Can you imagine modern, celebratory images of women with protruding bellies and expanded thighs, meant to cue reverence for their deeply lived experiences, childbearing, or affection for confections? Snort. That's because for some kooky reason, when we talk about empowerment and women it involves shrinking us down to near weightlessness, the better to do our power bidding I suppose, and when we talk about men and power, it involves literally taking up more space, squatter's-rights style. Fat people of either gender are treated like shit, make no mistake, but whereas for women, any kind of fat is bad, for men, there's a specific kind of fat that's actually A-OK: the alleged "power paunch."
At least, so says a dude over at the Daily Beast. In a piece called "The Return of the Power Paunch," Sean Macaulay writes:
There’s fat, and there’s fat. In the male hierarchy of overweightness that runs upward from baby fat to morbid obesity, the paunch is the glorious exception. Why? Because it’s deliberate. It doesn’t come from neglect or shame or dietary ignorance. It comes from self-adoring devil-may-care confidence.
Attached is a sweet slideshow with pictures of potbellied men including Prince Albert, Bill Clinton, Keith Richards, Tony Soprano, Kim Jong-il, Alec Baldwin, and even Chaz Bono's transitioned gut. While these are not photos that signify unabashed hotness or anything (OK, Alec Baldwin is always cute) they show something altogether significant nonetheless: These men are standing around with guts! Like it's totally natural! They aren't hiding in shame or making any concerted effort to conceal the beast. They simply exist. As they are. They have such a natural presence, a kind of serene self-containment. It's as if their guts haven't been, oh I dunno, shamed out of existence or frightened into corsets, traditional or Spanxified. For my money, this alone astutely sums up the difference between what it's like to be a man vs. a woman in the public eye.
And it has a historical precedent, as for most of our existence on earth, being fat has not been an easy thing to pull off due to the lack of a stable food supply. But by the 18th century, Macaulay notes, the paunch was a real signifier of wealth and/or position, as these linked portraits attest.
Says Macaulay of modern aristocracy:
It’s telling that [Prince] Albert only embraced the paunch after he ascended to the throne. While still an heir, he was your standard House of Grimaldi playboy, roaring around on jet skis, fathering love children, and donning unforgiving bobsled suits to compete in the Olympics. The true paunch is reserved for men of power at the height of their power. All the greats have one from George Washington to Tony Soprano. Once they leave office, the paunch is usually shed quietly á la Bill Clinton.
Macaulay's essay is obviously a little tongue-in-gut — he mentions spurring the coining the phrase "power paunch" himself back in the '90s, when his own expanding waistline needed clever justification. But sadly, he's getting at something all too fucking real/true: In the annals of Letting Yourself Go, men have it waaaaaaaaay the fuck easier in the cultcha. In fact, it's not even that they are freer to let themselves go, it's that they are never required to reach a level of grooming and fastidious care/concern for their appearance in the first place, much less to abandon it. And when they do, it is viewed as way less egregious. I’m not saying anyone gets a complete and utter free pass — men are still mocked and ridiculed for obesity, too, and tabloids are relentless offenders.
But perhaps if penis envy were updated to "paunch envy," it would come nearer to the truth. Because when you're a woman, there is but one respite from not thinking about sucking anything in for a spell, and you have to fuck with the rest of your body to do it: pregnancy. It is an all-too-brief period where a woman is actually encouraged to grow the gut to epic, glorious proportions. But once the baby is out, it's back to shrinking it down to powerful proportions again. No wonder some of us (ahem, me) harbor a remaining fetish for maternity pants with elastic waistbands and probably will for the rest of our lives.
But that's fantasy. The reality of our lived experiences as women in our bodies vs. men no joke. In an essay at HuffPo, Nina Bahadur writes:
Overweight and obese Americans (of all genders) face serious discrimination in employment and education. A worrying new study found that doctors were more empathetic to their normal-weight patients, and weight has a serious effect on individuals' self-confidence.
But when you look at who is being vilified in the media for their weight, it's much more often women. Female celebrities from Kim Kardashian to Jessica Simpson to Melissa McCarthy to Carla Bruni have been fat-shamed in the press.
I have yet to see anyone claim that a woman gaining weight is a sign of her power. Even content intended to combat fat-shaming — stories and blogs promoting fat acceptance, self-love, and health at any size — rarely discusses weight as being a source or sign of a woman's success. Or confidence. Or status. Weight is something women come to terms with, not something they are encouraged to wear with any pride.
Bahadur wonders how many men would consider their extra pounds as a source of confidence. And over at The Cut, they ask:
What would it take for certain female-associated physical attributes — muffin top, inner-thigh junction, upper-arm flab — to become signs that a person is simply too important and confident to waste an hour at gyrotechnic pilates? The end of the world as we know it?
Hard to say, because women all but guarantee their irrelevance when they fail to put their appearance on the priority list. But one thing is clear: It is impossible to imagine a powerful woman getting a pass on even a version of overweightness such as the gut, much less an even momentary celebration of it, no matter how playful. So as long as men have the luxury of feeling less shitty about being simply human in their bodies, that will always look like freedom from the other side of the gut.