Obesity: The Biography (review)
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Reviewed by
Sander L. Gilman. Obesity: The Biography. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010. xvi + 214 pp. Ill. $24.95, 12.99 (978-0-19-955797-4).

Obesity: The Biography is a very useful book, well written and informed by a clear sense of balance and perspective. The effort forms part of an Oxford University Press series on disease "biographies" and clearly has a wide audience in mind. And indeed, a public audience would be usefully informed and stimulated. But scholars in the field will find important nuggets as well, in addition to graceful summaries of some more familiar materials.

Several foci inform the study. The first, from the outset, is a clear and well-stated understanding of how elusive obesity is as a medical category—beginning with the fact that, some expert and popular opinion to the contrary, it is not in itself a disease. Opportunities for cultural redefinitions are legion, and much of the book lays out sequential cultural models. [End Page 133]

Second, approaches to obesity have a clear history. After introductory material including a brief focus on Dickens's role in popularizing some ideas about obesity, Gilman centers his study on early medical thinking about obesity, from the Hebrews and Greeks onward, but their ultimate conflation with religious concerns about gluttony; a crucial new turn, in the fifteenth century, toward a more scientific approach with the work of the Venetian Alvise Luigi Cornaro; wider medical but also concomitant religious concern in the eighteenth century, leading to the greater outburst of work (including American contributions from dietary gurus like Kellogg and Graham) toward the mid-nineteenth century; the rise of a more psychological approach but concurrent tensions with physiological explanations and treatments in the mid-twentieth century; and then the more recent fascination with genetics.

Medical approaches and opinions, broadly construed, form the most consistent thread. This allows considerable space for attention to key individuals—such as Cornaro, but also William Banting, Charles William Post, and Hilde Bruch—of varying degrees of scholarly familiarity.

The book does not particularly probe popular reactions to diagnoses and remedies, or even popularization processes themselves. Gilman notes public interest at points—correctly, for the most part—but nuances and complexities receive short shrift. There is little, as a result, on the role of fashion. And while policy initiatives are mentioned as part of the most recent surge of obesity concerns, they never take center stage. This is a short study, and an effective one: it would have been impossible to do everything within the assigned compass. But one result of a certain gap between the evolution of expertise and public assumptions is a lack of concerted attention to the obvious modern dilemma, in which rising expert concern and even popular moral panic (claimed in the introduction, though not fully explored) wars with actual public behaviors.

Most of the book, finally, treats Western sources. But Gilman is acutely aware of the now-global dimensions of his topic and refers recurrently to "globesity." And while there is little systematic comparative study, in any phase of his historical treatment, an immensely valuable chapter deals with Chinese reactions to obesity. The chapter is richly suggestive, if not definitive in historical terms, and invites similar work on other cultural traditions and contemporary confrontations.

This is, again, an impressive short study, with many stimulating insights and a clear command of the issues involved. [End Page 134]

Peter N. Stearns
George Mason University