Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. By Sabrina Strings (New York, New York University Press, 2019) 304 pp. $89.00 cloth $27.99 paper

Amelia Earhart Serafine
2020 Journal of Interdisciplinary History  
Taking a broad view informed deeply by his previous scholarship in the history of European masculinities and bodies, Forth explores the ambiguous meanings of fatness in Western cultures. Although the title does not so indicate, Forth's study covers only Western cultures-from the ancient world through the fall of the Greek and Roman Empires, the development of Christianity, modernity, colonialism, and into the twentieth century. His examples are numerous and rich-drawing from anthropology,
more » ... anthropology, classical studies, Biblical studies, literary studies, travelogs, and early science writing-forever putting to rest the idea that fatness had been valorized from prehistory (think Venus of Willendorf ) until the emergence of modernity. According to Forth, "fat" has a rich and storied history: The "fat of the land" represented "fertility and ripeness as well as death and decay" to early Western agricultural communities (45); the long-standing conceit of the "iron utopia of Sparta" encouraged the "fantasy of taking harsh measures against the corpulent" (105, 157); Christianity posited links between gluttony and fat and between devils and rounded bellies from its earliest days; and even wealthy and powerful men, from the tyrant Dionysius of Heraclea to the theologian Martin Luther, could be mocked as well as lauded for their formidable, rotund bodies. Most powerfully, Forth details the ways in which the European colonial imagination linked darkness, femininity, savagery, and fatness, using examples that range from European medical writings about fat Hindus to the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso's depiction of fat, female prostitutes in Africa. Forth even challenges the contemporary citing of Peter Paul Rubens as a nineteenth-century champion of female fatness. He points out that even though Rubens painted fleshy women, he made clear in his writings that he considered such a body type to be inferior to the Spartan ideal (165) . Although most of Forth's sources are text-based-art, literature, religious tracts, political cartoons, scientific observations, and travel pieces -he begins his book with a discussion of the tactility of fat, drawing from the emerging fields of the history, philosophy, and psychology of disgust and touch. He writes, "fat's stickiness, whether as liquid or solid, may also be a source of frustration and even alarm," connected to an overall uneasiness about things that are dirty, oily, and slimy (22). In other words, he raises the possibility of fat being inherently repulsive, creating a deep psychological aversion, noting that this emotional reaction emerges under "specific historic conditions" (13). His treatment of this point, however, appears to suggest that the "deeply narrative to create a work of impressive scope that moves beyond the consensus of feminist scholars that thin ideology and medicalized antifatness are racialized. 2 This interdisciplinary approach allows Strings to trace a much broader chronology and geography of anti-fatness and weave a fascinating narrative out of historical processes as complex as the Renaissance, colonization, Protestantism, and the rise of the public sphere and the nation. The first part of the book, "The Beauty of the Robust," sketches a useful summary of a plumper past, when European and African women were depicted as "equally voluptuous," and racial distinctions were more likely to be seen in the face than in the overall form, as in Albrecht Dürer's early sixteenth-century portraits and anatomical studies. Strings also notes the way that fatness in men specifically became undesirable in the seventeenth century, linked to a "voracious appetite" prone to overindulge in the fruits of the slave trade such as sugar (57) . Part II of the book, "Race, Weight, God, and Country," is the most compelling. It offers new weight to the history of fatness. Strings shows that the slender ideal took shape as an imagined characteristic of northern European "superiority" and that anti-fatness turned into a reliable tool in the work of creating the "other." Strings explains the "rise of the big black woman" in the long eighteenth century, when the supposed idleness of Africans was reinforced via depictions of African women, like the 1810 "Hottentot Venus" (91). Her focus on Protestant theologies of abstention further clarifies the moral underpinnings of anti-fatness, as does her discussion of women like Cosmopolitan editor Elizabeth Bisland, who imagined a unique, and thin, American beauty in the late nineteenth century that supported eugenic fears of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. Finally, in Part III, the medical establishment enters the fray as Strings examines subjects that will be familiar to scholars of fatnessthe views of Kellogg, actuarial tables linking weight to health risks, and the rise of the "obesity epidemic." In this summary of the shift of medical anxiety over American women's frailness to fatness, Strings methodology is too thin. In her favor, she carefully notes the explicit linkage of body size to racial uplift amid imperial anxieties, as well as Kellogg's general condescension toward "young, scrawny Anglo-women" and their "improper dress," which was infused with anti-black fantasies of African "fashions." But readers are left to wonder how women received these messages (176). The book tends to re-enforce the idea that anti-fatness is a top-down ideology originating in the fears and anxieties of elites, used to uphold social, racial, and gender hierarchies. This 2 See, for example, Pierre Bourdieu (trans. Richard Nice), Distinction: A Social
doi:10.1162/jinh_r_01524 fatcat:jwakmrkpsfenjhlfp6ekeq74d4