- Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings
Strings’ excellent work on the links between anti-fatness and antiblackness begins with an anecdote of a peculiarly late nineteenth-century phenomenon—doctors and diet gurus like John Harvey Kellogg fretting over the “paleness leanness and malnutrition of American women” even as wealthy white women attempted to reduce their size. This juxtaposition, and the mingling of women’s size with anxieties of race and empire, will be clear to readers familiar with fat studies and the history of fatness. Yet Strings offers a necessary intervention into that growing scholarship by exploring how fatness became particularly linked to “Africanity” and blackness long before the nineteenth century, and by exposing the misogynoir that continues to feed the fear of fat in the “obesity epidemic” of the twenty-first century. This work builds on scholars like Farrell, who adeptly explore the racialized ideal of thinness, but Strings shifts the chronology of anti-fatness away from the twentieth century.1 By de-centering the Gibson Girls of the 1890s and the flappers of the 1920s, Strings offers a deeper and more complex history of anti-fat thought with roots in the Atlantic slave trade and the American Protestant ethos, which introduces fat history into the historiography of the Atlantic world, as well.
While acknowledging a debt to Bourdieu and Foucault, and their study of the aesthetics and morality of social distinctions and biopolitics, respectively, Strings uses the methods of process-tracing and historical [End Page 132] narrative to create a work of impressive scope that moves beyond the consensus of feminist scholars that thin ideology and medicalized antifatness are racialized.2 This interdisciplinary approach allows Strings to trace a much broader chronology and geography of anti-fatness and weave a fascinating narrative out of historical processes as complex as the Renaissance, colonization, Protestantism, and the rise of the public sphere and the nation.
The first part of the book, “The Beauty of the Robust,” sketches a useful summary of a plumper past, when European and African women were depicted as “equally voluptuous,” and racial distinctions were more likely to be seen in the face than in the overall form, as in Albrecht Dürer’s early sixteenth-century portraits and anatomical studies. Strings also notes the way that fatness in men specifically became undesirable in the seventeenth century, linked to a “voracious appetite” prone to overindulge in the fruits of the slave trade such as sugar (57).
Part II of the book, “Race, Weight, God, and Country,” is the most compelling. It offers new weight to the history of fatness. Strings shows that the slender ideal took shape as an imagined characteristic of northern European “superiority” and that anti-fatness turned into a reliable tool in the work of creating the “other.” Strings explains the “rise of the big black woman” in the long eighteenth century, when the supposed idleness of Africans was reinforced via depictions of African women, like the 1810 “Hottentot Venus” (91). Her focus on Protestant theologies of abstention further clarifies the moral underpinnings of anti-fatness, as does her discussion of women like Cosmopolitan editor Elizabeth Bisland, who imagined a unique, and thin, American beauty in the late nineteenth century that supported eugenic fears of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe.
Finally, in Part III, the medical establishment enters the fray as Strings examines subjects that will be familiar to scholars of fatness— the views of Kellogg, actuarial tables linking weight to health risks, and the rise of the “obesity epidemic.” In this summary of the shift of medical anxiety over American women’s frailness to fatness, Strings methodology is too thin. In her favor, she carefully notes the explicit linkage of body size to racial uplift amid imperial anxieties, as well as Kellogg’s general condescension toward “young, scrawny Anglo-women” and their “improper dress,” which was infused with anti-black fantasies of African “fashions.” But readers are left to wonder how women...