BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Lebesco described fat panic as something with many tendrils tightly tethered to our culture, to our media. But the genesis of American ideas about weight occurred long before nightly news spots on the ‘obesity epidemic.’ Back in the 16th century, a philosophical question was captivating Europe's artistic and intellectual elite: What is beauty? Proportions, facial features and fat were all scrutinized in a quest to define the divine ideal. The answers, left for us in the form of Renaissance art, offer portraits of a society that valued women of luminous variety and especially those of weight.
Earlier this year, I spoke to Sabrina Strings, sociologist at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fatphobia. Strings saw something odd happening in both the brush strokes and philosophy ascendant at the turn of the 18th century.
It seemed that European women still held the focus in portraiture, but European men were getting leaner. Long-enduring attitudes about beauty steeped in abundance were about to undergo a radical reassessment rooted in the quickly expanding slave trade. Bound up in race, obviously, and class and religion, but also consumption. Specifically of one commodity made available by expanding enslavement of black people. I'm talking about white gold.
SABRINA STRING Europeans were recreating their own cultural identities, often in opposition to how racial others appeared.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's Sabrina Strings.
SABRINA STRING Sugar was an important part of the story. Now there's all this sugar available — these sweets, alcoholic beverages. And people spend all of their time in these pubs drinking and eating themselves under the table. ‘My God, no. If we are a Christian nation, we need to rein this in.’ There were elite European men, especially thinking about what does it mean to be an intellectual, what it meant to be an intellectual during the classical era, and then turning and ever so slightly to say, well, people who are lean and have a hungry look are they might have said, conniving during antiquity, but let's say intelligent restraint of the so-called animal appetites. That's proof of intellectual capacity. Now, after this epic we're talking about the 18th century, the Enlightenment, historical models of beauty don't really work. ‘It's not enough for us to be slender. We need to have models of beauty that speak to our values. We are going to create a hierarchy from the highest beings to the lowest beings,’ a reinvention of what was known in the 16th century as the great chain of being.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And enslaved people were depicted as undisciplined and lazy and overindulgent and fat.
SABRINA STRING Race science is a fiction. It relies on the desire to keep a hierarchy in place. It didn't really matter too much that if you were to go to Africa you would have seen people with all sorts of body types. The idea was that there was already a relationship between intellectual wisdom and refinement and slenderness, and one of the prevailing narratives was that Africans were hypersexual and hyperoral. This is the time period before statistics were broadly used. It's not as if scales were everywhere. Right. It wasn't as if it was based on reality. It was based on a narrative.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Half these people may not have even seen them at all.
SABRINA STRING That's the most important part. It's hard for us to imagine a time period in which you simply did not see anyone of African descent. But that was quite plausible. If you were, let's say, living in Paris. It would have been very rare to come across an African. Or if you were living in London. That's why Sarah Baartman, when she arrived in the 19th century, was such a sensation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The so-called Hottentot Venus.
SABRINA STRING That's right. The Hottentot Venus. So we have, for the first time, an actual black woman arriving in Europe for the express purposes of being seen by European populations. People were coming out by the droves to get a glimpse of the so-called perfect specimen of Africanity. One of the reasons why people came to see her was because the size and shape of her labia and buttocks were unusual compared to Europeans' understandings of their own anatomy. They deemed this to be absolutely evidence of savagery and primitivity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's jump back to 1780. There was already a conversation, this was in Britain, about the American physique that many white Americans were tall and lanky and really more beautiful than the Brits.
SABRINA STRING You know, there was a moment in which the British and the Americans were talking about their superior position in humanity. There was all of this conversation about what it meant to be a true Anglo-Saxon American. And it had a lot to do with height and weight.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And Protestantism.
SABRINA STRING Yes. Protestantism is an integral part of this story because there was this movement that was taking place in England to reform the dietary habits that had cropped up as a result of the slave trade. There was this sense amongst Puritans, for the most part, that sugar was actually deteriorating the moral fiber. And many of the people who were out proselytizing about this were involved with the church. In the case of George Shane, he wasn't formally ordained.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He was a preacher of the diet. And his view was, you should just drink milk, right?
SABRINA STRING Yeah. You know, you're on a diet of milk and seeds. This is supposed to remove any temptation to overly indulge in your appetite. You know, secondly, it will reduce your frame if it is too corpulent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And Shane was his own best evidence because he had grown enormously fat and used this diet to lose 250 pounds or something.
SABRINA STRING He was wondering if he was eating in such a way that was contrary to Christian principles. And once he adopted this new diet, he found that he felt like he was doing the right thing for God and that he also lost weight. This is a very important part of the message that he was disseminating to audiences, and the people who showed up were largely women.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This transition, in the view of fat and thinness, you characterize it with the phrase “ascetic aesthetic.”
SABRINA STRING Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do you mean?
SABRINA STRING So we think about asceticism usually as a form of monasticism: we renounce sex, we renounce food. This is a lot of the way in which Europeans were rejiggering their identity. They were not saying that they were fully renunciates. Only that as good Christians and racially superior beings, they were not invested in the low course appetites that other races were. It applied most fervently to Africans, for the obvious reason that the slave trade was behind it. But to the extent that colonization impacted other people of color, there was also a discourse about Asian fatness that was taking place at the time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Italians or Eastern Europeans and so forth.
SABRINA STRING Yes. At a later period.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Irish.
SABRINA STRING Yeah. That was actually one of the more interesting early findings of the dissertation. When I first started doing the research into this, putting a little simple search terms coming back were a lot of references to Irish women and I thought, I don't know what's going on here.
SABRINA STRING Because I'm looking for representations of race and blackness and whiteness and body size, and I keep getting Irish women; what is happening? So it took me a while to understand that the category of whiteness is always shifting. This is still true, and that's important because what it means is that whiteness is always aspirational. If it were settled, then we would know who belongs where at all times, and we might also have the ability to protest such standards. But if there's always the possibility of another group entering the coveted space of whiteness, people are less likely to protest it. And so this is one of the things that was happening with Irish people in the United States. When they arrived, there was this fear that they were overly fat, which is interesting given the context of their arrival right. Here they're fleeing famine, but the moment they arrive in the U.S., they're too fat. So this makes no sense at all. But this was the discourse. Discourse suggested that they were, theorists would say, "part negroid." This explained their swarthy skin, and it also explained their fatness.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Fast forward to the early 20th century in the U.S., we had plenty of proselytizers too. A lot of them in the pages of ladies magazines.
SABRINA STRING Yes. When Americans started to try to create their own media, they relied heavily on information from France, from England. And so what you would see in early women's magazines were recapitulation of some of the very ideas that could have been seen for the last 100 years in British magazines. And the lore was that there was a proper way to eat for God, and there's a proper body size for Anglo-Saxons.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why do you think we're always preaching fat or thin? I mean, even with the blatant racism aside, why is weight something we love to proscribe, prescribe? Why?
SABRINA STRING If we look at earlier moments or even different regions of the world, you can find that people have different body size preferences. But what made the contemporary shift to the slender ideal difference was that it was placed within a hierarchy of humanity. Were it not for that, perhaps other individuals would have been able to say, ‘You know what? I find different body sizes more attractive. And so I don't agree with this rendering.’ There could have been a greater conversation that could have shifted the aesthetic ideal or moved the needle. But there was this economic imperative. There was a racial imperative. There was a religious imperative, and then later there was a medical imperative for people to be slender.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I want to ask you about today. A major study published in 2013 showed the risk for black women, quote, dying of obesity was far higher than any other group. Is the implication here that the risk of being above a particular weight is different for black women than for white women or men, for that matter?
SABRINA STRING That is one of the implications of much of the research that I have seen. Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Given that we all know that there's more differentiation within races than between races, is that a likelihood that health for black women would be correlated differently with regard to weight?
SABRINA STRING It wouldn't be a biological issue so much as an issue of history in the United States. When we take a look at some of the factors that might contribute to a person being in the overweight or obese category according to BMI, which I think is deeply flawed. So when we look at the risk factors for those things, we come across issues like being food insecure, not having sufficient access to healthy fruit and vegetables — the definition of food insecurity — living in a place with environmental toxins, living in a place with the constant threat of police violence. All of these things are structural factors that contribute to a person's weight. And given the reality of the racial structure of the United States, they're more likely to be prevalent in communities where we find black women.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You mentioned violence. Levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, have a lot to do with how we carry weight.
SABRINA STRING Yeah, social stress is another factor. I think it's important for us to understand all of the things that might contribute to a person's weight, even as we recognize that the goal shouldn't be changing these things so that people can lose weight. We should change these things so that people can live with a sense of dignity. We also have to recognize that there are some people who are fat, and that's fine. We don't have to reform everyone to try to make everyone slender. You know, we're not living in an episode of The Twilight Zone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Sabrina, thank you very much.
SABRINA STRING Thank you so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Sabrina Strings is associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, and author of the book Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fatphobia.
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