Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity

October 23, 2008

Somehow it seemed very appropriate that I chose to review this book during my annual sojourn to a Balearic beach where all the glories of the differing human form were exposed to public gaze. Fat does exactly what its title suggests - it is an examination of the cultural history of obesity. Early chapters suggest that obesity has become a disease. Gilman chooses to use the viral metaphor of an infectious disease to argue that obesity should be recalibrated from a disease caused by greed and lack of willpower to one caused by infection. In particular, the book discusses suggestions that obesity is not the fault of an individual, but a disease embedded in the food chain - a disease that history shows must originate from the Orient. The cultural history of severe acute respiratory system and avian influenza, which began in the East, are discussed in detail to strengthen this theory.

The problem of childhood obesity is analysed through reference to historical literature, in particular the work of Charles Dickens. Gilman contends that the fat characters portrayed in Dickens' books were generally portrayed as lazy, mentally slow and neither healthy nor normal, thus creating a social stigmatisation of the "fat body".

Later chapters further examine the stigma of obesity as an ethnic problem. This section of the book contends that historical eugenicists associated the predisposition of Jews to develop diabetes as a natural outcome of the propensity to enjoy the finer foods in life. A diet comprising "fats, sugar and pastry will inevitably progress towards realizations of fat generations, creating an extremely favourable soil for obesity", as Gilman notes.

Even a religious overview of obesity is discussed, where Gilman quotes a 2006 study by Krista Cline and Kenneth Ferraro, who suggest a correlation between varying religious denominations and body size. Their research suggested: "Baptists were the fattest of them all, followed by other Protestant groups. The rule seems to be: the more fundamentalist you are, the fatter you will be."

The final chapter examines the emergence of obesity in modern China. Interestingly, Gilman suggests that Chinese studies are rooted in the view that obesity and its attendant symptoms is the pathological "occidentalisation" of the Chinese - a contamination spread from the West to the East, rather than the classic East-West transmission discussed in early chapters. However, in juxtaposition to this argument, it is suggested that the Chinese view McDonald's as a positive implication of imperialism. McDonald's food is regarded as "clean" food through its promotion of hygiene and etiquette, served as it is in a single-use bag with napkins. Gilman notes that Chinese school students are said to learn "... hygienic behaviour and proper etiquette by eating hamburgers".

A thorough overview is offered in the final chapter. Here, the two main arguments appear to be that the cultural history of obesity suggests that healthy eating practices have been corrupted through the resultant poverty of the individual caused by global economic and industrial development. Fat, in the form of obesity, is therefore a product of globalisation and modernity. Thus it would appear only proper to view obesity as an illness, and a national rather than an individual problem.

This book will be useful to students of culture and social identity, concentrating as it does on the historical debates surrounding obesity. It is easy to read, and my only criticism would be the neutral choice of cover illustration.

Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity

By Sander L. Gilman. Polity Press. 200pp, £50.00 and £14.99. ISBN 9780745644400 and 44417. Published 5 September 2008

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