If you're already crash-dieting in preparation for the festive blow-out, then the latest big idea from America may help you get your body mass back in perspective. Jerome Burne reports on why fat is beautiful, healthy and has history on its side
There's a problem with Christmas. No, not the presents or the in-laws or the office party, but the guilt. The overeating, the full-fat pies and cake, the calories, the scales, the failed resolutions. For the 70 per cent plus of the population who regularly diet or watch their weight Christmas is a major crisis. But fear not, for I bring you tidings of great joy - don't bother.

The news comes from Richard Klein, an iconoclastic, self-confessed chubby, who has taken a witty and informed look at the skinny emperors of dieting and weight loss and declared that they look hideous without their clothes. Not only that but they are about to be toppled from their thrones and fatties will once more rule the roost - better-looking, sexier and healthier - as they have done through most of human history.

In the 1890s, for instance, full busts and buttocks were de rigueur in society and Victorian Kate Mosses poured over copies of How to Be Plump by TC Duncan. According to Klein in his forthcoming book Eat Fat (Picador), the rot set in with Picasso's 1908 Modernist masterpiece Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, which tried to capture the streamlined geometry of machines and apply it to the human form.

Before then a certain plumpness had been the desirable norm. Take that icon of Ancient Greek beauty the Venus de Milo. "She's a chunk," writes Klein. "Immense round hips, great tits, this is a big girl. Her beauty lies in the proportions of her body not in its slenderness." And it's not just full-figured females who were admired, the Farnese Hercules was equally solid.

In fact the only two historical periods when thin was good in the West were the psychotic Middle Ages, when the body was the work of the Devil and the duty of all good Christians was to mortify it, often by dieting, and the beginning of the 19th century, when the neurotic Romantic sensibility held sway. Then the French writer Theophile Gautier could declare: "I cannot accept as a lyric poet anyone weighing more than 99 pounds."

But of course, today's anti-fat lobby is not rooted in anything so insubstantial as aesthetics but in medicine. The message from research is that fatties are at greater risk for heart attacks, diabetes and early death. In fact, claim some of the more fanatical anti-fat lobbyists, being overweight is the number two killer after smoking. Dr JoAnn Manson, whose study was published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that any extra pounds at all over the ideal weight was dangerous.

Klein makes no claims to be a medical expert - he is, in fact, a professor of French at Cornell University - but he says it's not hard to see the flaw. Dr Manson arrived at her conclusion by discovering that the best survival rate was found among women who were genetically thin, non-smoking and who had never had to diet. Which may well be true, but to the middle- aged woman who wants to know if it is worth trying to take off 10 or 20 pounds, this sort of finding is useless because it completely ignores the other side of the equation: the hazards of dieting itself. We've known for a long time that, despite being a multi-billion-pound industry ($32bn in the States alone), dieting doesn't work. Geoffrey Cannon told us that more than 15 years ago in Dieting Makes You Fat, not credited by Klein, who seems curiously unaware of other pro-fat campaigners such as Susie Orbach, whose Fat is a Feminist Issue explored the psycho-social issues of women and weight.

Over the past decade, despite a media blitz against fat that makes anti- smoking campaigns look like posters for a village fete, the average weight of Americans has gone up by 10 per cent and in Britain 50 per cent of the population is said to be overweight. Not only are women who diet (the majority are women) made to feel guilty, self-hating and depressed by their failure - in itself very unhealthy - but the process of dieting has been linked with infertility, anaemia, gout, kidney stones, ulcers, constipation and lethargy.

So the simple equations arrived at by the likes of Dr Manson turn out to be not so simple. Some overweight people develop problems but many don't. People differ widely in the amount of weight they put on with a given amount of food, and the amount of weight they can keep on before it becomes a problem. Such a commonsense approach does not impress the weight-watching industry, however, and the race is on to produce a drug for weight loss.

Klein points out that the stay-slim advocate Dr Manson is also a consultant for a pharmaceutical company which manufactures the bestselling weight loss drug fenfluramine. We all know enough to be wary of chemical quick fixes and fenfluramine is no exception. This week's New Scientist brings news of studies showing that giving enough of the drug to rats to make them lose weight causes brain damage. Its long-term effects on humans - and slimmers would have to stay on the drug because their weight would shoot up again when they came off - are unknown. One deliciously ironic result of a genuinely effective weight-loss pill, however, is that fat would probably become fashionable. Just as the year-round suntan became vulgar once everyone could get one, being thin would lose its stylish allure once you could buy it at Boots. In fact the whole issue of fatness and diet is riddled with these sorts of paradoxes.

Dieting is the most perfected form of consumption developed by advanced capitalism, suggests Klein. Calories have become the new currency. "You want to spend calories the way you spend money," advises the American diet expert Dr Gallo, "so eating becomes spending." The rich can afford to visit expensive restaurants but they can't afford to "spend" their calories there. So the money goes round.

Over the years other lone voices have spoken out about the madness of our demonisation of fat. Brave and cuddly souls have tried, without much success, to get designers to recognise that women sized 16 and over may also be interested in fashion. But recently there are signs that plumper times are around the corner. The model Sarah Patterson got considerable coverage recently when she came out big and proud. "I'm 5ft 10in, with size nine feet and I have done shoots as a size 10 but no more," she says. "Now I feel fit and comfortable at 11st 8lb, I wear a size 16 and I've never been more in demand."

Even Vogue, that bible of social X-rays, recently declared its intention to devote a whole issue to fatties. "The models will be deliciously voluptuous with double chins and buttocks like twin barges," said a spokeswoman. And in The Lancet last week, a new study confirmed a radical theory about the causes of heart attack. It turns out that exercise, diet and lifestyle aren't nearly so good a predictor as birth weight. A low-weight baby is at risk of heart disease, while a fat chubby one is, you've guessed it, happy and healthy. Richard Klein, we have been waiting for youn

EAT FAT - JUST DON'T ABSORB IT

Fat Magnets are the latest slimming pills and their magic ingredient comes from the shells of prawns, lobsters and crabs. "It attracts attracts fat like iron filings to a magnet" and prevents it being absorbed, the manufacturers claim. But do FAT MAGNETS work, and are they good for you? Read all about them on tomorrow's health page

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