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Fat, Gluttony and Sloth: Obesity in Literature, Art and Medicine (review)

From: Journal of Social History
Volume 44, Number 1, Fall 2010
p. 272 | 10.1353/jsh.2010.0008

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Fat, Gluttony and Sloth: Obesity in Literature, Art and Medicine. By David Haslam and Fiona Haslam (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009. 326 pp. $45.00 cloth and $39.95 paper).

This intriguing but often frustrating effort is dedicated to calling attention to the massive contemporary problem of obesity, by probing various kinds of historical evidence. The authors are two doctors, one director of a hospital obesity management program, the other a specialist on medicine and art. The book is meticulously prepared and elaborately and fascinatingly illustrated.

Materials cover a variety of subjects, from different historical periods, though mainly pre-contemporary. Contemporary comment focuses mainly on the dangers of obesity, the relationship between (female) extreme obesity and depression and other topics of this sort. History topics include comments on dieting, exercise, the sins of gluttony and sloth, artistic representations, fat people in film, the fat as freaks, and drug treatments for overweight. An epilogue urges us to change the image of the gaunt spectre of death into an obese modern alternative.

Each section is interesting, with imaginative materials drawn mainly from Britain, but also from the United States and, periodically, the classical and medieval European worlds. On average — and this is the frustrating part — materials note abundant commentary on fat and fat people in, say, the early modern centuries, jumping perhaps to some more recent updates and then to a rueful comment about the contemporary incidence of obesity. There's no clear sense of historical change — other than the recent surge of the problem itself; we don't learn much about discrete periods in the discussion of fat people either in terms of the tone of commentary or even its incidence. Thus we learn that fat people were often derided, well before the modern problem even vaguely began to unfold, but not the extent of humor or its more specific historical context. A really good section on freak shows notes the decline of the fat lady by the late 1920s — a great historical specific — but with no interest in explanation for the change or its relationship to other social or cultural developments.

Not every good book has to be a systematic, much less analytical historical effort. As a source of an amazingly variety of representations and references, mainly descriptively presented, this is terrific. It will be the source of many illustrations for other historical, social science and medical work. It certainly demonstrates cultural precedents for contemporary concerns and prejudices, while also allowing the authors to take potshots at current obesity levels from many vantage points. But there is also opportunity lost for more careful probing of obesity in culture in key time periods and for any clear sense, beyond purely individual facets, of historical change and continuity. [End Page 272]

Peter N. Stearns
George Mason University