- Fat: A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life by Christopher E. Forth
Taking a broad view informed deeply by his previous scholarship in the history of European masculinities and bodies, Forth explores the ambiguous meanings of fatness in Western cultures. Although the title does not so indicate, Forth’s study covers only Western cultures—from the ancient world through the fall of the Greek and Roman Empires, the development of Christianity, modernity, colonialism, and into the twentieth century. His examples are numerous and rich—drawing from anthropology, classical studies, Biblical studies, literary studies, travelogs, and early science writing—forever putting to rest the idea that fatness had been valorized from prehistory (think Venus of Willendorf) until the emergence of modernity.
According to Forth, “fat” has a rich and storied history: The “fat of the land” represented “fertility and ripeness as well as death and decay” to early Western agricultural communities (45); the long-standing conceit of the “iron utopia of Sparta” encouraged the “fantasy of taking harsh measures against the corpulent” (105, 157); Christianity posited links between gluttony and fat and between devils and rounded bellies from its earliest days; and even wealthy and powerful men, from the tyrant Dionysius of Heraclea to the theologian Martin Luther, could be mocked as well as lauded for their formidable, rotund bodies. Most powerfully, Forth details the ways in which the European colonial imagination linked darkness, femininity, savagery, and fatness, using examples that range from European medical writings about fat Hindus to the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso’s depiction of fat, female prostitutes in Africa. Forth even challenges the contemporary citing of Peter Paul Rubens as a nineteenth-century champion of female fatness. He points out that even though Rubens painted fleshy women, he made clear in his writings that he considered such a body type to be inferior to the Spartan ideal (165).
Although most of Forth’s sources are text-based—art, literature, religious tracts, political cartoons, scientific observations, and travel pieces —he begins his book with a discussion of the tactility of fat, drawing from the emerging fields of the history, philosophy, and psychology of disgust and touch. He writes, “fat’s stickiness, whether as liquid or solid, may also be a source of frustration and even alarm,” connected to an overall uneasiness about things that are dirty, oily, and slimy (22). In other words, he raises the possibility of fat being inherently repulsive, creating a deep psychological aversion, noting that this emotional reaction emerges under “specific historic conditions” (13). His treatment of this point, however, appears to suggest that the “deeply [End Page 131] rooted and recurring Western tendencies to associate the soft, flabby, bloated and viscous with the feminine and the feminizing, but also with the backward, primitive or uncivilized” might reflect a natural human repugnance rather than a Western cultural construct (15). Even if this suggestion is inadvertent, his discussion of disgust, as well as his failure to challenge the linkage between fatness and medical problems (241, 248), will certainly leave many readers dissatisfied.
The issue raised above will likely leave readers wishing for a deeper, more explicit engagement with the fundamental questions and assumptions of the growing field of fat studies. Nevertheless, the substantive details and analysis of the development of Western ambiguity and antipathy toward fatness in Forth’s book are a useful addition to the history of Western culture, the body, and fat.