The curious appeal of 'power paunches'

Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy.

Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy.

My first boyfriend - and I use the term lightly since we went out for four days and that consisted of holding hands on the cricket pitch until I declared it was not him but me - was really rather fat.

He was also very funny. He was what you might imagine when someone said the sentence "jolly fat person" and it didn’t take long before someone took my spot on the cricket pitch. Since then my crushes have included Tony Soprano, Jack Donaghy and Bill Clinton. All of them powerful, charismatic men who, at the top of their game (pre-veganism and yoga teacher wives, obviously), were quite profoundly round. They are the proud owners of “power paunches”, a common sight on men of a certain age and status.  

As noted by Sean Macaulay - who coined the term power paunch in the late '90s when, to his shock, he had sprouted one himself points out - there are perimeters to the power paunch. It’s not common old fat, you see.

Jams Gandolfini as Tony Soprano with Edie Franco as his on-screen wife Carmela.

Jams Gandolfini as Tony Soprano with Edie Franco as his on-screen wife Carmela.

“The true paunch is reserved for men of power at the height of their power. All the greats have one from George Washington to Tony Soprano. Once they leave office, the paunch is usually shed quietly, a la Bill Clinton,” writes Macauley in the Daily Beast.

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Of course there is much to say on the unfairness of men being allowed to loosen their belts at lunch, to strain against their buttons, to be slightly breathless at boozy lunches and still remain both powerful and attractive. Women have a much tougher and more salad-filled time of it.

As writer and feminist Laurie Penny noted in the New Statesman on the futility of "real beauty" messages: “In politics, in business and in the arts, accomplished and powerful men are free to get fat and sloppy, but women can expect to be judged for their looks if they dare to have a high-profile job... We’re either too unattractive to be tolerated or too pretty to have anything worth saying.”

The power paunch also proves that there are different strains of fat. Fat is not only the last acceptable form of discrimination but also acts as a handy barometer of classism. The kind of fat that is the pitfall of the good life of business lunches, vintage Dom and hatted restaurants harks back to a time when paunchiness was considered a sign of wealth. The miserable kind of fat as the result of poorness and potato chips is sneer-worthy. And the power paunch also proves that there is a vast difference between fat men and fat women.

My colleague Candice Chung noted this last year in her discussion of the reactions to the introduction of “Fat Betty” in season five of Mad Men.

“Although ‘fattism’ can affect both sexes, there’s a distinct feeling that women are more vulnerable to harsh judgments," she wrote. "The power of ‘fat’ as an insult is brilliantly summed up by feminist Caitlin Moran, in How to be a Woman, ‘It’s not just a simple, descriptive word like ‘brunette’… It’s a swearword. It’s a weapon. It’s a sociological sub-species. It’s an accusation, dismissal and rejection.'''

But there’s something more to this argument than whether women should be allowed to have power paunches too. They should! It’s to do with, as Laurie Penny puts it, women not being allowed to take up too much space, and not merely literally.

Women must be thin and beautiful and must not upset the order of things too much lest we unsettle people with our opinions, or our body shape, or our refusal to buy in. And that’s why powerful men can be fat, because they don’t have to play that game.

What we should be fighting for is for women to be allowed to have the personality traits of men in possession of a power paunch – aggression, ruthlessness, the ability to not care, or have to care, what other people think. Imagine how much world domination - or in the very least, successful power lunches - could happen if fat wasn’t even on the agenda, whether one is in possession of it or not.

42 comments

  • Hmm, don't agree. I think society is going the other way. Women have to keep the body tight, and now men do too. Hasn't it been proven that a man with a gut would get passed over for the lean man?

    If the power paunch belongs to the man on top, then once women get on top, they can have the paunch too. Exhibit A Gina Rinehart.

    Commenter
    butterball37
    Date and time
    May 16, 2013, 12:14AM
    • Exhibit B: Clive Palmer - often derided for his paunch

      Exhibit C: James Packer - went so far as to get surgery to reduce his paunch. You'd think that someone who inherited a billion dollar empire would be immune to such a thing. But he's not.

      Men are not only judged on their wealth and power but on their looks.

      Commenter
      Bender
      Date and time
      May 16, 2013, 9:11AM
    • I had not thought about this before, but I think you are right. Overweight men are subject to the same sort of judgement and riducle as larger women. I really do not think there is much of a difference. For public figures, if anything, it is more common to poke fun at men's physical characteristic than women's.

      On the other hand, in terms of getting dates, it probably is easier for a rich, successful, paunchy bloke than for an equivalent woman.

      Commenter
      AdamC
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      May 16, 2013, 1:11PM
    • Adam - Agree, but the qualifier is that the women that rich men with paunches may be able to get (excuse the word get) may well be of a lower caliber than the women that fit men can get - the bimbo with the rich old man cliche. Thinking women who are also attractive (the Alpha Females) are much harder to pull if you are a chubby guy and the same is true for the ladies (Alpha dudes don't need to accept a larger female because they have other options).

      Commenter
      Pablo
      Location
      Perth
      Date and time
      May 16, 2013, 2:23PM
  • Men value a womens appearance but have little interest in how much power or money they have.
    Women value their partners wealth and power higher than than appearance.
    ( A study by RSVP men put what job their partner has ranked very low, I think in the 80's looks number 1, women put job at 3, looks lower)
    And the different values of the sexes continues.
    BTW society should never put people on a pedestal for damaging their own bodies

    Commenter
    Average Guy
    Date and time
    May 16, 2013, 9:04AM
    • And what do you think causes these values to be held?

      Commenter
      Feminist
      Date and time
      May 16, 2013, 10:18AM
  • Women are attracted to power, fame and money, while not many men are.

    Men are generally just attracted to physical characteristics.

    "All of them powerful, charismatic men who, at the top of their game"

    That's the reason men work so hard to become powerful and at the top of their game, because they know the ladies will follow.

    Commenter
    Budz
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    May 16, 2013, 9:08AM
    • "Women are attracted to power, fame and money, while not many men are."

      Yes, that explains why we've seen so many female Prime Ministers and Presidents, and broadrooms around the world are so full of women CEOs that men are lobbying governments for equal treatment.

      Commenter
      Jace
      Date and time
      May 16, 2013, 3:36PM
    • Hilarious. I earn my own money & lots of it, so I could choose a hot husband with brains and a sense of humour without having to care what he earned. A-types suck. My husband & I are both fit without guts, after 20 years' marriage. We agree it's unfair to turn into a slob when that's not what we married.

      Commenter
      Carmine
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 16, 2013, 4:03PM
  • For whatever reason, weight (and looks in general) is not a prime consideration for most women. It is for most men. The result of this imbalance is reflected in our society.

    Commenter
    Peter
    Location
    Oz
    Date and time
    May 16, 2013, 9:09AM

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