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Fat History

Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West

Peter Stearns

Publication Year: 2002

The modern struggle against fat cuts deeply and pervasively into American culture. Dieting, weight consciousness, and widespread hostility toward obesity form one of the fundamental themes of modern life.

Fat History explores the meaning of fat in contemporary Western society and illustrates how progressive changes, such as growth in consumer culture, increasing equality for women, and the refocusing of women's sexual and maternal roles have influenced today's obsession with fat.

Brought up-to-date with a new preface and filled with narrative anecdotes, Fat History explores fat's transformation from a symbol of health and well-being to a sign of moral, psychological, and physical disorder.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v

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New Preface

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pp. vii-xvii

Research for this book was completed in the mid-1990s, and the book itself has been circulating for six years. In taking the opportunity to add some comments for this edition, a welcome occasion, there are two obvious targets. First, has the book's reception provoked any particular concerns? ...

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pp. xviii-xxiv

Over the past century, a major addition has occurred in Western standards of beauty and morality: the need to stay thin, or at least to profess a desire to become thin. The results are wide-ranging, from a desperate quest for slimmer opera stars to a huge new commercial literature...


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pp. xxv-xxvi

Part I: American Fat

1. The Turning Point

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pp. 3-24

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2. The Medical Path: Physicians and Faddists

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pp. 25-47

Doctors and medical advice participated in the growing campaign against fat right along with the pseudoscientific enthusiasts around the turn of the century. These groups and the arguments they adduced helped cause the new concern about overweight, as we will see. ...

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3. Fat as a Turn-of-the-Century Target: Why?

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pp. 48-68

What caused a growing number of Americans, in a growing number of fields from fashion to medicine to bodybuilding, to put fat in the fire around 1900? The explanation for a deep and durable revulsion against excessive weight has not been resolved in previous work, partly...

Part II: Intensification of the Culture, 1920—1990s: Expiation and Its Limits

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4. The Misogynist Phase: 1920s-1960s

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pp. 71-97

Because the basic dimensions of hostility to fat and their complex cultural roots were well established before 1920 in the United States, one need not linger over every detail to trace subsequent developments. Dieting became part of American faddism, which means the significance...

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5. Stepping up the Pace: Old Motives, New Methods

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pp. 98-126

The most important development in the campaign against fat from the 1920s onward involved its sheer intensification. Special features of the constraints on women were significant in this larger context, for there was no question that the campaign — and even more, its reception — were gendered. ...

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6. Fat City: American Weight Gains in the Twentieth Century

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pp. 127-149

No study of the modern American hostility to fat would be complete without exploring its great anomaly: during the very century in which diet standards have been ever more rigorously urged, average American weight has gone up, rather markedly. This is true even when weight gains are...

Part III: The French Regime

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7. The Evolution of Weight Control in France

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pp. 153-186

French concerns about slenderness paralleled those in the United States in many respects. The two countries shared an artistic and Christian heritage. They industrialized at about the same times, though the American process was more impressive. Both, for example, passed the 50 percent...

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8. The French Regime

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pp. 187-216

American and French patterns of weight control share a combination of consistency and change. Both established certain themes early on, some of them quite similar, some rather different. At the same time, both shifted considerably over what is now a full century of modern weight control history. ...

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9. Atlantic Crisscross: The Franco-American Contrasts

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pp. 217-246

Explaining the differences between French and American approaches in a common cause—the battle against fat—requires some subtlety. Gross contrasts do not work. If the French were attuned more fully to the dictates of fashion, middle- and upper-class Americans certainly followed...

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10. Conclusion: The Fat's in the Fire

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pp. 247-260

Keeping to a diet is a serious component of modern culture and a major innovation in the panoply of personal concerns and commitments. The standards carry deep social roots as well as individual constraints, as weight control adds to but also reflects major features of modern life...


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pp. 261-287


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pp. 289-294

Image Plates

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E-ISBN-13: 9780814739822
E-ISBN-10: 0814739822
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814798249
Print-ISBN-10: 0814798241

Page Count: 300
Publication Year: 2002