Fat: it's a nuclear issue: We knew it: fat people are bad people - do you trust Kim Jong Il not to push the button?

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The Independent Online
OF COURSE, the really big thing about Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader of North Korea, is that he is fat. Everybody who writes or talks about him mentions the fact - even BBC Television News felt obliged to describe him as 'chubby'. The best photograph shows him grinning inanely next to his late dad, his obese form militarily clad and largely concealing a distant mountain range.

This is not a trivial matter; the fatness of the Dear Leader has become a macropolitical issue. One suspiciously cheap rival newspaper ran a feature about him headlined 'The short, fat nightmare' and, in case we did not get the message, the writer rammed it home by employing the words 'podgy', 'portly' and 'plump'. The subliminal gist of the piece was that, in an ideal world, fat people should not have their stubby little fingers on the nuclear button. Or, perhaps, to misquote Randy Newman's great song about short people, fat people got no reason to live.

Consider the context of each word: fat goes with nightmare, podgy goes with unprepossessing, portly goes with debauchee and plump goes with spectre-in-waiting. The epithet chubby was used on television as a prelude to a pundit's inconclusive but ominous assertion that Kim was 'odd'.

The first point to make here is that OK, Kim is fat - but he is not as fat as Helmut Kohl. Bill not-so-thin-himself Clinton called Helmut a Sumo wrestler as he tried unsuccessfully to encircle him with his arms, and the increasingly obsessed BBC news coyly disguises its primary interest in the Chancellor by calling him a 'political heavyweight'. Plus, of course, old fat is more acceptable than young fat and, though Kim is far from young, he is perceived as the archetypal, menacing spoilt brat.

But it is clear that, in a wider sense, Kohl's fatness is morally different from Kim's. Helmut's paunch is seen as largely benign, the belly of a stable, contented bourgeois. Naturally, nobody actually aspires to look like that and the thought of him naked sends shudders. But he is, reassuringly, at one with his competent, industrious, beer-drinking nation. Remember the fatness of the German bathers in the television ad for Carling Black Label - their old lard is silly but it is defeatable by the ingenuity of the slim young Brit. Kim's fatness, on the other hand, is sinister. It is the obesity of vile self-indulgence, of pampered, totalitarian insanity.

Almost respectably we might try and justify our loathing by claiming that Kim's figure is objectionable because his people go hungry while he, palpably, does not. But really we keep mentioning it because we take it to be the disgusting outward sign of a disgusting, spoilt, murderous soul. A vicious fat-ism lurks not very far beneath the surface of things - so being a nuclear-armed psycho is bad enough, but being a fat nuclear psycho is unforgivable. And who can doubt that the Euro-leadership contender Jean-Luc Dehaene was hampered by the fact that his podginess was seen as the correlative of his hard-line federalism?

Equally beyond the pale is, of course, to be a fat woman. Independent readers will not know this, but Peter Stringfellow, a curiously wizened London club owner who still rolls up the sleeves of his jackets, has lately taken to banning fat girls from his nite spot. They are, he says, 'ugly, untidy and like loo attendants' and 'they don't know how to present themselves in public'. They, in short, give up on the healthy, disco pursuit of sex and more sex. Fat men, of course, do not give up and blithely assume that women do not mind so much about their rubbery folds.

Sure, this is all done for a splash in the Sun and the follow-up 'You the Jury' phone-in which gave Angry Sun Readers the chance to vote 10-1 against Stringfellow's 'ban on fatties'. But the fact that such a stunt can be staged at all makes the point: fat matters, fat provokes, fat, alas, is a feminist issue and you don't see size 20s on Page Three. And that, dear reader, is because, cheap stunt or not, most of the vulpine males who patronise Stringfellows think he's right. Fat women, I was told by one otherwise intelligent, tolerant, cultivated person, are finished.

Fat, you see, is physically disorienting. It threatens our balance, hygiene and composure. There was a wonderful Victoria Wood/Julie Walters sketch, set in a women's clothes shop, in which Walters, toting a toy sub-machine gun, explained to poor, podgy customer Wood that anybody over size 10 was banned from the changing room. They might, she said, sweat on the paintwork. Quite. The thinnies' fear of the fatties is that they are out of control, their bodies are awkwardly invasive and prone to involuntary emissions. They are, when very fat, frightening. As with passive smoking, fat people are guilty of threatening the well-being of those around them.

All of which is persuasively supported by a health and slimming industry intent on proving that fat people really are bad. Since being fat can be seen as choice or moral laxity - it is said that only 25 per cent of a person's obesity can be ascribed to heredity - then fatties may be freely condemned in ways that, say, blacks or Jews cannot.

'I can't believe how much life changes when you're slim,' says Sam Kurt, cover girl of Weight Watchers Magazine. As a fatty she had opted out of the good life of skiing and discos, wilfully condemning herself to an underworld of fleshy thighs rubbing holes through tights and 'a roll of flab oozing over the basque and straining against the material of the dress'. Like Kim Jong Il, Fat Sam was vile, sinister, revolting; three stones lighter, her body sings of mental health and belonging.

But here is something very strange. In spite of all the overt and covert revulsion against fat, in spite of the universal conviction that fat kills, in spite of the widespread consensus that fat people are bad people, we are getting fatter, much fatter. During the Eighties the number of obese adults rose by 50 per cent and more than half of women over 45 are overweight. You only have to travel to America, the most fat-conscious nation on earth, to see more grotesquely fat people than anywhere else on the planet. The lesson is clear: health consciousness and the desire to be slim are fattening.

Small wonder, then, that there has been a fat backlash. Fatalistic fatties, now realising that neither dieting nor anything else works, know they can never join the ranks of the good, thin folk. So they have started to celebrate their surplus flesh. Dawn French appears naked, boasting of her mid-thirties juiciness and mouthing PCish slogans about fat girls not 'thinking of themselves as victims'. In Los Angeles a cult has developed for giving up exercise and eating fattening foods, the most cogent reason given being that, what with earthquakes and riots, death is just around the corner; so why not live for today's mega-cal fatburger and fries?

Meanwhile, research shows that fat women earn 20 per cent less than thin ones. American law suits appear in which fatties sue people for discrimination. And suddenly, bingo, fatties are blacks or Jews, an oppressed minority with, of course, rights. It's time to stand up, albeit with some straining and panting, and be counted.

Soon they'll be waddling - sorry, sorry, marching - down Pennsylvania Avenue and President Hillary will be launching positive discrimination programmes - every company must have an obesity quota and maybe they could bus a few grossed-out brats from the inner cities to the complacently thin suburban schools. Wait for the appearance of an extremist group - Fat Muslims maybe - demanding that fatties shouldn't 'marry out'.

What is going on here is the usual contemporary process whereby an anxiety becomes an issue, then a cause and finally a cultural identity which must, urgently, be politically validated. The counselling mobsters will move into schools to reinforce fat identity and nervy, thin businessmen will be grilled about their fat-ism by television reporters. Stringfellows stunts will be a thing of the barbaric, fat-ist past and Kim will be defended as a hero of the glad-to- be-fat movement.

Or not. Either way fatness is one of those qualities, like gender, race or sexuality, which has emerged as an agonised nervous tic of the culture. On the one hand we want to say it does not matter, what counts is the person within. On the other we cannot help thinking it does, we cannot help turning our queasy and oppressive awareness into an issue, a cause, a matter of rights.

And the truth is we cannot escape this awareness. The nagging, coercive pressure of the health and body anxiety generators will keep us discussing fat as if it really were a serious issue. It isn't, of course. What matters about Kim is the murderousness or otherwise of his soul and what matters about us all is our insane vulnerability to the invasive machinery of prejudice, paranoia, anxiety and to the blackmail of mass-mediated 'care'.

(Photographs omitted)