07 August 2013

Mapping fat culture: Malta's megalithic fat figures

Donkey's years ago, my friend sent me a postcard from Malta. It had a picture of the legs and skirt of a giantly fat figure, carved out of rock between 2500 and 4000 years ago during the island's megalithic period. I kept the postcard. Over the years, the image of this ancient fat figure stayed with me and I hoped that I would see it one day. This year I got the chance.

There are 11 prehistoric temples in Malta, and other ancient relics that you can visit, where there are reproductions of the fat figures. I wanted to see the originals so, two weeks ago, after a morning at the second worst themepark in the world, I paid a visit to The National Museum of Archeology in Valletta, where there is a room dedicated to them.

I thought the giant fat figure would be all there was to see. A while back I was lucky enough to visit the Venus of Willendorf at the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna. She is on display with a handful of other venuses and I thought this would be like that. I was completely unprepared for the scale, range and diversity of the display, there were statues a couple of metres wide, and tiny figures that would sit in the palm of your hand. Some very rough, many damaged, some finely detailed. I didn't count, but there were many, many prehistoric figures of fat people, they dominated the collection.

Many of the figures looked like people I know. Some looked like me. They were sitting, lying, standing. They looked feminine to me, but I didn't think the gender was cut and dried, maybe skirts weren't only for women 4000 years ago. The figure from the postcard was there, I enjoy old school museum labels, and this one did not disappoint:

"This colossal statue which must have originally stood at nearly three metres, occupied a prominent position in the Tarxien temple. Being the largest figure found to date the role of this statue must have been of great importance."

Well, it's certainly of great importance to me in 2013. Some figures were headless, which made me laugh, given my interest in a headless fatty, but there were also heads that could be attached to some of the figures. I also became interested in how these ancient figures were transformed into tourist tat. There's a market for this stuff, you too can have a Venus of Malta fridge magnet, or a plaster model of the colossal statue. The fatness of these figures is not something that turns people off, these fat bodies do not horrify, though the craftsmanship of the tat is something else.

Typically, prehistoric fat figures are described as fertility symbols, based on the assumption that a fat feminine arse makes you good for making babies. Tell that to the fat women who are denied reproductive technologies until they lose weight! I don't buy the idea that fat is inherently nurturing and motherly, I think this is a mythology propagated by fetishists. CM Donald's poem illustrates this nicely:
To those women

      To those women
Who find me cuddly,
Who like fat women
And want to hug them all:

I am not your mother,
Your baby or your shelter
And I am not your blasted teddy bear (Donald, 1986, p.50)

One of the treasures of the collection is called The Sleeping Lady, a very delicately carved figure with heavy arms and thighs. In an esoteric essay about magick, fetishism and the body, Tim O'Neill suggests that The Sleeping Lady is a figurative representation of the idea that fat women's bellies are conduits for spirits. He proposes that these figures are the result of a ritual fattening process for priestess that sends them into a dream trance:

"Their huge bodies became laboratories for neurochemically altered frames of awareness, as well as pleasure palaces of the Goddess." (O'Neill, 1987, p.91)
The original purposes and meanings of these figures is not going to be known, they can only be reinterpreted by contemporary standards. This leaves me free to create meaning out of them for myself. As someone with no innate sense of fertility in my fat, I am happily child-free and hope to remain so, and as an atheist I leave O'Neill's woo well alone (though I'll take the pleasure).

But witnessing these figures is undeniably spiritual, meaning, for me, a profound and almost inexplicable uplifting sense of connection to a historical human bigness rather than a belief that I have a supernatural essence that lives inside my body. I had a similar feeling when I worked on an oral history of older lesbian, gay, bi and trans people about ten years ago: I gained a sense that I am part of the mystery of humanity, something much bigger than me, something that came before me and will continue after I am gone, something to which I contribute in my own way.

I draw strength from those LGBT elders in the way that I also draw comfort and strength through knowing that, regardless of these being representations of actual people, people knew what a fat body looked like 4000 years ago. The rhetoric of obesity epidemiology promotes the idea that fat is recent, a crisis, a sick symbol of late capitalism, a blip that must be removed. But my body, and the bodies of other fat people I know, are as ancient and established as any other kind of body. We are absolutely legitimate and can clearly claim our place in the world because we belong here along with everyone else.


I'm interested in mapping sites of fat culture. I think A Queer and Trans Fat Activist Timeline did this to a small extent, but I'd like to make a map of places where there are possibilities for rich encounters with fat culture. The National Museum of Archeology in Valletta, and the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna are two such places. The display of the celebrated 18th century fat man Edward Bright in Maldon's local museum is another. I have visited the grave of Lizzie Whitlock, a circus fat lady, buried in Batavia, Michigan. I have rifled through fat activist archives. There must be many other sites, and not restricted to the august institutions of the West either. Where are these places? Let's name them and visit them together.

References

Donald, C. M. (1986) The fat woman measures up, Charlottetown, P.E.I: Ragweed.

O'Neill, T. (1987, 1990) 'Surgeons and Gluttons in the House of Flesh: Notes on the Hidden Unity Between the Additive and Subtractive Fetishes' in Parfrey, A., ed. Apocalypse Culture, Expanded & Revised ed., Port Townsend, WA: Feral House, 89-97.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is interesting, I had no idea Malta had these neolithic figures. Your comments about fertility really hit home for me. I'm very fat and never particularly wanted children but I've often heard comments like 'you have child bearing (meaning wide!) hips or 'but you'd make a great mother', in friendships I'm often supposed to be the 'strong, big momma'. A couple of years ago I had a friend who struggled with addiction and was very thin. Although we were the same age I was supposed to be the caring 'mother' who cooked and nurtured her (even though I don't enjoy cooking). I am always supposed to be the "big girl" who can handle everything. I don't mind caring for a friend but I get annoyed when friends or colleagues push me in the mom role because of my size. Sometimes I feel vulnerable too and don't always want to look after other's needs. Anyway, sorry for the rambling post, I just get annoyed when scientists or journalists go on about these 'fertility' figures, as if fat women are only good to breed. We're not one dimensional like that!

none of your beeswax said...

beautiful article about an interesting subject. i had no idea that these particular figures existed...

aside from the symbolism, The Sleeping Lady is so beautiful in her slumber

Jean C said...

I traveled to Malta when I was 10 as my dad was in the Navy and stationed in Italy. I LOVED seeing the statues (even tho I was not fat then, I thought I was. I was just a slightly chubby child in a world of Twiggy images). I would love to travel back now so I can see them again and get re-acquainted.

Well-Rounded Mama said...

The first picture looks like the person had Lipedema, a rare adipose disorder where the lower body disproportionately accumulates large amounts of fat. The large legs, the not-large feet, and the ring or "bracelet" of fat right where they meet is typical of lipedema.

I will have a post on lipedema on my blog soon, which will describe this in more detail. How ironic to see an ancient statue on your blog now that seems to demonstrate it!

I doubt the artist was trying to create a realistic representation of lipedema. It's probably just fat fetishism as a symbol for fertility or plenty or whatever. Still, it's funny to run across this just as I'm preparing to write about lipedema!

Well-Rounded Mama said...

Oh, one more comment about the "mom" thing.

The irony of fat women being seen by society as "motherly" or being pushed towards parenthood is that, for those of us who do actually want to have children, doctors could not be LESS encouraging of fat women becoming mothers.

Considering pregnancy as a fat woman is practically heresy these days. Some actually consider it child abuse. And as you note, many refuse fertility treatment to the fat women who have PCOS or other fertility challenges. One doctor said, "The only reason fat women have babies is because we can't stop them." The hostility many fat women encounter in obstetric circles in quite marked.