The big issue

18 February 2010

Daniel Lambert. Wellcome Images
Daniel Lambert. Wellcome Images

We might have just missed Mardi Gras, but a new topic is up on Explore this week: obesity. Being overweight is widely recognised as a danger to health, but the social and cultural meaning of extra bodily baggage has changed over time. What hasn’t lessened, it seems, is our fascination with examining and portraying it.

Historically, fatness has been a symbol of wealth and power, as an Egyptian wall relief from Karnak reveals; or a step on the ladder to fame and fortune as in the case of Daniel Lambert. Gluttony was recognised as pathological in Pierre Boaistuau’s 16th century encyclopaedia of freaks, ‘Histoires prodigieuses’; nevertheless obesity continues to fascinate both observers and artists as shown from Eadweard Muybridge’s motion capture photographs of ‘a gargantuan woman walking’ to Wellcome Collection’s work by John Isaacs, ‘I Can Not Help the Way I Feel’.

Health educators have sought to persuade people of the benefits of keeping your weight under control through many different media, including film. In the 1976 Scottish Health Education Unit film ‘A Way of Life’, Jack Harrison’s overeating and aversion to exercise put his life in danger, a warning to others. For some, Winifred Holmes’ 1967 film ‘A Cruel Kindness’ offers a nostalgic look at the home comforts of the 1960s; others, like the authors of this Boing Boing post on the film, find it remarkable how much obesity has grown as a problem in the 40+ years since the film was made. If you’ve ever wondered who made this sort of educational film and suspected either health fanatics or aspiring Hollywood hacks, Steve Holland’s post on the varied life and career of Winifred Holmes will enlighten you.

If you’re feeling playful, try your hand at The Obs, an interactive learning game about nature, nurture and obesity. If you’re in a more contemplative mood, consider the case of the  bioengineered obese mouse, the outcome of Victorian mouse-fancying and genetic research: obesity isn’t a problem only for humans.