The Metamorphoses of Fat: A History of Obesity (European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism)
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Georges Vigarello maps the evolution of Western ideas about fat and fat people from the Middle Ages to the present, paying particular attention to the role of science, fashion, fitness crazes, and public health campaigns in shaping these views. While hefty bodies were once a sign of power, today those who struggle to lose weight are considered poor in character and weak in mind. Vigarello traces the eventual equation of fatness with infirmity and the way we have come to define ourselves and others in terms of body type.
Vigarello begins with the medieval artists and intellectuals who treated heavy bodies as symbols of force and prosperity. He then follows the shift during the Renaissance and early modern period to courtly, medical, and religious codes that increasingly favored moderation and discouraged excess. Scientific advances in the eighteenth century also brought greater knowledge of food and the body's processes, recasting fatness as the "relaxed" antithesis of health. The body-as-mechanism metaphor intensified in the early nineteenth century, with the chemistry revolution and heightened attention to food-as-fuel, which turned the body into a kind of furnace or engine. During this period, social attitudes toward fat became conflicted, with the bourgeois male belly operating as a sign of prestige but also as a symbol of greed and exploitation, while the overweight female was admired only if she was working class. Vigarello concludes with the fitness and body-conscious movements of the twentieth century and the proliferation of personal confessions about obesity, which tied fat more closely to notions of personality, politics, taste, and class.
matters of “health.” One must look to more indirect, simple, and immediate practices to detect any concerted effort at slimming in the fifteenth century, such as, for example, wearing tightly belted clothes to hold in flesh. In 1490 Anne of France tells of a young woman who is “so tightly strapped into her clothes that her heart gives out.”25 There is also the wide belt that strangles the waist of high-status women in the fifteenth century, the twosided strong belt of noble women in René
prevent women in childbirth from experiencing any enlargement of their “mammaries.”80 The metal becomes a mold: a steel blade suspended from the neck supports the two breasts while “two little pieces of cork” placed under the armpits exert a lateral pressure. There is no indication of the frequency of its use nor of how widespread that use was. Liébault’s book, however, as well as a Treasury of Secret Remedies for Female Maladies, which repeats these recommendations, had wide circulation and was
sensibility.10 From 1760 to 1770 Jean-Baptiste Élie de Beaumont, a lawyer practicing in Paris since 1752, a friend of Voltaire’s, and a defender of notable causes, consults Antoine Petit and Samuel Tissot for a condition he describes as “extreme fatness.”11 His letters detail the lawyer’s dismay. They also tell of his quite particular way of arriving at his diagnosis. He notes a visual judgment of forms and their changes that is both “modern” and “dated”—the waistline once again rather than
best to position one’s body to favor the union required for one’s “conjugal duty.” “One is to stand, the wife lying back on the edge of the bed with thighs raised and resting against the arms of the husband with the legs hanging over the shoulders.”11 Powerlessness is indeed a “global” evil. And the doctor’s answer will also concern itself with the “venereal act.” Toning Up 101 The Virtue of “Excitants” Tonics are not alone in promising vigor. Exercises are also promoted, now with new
eighteenth century, there are studies launched by the scientific community and public administrators that make use of the laws of large numbers, facts calculated en masse such as crimes, births, and deaths, which are all related via averages that report increases or decreases over time.9 These projects were greatly expanded by scientists and administrators in industry during the period 1810–1820. Certain democratic aims also transformed expectations that now extended to evaluating the procedures