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The Metamorphoses of Fat: A History of Obesity by Georges Vigarello (review)
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Georges Vigarello. The Metamorphoses of Fat: A History of Obesity. Translated by C. Jon Delogu. European Perspectives. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. xiii + 261 pp. $29.50 (978-0-231-15976-0).

Perhaps the most frequent question asked of historians who study obesity is, “When did fat become a problem?” Recent years have seen a number of scholars contemplate this question, and the answers have ranged widely. For example, Sander Gilman, Peter Stearns, and Stephen Shapin have all published influential scholarship in part in an attempt to pin down the answer to this very question. Consensus need not be the goal, but successful histories of obesity must be complex, dependent upon a broad range of sources and the experience of a diversity of communities. In The Metamorphoses of Fat: A History of Obesity, C. Jon Delogu’s recent English translation of Georges Vigarello’s 2010 sweeping cultural history (originally published in French and titled Les metamorphoses du gras), the author offers a convincing treatment of the history of obesity that places the origin of the problem in the late medieval and early modern periods. Vigarello is particularly interested in texts dating from this period, when mass starvation was common in Europe, that seem to understand obesity as a social, aesthetic, and medical malady.

The Metamorphoses of Fat manages to honor the varied social and cultural meanings of bodies and yet still develop a coherent, cogent narrative about the origins of an obesity “problem” in European society. After beginning the discussion in the medieval period, Vigarello then proceeds to trace obesity’s ascendance in the public eye from through to the present, paying particular attention to the role of nutrition and scientific experimentation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and then finally arriving at contemporary concerns about obesity as a dangerous epidemic.

In addition to being a readable and engaging text, the book has three central scholarly strengths. First, Vigarello, a veteran historian of the body and its cultural aspects, interrogates an impressive range of sources, culled mainly from Western European art, plays, literature, science, medicine, and religion. The virtue of this is that it allows him to demonstrate key shifts in understanding the obese body with colorful and convincing textual examples. Second, to make his argument of the centrality of this period, Vigarello spends a good deal of the text discussing the meanings of the obese body in the late medieval and early modern period, a time frame that is too often ignored by scholars on the subject. The author’s extended treatment of the humoral understanding of fat and its workings within the Galenic framework is particularly useful and novel. Third, Vigarello’s close attention to the history of terminology used to name the condition is especially useful to readers curious about the development of and differences between these words, including “corpulence,” “embonpoint,” “fleshy,” “obese,” and, of course, “fat.”

There are, however, some limitations to this text. Periodization could be explained more clearly. For example, Vigarello makes his case for the centrality of the late medieval period without clearly engaging the periods that came before. Historians of medicine may also be disappointed that so much of the text is focused on nonmedical, literary understandings of obesity, even as Vigarello is [End Page 338] crafting a particularly medical argument about the treatment of obesity. Third, though Vigarello purports to trace the history of obesity across Europe, most of the sources and examples are French, and the book mainly focuses on accounts of the bodies of French, white Europeans. Finally, the author’s connections between conceptions of the body in earlier historical periods and policy debates in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are at times quite tenuous. More explication of the moral component of social approaches to obesity in the modern period, and the ways in which bodily categories shifted differently for different segments of European society, would improve the text.

Still, the book manages to deliver an impressive amount of material in less than two hundred pages, and it is both a thought-provoking and entertaining take on an important, relevant subject. In sum, it is an enjoyable and useful text for...