Books interview: Hanne Blank

The historian and author of Fat on finding the door into the historical and cultural study of fatness and exploring the meanings of eating and not eating in the West

November 23, 2020

What sorts of books inspired you as a child?
I loved reading the anthropology textbooks in my father’s university office and my mother’s Arthur Conan Doyle collection. Like many children, I longed to visit Narnia, loved Roald Dahl and obsessively reread books such as The Twenty-One Balloons, Harriet the Spy and all the Oz books. 

Your new book explores the complex mythologies that have grown up around fat. Which books initially piqued your interest in this topic?
In the early 1990s, I discovered Hillel Schwartz’s Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies, and Fat and was immediately fascinated that it was possible that fat and its corollaries such as weight-loss dieting could have a history. Around the same time, in a second-hand bookshop, I found Frederick Drimmer’s book from the 1970s, Very Special People: The Struggles, Loves, and Triumphs of Human Oddities, which had a chapter about circus fat ladies. That led me to start reading and thinking about fatness and performance and the politics of being seen when one has an uncommon body. 

Which books best illuminate the stereotypes about fat people and how these have changed?
I am fond of my friend and colleague Sander Gilman’s books – Fat: A Social History of Obesity, Fat Boys: A Slim Book and so on. Peter Stearns’ Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West is also good, as is Christopher Forth’s Fat: A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life.

Where can one find good analyses of dieting and its cultural meanings?
In the realm of academic history, I am fond of Rudolph Bell’s Holy Anorexia, Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women and Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa, which are very insightful and instructive with regard to the cultural meanings of eating and not-eating in the West. The historiography on weight-loss dieting is oddly small, but includes Gilman’s Diets and Dieting: A Cultural Encyclopedia and Walter Gratzer’s Terrors of the Table: The Curious History of Nutrition. In the realm of popular history, I liked Louise Foxcroft’s recent Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting over 2,000 Years and Susan Yager’s The Hundred Year Diet: America’s Voracious Appetite for Losing Weight.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
Just yesterday I gave my spouse a copy of Shonna Milliken Humphrey’s delightful book Gin.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
Keith Wailoo’s Pain: A Political History; Jen Manion’s Female Husbands: A Trans History; Thavolia Glymph’s The Women’s Fight: The Civil War’s Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation; and Mab Segrest’s Administrations of Lunacy: Racism and the Haunting of American Psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum are at the top of the stack.

Hanne Blank works in the Faculty for Women’s and Gender Studies at Denison University in Ohio. Her latest book, Fat, appears in the Bloomsbury Object Lessons series.

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