In the mid-nineteenth century, fat bodies were seen differently. There was no Weight Watchers, no Jenny Craig. The first health food movements were barely nascent, embodied in leaders like temperance minister Sylvester Graham, the father of American vegetarianism and mostly remembered for the eponymous cracker.
In the days of the Grahamites in New England, believers traveled in circuits, staying in Grahamite hotels and mingling several movements of thought. According to Stephen Nissenbaum, Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the author of Sex, Diet, and Debility in Jacksonian America: Sylvester Graham and Health Reform, Graham influenced not only temperance, abolition, and nutrition with his views, but also sexual health. His primary concerns were moderation of the twin drives of hunger and lust. As Nissenbaum explained in a recent talk, in Graham’s day, it was thought that excessive stimulation, through eating meat, drinking alcohol, or even from having too much sex with your wife, were irritating and debilitating to the body.
Graham’s early focus on the taming of desire using the tools of religion can be seen today in ministries like First Place, a Christian weight loss program, and Exodus, which ministers to Christians who struggle with same-sex desire. Lynne Gerber, a scholar in residence at the University of California, Berkeley and author of Seeking the Straight and Narrow: Weight Loss and Sexual Reorientation in Evangelical America, spoke at an Evening inspired by Sylvester Graham with local history professor Stephen Nissenbaum and host Susan Stinson, on the intersections of fat and gay bodies in the context of current, often powerfully countervailing forces in contemporary culture, surrounding both gay and fat bodies.
In a capitalist society, neither the gay body, which does not produce more workers with its sexual activity, nor the fat body, which is seen through the capitalist lens as comparatively inefficient, are valued. To better understand the body as both “biological fact and cultural artifact,” I suggest Sunny Taylor’s From the Right Not to Work: Power and Disability, a Marxist analysist of disability and work in which she writes:
This ideal of physical self-sufficiency is a byproduct of the rhetoric of economic self-sufficiency. But no one partakes in American capitalism independently; there is no such thing as a “self-made” individual. In this respect, able-bodied people should take a second look at the position of disabled people; perhaps, ultimately, their position as interdependent is not so at odds with the position all able-bodied people occupy.
The right not to work is the right not to have your value determined by your productivity as a worker, by your employability or salary.
Fat and queer people who talk about fat and gay bodies from activist perspectives, we are more highly attuned to the morality of supposedly objective advice, from doctors and ministers alike. While health may seem like a non-ideological way to talk about concerns such as mental illness, drug and sex addiction, overweight and other eating disorders, and homosexuality, solutions born from value systems carry implicit moral judgments. If you’re fat or addicted to drugs, it is because you have used food or another substance as an idol, goes the line from ministries like the ones Gerber describes, and you have taken comfort from them instead of from God.
In both First Place and in Exodus, the healthy ideal is a physical body that is somehow free from bodily desire. While Graham, in the 1840s, was concerned with the debilitating influence of volatile irritations from extreme lust and hunger, in the contemporary ministries Gerber describes, health requires the discipline of desire into silence, even into extinction.
Graham desired not to create thin bodies with his vegetarian—according to Nissenbaum, Graham was also an early locavore—and alcohol-free diet, but moderated appetite. In the worldviews Gerber describes in these ministries, there is no healthy way to have a desire, or to satisfy it. The ideal relation to desire is not a pleasurable one, but rather, a neutral one.
Exodus ideal reduces gay desire to nuisance. “God does not replace lust with lust” is the reason given why ex-gays don’t want their opposite-sex partners the same way they wanted same-sex partners. Ex-gays are considered ideal Christian spouses, according to Gerber, because they marry for love and a God-centered relationship, not for lust.
In today’s complicated cultural landscape, you can choose to punish yourself for having “wrong” or “excessive” desires, by equating fat with gluttony, gay desire with sin, or by industrializing and medicalizing those sins: you sin against yourself by causing disease, against your employer by being unproductive, against society by not creating and raising a replacement generation. For myself, I will take the minister’s advice and eat bread like his wife would have made, spread thick with butter and imbued with “natural sweetness and richness” through the love of its baker.
—Photo credit: Justin Cascio