Everyone is familiar with the image of King Henry VIII in his later years; having been a lean, athletic man in his youth, by the time of his death his weight had reached staggering proportions. In the days before his death in 1547 he has been described as being ‘hideously obese’ by the historian Robert Hutchinson, a far cry from the handsome Renaissance Prince who ascended to the English throne in 1509.
It must be remembered, however, that Henry was not entirely to blame for the drastic change in his physical appearance. A particularly nasty jousting accident in 1536 left him unable to continue his previous level of exercise due to the reopening of an old wound in his leg which thereafter required almost constant draining. Having already been reported to be getting quite large prior to the accident, it is clear that the fall from his horse put the nail in the coffin of his sporting lifestyle. Unfortunately, Henry did not adjust his eating habits accordingly, resulting in him reportedly weighing in at 28 stone by the time of his death.
Such gluttony is nowadays associated with laziness and a lower socioeconomic background; therefore there is clearly a class dynamic when it comes to obesity and perceptions of obese people. Studies from the US have shown that obesity was seven times more frequent among women of a lower socioeconomic class than women of a higher class. This could be attributed to the generally higher price of healthy, organic foods as opposed to fast food chains which offer a much cheaper, unhealthy and fattening alternative. Also of note is the fact that 24% of all dieters in the US come from only 11% of the country’s entire population – the upper-middle and upper classes. It may be reasonable to assume that this is because they are more likely to be able to afford the foods that make their diets possible.
‘Massive obesity’, as it has been termed, is not a condition exclusive to the past fifty years, or even the past five hundred years. The state of obesity has been described in ancient Greece as well, but unlike nowadays obesity in those times was associated with wealth and power rather than a reduced income, as it allowed those in that position the means to afford rich foods. One such example is that of Dionysius of Heraclea of the 4th century B.C. who was said to have become very fat through gluttony and extravagance, much like Henry VIII.
What is similar between ancient Greek times and the modern world is that, sadly, massive obesity was viewed with contempt and Dionysius himself was said to have been markedly ashamed of his condition. It is sadly true that obese people in modern Western societies are treated harshly and subjected to social stigma and cruelty. The term ‘obesity epidemic’ is thrown around by politicians and doctors alike, and one only needs to turn on the television in order to find multiple documentaries encouraging the obese to shed pounds.
Interestingly, looking at art from the Renaissance period makes it clear that larger bodies were favoured at the time. This was due to the cultural assumption that those with larger bodies had significant financial success and therefore were portrayed as being desirable or having qualities which were enviable. For example, many medieval religious paintings depicted angels as obese, as is Jesus in some works where he is portrayed as a child, most notably the oil painting Madonna with the Christ Child and St John the Baptist by Lorenzo di Credi. It may also be that paintings of notable figures of the time, such as General Alessandro del Borro, used obesity as a way to portray the immense power of these individuals. This is reminiscent of the classic image of Henry VIII in which his staggering size is clearly translated to the viewer.
Throughout history it is possible to see changing attitudes to obesity and obese people, often associated with class and financial status. This explains why obesity was more likely to be praised in medieval and Renaissance art, as it was a symbol of wealth and power, as can be seen in the case of Henry VIII. However, nowadays obesity is more likely to be linked to poverty and poor characteristics and thus this may explain why obese people are treated harshly and unfairly in the modern Western world.