The dominant narrative- and the story that many of you expect to hear today- is that fatness used to be less stigmatized; that plump women were beautiful and plump men regarded as wealthy and important but that somewhere along the way, thinness became associated with beauty and fatness became medicalized as obesity and stigmatized as disgusting, leading to today’s skinny-loving, fat-phobic culture. There are, of course, elements of truth to this story but… it’s also way more COMPLEX than this. This week for our Complexity series, we’re covering the complex history of fatness in the premodern West.
The History of Fat: The Complex Attitudes Toward Fatness in the Pre-Modern West
Written by Marissa Rhodes, PhD
Recorded by Marissa Rhodes, PhD and Averill Earls, PhD
Marissa: The dominant narrative- and the story that many of you expect to hear today- is that fatness used to be less stigmatized; that plump women were beautiful and plump men regarded as wealthy and important but that somewhere along the way, thinness became associated with beauty and fatness became medicalized as obesity and stigmatized as disgusting, leading to today’s skinny-loving, fat-phobic culture. There are, of course, elements of truth to this story but… it’s also way more COMPLEX than this. What makes it doubly complex is that we don’t all agree about the status of fatness today so even if we COULD agree on its history, we have very different ideas about where that history ends.
Averill: Medical folks might point to climbing obesity rates and the impact of overweight and obesity on adverse health outcomes. They might urge “obese” and “overweight” people to manage their weight to improve their health.
Marissa: Fat activists might point out that the scholarship connecting fatness with poor health outcomes is incredibly flawed and that we know much less about fatness and its relationship to health and longevity than we like to admit. They also might claim that bias against fat people does more damage to their health than their actual fatness.
Averill: Fitness gurus, health grifters, and lifelong dieters might point to how much better they feel when they’re thin and how much more approving society is of their thinner selves. They may have even improved their blood work or reversed their diabetes. Don’t YOU want that for yourselves? Does anything really taste as good as thinness feels?
Marissa: Intersectional feminists and Black, queer, indigenous, and disabled activists might point out, rightly so, that weight stigma is inherently ableist, heteronormative and racist. Cue the traditionalists and hardcore anti-woke crusaders rolling their eyes.
So if we can’t even sort out how “society” feels about fatness now, what hope do we have of sorting out historical attitudes toward fatness? Good point! But we’re going to try. Even if it takes us two episodes to do it! This week for our Complexity series, we’re covering the complex history of fatness in the premodern West.
And I’m Averill.
Marissa: And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.
Averill: We want to thank all of our Patreon supporters, and especially our fabulous Auger and Excavator level patrons: Karl, Hanna, Lauren, Colin, Edward, Iris, Susan, Denise, Agnes, Jessy, Karen, Maria, and Audrey! We can’t thank you enough. Listener, if you’re not yet a patron of this show, it’s easy: just go to patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more
Marissa: This week I relied on the hard work of other scholars. It’s important that we recognize the blood, sweat, and tears that they put into this scholarship. I’m just synthesizing their works for general audiences. First and foremost, there’s historian Christopher E. Forth who wrote Fat: A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life. This was, by far, my favorite of all the works I read because of its theoretical complexity. I’m a theory gal but I won’t subject y’all to too much. But I also owe a debt to sociologist Sabrina Strings, historians Sander Gilman and Peter Stearns, and many more that you can find in the show notes. Some of these scholars (and more) will make an appearance in this episode’s counterpart History of Thin which will come out in November and pick up where this episode leaves off. We also want to clarify that we chose to use the term fat rather than any other term to describe fat bodies because that’s the term used to describe them in almost all of the periods included here, plus fat activists prefer the term for reasons we’ll get to in the History of Thin.
Ancient people’s attitudes toward fatness are not easy to categorize. Fatness could mean different things depending on the social status of the person it belonged to. For example, ancient Egyptians idealized slim bodies for women and muscled bodies for men. But mummified remains suggest that wealthy Egyptians were often obese even by today’s standards at the time of their deaths. Queen Hatshepsut, for example, was described by anthropologists as having been “hugely obese” based on her remains. Some pharaohs were depicted realistically, as old and overweight, in their tomb art, suggesting that fatness did not damage their power or reputation.
Averill: There is plenty of evidence that the ancient Greeks and Romans were disgusted by fat people. Rufus of Ephesus urged mothers to monitor their daughters’ bodies for signs of unsightly fatness. Soranus claimed that frequent coitus was a great way for women to remain slim; a lack of sex led to weight gain and lethargy.
Soranus of Ephesus felt that fatness was characterized by “an abnormal and excessive amount of flesh, which bulges out in full prominence.” He described this “disorder” as “unsightly” and “disgraceful.” A fat person was, he argued, liable to be “suffocated by his own body.” Soranus compared people with excessive flesh to livestock who were force-fed in their stalls “so that their bodies become large and bulky and puffed up.”
Marissa: But the ancients’ disgust with fatness could be overcome by other qualities. Socrates, for instance, was beloved by his students despite his corpulence and ugliness. Occasionally his students made jokes about his fatness but they resemble good-natured ribbing, as if Socrates was in on the joke. Indeed, most of them agreed that Socrates has a beautiful mind. When he was persecuted by the state for his dangerous ideas, not one surviving criticism of the philosopher used his fatness or ugliness against him.
Averill: This notion of balance makes sense because Greek classical tradition valued moderation in all things. The Romans, at least in theory, adopted moderation as a virtue. The Roman physician Galen recommended that people pursue a body mass that was “midway between thin and corpulent.” Likewise, encyclopedist Celsus wrote: “The square-built frame, neither thin nor fat, is the fittest; for tallness, as it is graceful in youth, shrinks in the fulness of age; a thin frame is weak, a fat one sluggish.” Celsus acknowledged that some people tended toward slimness while others tended toward obesity (his word, not ours) but he recommended that people overcome their natural inclinations by adopting habits that gently and moderately counteracted their bodies’ preferred state.
Marissa: Martial, our Roman friend from our episode about swearing, wrote the following:
I don’t want a slender girlfriend whose arms would be encircled by my rings, who would shave me with her bare haunch and prick me with her knee, who has a saw projecting from her loins and a spearhead from her arse. But neither do I want a girlfriend weighing a thousand pounds. I am a flesh-fancier, not a fat-fancier.
Why, Marissa and Averill, must you always bring sex into it? This time we’re just following the Greek’s lead. The Greeks saw the appetites of the stomach as intimately connected to sexual appetite. And the ideal sexual appetite was, you guessed it, moderate. This is one of the reasons why idealized Greek statues typically have small penises. Too large a penis might indicate that the figure was over-sexed or debauched. But too far in the other direction was also unsuitable. Epaminondas, a general from Thebes, bemoaned the fatness of some of his soldiers, “three or four shields would scarcely serve to protect his belly, because of which he could not see a thing below it.”
Averill: Modern people might believe that, by this, Epaminondas was referring to the soldier’s feet. But experts are almost certain he is referring to their inability to see their penises under their protruding belly. It’s a knock on fat soldiers, a sneaky implication that they were effeminate and unmanly because of their fatty “softness.” The feminizing function of fat in the ancient world is also apparent in ancient depictions of slaves who were portrayed as fat, shapeless, unmanly, and ugly. So it’s possible that in the ancient world, at least the later Roman period that revolved around strength and virility, men were particularly vulnerable to anti-fat attitudes.
Marissa: Roman Emperor Aurus Vitellius, disgraced after losing a civil war with his rival, was lambasted by contemporaries such as Tacitus who said he was a “slave to his stomach and had sold himself to luxury.” Cassius Dio wrote that Vitellius “ was insatiate in gorging himself, and was constantly vomiting up what he ate, being nourished by the mere passage of the food” and that his appetite was “‘insatiable, coarse and constant; he could not hold it in check even when he was conducting sacrifice or travelling.” As Vitellius met his ignominious death in Rome’s streets, citizens berated him for his fatness and his gluttony. As antiquity progressed, it appears as if Romans were less tolerant of the lack of self-mastery that was evident in Vitellius’s fatness. His weight was used as additional evidence against him for his other crimes. At the same time, a competent and beloved leader could be overweight and their fatness would be rendered as evidence of their virility and power.
Averill: Fatness also played into Greeks’ and Romans’ perceptions of themselves as compared to foreigners. Following their extensive interactions with Asian cultures, namely the Persians, Greeks and Romans incorporated fatness into their prejudices against the Orient. Preferring to understand themselves as the most virtuous cultures, Greeks and Romans criticized the Orient’s wealth and luxury, describing Asians as “reclining on costly couches at costly tables, delivering themselves into the hands of servants and cooks to be fattened in the dark, like voracious animals, and ruining not only their characters but also their bodies by surrendering them to every desire and all sorts of surfeit, which call for long sleeps, hot baths, abundant rest, and, as it were, daily nursing and tending.”
As “oriental” culture spread into the Mediterranean, the Greeks and Romans lamented its “softening” of their own culture. Greeks and Romans harkened back to the strict regimes of classical Sparta as a founding Mediterranean ethos that had been mutated and damaged by oriental luxury. This, of course, was wishful thinking. Few Romans, or even Greeks for that matter, met the Spartan standards. Luxury and debauchery were homegrown “problems” as well but that went unacknowledged. Soft bodies had become, therefore, the primary evidence of a decline in the quality of the people inhabiting the Hellenized world. (If you remember our Fall of Rome episode, you might recall that for centuries, historians took Romans at their word on this, arguing that the Fall of Rome was attributed to the degradation of strong Roman stock.)
Marissa: As the Christian Church solidified its hold on the remnants of the Hellenized world, fatness became part of the tension between old pagan Rome and growing Christendom. Christians weaponized the old Roman ideas about oriental luxury against Roman pagans, casting themselves as the morally upright heroes of the ancient world. It was the Christians, with their sexual and culinary abstinence, who survived the Fall of Rome which had abandoned itself to gluttony and debauchery.
A good case study is the Roman Emperor Galerius (305-311 CE) whose impressive fatness and largeness was portrayed as evidence of his power and strength by pagan authors. In the (growing) Christian world, however, his fatness was wielded as proof that he was gluttonous, unwell, and animalistic. Roman Christian Lucius Caecilius Lactantius, advisor to the Christian emperor Constantine, wrote that Galerius was “a beast, with a natural barbarity, and wildness quite foreign to Roman blood . . . His body matched his character: he was tall in stature, and the vast expanse of his flesh was spread and bloated to a horrifying size.”
Averill: Leaning into this line of thinking, the Roman Catholic church tended to glorify thinness over fatness or even moderation because hunger and thinness represented self-sacrifice, submission to God, and rejection of worldly desires in favor of Godly ones. Despite its self-congratulations in these matters, the Roman Catholic church borrowed this idea from the Hebrews as well as from Roman neo-Platonists like Porphyry who wrote: “when the body is fattened it starves the soul of the blessed life and enlarges the mortal part, distracting and obstructing the soul on its way to immortal life, and it stains the soul by incarnating it and dragging it down to that which is alien.”
Here, the Roman Catholic Church borrowed Plato’s philosophy of mind-body dualism: the idea that the mind (or soul in the Christian context) and the body are two separate entities. The body is part of the lowly, material world while the mind or soul is part of a higher order of reality. One can, however, be corrupted by the other. The fourth century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus explains the benefits of self-restraint, writing that he was happy “not to have my body swollen with things filling it inside, sick with the infirmity of the wealthy, breathing from my throat the sickly, sweet odor of filth, constraining my mind with the weight of my fat.”
Marissa: So we already covered how ancient Greeks and Romans held fatness in contempt and even likened fat people to livestock. Christendom built on this framework of contempt and dehumanization and added layers of sin, spiritual corruption, and moral failing. Tertullian even went so far as to argue that slim people could more easily go to heaven: “More easily through the ‘strait gate’ of salvation will slender flesh enter; more speedily will lighter flesh rise; longer in the sepulcher will drier flesh retain its firmness.”
Early Church father John Chrysostom demonstrates this anti-fat bulwark quite well. He wrote about a man who appeared “as if he were indeed a hog in fattening” and calls him “a spectacle of unseemliness, with nothing human about him, but with all the appearance of a beast with a human shape.” He continues: “the miserable soul, just like the lame, is unable to rise, bearing about its bulk of flesh, like an elephant.”
Averill: This Christian disdain for fatness was, perhaps unsurprisingly, gendered. Chrysostom was especially critical of fat women. For example, he claimed “in truth luxury makes the beautiful woman not only sickly, but also foul to look upon,” he continues saying that a fat woman “is continually sending forth unpleasant exhalations, and breathes fumes of stale wine, and is more florid than she ought to be, and spoils the symmetry that beseems a woman, and loses all her seemliness, and her body becomes flabby, her eyelids bloodshot and distended, and her bulk unduly great, and her flesh a useless load.” Lest we accuse Chrysostom of superficiality, he is sometimes careful to couch his criticisms in terms of health, as if his concern is for women themselves, writing “For why dost thou, O woman, continually enfeeble [thy body] with luxury and exhaust it? Why dost thou ruin thy strength with fat? This fat is flabbiness, not strength.”
Marissa: But medieval Christendom wasn’t all doom and gloom for fat people, at least wealthy ones. Obviously (based on the sources we’ve just quoted) medieval Christians associated fatness with luxury. There was good reason for this. Most medieval people were living on a subsistence diet. Malnutrition was common and manual labor was demanding so commoners rarely achieved a level of corpulence that one would call “fat.” Still, their bodies differed tremendously in size, shape, and body fat percentage. But commoners generally had more immediate challenges to their bodies than carrying excess weight. Overeating, or “feasting” was often balanced with lean periods of famine. In this environment, bodily fat increased the likelihood of survival during periodic bouts of near-starvation. Consequently, fatness and thinness became, even more than they had been, markers of economic inequality. This complexified the role of fatness in medieval society.
Averill: Fatness WAS achievable or even common for a select few. Who could afford to abstain from manual labor and, at the same time, dine on rich, caloric food and drink? Fancy people! In other words, royalty, lords, gentry, religious elites, and perhaps the occasional merchant. Medieval cooking did not require many fats or sugars so before 1600, medieval elites would fatten themselves on wine, meat, and refined breads only.
In one sense, fat men were to be envied, beloved, and admired. They were men of means, typically powerful in their communities and folks were seeking out their favor. As much as social mobility was possible in the medieval world (it was but it was rare), the “fat man” was the pinnacle of achievement. Fat men could afford higher quality food which they could eat until they were full and maybe even past comfortable fullness. Warriors were especially afforded a pass on gluttony since massive amounts of food were assumed to be necessary to maintain their strength. Fatness might indicate wealth, nobility, or strength.
Marissa: The rules may have been a little different for royalty. For example, French King Louis VI became so fat during his reign that he was unable to mount his horse (one strike against him.) Still his contemporaries claimed he was also very tall, strong, and physically active. He was also a warrior king. During one campaign Louis was said to have “summoned amazing zeal and, despite the weight of his body, led his host across steep slopes and along paths blocked by woods, paying no regard to the danger.” While records suggest Louis died from dysentery, chroniclers blamed his death on his corpulence, writing, “the weight of his fleshy body and the toil of endless tasks had quite beaten down the lord king Louis.” Louis’s French-born biographer dubbed him Louis the Glorious but after his death, his political enemies, and English chroniclers, renamed him “Louis the Fat.”
Averill: Indeed, fatness was not entirely unproblematic. Fat clergy were particularly vulnerable to criticism. Their fatness was doubly offensive, given its association with sin. Sometimes fat clergy were deployed as evidence of clerical corruption and vice in medieval and early modern society. For example, German chroniclers wrote about a monk named Adalbero living in a monastery in the bishopric of Worms. Adalbero was incredibly fat as well as disabled (the chroniclers refer to him as “completely lame in one foot.”)
Lampert of Hersfeld writes that Adalbero was “in all respects a sight to behold. For he was a man of great strength, of extreme gluttony and of such great fatness that he struck beholders with horror rather than admiration…. No hundred-handed giant or any other monster of antiquity, if it rose from the underworld , would turn the eye and gaze of the astonished populace upon himself to this degree.” By comparing Adalbero to monstrosities, Lampert is rendering Adalbero’s fatness as a disfigurement of his own making: outward evidence of his inward vileness.
Marissa: Adalbero is a good example of the DEGREE to which corpulence was admired. Some fatness was ok, but a lot of fatness, or fatness matched with disability was socially unacceptable. The key was to be strong, “able-bodied”, and slightly fat. Fatness that hindered movement made men effeminate and made warriors unfit for service. This is a point that bears repeating when it comes to women in the Renaissance. Popular histories often point to the relative corpulence of women in Renaissance paintings, arguing that it is evidence of a higher level of acceptance for fatness. It’s just not that simple.
Averill: Twelfth-century French author Matthew of Vendôme described Helen of Troy’s body, purportedly the late medieval ideal, writing that her body “narrowed at her waist up to the place where / The luscious little belly arises… that does not shake with flabby flesh.” Ideal early modern women were, indeed, thicker than the very thin women who became the pinnacle of beauty in the later 20th century. But they were far from fat. They had small waists, and dainty hands and feet. Given the nutritional standards of the time, they were likely smaller than most women today. They were certainly softer, less lean and less muscular than the ancient ideal and definitely not super thin like the Twiggies and Kate Moss’s of the 20th century.
Marissa: Still, around the time of the Renaissance (13th/14th-century Italy) something changed. In 1304, Giotto di Bondone painted one of the first artistic depictions of a very fat person in his Wedding at Cana. It was hardly a positive representation. The fat wine steward depicted in the image is greedily swigging from a jug of wine and he looks somewhat absurd in comparison to the rest of the thin, well-behaved guests. Most Renaissance representations of nude bodies (and there are a lot of them) depict people who are perhaps more fleshy than super slim but they would not have been considered fat at the time and probably would not be considered so today. (Although I have to say I question that a little since I saw negative comments about the body of Tenoch Huerta, the actor who played Namor in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.)
Averill: Back to the Renaissance. Even Peter Paul Rubens, who was known for depicting fleshy women, did not describe the feminine ideal as particularly fat. According to Forth, Rubens asserted that, “Even if fleshier by nature, the female should nevertheless display moderation in all her aspects, being ‘neither too thin nor too scrawny, neither too big nor too fat, but a moderate embonpoint, according to the model of antique statues’. Rubens thus maintained that a woman’s hips and thighs should be ‘large and ample’, her breasts smoothly separated so they ‘project moderately from the chest’. The skin of her stomach ‘should not be loose, nor should the stomach sag, but [it should be] soft and with a smooth and flowing contour’.”
Marissa: The primary goal of the Rubenesque paintings of the Renaissance were to depict women in as feminine a way as possible, avoiding any qualities that could be construed with masculinity such as musculature or athleticism. Rubens, says Forth, “explained that female proportions would ideally be ‘weaker and smaller’, for when it comes to the perfection of forms ‘woman holds the second rung after man’.” So, far from some kind of feminist utopia free from fatphobia, the Renaissance was an incredibly sexist time. When fleshiness was prescribed for women, it was in the interest of enforcing stricter gender norms, and not as some kind of kindness to fat bodies.
Averill: This is not to say that fatness was bad, per se, to the Renaissance mind. Early modern authors, in contradiction to medieval and classical authors, regarded luxury in new and exciting ways. Rather than viewing pleasure and luxury as sinful, as a foreign, oriental import, or as an affront to self-mastery, early modern writers began to conceive of pleasure as a necessary ingredient to emotional well-being. Consequently, early modern authors depicted fatness as a bodily state associated with wealth and happiness.
Marissa: Early modern physicians and surgeons reinforced this association. Laurent Joubert wrote that “slender people who are by nature choleric, when they give themselves up to rest, without worry and without sadness, and if they eat well and take good care of themselves, easily become fat, and lose their natural slenderness.” So he’s kind of saying that in this case the fatness is the cure.
Averill: But this new association with worldly pleasures and human happiness did not emancipate early modern people from anti-fat attitudes. It’s not entirely a contradiction since, in the late 1600s and early 1700s, people began to seriously doubt whether one could be both intelligent AND happy. A line in Thomas Gray’s 1742 poem “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” spoke to this phenomenon: “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” Fatness was, in the end, perceived to be the result of intemperate behavior and intemperate behavior was a sign of laziness, carelessness, or ignorance. That’s why it was compatible with happiness.
Marissa: Forth lays out this binary really well when he writes, “So, was it better to be fat and happy (and risk being perceived as a coarse, lazy and stupid sensualist) or lean and hungry (but potentially more refined, clever and industrious)?” Understanding this tension is critical to studying fatness in the eighteenth century and beyond. Think of the eighteenth century as the Big Bang of the fitness industrial complex: the dawn of “modernity,” capitalism, industrialization, consumerism, mass media, the public sphere, unprecedented political strife, a populace enthralled to the caprices of the beauty and fashion industries, and the first appearance of the cult of thinness.
There is still so much story to tell about the history of fatness but, given the extreme complexity of this issue, and our desire to do the modern era justice, we’re going to end this episode here. We’ll pick up where we left off with this episode’s counterpart, The History of Thin, which will focus on fatness in a thin-centric, modern world. It will be part of our next series coming out in November. So stay tuned!
Averill: Thanks for joining us today! We invite you to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at dig_history, or join our Facebook group – Dig History Pod Squad – for all kinds of memes and historian hijinks. If you have a comment or question or want to share some kind words with us, you can always email us at email@example.com – we love listener mail! If you’re an educator, we’ve got a compendium of episodes you can use in the classroom – and free teaching resources, including full lesson plans! – on our website, digpodcast.org. You’ll also find full bibliographies, the scripts for all of our episodes, resources, and a link to our swag store at digpodcast.org.
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