Why Is Fatness So Grotesque?

February 13, 2012

Honestly, I tried to answer this question for so long, I can’t even remember. I come from a family that has never been shockingly overweight, but more often than not on the large sight of ok. This fact in itself has resulted in diets attempts gone bad from simple yo-yo dieting to more than one person that had to be treated for sever anorexia. But why do we live in a society and culture that has such an aversion to fat and fat people that someone feels forced to hate themselves in order to feel accepted?

First and foremost, fat is something positive. Most archeologist, anthropologist and pre-historians are convinced that without the body’s ability to accumulate fat most of us wouldn’t be here today. The evolutionary trick to store energy within the body made it possible for humans to survive long stretches of time without access to food (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00hbsk2). So, hurray! And while too much fat can present a person with serious health risks, have to little of it and you are in a whole lot more trouble.

Knowing all that actually presents me with a conundrum, as I am as biased towards fat people as the next person: Fat people are lazy, can’t control what they eat, are stupid and too ignorant to find information about how much energy = food they need. When I see a ‘grotesquely’ fat person behind the wheel of a very small car or on the subway with shins that are as huge as my stomach, I can’t help myself but to stare at such a mass of fat.

During this semester, I looked at a lot of theoretical texts trying to explain why fat is equaled to being bad. They ranged from fat being connected to being female and therefore to being weak to fat being connected to foreigners and therefore something bad and finally to fat being a sin against God[1]. Not satisfied with that I read other sources, e.g. “Calories and Corsets” by Louise Foxcroft and found even more reasons why fat is bad: If you are fat, you are a bad politician, if you are fat, you are a bad woman and finally, if you are fat, you are uneducated and a sloth. Considering all the labeling in regards to fat that has been going on for almost all of our written history, it’s no miracle fat doesn’t stand a chance. I’m actually starting to wonder why there aren’t even more people despairing over their weight.

So although between a third and a half of the general population is supposed to be overweight the individual is constantly taught that being overweight is not the norm but something horrible far outside of it. And what do we as humans do with things that don’t fit neatly in the category they are supposed to? We ostracize and we stare. To change this fact will be an uphill battle.

[1] On a side note: The Christian faith and its fear of the body is believed to have produced the first anorexics in the form of martyrs already 2000 years ago.

Face Lift/ Face Transplant

February 1, 2012

Surely, everyone knows that a surgery like performing a face transplant of face lift could fail. So, there are a lot of aspects that everybody who undergoes such a surgery has to take into consideration. For instance, one point which surgeons are agitated about is that person’s faces could become completely disfigured if anything goes wrong during the operation. Doctors are even worried whether the transplanted face will work or partially work. The person just allows the surgeon to shape and operate on his/ her face with all risks and complications. Such an operation is not about saving someone’s life or making someone healthier. One of the most dangerous and difficult surgeries about transplantations is to tissue the skin from another person’s body. It is also hard for persons to adapt a completely different and new face.
Face transplants is a very long procedure which are performed for ten years professionally. The first thing is cutting out the skin of the donor’s face from under the hairline down to the chin. After that, the surgeon departs the skin and the whole tissue from the donor. The doctor tries to move a lot of tissue from the donor because the tissue of the recipient could show a negative reaction. The further work of the surgeon is to depart the face of the recipient. For the blood flow, the secure of arteries is very important while performing this procedure. Finally, the surgeon puts an joins the veins and arteries from the recipient’s face to the donor’s tissue. The whole operation can take about twenty hours.
If the whole work is done, the new created face looks like a mixture of the donor’s face and the recipient’s face. But this is not the last version. If the procedures successes, the recipient has to take a certain kind of drugs to stay alive, so the problems of the face transplant are not conquered. The toxic stuff which is contained in these drugs cause dangerous complications (in most cases), or even illnesses like cancer. So, it is not only about the danger of the surgery and the complications during the operation but also after the procedure, the issues are present because of the toxic and harmful medicines.
As a result, in my opinion people, who decide for such a face transplant or face lifts in order to look better or extraordinary, are real freaks. They undergo a huge risk without taking the health issues into consideration. They just put their lives on the line as if it is a game. But on the other side, there are people who undergo such an operation after accidents. For example, in Turkey the first complete face transplant was performed on the 19 year old Ugur Acar who had a very bad accident and his face was completely damaged and disfigured and he had problems in the society. In this case, the person is forced to accept the surgery with all its risks. But then it is also justified.

Zombie Boy

February 1, 2012

Do you know how painful it is when you get a tattoo? I know and I can tell you…one tattoo is definitely enough.^^
Therefore I was pretty….shocked is a too strong word but certainly astonished how someone could be willing to go through such enormous pain. Well the 26-years old Canadian, Rico Genest did. He got tattoos all over his body and all with one goal, to look like a zombie. And perfectly fitting to our seminar, he created his own travelling freak show titled Lucifer’s Blasphemous Mad Macabre Torture Carnival.

In an interview it gets quite clear what his intention was/is:

What look are you trying to achieve with your tattoos?

They’re about the human body as a decomposing corpse – the art of a rotting cadaver. It’s also a tribute to horror movies, which I love

Anyway, the closest thing I could get to becoming a zombie was to get tattooed like one. I see my tattoos as celebrating the art of obscenity and the macabre.

He also says that since he got his tattoos he is a much happier and nicer person.
(If you are interested to learn more about his motivation to become the zombie boy I strongly recommend his own homepage. The link you find below…)

Watch the video and be amazed:

I think the quote at the beginning of the video pretty much sums up what the problem in today’s society is: “ How do you judge a book” ….well not by his cover. Instead of judging him by his appearance we should look closer. His tattoos can be seen as an artistic masterpiece with a complexity most people don’t have. In the video the make-up stands for what people consider as normal, but what lies beneath is beautiful too. What Rico Genest did is crossing the boundaries what is considered as “socially beautiful”.

Now the big question emerges “ Will he ever be accepted in society when he looks like a ‘monster’ for the rest of his life?” The big problem in our today’s society is the still existing idea that people with tattoos and piercings are automatically less acceptable than others. It is the common thought that they will never get a proper job or will be treated as a serious person. This is at least the idea of extreme tattoo and piercing opponents. But I think we need to distinguish between extreme cases like the zombie boy and people who just like to have one or two tattoos.

Now everyone can ask oneself if the zombie boy is one of these extremes and therefore considered as a freak or not.
To be honest I can’t really decide. One the one hand I find him a real artistic approach but one the other hand he makes the impression of a freaky person. For example, he wants to get his eyes blackend (as soon as it is safe) that means he wants to tattoo his eyes so they will appear as black holes, just like a skull looks like. He also would like to remove the tip of his nose, or the whole nose only the reach his goal of looking like a zombie with a skull.




“My Strange Addiction” vs. freaks?

February 1, 2012

On January 18th we talked about the TV show “My Strange Addiction” in class and even though I’ve never been interested in “trash shows” like that, I have to say that “My Strange Addiction” woke my interest, maybe because I’ve never seen anything like it before. The show features so many different people with so many different addictions and I’m still having my problems with the question whether you would call all of them freaks just because they have (unusual) compulsive behaviors or whether you would distinguish between different addictions and only consider some of them freakish and others not. A true freak is causing us to “feel terror and symoathy because he is one of us, the human child of human parents” and was changed by external forces that no one had or could have had any control over. As already discussed in another entry in our blog, many of us wouldn’t publicly call these people freaks because their “otherness” is not their fault, it’s not something they  could have done anything about, it’s just the way they were born or something that happened to them and it would simply be considered rude to call these people freaks. If we see someone who, by choice and by conscious decision,  has made a freak out of himself (e.g. being tattooed all over your body), we would probably consider him or her a freak because it seems weird to us that someone would want to alter himself because he or she wants to look different and from our point of view freakish.

Now the question that interests me is whether we would consider the people on the show “My Strange Addiction” freaks. We talked about it a bit in class but, just as deciding whether certain addictions are really addictions or just bad habits, I find it really hard to decide whether people with certain addictions can be considered freaks or not. Jazz (fingernails) is the one we already compared to the historical freak in class. She is “impaired” with her long fingernails but is still able to perform everyday tasks (like someone who eats with his feet because he lacks hands). I’ve been thinking about this for quite a while now and probably would rather consider Teresa (rats), Crystal (cleanser), and Samantha (tanning) freaks, while I wouldn’t call Jeff (strongman) and Lauren (female bodybuilder) freaks. Even though all of the addictions are more or less grotesque, I guess that freakishness is still connected with “bad behavior”. Even though excessive exercising isn’t too good for you either, I probably would call bodybuilding and strongman competition rather “good” behavior than bad one because you don’t necessarily see how it can harm your body. This is different with eating cleanser, excessive tanning and having fivty-some rats at home. If these addictions are made public, people probably automatically connect eating cleanser and tanning more than 3 times a day with bad behavior because everyone knows from his and her world knowledge that tanning (especially in excess) and eating chemicals destroys your body, maybe slowly but definitely. With the rats, it is probably different. Since most people are grossed out by rats because they are thought of to live only where it’s dirty, living together with more than 50 rats might be considered freakish just because rats are considered freakish and not real pets that you would normally keep at home. I don’t know why I would categorize some of the addictions as freakish while I wouldn’t do so with others – maybe it’s just intuitive. I’d love to know what you guys think about it. Can you even categorize? Maybe you have different opinions. I thought this topic was really interesting and I just couldn’t get it off my mind.




Thomson, Rosemarie, ed. Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York: New York UP, 1996.

Gender Neutrality – Androgyny In Contemporary Culture

February 1, 2012

Inspired by today’s debate about gender identity I recalled reading about some interesting articles about new trends in the contemporary fashion industry some time ago. The fashion industry is known for being rather liberal in terms of sexual preference and gender identity. In fact, many of the world’s most important fashion designers are gay or bisexual. Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino, Marc Jacobs and Giorgio Armani are some of the most influential characters in haute couture. Most of these major players have been working in the fashion industry for over a decade, and as society became more tolerant regarding sexual preference and identity, so became their taste in models. This brings me to the topic I would like to discuss in this blog, the fashion industries newest trend: androgyny.

Androgyny is a term describing the combination of masculine and feminine characteristics. However, it does not necessarily refer to inter-sexed physicality, as it also refers to sexual identity, lifestyle and fashion. Androgyny is the newest trend in the high fashion world, which is reflected in the recent success of numerous androgynous models. One of these models is Andrej Pejic.


The 20-year-old Australian model, who was born in Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina, is the perfect example of popular culture’s growing tolerance towards alternative lifestyles. He was scouted at the age of 16 and quickly became a sensation in the fashion world. In 2011 he walked both the men’s and the women’s show for Jean-Paul Gautier, as well as the men’s show for Marc Jacobs. He’s one of the first, if not the first, model to walk men’s and women’s shows and has since become one of the most sought after models in haute couture. Not only is he one of the top 20 male models in the world, he was also voted no. 98 in FHM’s 100 Sexiest WOMEN in the world (however, FHM removed him from the list after the listing caused controversy). Besides his success in the fashion world, he was also granted an audience with Queen Elizabeth and numerous other important figures of our society, reflecting the growing acceptance of the otherness.



Androgyny adds a new flavor to the gender identity discussion. Rather than choosing sides, androgynous people can chose the way they want to give themselves without any surgical alterations and still blend into society. In fact, they do not necessarily have to choose either lifestyle at all, as society somewhat accepts them either way. A few very interesting comments regarding the role Pejic identifies himself with are made in this video:



He chooses no particular role but likes to keep his options open. This being said, he himself chooses gender neutrality, by not committing to either side.

Although gender neutrality is a rather rare occurrence and somewhat limited by looks, growing tolerance of otherness in contemporary culture creates ground for more unchained personal expression. As society becomes more liberal it gives way for the grotesque.


Here are some more images very much related to our topic:





Complete Obsession – Body Dysmorphia

February 1, 2012

In today’s class Margaret made a comment about people who voluntarily undergo an amputation to get rid of healthy limbs, which I found very interesting. So I did some research and decided to write my second blog post on this topic.

People who do feel the urge to undergo an amputation, even though there is nothing physically wrong with them, are called Dysmorphics. They are obsessed to be rid of a limb and want to have it removed, as they deem it to be extraneous, they feel like it “shouldn’t be there”.

I came across this documentary where they follow different people who are considered Dysmorphics.

I found interesting  that these people have to be seen by two psychiatrists and confirmed to be sane but dysmorphic before they get the surgery they call for. What this implies and what they also state in the video is that they are not mentally diseased or deluded in any kind of way, but that they’re psycologically obsessed. The surgeon compares them to transexuals who don’t feel right in their body/sex so they want to get it changed. Therefore, Dysmorphics ask for a surgery “with equally as much degree of obession, need, and urgency” as transexuals do who are rarely considered to have a mental illness.

Paradoxically, these poeple feel uncomplete with these body parts they want to get rid of. The woman in the video has mentally lived her live as an amputee although she knows she has legs, so she hasn’t lost touch to reality.

Can you really compare this urge they feel to the obsession transexuals have? Or to people who have longed for getting they’re protruding ears operated their whole life?  They can’t explain why this desire exists but it is so enormously present that they are resolved to undergo this surgery, and if it’s not happening, surgeons fear them to get rid of their limbs violently. Personally, I’ve a very hard time relating to this, but maybe there is no need for us to understand this, since they don’t even get this obession themselves and I’m very glad not to be a surgeon who has to decide whether to do this or not. Simply, because I don’t know what I would do. On the one hand, it is their personal decision and everybody should have the freedom to decide on what his body should look like. On the other hand, this is very extreme and I’m not sure if this goes a little too far, as this is probably not understandable to anybody, so it can easily be deemed psychotic, although, officially, it isn’t.

So, what are you opinions on this? Do you think all these people need is psychiatric help? Or do they have a right to get healthy body parts removed because they are “extraneous”?

The success of “epic meal time”

February 1, 2012

In my blog post I want to go back a little to the topic of eating and the connection to the American culture. Some of my male friends totally enjoy themselves these days in watching episodes of “epic meal time”. This are videos a group of young men posts on YouTube. Every week a new one. In their videos the prepare and eat extremely high-calorie meals, mostly with meat and alcohol. They take some typical American meals like “mac and cheese” or burgers and take them to the extreme. For example they once prepared a meal for thanksgiving where they stuffed five birds inside each other and in the end they stuffed the five birds in a pig and smoked it. When they all eat it in the end they eat very grossly and use big wooden spoons to stuff the food into themselves. The presenter, called Harley Morenstein, uses hip-hop slang and they themselves say about their videos they are like  “Jackass in the kitchen”. I personally find it quite gross but it is actually very popular. My question now is why do so many people watch it and enjoy themselves.

Of course it is something like a carnival spectacle where people do strange things. People are amazed when they watch them eating this many calories. It resembles the hype about competitive eating. It is just not normal to stuff themselves with that much food. But also the preparation is exciting. They use ingredients normally used in American kitchens. Like bacon strips beef patties or just meat. On top of that they play with the stereotype of Americanism. Jack Daniel´s is used very often as a “typical” American drink. So are the Americans interested in it because the videos make fun of their own lifestyle? And do European spectators enjoy it because it makes fun about someone else and not themselves.

When we discussed the reverse-makeover in supersize-me we discussed the text of Bailey. One of her arguments was that the success of McDonald´s and the fatness of many Americans is a consequence of 9/11. The Americans try to feel safe in their country and therefore eat. Because of the thread to their culture due to Islamist terrorism they try to take it to an extreme. Like in the epic meal time videos. The fact that McDonald´s as an “American export” spreads all over the words is seen as an expansion of the American culture. When they use the typical American meals in the videos they also help spreading their culture. Many people are interested in the was the culture is lived in the videos.

Extremes are the next argument I want to use. America sees itself, and is seen by others, as a land of extremes. The most beautiful, and richest supermodels and Hollywood stars, many different cultures and great diversities of landscape and culture exist there. If something strange happens it is always said “Only in American can something like this happen”. Extremes are always interesting and looked at. Something that is not normal is exciting. A normal American cooking show would never get so many views on YouTube. It is just enormously funny and disgusting to watch them prepare their gigantic meals and stuff their stomachs with them.

Like the people watch eating competitions they watch this. About eating competitions we said that part of it is the fulfillment of the childhood dream to just eat as much as you can and as fast as you can until your stomach is filled up. Fagone also said in his “Horseman of the Esophagus” that it is a part of American culture. The American people is a people of immigrants. They came to America because the abundance of food they expected to be there. They created these meals like the turkey for thanksgiving and made it their culture. Overeating is just a dream many children especially from poorer families or with many siblings have. To be able to eat as much as you want even though you know that it might be unhealthy makes many people happy. In the end it is still a little miracle to my why people find this so amusing.

Once I have that perfect body, I will be a god/goddess!

February 1, 2012

For my second blog-entry see the linked pdf.

Once I have that perfect body, I will be a god

Broaden the Gaze: Grotesque as Aesthetic Category

February 1, 2012

In the seminar we have mainly discussed the ‘grotesque body’ based on the theory of Mikhail Bakhtin, which is a quite narrow approach to the theory of the grotesque in general. We have focused on bodily transgressions and the “act of becoming”, where the human body is seen as something malleable, opposing the common notion that the body is something closed up from the world (‘the individual’) and something fixed and unchangeable. The theory of transgression we looked at mentioned that the ‘grotesque body’ oversteps the boundaries and borders of the ‘normal body’ and grows into the world or lets the world stretch into it through openings like the mouth, the anus or the genitalia. This all is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the word grotesque, its origin and meaning. There is much more to it than just a body getting out of control. The grotesque is a broad (semantic) field, and I would like to point out some further meanings and possibilities, starting with the origin of the word ‘grotesque’. I am sure that nearly everyone has an idea of what the word means and I apologise beforehand that many things in this post will be like stating the obvious and telling things many already know.

The word grotesque has its origins in the Italian of the 15th century where, during excavations, a forgotten style of ornamental painting from the antiquity was rediscovered and was named grottesco (grotto-like), a derivation of grotta (grotto), after the places where it was found. This specific style of ornamental painting had some peculiar qualities like mixing together visual elements of humans, plants and animals that merged into each other, creating fantastical images that inspired the artists of the upcoming renaissance. It can be assumed that ‘the Grotesque’ was developed parallel to the Moresque and Arabesque which used mainly floral patterns. The special quality of the Grotesque – the mixture of parts of nature that were considered to be separate – made it possible for certain figures to become (nearly) monstrous in their contortion what influenced many artists. The popularity of the Grotesque lead to a broadening of the adjective ‘grotesque’ in the 18th century which by then not only meant that something was similar to the Grotesque, but rather that it used similar mechanisms of mixture and contortion. Since then, the semantic field of the word ‘grotesque’ grows steadily.

If ‘grotesque’ (adj.) is being looked up nowadays the dictionary the entry could say the following: 1) strange in a way that is unpleasant or offensive, 2) extremely ugly in a strange way that is often frightening or amusing (OALD). It is quite evident that there have happened many changes in meaning in the time since the Grotesque was rediscovered and nowadays. Furthermore, it can be assumed that the meanings listed by the dictionary represent only a limited view on possibilities. We see that the mechanisms of mixture and contortions are not included in the entry, but instead there are two meanings listed that are used more commonly. Some theorists on the grotesque claim that these certain meanings are due to the conflict of emotions within the recipient of grotesque arts or bodies (or what else there is to find that can be labelled ‘grotesque’). Wolfgang Kayser summarises that conflict of emotions within the following sentence: “As long as we are unknowing, we are free to apply the (label/) word ‘grotesque.” Thus, he claims that things that are strange or foreign to us automatically create the already mentioned emotional conflict which is similar to what grotesque things do to us. Some exemplary emotions that can be in conflict while perceiving something grotesque are disgust, ridicule, morbidity, curiosity, amusement, laughter, disdain and many others. Michael Steig claims that grotesque objects often make the perceiver want to laugh in the face of dread or induce a feeling of horror through an unbearable amount of humour. There are certain forms of humour which make use of these mechanisms, and one of them is the caricature, which is made to criticise the existing world and its current order. This is exactly what grotesqueness does: it is a counter movement that questions the established norm.
Now, we have reached a stage where some might ask, if everything can be seen as grotesque depending on the point of view and the answer is: yes, indeed. The little, ornamental child has grown quite big and the word now carries a vast amount of different meanings.
To make things a little bit easier again, I would like to briefly explain a model by Peter Fuß which helped me to keep track on grotesqueness so I do not label everything I see as ‘grotesque’: He claims that there are three main mechanisms of anamorphosis, two of which I have already mentioned, which, when they can be applied, are proof that the object in question (be it a text, a picture, a film, a person…) is grotesque: The first mechanism of anamorphosis is reversal (things become turned upside-down etc.) which changes the object the least and is the least alienating. A simple example for this mechanism would be turning around a symbol (the cross) to reverse its meaning. Another example for this mechanism would be degradation, where something that has a superior position is being put into an inferior position (king being put into a pigsty, human attributes being replaced by animal attributes, a god being made profane). In general one could speak of a reversal of hierarchy. The second anamorphic mechanism is contortion/distortion, where things remain basically the same, but their form is being distorted. Examples for this mechanism would be to cripple something and monstrosity. The third mechanism of anamorphosis would be mixture, where things that usually are separate become merged together. Examples for this mechanism are chimaeras and other composite beings ( a tree that grows human eyes instead of apples…).

I think this shows how many possibilities there are in the category of grotesque and I hope that at least something of what I have written is helpful to at least someone. I would be glad to answer any questions that might come up, so feel free to unleash a bombardment of them on me.

• Fuß, Peter. Das Groteske: ein Medium des kulturellen Wandels. Köln: Böhlau Verlag GmbH & Cie, 2001
• Kayser, Wolfgang. Das Groteske – Seine Gestaltung in Malerei und Dichtung (1957). Tübingen: Stauffenberg Verlag Brigitte Narr GmbH, 2004.
• Steig, Michael. „Zur Definition des Grotesken: Versuch einer Synthese (1970).“ in: Otto F. Best (Hrsg.). Das Groteske in der Dichtung. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1980