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Viewing Fat

April 5, 2011

When I see a fat person, I never think that in some way they’re living a life of regret, that in some way they’ve failed, or that in some way they are inferior to me or to any other less massive person.  They are what they are: the sum total of who they are.  I’d be very surprised if there were any differences between the ethics and moralities between fat and thin people.  I do think adversity builds character, so you could make a case that a fat person has to deal with more cultural judgments than a thin person does and so may have a sturdier soul.  But the problems of the fat are basically self-created and there is probably a fair amount of anxiety going on beneath the ill-fitting clothes.  Given these vagaries, how can anyone predict the emotional and moral “net-net” of any body type?

However, despite all internet fetish websites to the contrary, it is simply ridiculous for fat advocates to say that fat people are as visually attractive to the vast majority of people in our culture as their less bloated counterparts.  However, judging fat people because they happen to be fat makes about as much sense as judging someone who wears questionable clothes by their wardrobe (since I was guilty of both crimes, and am still guilty of one, my commentary here is admittedly a trifle self-serving).

Like almost everything else in our culture, aesthetics and morals have become blurred.  Popular culture lives and dies on body image.  Weekly magazines have regular sections devoted to divining the difference between too many midnight celebrity runs to Taco Bell and a potential “baby bump”.  Pop music is highly intolerant of fatties – Christopher Cross, Stevie Nicks, and the fat sister from Heart had the appreciation of their music eclipsed by the shock over their fluctuating body types.  Fashion and intellectual content become murkily combined to the point where how you look becomes who you are, and the most obvious and undeniable cosmetic aspect of who we are is our body mass.

Most of my fellow architects place a premium on image.  The parallels of the architectural profession to the fashion world are both obvious and laughably transparent.  In “starchitecture” it’s not surprising that thinness is right up there with wearing black and $1,200 eyeglass frames as a measure of professional validity to our peers. Obviously there are many great architects with a questionable BMI, but when you hang your hat on the affects of “cool” to get your street cred, you have to apply those standards to your colleagues. Being fat is at best unfashionable in the design world, which has over the last 30 years of unprecedented hype devolved into a style over substance value system.

The body/aesthetic connection was underscored for me when I designed two 8-foot high birch columns for a renovation.  They were custom turned by the best turner I knew. They were, to me, exquisite (but I had drawn them). I’d also offered up the usual complete set of design drawings and mocked up the columns on site before they were fabricated. Despite these efforts at full disclosure when these beauties arrived on the site, I received a call from the very lovely (and perfect BMI level) client who was clearly upset – ‘They’re FAT!” she said in an exasperated voice.

To me, the endomorph, they were perfect – to her, the ectomorph, they were morbidly obese. New versions at the absolute minimum diameter were turned, installed and also look terrific. The rejects found a home in my own home. Although de-massed, I shall never be as chic as my fat column rejecting clients, but those sturdy columns do feel right at home in my home. Go figure.

Anecdotally, Freud is said to advocate separating where we work from were we live (a far earthier version of this desire for separation is “Don’t eat where you shit.”), but the truth is that when you are an architect, all you are and have been usually finds its way, one way or another, into the designs you execute.

So the oddness of my baggy white shirts and on-sale 10-year-old eyeglass frames served as the appropriate garnish to my formerly fundamentally flawed fatness as seen by urban groover architects. If my work was good enough for recognition in the world (and I guess it has been) then my incorrect corporeal reality was a nice poke in the eye to those who found solace in superficiality. If you’ve taken the freshman survey course in architectural history you realize that Bernard Maybeck, H. H. Richardson, James Sterling, and Charles Moore were not fashion plate thin, and were some of the most gifted and kick-ass architects of their eras, but if you aren’t sure of your own talent, at least you can try to look cool, and the most obvious predicate to cool is thin.

In the out years, it will be interesting to see if my reduced body size changes the perception of my professional worthiness.  Even more interesting to me will be if my bodily change affects my latent, unthinking visual choices.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 14, 2011 11:39 pm

    Your column dated april 5 about being fat was well-written, as usual; there’s a lovely book called Women, Food and God, by Geneen Roth, which makes the point that anyone deserves to treat themselves with love and respect, whether they’re fat, thin or somewhere in between; the worst curse isn’t the actual fat, it’s the worry and obsession you invest in it. I would imagine that once you accept yourself, respect yourself and love yourself as being fat, you’ll find that losing weight follows of its own accord.

    We have a labradoodle living across the street from us; they’re gorgeous! His name is Mowgli.

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