Ancient and modern

Mixed messages about body weight are nothing new

8 August 2020

9:00 AM

8 August 2020

9:00 AM

Tackling obesity is the latest government initiative, universally condemned as nannying. Ask a Spartan.

From an early age, Spartan children were taught not to be fussy: to eat up their food, and not to fear the dark or being left alone. At the age of seven, boys were taken from their homes and lived together in ‘herds’, exercising bare-footed and often naked, keeping fit and learning obedience. Food was sparse, because ‘overeating produces a broad, squat frame, and laboured breathing’. Lean features ‘defined the body’s true shape’, unlike obese ones. Competitive games were fostered, winners encouraged and a proud mental resilience developed. Now that’s nannying: the full Rees-Mogg.

Other Greeks were well aware of the problems associated with obesity. The Greek doctor Hippocrates said it was conducive to other illnesses and could lead to early death; Plutarch talked of the body as a ship which must not be overloaded; the doctor Galen once treated it by forcing the patient to run till he sweated, giving him a hard rub-down, a warm bath and food, and then setting him to work all day.

But, as in our world, there were value judgments to be made about body shape. Thinness was associated with poverty and weakness, old age and illness, but was equally typical of the self-denying philosopher, contemptuous of the things of the flesh. Bad emperors like Vitellius tended to have their obesity thrown at them as markers of their incompetence. But Dionysius from Herakleia, who choked to death on his own fat, was the mildest and most just tyrant who ever lived. Statues told the same mixed story. Here fullness and fleshiness signified health, prosperity and gravitas. But while Hercules, as hero, was portrayed well ripped, he was shown with pot belly as a drunken, gluttonous sot. In women, bodily fullness was associated with fertility, but obesity with the opposite.

To deal with obesity, Hippocrates advised ‘changing one’s diet and lifestyle’. Since this requires a combination of will-power and determination beyond most ordinary humans, Spartan nannying is the answer. What other sort is there? If that fails, she will tut and tell you to have the operation.

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