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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