Tag Archives: fat history

“A Great Time to Be Fat”: a view into Texas Fat Men’s Clubs

From left to right, A Rockwitz (312lbs), comedian Eddie Carvey (250lbs), David Burns (475lbs) and F C Kupper (351lbs) at a meeting of the Fat Mens’ Club in New York. Eddie Carvey is the president and David Burns the secretary. Photograph by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images.

Laurie and Debbie say:

Writing in Texas Monthly a few years ago, Laura Doan gave is Baseball, BBQ and Dead Ponies–A History of Fat Men’s Clubs in Texas. This fascinating corner of fat history came as a surprise to both of us.

From the late 1800s to the mid-1920s, fat men’s clubs flourished widely across the state. To enter, members had to be a minimum of 200 pounds, and turn over at least $1 (the equivalence of about $25 today). The clubs’ purpose? According to an address by the president of the budding Fat Men’s Association of Texas, W.A, Disborough, the goal was “to draw the fat men into closer fraternal relations.”

The social clubs had calendars as packed as their plates. They networked at balls, sports events, and banqueting, and before many of the events, they held competitive weigh-ins where the largest members heralded their size. … Men were so invested in the outcome of club weigh-ins that they were prone to cheating by stuffing weights in their pockets, as the Weatherford fat men’s club was reported to have done before a 1920 baseball game. According to Kerry Segrave’s Obesity in America: 1850-1939: A History of Social Attitudes and Treatment, one fat men’s club in Ohio used the weigh-ins to decide their club’s next president, and whoever sent the scales’ numbers flying highest immediately earned the honor.

We are so accustomed in this time and place to hearing only negative commentary about fat that it’s both useful and fun to imagine people (men) vying to be the fattest, or being elected to office just by weighing the most. In that period, fat was also associated with personality traits. We’re used to seeing fat people (of both sexes) described as “jolly.” Doan frames it a little differently:

Men of large girth were also thought to be a kinder, more sociable sort than those without meat on their bones. The Mineola Monitor ran an op-ed in 1899 about why women should like fat men: “It may be observed, without intentional offence [sic] to any young lady who might be enamored of some skeleton-like young man that, as a rule, fat men, besides being the most jolly and convivial of the male species, are also apt to be the most considerate of and charitable to others.” The column concluded: “The fact still remains that seven out of ten fat men make excellent husbands.”

History has probably never contained a group of men 70% of whom made “excellent husbands,” no matter how low you set the bar for excellent. Rich and powerful men, who were most of the members of these clubs, are hardly likely to raise that percentage. The perception is still interesting, however.

Another facet of these clubs which may be surprising to the modern reader is the activity levels, because this was not a period when fat was associated with being sedentary. Doan describes a 1920 baseball game:

The average weight of a player from the visiting Mineral Wells Team was 205 pounds, the Weatherford boys averaged a respectable 200, and the competition was tight. There was a flurry of drama when Mineral Wells accused Weatherford’s crack catcher of not being sufficiently fat. Weatherford had to think fast. Their defense? “What he lacked in weight he made up for in height.” The crowd was satisfied with that rebuttal and gameplay soon began. Though baseball is not usually thought of as a contact sport, the two fat clubs were so prone to sideline tussles that “moderators” were planted around the field to break up brawls.

But what about the women? The men of color? The poor men?

… a few female fat clubs did exist, but fat women’s reduction clubs were much more common. Body standards for women were much more restrictive than those of men. In 1923 a writer for the Brownwood Bulletin wrote, “Fat men may be popular but the fat lady is always awkward.”  The fat men’s clubs were also not places for the impoverished or those with physically demanding jobs. These were clubs of men with enough money to sustain themselves and then some, as their massive culinary indulgence required a fair bit of funding.

We are always reminding people that that fat people don’t necessarily, or even probably, eat more than thin people, which is a long-proved fact. However, the Fat Men’s Clubs were very likely different, because they were engaging in competitive gluttony for status: not just how much they weighed, but how much they could eat at a sitting were markers for how powerful and successful they were–and you do have to be rich to be a glutton.

Doan’s points about gender and class are well taken. It would be useful to have a quote about fat women from earlier than 1923, since Doan pegs 1920 as the point when the tide began to turn. Certainly, the celebratedly beautiful actress Lily Langtry, who died in 1929 at age 75, weighed at least 150 pounds and probably more like 200, although her extremely tight corsets make that difficult to see. When she was talking about women and poor people, we wish she had taken the time to address race.  You can be sure that the Fat Men’s Clubs were White Fat Men’s Clubs, and that Black and Brown fat men weren’t welcome.

We can’t ever forget about race, class and gender — and we don’t. Nonetheless, we get pleasure from thinking about these Texas fat men finding community, activity, and connection from a characteristic that has been almost exclusively framed as shameful for just about a century.


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Shadow on a Tightrope: 30 Years Casting a Powerful Shadow

Debbie says:

It’s thrilling to participate in the blog carnival for the 30th anniversary of Shadow on a Tightrope:Writings By Women on Fat Oppression, edited by Lisa Schoenfelder and Barb Weiser, hosted by publisher Aunt Lute, which is releasing a 30th anniversary edition. In a sense, this book has always been there for me; I started flirting with fat activism in the early 1980s, thanks in large part to Laurie’s outrage at some anti-fat comments I took for granted. Laurie and I started to envision the project which turned out to be both Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes and a life’s work, in 1984, only a year after Shadow was published.

naked fat woman in her kitchen, from Women En LargeThis Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color.

In 1982, Evelyn Torton Beck came out with Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology.

In 1985,  we saw With the Power of Each Breath: A Disabled Women’s Anthology, edited by Susan E. Browne, Debra Connors, and Nanci Stern.

There were certainly more, but these (along with Shadow) are the ones that I remember–not only the books themselves, but the power they had in the feminist and Lesbian communities (which were not the same thing in that period, but were very closely interconnected). Everyone I knew in that world read all of them from cover to cover, and thought about them, talked about them, internalized the complex political/social/personal range of their messages.

And so it was with Shadow. Some of the essays in Shadow were photocopied and sent to interested people through an informal publication network long before there was a book. Others were written for the book. The title comes from a glorious poem by Sharon Bas Hannah (“whoever I am, I’m a fat woman”):

she’s a blues singer

a flautist    a drummer

a hiker       a kite flyer

your shadow on the tightrope

she’s a fat womon

leaping on laughter’s echo the rhythms of her life

The whole poem is in the book.

The essays and poems are by giants in the field and women who have never published anywhere else, by women new to fat liberation and women steeped in it. The sections begin with the cultural myths about fat, and take us through memoir, exercise and sport, daily life, and the medical system, to a final section on survivorship and identity.

Thirty years later, like so much else viewed through that lens, the book is both depressing and relieving. Some things have gotten better for fat women in thirty years: we have much better options for clothes, we have better “role models” on television, in the movies, and in public life, we have a much greater literature and research to draw on, and we have the ability to find the community of fat women in many ways and many places. And some things are the same or worse: weight loss surgery, quite new in 1983, is still growing in numbers in 2013; our First Lady made childhood obesity her do-gooder priority, medical nonsense abounds; and so on and so forth.

Here’s what I know: no fight for justice ever ends. And this particular fight for justice has gone as far as it has in large part because of the groundbreaking work of Lisa Schoenfelder, Barb Weiser, and the women in Shadow on a Tightrope. Whether your copy is old and tattered, or you’ve never read it, whether you’re a giant in the field or new to the concepts, buy the a copy reprinted for the 30th anniversary. Something in it will help you with something you struggle with.

five naked fat women on a beach, from Women En Large