Unlike existing historical scholarship, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings is one of the first historical studies that emphasizes the interconnectedness of race, gender, and morality in the development of thin fetishism and fat phobia. Strings argues that anti-fat bias is not recent discourse, instead claiming that fat phobia has been circulating since the Renaissance. The transatlantic slave trade and spread of Protestantism were key historical events that contributed to the bias toward slenderness and fear of fatness. Another important point Strings makes is that fat phobia did not originate from health issues but was instead implemented to justify the race and class hierarchy.
Sabrina Strings, Ph.D. is a professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. She has many publications in a variety of disciplines, such as Ethnic and Racial Studies, Fat Studies, and Feminist Media Studies.
Strings states that she gained inspiration from and built upon the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault. Boudieu helps us understand how social distinctions spread fat aversion, and Foucault helps us understand how dominant groups maintain the social, racial, and gender hierarchies; Strings’ analysis incorporated a historical and sociological approach. She used process tracing and historical narrative as the comparative historical methods. Strings used process training to gather multiple sources of key individuals and events that contributed to the development of pro-thin biases in the West while the historical narrative showed the interconnectedness of these events.
In Part I, Strings starts her analysis with the Renaissance because historians and sociologists have shown that voluptuous physiques were a trend in that era. Key artists and philosophers regarded “plump” and “voluptuous” white women as beautiful. The expansion of the slave trade resulted in the influx of African women as slaves and domestic Europe, which led to the incorporation of black women into art. However, the voluptuous bodies of black and white women were aesthetically equal to each other even though black women were socially inferior to white women. However, there was a shift in favor of the bodies of white women. An increasing number of artists and philosophers thought that white skin elevated bodily beauty. The rise of the slave trade also meant the rise of sugar consumption, which resulted in the growing population of fat men. Many artists and intellectuals, like Shakespeare and Descartes, regarded this fatness as an indication of having a dull mind and empty head. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, Francois Bernier created the racial categorization, which applied to aesthetic ideals and changed the perception of white and black women.
In Part II, Strings identifies that the core of the slender aesthetic is rooted in race theory, the revival of religion, and immigration. Bernier’s classification system tried to distinguish the Europreans and non-Europeans based on physical characteristics in order to justify European superiority. The female body became racialized in a concrete way. Philosophers and scientists during the Enlightenment, like Buffon and Diderot, brought further discourse to the racial hierarchy. In addition to race, the spread of Protestantism contributed to the association between the fat body and immortality; thin bodies were closer to God and were therefore deemed more attractive. The next chapter shows the development of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant American women which encompasess both racial supremacy and moral enlightenment.
Part III examines how American medical establishments viewed fatness between the late nineteenth and late twentieth centuries. Strings focuses on the works of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, who regarded thinness among elite American women as a threat to the nation. Many physicians including Kellogg believed that elite women should gain weight for their health and social status. However, in the next chapter, Strings shows the increase in anti-fatness in the medical field due to the concern about ‘obesity’ and the standardization of ‘normal weight’ among women, which had become mainstream by the twenty-first century.
One key strength of this monograph is Strings’s multidiscipinary approach to this discourse. The sociological method provides more dimension to the interconnectedness of key events, ideas, and figures rather than a linear historical timeline. The historical approach provides a narrative, which provides structure to the many things that are spoken about as well as allows us to see major trends and shifts in the discourse. Strings refers to multiple mediums like artworks, newspapers, magazines, and scientific and medical journals.
One weakness of this monograph was the lack of focus on black women. Although Strings does a great job at narrating the role of race, morality, and medicine in the obesity epidemic, a majority of Strings’ analysis focuses on white women. I felt that Strings’ description of the American woman was referring exclusively to the Anglo-Saxon woman.
Sabrina Strings’ Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia provides an expansive and immersive narrative of the originals of fatphobia. It was interesting to see how the racial and social hierarchies and beliefs that started during the Renaissance and Enlightenment period have been maintained overtime. Strings offers an original and convincing argument that fat phobia validated race, class, and gender hierarchies.
“Sabrina Strings” www.sabrinstrings.com
Strings, Sabrina. Fearing the Black Body : the Racial Origins of Fat Phobia New York, NY: New York University Press, 2019.