Richard Klein is a man on a mission: to change absolutely our perception of fat. "Despite a $40-million diet industry," the cultural critic declares, "and a whole pharmaceutical industry dedicated to the new generation of diet pills, and despite all the fierce propaganda and the transformation of fat into a kind of poison by the health, beauty and exercise industry, we're getting fatter. And my suggestion is that before people decide to try drugs, after having failed so miserably with diets, they'll stop for a moment and, for six weeks, eat fat."
Klein knows whereof he speaks. "For me," he acknowledges in the preface to his new book "Eat Fat" (Pantheon), "as for my mother and my sister, fat has been the focus of a constant, daily preoccupation. . . . Our characters have been shaped by fat and by our attitude toward it. In America, at the end of the 20th century, it has been for us, as for many others, the most sustained focus of our concerned attention, the single most important material object of meditation in our lives."
Writing in a style that is both playful and scholarly, Klein aspires to restore fat's traditional virtue as a "beneficent, productive, life-sustaining substance--a guarantee against the permanent danger of scarcity, a spur to female fertility, an insulation against the cold winds that blow into primitive houses, a sign of abundance, a token of good cheer." As he points out, "nowhere in all this talk of . . . fat food do we hear a single good word for the blessing of chocolate, the balm of chicken soup, or the comfort of a nicely schmeared bagel."
If this sounds a little hyperbolic, that's precisely the point. "Eat Fat," after all, is what Klein calls "a postmodern diet book," a work that "aspires to be something like a mandala . . . to focus intensely on fat in order to quiet the mind of fat obsession, and to liberate the self from its compulsions."
Speaking from his apartment in Sarasota, Fla., Klein explains: "One of my themes is that this is a book that wants to change its readers. I want people to take it as a kind of transference object that will allow them to change their perspective, if only for a moment."
What Klein proposes is that we accept our fat rather than rejecting it, and in the process, learn to accept ourselves. To encourage this, he writes about a variety of topics, from the etymology of fat (in the church, he reminds us, the word referred to slender silver vessels in which holy water was made portable) to what he calls "fat sex" and the transgressive eroticism it implies. He also examines the aesthetics of body image and the roots of our obsession with weight.
"One can detect," he says, "and historians have noted, a clear change somewhere in the first decade of the 20th century. Historically, this coincides with the introduction of what has come to be called modernity, and what modernity means for bodies, it seems to me, is that we discovered how much our environment and ourselves resemble machines. There's a way in which the ideal of modern man and woman has to do with aspiring to the sleekness and the vigor we identify with machines. But I'm inclined to think that we may be entering a postmodern period where suddenly that fashion ideal will be just as abruptly transformed."
This may sound like wishful thinking, but there's no question the idea is overdue. In mid-October, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that, for the first time, most Americans are overweight; meanwhile, eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are on the rise. "We've reached the point," Klein notes, "where ideals of feminine beauty have become morbid. In New York City, Kate Moss is on all the billboards, naked, advertising how to give yourself a breast cancer exam, and it's absolutely scary to see the bones sticking out of her body."
To counteract these images, Klein "proceeds on the assumption that what is has a very strong claim on being what is supposed to be." In other words, there may be some evolutionary reason why we're growing fatter, which means we should stop starving ourselves in the name of an emaciated beauty that cannot help but take its toll.
He admits his argument is less empirical than aesthetic, more a matter of social criticism than scientific research. But he notes that "most fat people are healthy, and the consequences of becoming obsessed with the idea that they must lose 10 or 15 pounds can be extreme." As for the evolution angle, the author reports, "I'm not in a position to guarantee it. But I do see that people are getting fatter and fatter and fatter--and it seems to me inevitable, at some moment, that their idea of themselves and of their beauty will catch up with the reality."