JENNY-SAVILLE-GLEN-LUCHFORD3Jenny Saville & Glen Luchford. ‘Closed Contact.’ (2003.)

The sentence ‘she lifted her belly with her own hand and then pushed her husband inside herself’ is startling, perhaps, in its frank acceptance of the practicalities of sex when a rotund stomach is in the way, and it is an undeniably comical image. But sex is funny, and the attempt to conjoin two bodies of different proportions requires logistical manouevring. Yet the very fact of obesity is still addressed: elsewhere in the novel, KiKi talks of the social responses to a large woman. This deals with the removal of sexual possibility, of being ‘no longer in the sexual universe’ and of the ‘whole new range of male reactions to you’ that ‘come into play,’ crucially the fact that men faced with a large woman can ‘flirt with you violently because there is no possibility of it being taken seriously.’ Also explored, however, is the way the body of a larger human being seems to be even more the property of the nagging, critical public sphere than usual – ‘KiKi had taken to eating on the bus to work […] and putting up with those disapproving looks that other women give big women when they’re eating in public’ – perhaps because there is more of it on view, more that is visible to comment on (and commenting on physical appearance is an ingrained part of human reactions) but also perhaps because it taps in again to those basic subliminal assumptions: fat = excess = greed, and we are embarrassed by this appearance of gluttonous excess.

This embarrassment is crucial, particularly in British responses to the idea of the fat: just listen to the distilled horror in the almost cryogenically frosty way certain members of the resolutely English middle classes talk of ‘all those appalling fat Americans.’ In Keats and Embarrassment, Christopher Ricks writes of the importance of embarrassment in human life, and how the way we deal with in art is important in ‘refining’ the way we think about it, and our broad refusal to deal with the almost puritanical embarrassment we feel when faced with a contemplation of the fat is placing a stumbling block in the way we relate to our bodies through the way we write about them. We cannot ‘refine’ our attitudes towards obesity until we start confronting and analyzing them, and then moving past them, removing the need for sheer size to be the most overpowering factor in the discussion. After all, according to NHS classifications, the reality is that we are in an ‘obesity epidemic’: fatness is the elephant in the room.