Free to Be Fat

LONDON – The classic 1981 horror movie The Monster Club, starring Vincent Price, Donald Pleasance, and John Carradine as monsters, included a cast of cannibals, vampires, werewolves, ghouls, and a hybrid creature called a “shadmock.” Among this group of misfits, the only outcast was an ordinary fat girl.

Hollywood did not invent the concept of the fat-monster. In 1770, an English miller named Thomas Wood became the world’s first weight-loss celebrity. Promoting “abstemious warfare,” Wood was known as “Monster Miller.” At 43, he suffered from obesity, along with arthritis, gout, indigestion, and “raging thirst” (possibly diabetes), as well as almost suicidal depression.

But Wood transformed himself “from a monster to a person of moderate size; from the condition of an unhealthy, decrepit, old man, to perfect health, and to the vigor and activity of youth” by following the diet regimen described in Luigi Cornaro’s 1558 book The Life of Cornaro. Wood was highly regarded by his clients, visiting admirers’ homes and regaling them with stories of fat people suffering ghastly deaths.

The obese were not always considered monsters. On the contrary, until recently they were often revered. Historically, in most societies, obesity implied wealth and health – expensive epicurean habits and no tuberculosis, cholera, or other wasting illnesses. Only now, when fat people outnumber the lean by two to one in many countries, has obesity become the last acceptable target of public discrimination.