possible meanings and uses of the this particular venus. i can’t find the article anymore, but it was fascinating, especially the pictures comparing the views a pregnant woman has with the same view of the venus (ie, looking down over breasts and belly, or looking backwards over the shoulder towards the butt).

    sorry to be rambly but i’m hopped up on cold medicine.

  5. What’s fascinating about the Fiddler on the Roof example is that what he’s saying is he wants enough riches so that he can afford enough hearty, fattening food that his wife could afford fatness calorically. (I doubt calorically is a word, but stick with me.)

    Ultimately, what’s the most desirable trait seems to be what trait demonstrates wealth the most prominently? These days, having a thin, youthful body even as you age is proof that you have money to burn, at least according to the cultural narrative. We see fat people these days as fat due to slobbery and low socio-economic standings. Too many cheeseburgers!

    In the past, food that was nutritionally dense and caloric was rare and expensive! The poor would be more likely to be thin because they were starving!

    It just goes to show how the perception of fatness (like many other things) can be used as a tool of control by the upper echelons of society. Whatever the fat can afford to be, well, that’s what EVERYONE should strive for.

  6. I just finished Katheryn Shevelow’s new book “For the Love of Animals,” which highlights the rise of the British animal rights movement, for my grad class, and I came across a rather interesting figure. Dr. George Cheyne suffered from multiple ailments — fever, dizziness, headaches, depression, etc.. — and eventually reached some 450-pounds. He treated himself with dangerous remedies of mercury and laudanum, which inadvertently caused him to “melt away like a snowball in summer,” but didn’t address his larger medical issues.

    He later deduced that it was a diet of meat and alcohol that was to blame for his ailments and became what the book calls “eighteenth-century England’s most famous vegetarian.” He regained his health and happiness by following a vegetarian diet, and also his robustness ( a song poking fun at him alleges that his waist size was 135 inches around). He died at the ripe old age of 73.

  7. It has always been my opinion (well, not mine exactly I am sure I stole it from somewhere I just don’t know where) that was is considered a desirable attribute is directly related to the level of wealth one needs to obtain it. For instance, suntanned skin used to be a sign of a lower status (outside working all day) and undesirable. Then it became a desirable trait (don’t spend the day in the office, but on the beach in Aruba). The same is true with fat. When food is hard to come by and most people do a lot of physical labor a rounder form is more enticing. When food is plentiful and exercise demands extra free time “thin is in”. Of course this only takes into account why the trait is desirable. It certainly doesn’t mean that all of us fatties are that way because we are sitting on our butts stuffing our faces at the nearest all you can eat chinese buffet. What it does do though is remind us that beauty is subjective and fashion is fickle. Depending on when we were born we could be the pinnacle of beauty or the object of scorn. So lets remember some of those double chinned beauties next time we are accosted with the newest fashion magazine at the grocery check out.

  8. I always find Brueghel’s peasants intriguing. A lot of them are quite plump, and you can safely assume that Flemish peasants back then probably had trouble getting enough to eat, so it means one of two things: either he was idealizing them as fat, or many of them did indeed have that build despite food shortages. His Triumph of Death contains both a lot of thin folks and a lot of actual skeletons, which I think tells you all you need to know about the attitude to fat and thin at the time.

    Coming more up to date, I have a collection of old photos and cabinet cards I use for collage, and there are people of all shapes and sizes – both in the cabinet cards, which are of people rich enough to pay to stand in the studio in front of the aspidistras looking bored, and in the ordinary shots of working-class families on the beach, later on when photography became cheaper. Even in the supposedly skinny-obsessed 1920s, there were some quite large ladies around – and that’s bearing in mind that they wore rather more punishing underwear back then, meaning some of them might be a dress size or two bigger than they look.

  9. I recently visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where they have a large gallery of fashions from the past. You can see with your own eyes that while a lot of the 20th century stuff is for the fashionably slim of this era, a lot of the older clothing is made for people who were at the very least plump or chubby. It can be hard to tell, but I’ve a dressmaker’s eye and there were definitely dresses made for people who’d wear a modern 14-16. Beautiful, amazing dresses! There’s even a mid-Victorian wedding gown that was worn by a woman who must have been at least 5′ 9″ and about a 16, even corsetted.

  10. Dear puellapiscea:

    You beat me to my comment…darn it!

    All I can add is this:

    1. My understanding is that in 19th century America being heavy was a sign of success in men, for the reason you stated, and wealthy men in fact felt no compunction about ballooning, as evidenced by photos of them I’ve seen.

    2. Today obesity among really poor people is known to be very common because junk food is cheaper than nutritious food. The more the poor run to fat, as is indeed is visually apparent in many of the apparently poor walking ’round among us, the more obesity will be scorned. After all, the LAST thing anyone in the USA wants is to be poor or even look like they might be poor–that old Protestant ethic, ya know!

    3. These days in the US we are experiencing declining income among working class people, and many are falling into poverty (my evidence: statistics I’ve read, plus many comments I’ve heard from “soup kitchen” managers that they are getting ever more clients). The more this decline happens, the more folks slightly higher on the social scale will fear also falling into poverty, and the more they will defensively scorn the indicia of poverty–these days, especially, FAT.

  11. Beauty has ever been in the eye of the beholder, and in my sociology class this was very evident. While the American society looks at fat women as undesirable, in many countries thin women are regarded that way.

    Fat is a sign of prosperity in some places, and as an indication of poverty in others. I come from a family of peasants, and as such our metabolism seems to hold on to calories and fat cells for dear life. This served my mother well when she was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer and lost fifty pounds during chemo. She had it to lose, you see.

    I’m rambling. Sorry. Very thought-provoking post, as usual. Well-written and nicely done.

  12. I am always amazed that people forget that the current half-starved look is not a historical standard. Even tho’ I am generally viewed as a small woman, here in America I am on the line to being called “technically obese” because I weigh 145 instead of 125. Well, they can kiss my round 55 year old ass. I LIKE women round….gods, I want to capture Angelina Jolie in her latest movies, tie her to a chair and force feed her till she doesn’t look like an Auschwitz victim any more.

    But I think one of the saddest moments of my life was stopping in an Ikea cafeteria to speak to a woman with her family. I stopped to tell her how beautiful she was…and she was, just luminous like some of the lovelier Madonna paintings from centuries ago. Sadly, this horrid suspicious look came across her face as I spoke… if I was going to shift gears and make a bad joke at her expense. I’d have liked to kick someone for making her feel that way even momentarily…..but damn, my foot would wear out.

  13. If you ever want to do something fun, go to wikipedia and look up all the composers especially the biggies, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms. All of them have portraits at various points in their lives and with family. In the case of Bach you can see a portrait of him at four different points in his life, his father and four of his sons. You know what? Bach was a fat baby, a fat young man, a fat old man and a fat man. His father was fat, his sons were fat. This was in the 17th century through 18th century. You can see that the Mozarts were plump and that Beethoven looked the same from the time he was 19-60. I heart the music history articles for this reason.

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