Saturday, July 24, 2010

Word Wonder -- stout

Saturday, July 24, 2010

1. Strong or firm of structure or material; sound; tough. 2. Determined; resolute. 3. Fat; bulky; thickset. 4 Substantial; solid. 5. Having muscular strength; robust. 6. Proud; stubborn.

Last night I went for the second time to a local community theatre's production of Iolanthe, one of many works created by the British musical team of Gilbert and Sullivan in the late 1800s. Afterwards I asked my actor friend, Peter, to explain the meaning of a particular gesture one character had made during the performance; I hadn't been able to figure out what it was supposed to mean either time I saw it. He told me the gesture was meant to contribute to that scene's song about a character who had once been stout but was now virtually wasting away because of unrequited love.

This led us into a chat about the multiple meanings of the word "stout," and I, unable to resist word etymology, looked it up this morning. You've read most of its various meanings above. And, so, why am I writing about it in this blog? Because of its third meaning: fat.

In many circles, those who are fat, stout, thickset are considered to be of less value than those who are not. Some would protest that I'm exaggerating, but I really don't think so. If fatness were considered to be preferable, or even acceptable, stout women would adorn the covers of fashion magazines and freelance writers would get rich writing articles entitled "Gain 10 Pounds in Time for Christmas" and "5 Recipes to Ensure the Chunky-Bikini Look." Or how about, "Fat Men I Have Loved"?

I am not talking about the recognized health risks of being much overweight. I'm talking about the social and economic taboos against fat that permeate North American (and other?) thinking. I'm talking about women, men and teens who place tight bodies on mental and emotional pedestals. I'm talking about the preference for thin receptionists and CEOs, especially if they're female.

I am talking about pre-pubescent girls who go on diets so they'll be accepted and boys and men who masturbate while looking at pictures of naked, curvaceous, fat-free women and men. Chubby is unacceptable. And, by extension, the person who is chubby is deemed to be unacceptable.

But as I read the definitions above and mused about the range of meanings for "stout," I imagined a community in a time and place in which many people were poor and, therefore, malnourished and thin. They worked hard and died early of diseases related to poverty. A stout house, one made of substantial materials, was something to be cherished. Stout friends, those who were determined to help in times of trouble, were essential and appreciated. A stout, robust horse or cow was a prized possession.

Imagine now the few wealthy citizens in that community -- well-fed and having better medical care. They tended not to be so thin, and their physical well-being might have been seen to accompany their stubborn, proud, resolute ways. And so, being stout could also have come to mean "fat" as proof of one's wealth and position in society. It is certainly true that in some cultures and times, a man is/was considered to be a "real man" if his wife is/was fat,  proving him to be a good hunter and provider.

So, given that perceptions about body size are influenced by external conditions, I urge you to reevaluate your own ideas about size. Do we need to be brainwashed by magazine covers and movie stars striding along red carpets? We don't if we're willing to reconsider what we've been taught.

Does anyone know a wonderful, loving, intelligent person who is overweight? Of course. Have overweight people ever looked attractive or raised happy, responsible children? Obviously.

The place to start is to look at our own attitudes to stoutness. Do you think fat is ugly? Would you rather go out with a thin person than a heavy person, without getting to know him or her? Do you laugh at "fat jokes?" Have you ever looked in the mirror after a shower and felt disgusted or ugly because of cellulite or a roll in the middle?

These responses are learned. They are not "right" or "wrong." They are the results of conditioning, and they can be changed. You can change your own subtle, "subterranean" feelings about beauty and worth.

My intention with Word Wonders is to encourage us to rethink our assumptions. Be a stout individual -- one who is determined and resolute in your determination to examine deep-lying attitudes. Being physically stout does not have to negatively define anyone, but it will as long as we let it do so.

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