Why we equate thinness with virtue


The unkindness of strangers is exposed in society’s obsession with body shape, says Lionel Shriver.

"We've come to equate a slender figure with virtue" … Lionel Shriver.

"We've come to equate a slender figure with virtue" … Lionel Shriver. Photo: Antonio Olmos/eyevine/Austral

Growing up in America, I was a scrawny, picky eater. Lunch was a pain; I’d rather have kept playing. But my appetite improved, and during an athletic adolescence I ate whatever I liked, impervious to the kilojoule-counting anxieties of my classmates.

At 17, I summered in Britain with a much heavier girlfriend, a compulsive snacker who liked to sit. After hitting multiple bakeries, we’d laze for hours in Hyde Park, as I delighted in sampling how the other half lived. My younger brother later confided the shock of meeting
my returning plane: “I couldn’t believe it! You were fat!”

So began my unpleasant introduction to a neurosis that most contemporaries had contracted years before. Over the proceeding months, I battled off nine kilograms (it was horrible). But the true cost of my dalliance with cream buns wasn’t to be counted in the fat cells that, I learned to my dismay, might shrink but would never go away. I’d lost my innocence. Lo, I could not eat whatever I liked. I was mortal, and food would never again be the same.

Thus to the outside eye the weight fluctuations of my young adulthood would have appeared modest, but behind closed doors I was constantly losing and then seizing control. Binges on bagels would be followed by fasts – first of three days, then four, then five, a week. In my early 30s, I did two fasts of 21 days apiece. We’re not talking juice fasts or 2000-kilojoule-per-day fasts, either; all I consumed was coffee and herbal tea.


Some 15 years ago, I embraced a habit that has kept my frame steady-state: give or take the odd oatcake, I eat one meal a day. By dinnertime, I’m starving; more crucially, I’m deserving. The regimen is a surprisingly successful attempt to impose my old innocence. At dinner, just as in my early teens, I eat whatever I like.

Before my fall from grace in Hyde Park, the most precious aspect of my relationship to food was not having to think about it. In retrospect, that very obliviousness must have helped to keep me slim. So perhaps one solution to our present-day dietary woes is to restore a measure of casualness about daily sustenance that’s gone missing. We think about food too much.

I am painfully acquainted with the potential consequences of poor diet. In late 2009, I lost my older brother to the complications of obesity. (Towards the end, he must have been closing in on 180 kilograms.) By nightmarish coincidence, in late 2009 I filed the only column I’d ever written in which I mentioned my brother. The piece expressed discomfort with the “fat pride movement” and its claims that one could be “healthy at any size”, when I wasn’t at all sure that feeling “proud” was the solution to my big brother’s increasingly parlous medical condition.  Later that very day, my parents rang with the news that he’d been taken to hospital. He died 10 days later.

Yet it’s because I’ve seen the social travails of a large man up close that I’m so distressed by how much mere body mass appears to convey. A couple of dire accidents in his 40s left my brother barely able to walk, so his steady weight gain wasn’t all his fault. Moreover, he was an accomplished sound engineer who’d tested as having a genius-level IQ. He was politically astute, technologically brilliant and often very
funny. But once he got big, all strangers saw was some fat guy.

What traits do we instinctively ascribe to the obese? Laziness, sloth and gluttony. Indulgence, indiscipline and lack of self-respect. If not outright stupidity, at least irrational self-destruction. We once assumed they were jolly; now we assume they’re miserable. However heavyweights might incline us to pity, that sympathy evaporates the moment they encroach on our space – crowding our bus seats, spilling over our airline armrests. Notorious for commanding more than their share of resources, they’re apt to draw glares in hospital waiting rooms. So they’re selfish, too.

What we project on the skeletally skinny isn’t much kinder. Especially if they’re women, we take it as a given that these poor creatures are every bit as obsessed with food as the fatties; they just don’t allow themselves to eat any, providing their personas with a bitter undertone. They’re probably a little crazy – more terrified of treacle tarts than of tarantulas. We associate the killjoy-thin with imperiousness, haughtiness, joylessness and vanity. They think they’re so great, when oftentimes they look awful. One presumption’s a safe bet: they still wish they were even thinner.

But we’re now so universally screwed up that we make a raft of assumptions about strangers whose size qualifies as perfectly average. Even “normal” weight folks probably greet sticky toffee pudding not with appetite, but anxiety. We’d expect them to put off vital doctors’ appointments for weeks on end purely to avoid stepping on a scale. Doubtless they take any little overhang at the belt as an indictment of their very characters.

For we’ve come to equate a slender figure with virtue. A trim, fit physique makes you not only healthy and attractive, but admirable as a person. In imputing moral qualities to dimensions, we also associate a slim silhouette with a host of enviable qualities that have nothing to do with build: self-possession, self-esteem, determination, drive, single-mindedness, power, even career success.

After all, if someone you haven’t seen for a while shows up noticeably thickened, what are the implications? (Should this be an acquaintance you don’t like, it will be hard to resist a malicious glee.) You’re apt to suspect that a marriage is going south, that a work situation is deteriorating, that this person is unhappy. On that last point, you might be right.

For the biggest victims of this bizarre equivalence between thinness and goodness are ourselves. It’s heartbreaking how many people hate themselves sometimes over gaining just a few extra kilos.

I don’t refer only to other people. last year an elderly neighbour remarked that I “used to look about 12”, but now ... I prodded nervously, “I look 13?” No, she said severely: I’d put on weight. I hadn’t put on weight. She wasn’t used to seeing me with my hair down. But that single careless remark tortured me for weeks. Is that pathetic, or what?

Yet most of this mental hand-wringing fails to curtail what we eat. To the contrary, by putting chow front and centre in our minds, fretting over our intake must make us consume only more. Even the heads of the otherwise well-adjusted have been colonised by muffins. Previous to today’s weight mania, surely comparably solid, productive individuals thought about something else.

Historically, it wasn’t that long ago that we were slaves to our stomachs – farming, foraging and hunting the livelong day to survive. The great advantage to widely available, affordable food really ought to be release from this unrelenting struggle to feed ourselves. Instead, we now devote the same energies trying to not feed ourselves, and have therefore installed a whole new slavery. 

Lionel Shriver’s new novel Big Brother is published by HarperCollins and is out now.


  • How true. Food is for fun and celebration. Not something that should control us.

    Date and time
    May 09, 2013, 12:38PM
    • Of course thinness is a virtue. It shows you have self control. I used to work in a food shop and I noticed fat people buying junk food and skinny people buying healthy stuff. I have no respect for fat people who can't control themselves

      Date and time
      May 09, 2013, 5:44PM
      • I don't think someone with such a disordered attitude towards food is in a position to be giving advice on this subject. One meal a day? She can't eat until she "deserves" it?

        She's a middle aged woman torturing herself about whether a neighbour thinks she's gained weight FFS. This is not what adulthood is about.

        Old bag
        Date and time
        May 09, 2013, 9:15PM
        • Just wait until you get older! Specifically, wait until you're older with arthritis. If you're waif-thin, the whole world bends over backwards to be helpful. If you're naturally short and stocky, there can't possibly be anything wrong with you -- you're just lazy.

          Feeling bitter today
          Date and time
          May 10, 2013, 8:11AM
          • Lionel Shriver you are brilliant!

            Date and time
            May 10, 2013, 9:15AM
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