Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia
New York University Press, 2019
Reviewed by Alida Louisa Perrine
How are anti-blackness and fat-phobia related? Sabrina Strings provides a compelling social history of the widespread aversion to fatness and its links to the rejection of blackness in Western society and culture. Tracing gendered and raced ideas of body size from the Renaissance period to the present “obesity crisis,” Strings executes a thorough assessment of the evolution of discourses surrounding race, gender, and body size from medical, religious, and aesthetic perspectives. She argues that current social perceptions about fatness in the United States are bound up with social values that arose from the transatlantic slave trade and the profound influence of Protestantism. Strings convincingly demonstrates how racialized concerns about female body size function both to denigrate black women and control white women.
Strings’s book enters the conversation about fat-phobia in the United States with special attention to how race, class, and gender impact ideas about weight. Strings identifies race as the key to understanding the origins of the sustained rejection of large bodies, especially in women, throughout the history of Western civilization. While other scholars have made connections between policing body size and gender, and between fat-phobia and anti-blackness, Strings examines documents ranging from Renaissance-era treatises on beauty to early issues of the Journal of the American Medical Association to pinpoint the confluences of anxieties related to both fatness and blackness. Her careful and detailed research is indispensable to anyone interested in the collision of eugenics, Protestant moralism, and health discourses that underpin current US conceptions of appropriate body size. Strings writes in a largely accessible—if at times florid—style. The book is chronologically organized, and Strings clearly states her salient arguments about each time period analyzed.
Although a sociologist by training, Strings uses methods of historical analysis for her study, highlighting sociocultural and political factors that shaped the perspectives of the artists, authors, and medical professionals that inform her research. The bulk of the text is historical narrative driven by various key figures. Strings identifies prominent or representative thinkers and contextualizes their viewpoints on health, beauty, and the body. For example, she tells the story of Sarah Buell, an editor of magazines that taught women “how best to comport themselves as modern Anglo-Saxon Protestant women.” By always considering the race, class, and gender factors that contributed to these views, Strings reveals clear links between lines of thinking that led to the rejection of fatness as associated with racial Others. In the case of Buell’s teachings, “temperance in food and drink […] bred the slender physiques that offered evidence of racial superiority.” To construct these narratives, Strings uses a combination of primary and secondary source material. She analyzes a wealth of print material including letters, books on beauty, magazines, and academic journals. She includes many close readings of painting and portraits that indicate prevailing notions of beauty and ideal proportions of their respective eras.
Part One of Fearing the Black Body covers the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe when full-figured women were revered in Renaissance paintings and by prominent male thinkers preoccupied with human proportions. In this section, Strings demonstrates that anti-black discourses did not naturally arise when Europeans were first in contact with Africans but were crafted later. In the first chapter, Strings finds that Renaissance painters depicted round and curvaceous female bodies as lovely figures independent of race, although black women were often socially marked as inferior through their dress. Chapter Two proceeds to the seventeenth century when voluptuous women were still appreciated, but an obvious rejection of the possibility for black bodies to be beautiful coincided with the flourishing slave trade. In England, ideas about fat people were also beginning to shift as wealth generated by slavery and colonization, including ready availability of sugar, was causing people to gain weight. Corporeal largeness, especially in men, was increasingly associated with intellectual torpidity. The end of the seventeenth century also saw the creation of the first system of racial classification.
Part Two illustrates how body size in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries became connected to ideas about race and nation, as well as an indicator of moral character. This is the most extensive and compelling section as it gets to the core of the book’s argument and questions racial elements that contribute to aversions to fatness, especially in women. Chapter Three traces the rise of “rational” thought during the Enlightenment period that emerged alongside scientific racism. Racial theorists came to define race not only based on skin color, but also body size and shape, and by the end of the eighteenth century, gluttony was closely associated with blackness, and therefore barbarism. Concerns about women’s bodies were central to the development of theories of racial difference. Strings presents the widely known case of Sara Baartman, a Khoisan woman from South Africa who was brought to Europe to be displayed as a spectacle. She shows how Baartman’s fame marked a turning point in relating grotesque fatness and black femininity. Conversely, Chapter Four traces how thinness was being associated with white femininity during the same time period. While an aesthetic of thinness was becoming common among both white men and women, Puritan religious beliefs also advocated moderating food intake as a righteous rejection of the sin of gluttony.
The fifth chapter presents a crucial point when Strings ties together Protestant moralization, the valuation of a slender physique, and white supremacy during the nineteenth century. Racial Others, including black and Irish people, were described as dark and stout in contrast with tall and fair Anglo-Saxons. In this way, slimness came to be a marker of racial superiority, while rotundness demonstrated the opposite. At that time, women’s magazines emphasized the importance for women to maintain thin bodies for moral and aesthetic reasons. They suggested that fat women could be a success in the burning climes of Africa, but not so “civilized” white women in the United States. Chapter Six covers the turn of the twentieth century when scientific racism and eugenic ideologies continued to tinge discussions about female beauty, declaring that American women were the most beautiful in the world because of their tall and thin bodies that were due to their Aryan and Nordic heritages.
In Part Three, the reader learns how attitudes about fatness that were developed over the prior several centuries were absorbed into medical discourse in the twentieth century. This final part seems to rush through a key time period, with much fewer examples and details than the previous sections; nevertheless, Strings makes her points and leaves room for future inquiry. Chapter Seven demonstrates the turn to medical discourse at the beginning of the twentieth century to advocate for controlling body size, especially for white women who were responsible for propagating future generations of Americans. Medical discourse of the time paid little attention to black populations because scientific racism dictated that the inferior black race would eventually disappear of its own accord. Chapter Eight runs through the rest of the twentieth century showing the increasing preoccupation with fatness and obesity, especially in connection with women and their capacities to be mothers for the good of the race and the nation. It documents the arbitrary invention of the Body Mass Index and how black women became the face of the “obesity epidemic.” The end of the book would seem abrupt except for a brief epilogue that summarizes the main points.
Overall, Sabrina Strings makes an immense contribution with Fearing the Black Body by highlighting the racialized dimensions of fat-phobia and providing a wealth of historical narrative detailing the dizzying logic of Western appraisal of appropriate body proportions over the span of the past five centuries.