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Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity


Sander L. Gilman


Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2008. Paperback. $22.95. 237p.

ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-4441-7


Reviewed by Thomas G. Cole, II

University of Florida



From phenotypes to Falstaff, from physiognomy to specific foods, Sander L. Gilman deciphers the ways fat and obesity have been classified, constructed, and, perhaps most notably, feared in his book Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity. The book’s style of inquiry stems from Gilman’s interdisciplinary scholarship in German studies, Jewish studies, psychiatry, comparative literature, medicine, and history, and thus “fat” is treated as no simple subject. Fat provides a thoroughgoing and enlightening investigation of “fat” as a floating signifier, as a racial characteristic, a class marker, as a valued and hated human trait, as the symptom of a now-current epidemic (aptly titled, “globesity”), and as a threat to nationhood—all discussions that would benefit interested scholars of the history of the body. 

Gilman first introduces his readers to the notion that “fat” is “truly in the eye of beholder”: “Each age, culture, and tradition has defined acceptable weight for itself, and yet all have a point beyond which excess weight is unacceptable, unhealthy, ugly, or corrupting” [3]. That “fat” has a fluid but gravely demarcated definition, one that is changeable for different times and peoples, is basic to Gilman’s analyses of obesity. In nineteenth-century Germany, for example, “labeling Jews as a ‘diabetic’ race was a means of labeling them as inferior within the terms of nineteenth-century scientific racism” [105]. This was, Gilman contends, one of the avenues in which racism became linked medically to diseases of obesity: “It is only in modernity…that the Jew’s body comes to represent all of the potential for disease and decay associated with the obese body” [104]. 

However, at other times, obesity, still raced, got coded as a good or admirable quality. For example, Gerald O’Hara from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1936) has a “formidable – if short – body” that “point[s] to a man who had succeed [sic] in overcoming hunger and oppression…. He was ‘fat’, but in the most positive sense of nineteenth-century masculinity” [127]. The disparity between the “good” fat bodies from the “bad” fat ones was especially clear when the image of the white, fat body of O’Hara’s was set against the black, fat body of Mammy’s: Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal of the “Aunt Jemima” body type that, from 1905 onward, remains “a sign of a ‘maternal’ and acceptable body,” demonstrating the long and prevalent issue of “racial difference” [126]. This is one of Gilman’s more salient points—how fat is valued in or on some people and not on others. 

Moreover, Gilman’s discussions of race and class extend from negatively valuated fat—how European sciences and cultures viewed the Hottentots or how Aristotelian moderation governed the citizen’s body—to positively appraised fat, such as that of Mr. Pickwick from Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. Whereas Mr. Pickwick “is plump but quick of body and mind – and therefore healthy and wise” [49], Joe, a servant boy in Dickens’ classic where Gilman locates the beginning worries of childhood obesity, similar to the origin from which the Pickwickian syndrome also sprung, “is seen as fat, and fat means mentally ‘slow’” [48]. Fat, here, extends far beyond matters of girth; it becomes a marker of mental handicap, “a symptom of his class,” a pathology, or even a disease [60]. “With the shift in the explanation of childhood obesity onto a focus on the endocrine system,” Gilman writes (of a 1950s reading of Pickwick), “Dickens’ fat boy becomes an illustration of Froehlich’s syndrome rather than of Graves’ disease” [66-7]. Here, Gilman underscores a major, valuable thesis of his book: though nineteenth- and twentieth-century physicians and literary critics diagnosed Joe umpteen times, each diagnosis always led to a newer, more scientifically correct and beneficial diagnosis, thus mirroring the routine treatment of obesity. There is always the next silver bullet cure. 

The miracle cure is another theme in Gilman’s book, and he gives careful attention to various disciplines’ attempts to locate such a “magic bullet” [22-3]. From the nineteenth century to the early twenty-first, biologists, psychologists, and media outlets have almost always touted the existence of a yet unfound easy, quick fix for obesity—even pre-modern Chinese doctors believed in a uncomplicated cure [142]—and Gilman’s critique of the universal remedy foregrounds one of his most important contributions to the study of obesity: the psychological function of fat. Whether it was Hilde Bruch’s “model for obesity rooted in the individual experience of the patient… [which] allowed for the possibility of ‘cure’” in the 1940s or Medicare’s 2004 classification of obesity as a disease, “opening the way for the government to pay for a whole range of possible treatments, from surgery and diets to psychotherapy,” obesity gets redefined, in newer ways that frequently herald treatment as a realer possibility than it had been before [121, 15]. 

The myriad responses to the fat question have also shifted authority over the obesity epidemic to the purview of the state or nation. Thus Fat rightly articulates that the nativity of the modern state coincides with Enlightenment notions of “mind over body”: “the healthy body is the body in control of its own destiny” [6-7]. The healthy, right-minded, respectable citizen controls the size of the body. Gilman writes, “National identity, at least in the course of the nineteenth century, is framed by images of acceptable and unacceptable bodies. And the ‘too fat’ body is neither that of a healthy nor that of a good citizen” [8]. The distinctions between “good” and “bad” citizens (in light of fat) clarify the role of class and race in articulations of citizenship and nationhood. His discussion of scientific anti-Semitism regarding diabetes as the “Jewish disease,” for example, reveals how states’ eugenic views pathologized obesity and led to the definition of Jews “as part of an inferior racial group” [105]. 

Not unlike Medicare’s reclassification of obesity as a pathology, the recent suggestion of a fat tax in the US exemplifies the behavior Gilman distinguishes as the state’s desired “role in the dieting culture” [10]. The moral panic, supervised by the state, attempts to catalogue it both as a manageable problem for nations and as one to which state governments ought to pay more than just lip service. Whether it is proposed taxes on fatty foods or public service announcements, the narrative Gilman distills for his readers is that it is the government’s role to combat obesity. Gilman identifies slow, organic foods as the answer that seems to have arisen in the “globesity” narrative—a conclusion that he unfortunately spends too little time on, and one that is currently a hot topic. Gilman posits that “a return to the inherently ‘healthy’ eating practices of the edenic past” illustrates the worldwide disdain for fast, processed (and gross) food [165]. Thus fat somehow becomes “a product of globalization and modernity” [165]. 

In a move that foreshadows one of Gilman’s more recent academic forays, he turns to China. This shift, too, illustrates Gilman’s interest in cross-cultural humanities projects. In his China chapter, he shows that the classic Orientalist view has been turned on its head. Rather than illness and contagion emanating from East to West, globesity has moved West to East. He traces different lineages of “fatness” in China, ultimately claiming that widespread obesity has only recently become such a national issue, as well as a product of the West’s capitalist influence, though concern over obesity had certainly existed before. Yet again readers see a glimpse of a state’s intervention of the fat individual, especially when Gilman provides an example of one of the many 1911 reforms: with the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, “[a] new fantasy of the ‘reformed’ body had begun to emerge…. Obesity came to be viewed as one of the signs of the degenerate Chinese body…. [And] obesity define[d] the ability of the society to reform the individual” [140]. The 1911 example echoes on a much smaller scale the anxiety over obesity now, and again with specters of non-communist influence, namely, globalization, there are new clarion calls from the Chinese government claiming McDonald’s, America, and fast food as the origins of the obesity epidemic in China. Obesity, now a disease not simply of the body but of modernity, spans the globe, so much so that health watchdog organizations advocate fat as the number one health problem in the world. 

Gilman’s book is not without some drawbacks. His chapters can often seem like essays that are tenuously related to one another, and the history he provides habitually feels fragmented. And yet to demand too much of this volume would be disingenuous. Although it may have “history” in its subtitle, Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity does not attempt to deliver itself as a history book. It is a compendium of discrete essays on obesity for interdisciplinary humanities, including fat-, cultural-, Jewish-, and literary studies. Gilman provides a book that makes sense of a global problem in ways that sketch out its roots through several countries, in numerous eras, and for disparate peoples.




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