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In a Word

When plump was a pleasing word

It was only at the turn of the 20th century that a high enough proportion of Westerners had so much food that thinness resulting from self-denial became the standard of beauty. 

Detail of Botero painting
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  • Melissa Mohr

Recently, I finished a route in the rock climbing gym and someone said to me, “That’s pretty stout!” I was confused and maybe a little insulted. Was he, out of the blue, calling me fat?  

My reaction had a lot to do with how fraught the issue of “fat” is in American society today. On one hand, we have very negative attitudes about it. Obesity is considered a grave health concern, and standards of beauty skew very much toward the thin. But on the other, there is a growing “body positive” movement that encourages people of all sizes to see their bodies as beautiful.  

The word thick, which we looked at last week, goes along with this movement; it is a wholly positive term that celebrates “bigger” bodies. Fat, in contrast, is a word that is inherently stigmatizing.

A commonly accepted historical narrative holds that in the past, fatness was culturally appreciated. It was a sign that you were healthy and wealthy enough to eat three meals a day. It was only at the turn of the 20th century that a high enough proportion of Westerners had so much food that thinness resulting from self-denial became the standard of beauty.  

Do the terms we used in the past to talk about “fatness” support this story?

In the 19th century, doctors advocated “plumpness.” Dr. T.C. Duncan’s 1878 guide, “How to Be Plump,” describes this state as beneficial both to one’s health and to one’s looks and is filled with advice about how to “get fleshy.”  

Plumpness, though, was a state of moderation. If you got too fleshy, you became corpulent, and this was considered to be unhealthy and unattractive.

The word fat itself combined these dual senses from its very first uses. A 13th-century historian praised King Henry I, describing him as a “fair man ... and fat also,” while the ideal early medieval woman was “fat, tender, and beautiful.” Yet fatness was also moralized, associated with the sin of gluttony.

As these words show, we have always been of two minds about fatness. In the 20th century, though, its positive aspects largely dropped out of the picture. The body positive activists who fight “fat-shaming” are in a way restoring the balance we have lost.       

As for stout, I had forgotten that it isn’t just a negative term for “short and fat.” It also means “brave,” “determined,” “strong,” and “vigorous,” as in “a stout defense.” King Henry I could have been stout as well as fat. Among climbers, a stout route is a tough one. It was a compliment.

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