The curious appeal of 'power paunches'

17:00, May 17 2013
Tony and Carmela Soprano
POWER PAUCH: James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano with Edie Franco as his on-screen wife Carmela.

My first boyfriend - and I use the term lightly since we went out for four days and that consisted of holding hands on the cricket pitch until I declared it was not him but me - was really rather fat.

He was also very funny. He was what you might imagine when someone said the sentence "jolly fat person" and it didn't take long before someone took my spot on the cricket pitch. Since then my crushes have included Tony Soprano, Jack Donaghy and Bill Clinton. All of them powerful, charismatic men who, at the top of their game (pre-veganism and yoga teacher wives, obviously), were quite profoundly round. They are the proud owners of "power paunches", a common sight on men of a certain age and status.  

As noted by Sean Macaulay - who coined the term power paunch in the late '90s when, to his shock, he had sprouted one himself points out - there are perimeters to the power paunch. It's not common old fat, you see.

"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, a la Bill Clinton," writes Macauley in the Daily Beast.

Of course there is much to say on the unfairness of men being allowed to loosen their belts at lunch, to strain against their buttons, to be slightly breathless at boozy lunches and still remain both powerful and attractive. Women have a much tougher and more salad-filled time of it.

As writer and feminist Laurie Penny noted in the New Statesman on the futility of "real beauty" messages: "In politics, in business and in the arts, accomplished and powerful men are free to get fat and sloppy, but women can expect to be judged for their looks if they dare to have a high-profile job... We're either too unattractive to be tolerated or too pretty to have anything worth saying."


The power paunch also proves that there are different strains of fat. Fat is not only the last acceptable form of discrimination but also acts as a handy barometer of classism. The kind of fat that is the pitfall of the good life of business lunches, vintage Dom and hatted restaurants harks back to a time when paunchiness was considered a sign of wealth. The miserable kind of fat as the result of poorness and potato chips is sneer-worthy. And the power paunch also proves that there is a vast difference between fat men and fat women.

My colleague Candice Chung noted this last year in her discussion of the reactions to the introduction of "Fat Betty" in season five of Mad Men.

"Although 'fattism' can affect both sexes, there's a distinct feeling that women are more vulnerable to harsh judgments," she wrote.

"The power of 'fat' as an insult is brilliantly summed up by feminist Caitlin Moran, in How to be a Woman, 'It's not just a simple, descriptive word like 'brunette' ... It's a swearword. It's a weapon. It's a sociological sub-species. It's an accusation, dismissal and rejection'.''

But there's something more to this argument than whether women should be allowed to have power paunches too. They should! It's to do with, as Laurie Penny puts it, women not being allowed to take up too much space, and not merely literally.

Women must be thin and beautiful and must not upset the order of things too much lest we unsettle people with our opinions, or our body shape, or our refusal to buy in. And that's why powerful men can be fat, because they don't have to play that game.

What we should be fighting for is for women to be allowed to have the personality traits of men in possession of a power paunch - aggression, ruthlessness, the ability to not care, or have to care, what other people think. Imagine how much world domination - or in the very least, successful power lunches - could happen if fat wasn't even on the agenda, whether one is in possession of it or not.

- Daily Life