Happily, one antidote for stress also happens to be an antidote for obesity — exercise.
And it is by encouraging physical activity that obesity researchers say the greatest hope lies. Sometimes, small gestures make a big difference.
Fat in AfricaClaire Gorman 05-09-2008
There are plenty of people in the developed world who are downright scathing about fat. If you listen to the harshest critics fat people are viewed as ugly, a tax burden and a public nuisance. But there are parts of the world where this is not the case. In most of Africa, big is not only beautiful, it's often considered to be a cultural right.
Alberta Opoku, who is originally from Ghana, works on the Radio Netherlands Worldwide's programme Bridges with Africa. She says fat Ghanaian women are seen as both wealthy and attractive. The local culture reflects this. "A lot of the traditional clothes that Ghanaian women wear, weather they are from the north, the south, the east or the west, are mostly designed to suit big women much better than thin women."
Senegalese artist Oumar Mbengue Atakosso agrees that West African men find fat women appealing. Oumar himself has created a series of bronze sculptures and bas-reliefs depicting curvaceous African women. He says: "I don't want to generalise but I'm sure that in Senegal, men like beautiful, fat women. I don't say obese, but really big women."
Looking for larger women
Mr Atakosso says fat people in Senegal are treated with "respect, consideration and a lot of attention." Ms Opoku supports this view, stating that some African men actively go out and look for larger women. "If he is looking for someone who can take care of themselves then of course he would go for a bigger women than someone who is thin because obviously if you are thin then you are not eating well. You are not taking proper care of yourself." But things are not quite the same for a fat African man, Ms Opoku says. "Being big or fat is a sign of wealth for both men and women. That goes both ways. Well, having said that: if a man is too big or too fat it also means that he's lazy."
The cultural right to be fat
Ms Opoku explains that in countries such as Mauritania, women are actively encouraged to be fat. "Young girls are forced to eat tonnes and tonnes of food just to be fat because fat. It means that they are eligible for marriage and that they come from wealthy backgrounds." Similarly, Mr Atakosso also says he has seen African women using various techniques to increase their size. "During the 80s or the 90s, I think, I saw women taking pills to be fat. These are drugs that allow you to eat a lot and sleep a lot."
Compared to Africa, people in the Netherlands "look down on" fat people and view them "negatively," Ms Opoku says. While both Ms Opoku and Mr Atakosso agree that there are health concerns that come with being fat, they both find that Africans have a cultural right to be fat.
Until recently, the furthest worry from most human hearts was too much body to bear. Calories were scarce, physical labor was hard, and most people were as lean as greyhounds. "For the millions of years of our evolution, there wasn't much food around, so our bodies are designed to keep from losing weight," said Dr. Fitzgibbon at Northwestern. "When we start to lose weight, our metabolism slows and our appetite increases — we burn less and we want more." But the body is not nearly as efficient at shedding excess weight. Some evolutionary biologists believe that the difficulty of getting enough calories is one reason why humans have a preference for rich, fatty foods — if there's a choice between a marbled hunk of fawn thigh or a handful of rice, our sinewy ancestors did well to go for the meat.
That may be one reason some of the earliest depictions of human beings are fabulously fat. A number of the famed Venus figurines, palm-size statuettes carved between 20,000 and 30,000 years ago, depict women with corpulent thighs, buttocks, breasts and bellies, and estimated body mass indexes well over 30. As a rule, archaeologists say, only the most important elements of ancient life and society were immortalized in stone, suggesting that the obese women who served as models for the figurines were either royalty, or were accorded superhuman powers — specifically, the power never to go hungry.
Among the ancient Greeks and Romans, attitudes toward body weight became more complex, said Dr. Barton J. Blinder, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California at Irvine. On the one hand, plumpness, particularly in women, was seen as desirable, a sign of well-being and fertility, and the goddesses were often depicted as hefty matrons. On the other hand, early physicians like Hippocrates and Galen recognized that too much fat was unhealthy. Aristophanes, the comic playwright, wrote in the fifth century B.C. that obese men were "bloated, gross, and preseniled fat rogues with big bellies and dropsical legs, whose toes by the gout are tormented."
The early Christians also looked scornfully upon the obese, counting gluttony as one of the seven deadly sins. In some medieval paintings, sinners were shown as fat and Christ's disciples as slender. And whether in Gothic art or its Victorian recrudescence, the attenuated, El Grecoesque morphology has often been equated with holiness, the sign of an ascetic life that eschews the carnal pleasures of the body in favor of the transcendent, fat-free pleasures of the soul.
To the common folk, however, the lure of portliness beckoned. "On balance, until fairly recently many societies put considerable value in plumpness," said Dr. Peter N. Stearns, the provost of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and the author of "Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West." "To be a good 20 to 40 pounds above what we would now consider desirable was seen as a sign of prosperity," Dr. Stearns said. "Thin people were regarded with suspicion, as ugly. To say that Cassius had a `lean and hungry look' was not a compliment."
The artist who best captured the sensuality of corpulence was the Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens. A Rubens woman, according to the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark, is "plump and pearly," while to Richard Klein, author of "Eat Fat," she is a "luscious fat girl" who stands for "the whole weight and wealth of human nature." Oh, to be Rubenesque.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, Dr. Stearns said, "there were more programs to help people gain weight than the reverse."
In non-Western cultures, fatness often was associated with high status. Polynesian kings were frequently quite fat, while the girls of Banyankole in East Africa were fattened in preparation for marriage like so many Christmas geese. Dr. Watson of Harvard said that when he began doing field work in Hong Kong in the 1960's, women who were slender would not have been marriageable. Neither would highly muscular young men. "Men who were heavily muscled were considered the lowest of laborers," he said. "They were the ones who had to lift backbreaking loads for a living, and their prospects were dim."
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