Stigmatization of obesity in medieval times: Asia and Europe
By AJ Stunkard, WR LaFleur and TA Wadden
International Journal of Obesity, Vol.22 (1998)
Introduction: Prejudice and discrimination plague the lives of the obese. Early in life, children say that they would prefer as friends children depicted with missing legs or eyes, with any disability, rather than obesity. As adults, obese individuals say that they themselves would prefer to be blind or deaf, or have any disability, rather than that of their obesity.
Where does the stigma come from? It is common to blame the current cult of thinness. Dissatisfaction with one’s body weight today is so common among women as to constitute a `normative discontent’. This dissatisfaction extends to all of the developed world, and even the traditional approbation of corpulence in the developing world is eroding. Do these attitudes result from some deep-seated social disapproval of obesity and obese persons? Examples from other times and cultures, far from the cult of thinness, may be instructive.
The first example is derived from medieval Japan, at a time when there was great interest in the classification of disease and in the portrayal of specific symptoms. This interest is richly documented in a scroll dating from the 12th century, which originally portrayed 22 such diseases, accompanied by a few sentences of explanatory text. The scroll, usually referred to as yamai-zoÅshi (picture-scroll of illnesses), is a superbly crafted work, that is considered a treasure of realism within Japanese art history. At some time after its production, it was cut into a number of separate frames. One frame, housed in the Art Museum of the city of Fukuoka, depicts `an obese woman’ (himan no onna). The text that accompanies the illustration states:
Recently in the Shichijo (section of Kyoto) there was a woman money-lender who became exceedingly wealthy. Because she ate all kinds of rich foodstuffs, her body became fat and her flesh too abundant. She could not walk easily and when doing so she needed the help of her servant-girls. Even with that assistance, however, she perspired profusely, gasped for breath and suffered without let-up.
The description of the woman as a money-lender is important in understanding her plight. In ways that parallel the castigation of usury in medieval Europe, religious authorities in medieval Japan viewed the lending of money at high interest as a moral fault and one which they vigorously criticized. To them it represented selfishness and greed, and was viewed negatively in most of the Buddhist-influenced tale-literature of the period. This woman’s greediness was seen as leading to wealth and that wealth, in turn, giving her access to the rich foods that were her downfall - a downward trajectory of moral failures.