by Amy Erdman Farrell
NYU Press, 2011
Review by Elin Weiss on Jan 3rd 2012
Farrell provides the reader with a historical account concerning the stigma of fatness from an American perspective. In doing so, Farrell is mostly concerned with visual depictions such as cartoons, posters and post cards, but also examines written texts about health and body size.
Throughout most of American history, fatness has been negatively depicted and interlinked with race, social status, immigrant status, and at times also religion. Farrell provides arguments for all of the above factors and how these have interacted with body size. A slim and athletic body has been seen as typically white, while fatness has been depicted as a characteristic of colored people (foremost black), primitive cultures, and slow evolution.
Today's fatness is depicted as an epidemic far worse than war and terrorism. Thereby, fat people (to use Farrell's words) are seen as a threat to the United States. Similarly, cartoons from the 1930s have depicted fatness in relation to political corruption, child labor, monopolies, and capitalism. The restraints and control connected to body size has predominantly been a concern for women although male body norms certainly existed and exist today.
The belief that fatness was inherently primitive and colored prevailed throughout much of the written historical accounts, while post cards and cartoons often depicted fat white middle class women who were accustomed to travel. Women in general were believed to be more prone to fatness which was attributed to their disadvantaged bodies and was seen as evidence of their lower evolutionary status. These women were depicted as smothering their poor thin husbands while the only men who were believed to be attracted to these fat women were the poor, the working class, and the silly or absurd.
Interestingly, the notion of fatness and disadvantage appeared to permeate society at large. Anti-suffragists relied heavily upon depictions of feminist suffragists as manly, fat, and ugly. The suffragists on the other hand portrayed anti-suffragists as old fashioned and fat. Both suffragists and anti-suffragists simultaneously depicted themselves as slim, attractive, and white. The reason for doing so, Farrell states, was due to the fact that a fat body was not fit for public citizenship and therefore did not deserve the right to vote. Slenderness, on the other hand, signified power, control, and an ability to conquer and excel in business.
Farrell also draws from visual media concerning more recent depictions of fatness as disadvantaged and unattractive, naming the computer-animated film WALL-E and media attention concerning pop star Britney Spears, to name a few examples. Farrell also discusses the stigma, discrimination, and disadvantages that fat people face and concludes with a discussion concerning the fairly recent rise of groups and organizations that resist fat shaming and encourage fat people to accept and love themselves.
What Farrell does very well throughout the book is to connect body size with race, immigrant status, gender, and social status and she provides many compelling argument that support her claims. She also shortly discusses men and masculine body norms and does not focus solely on women's bodies. She does so most extensively in the chapter titled 'Masculinity and the Fat Body'.
On the down side, Farrell barely mentions the risk factors and health issues that can arise from being overweight. Therefore, her arguments become slightly one sided. In doing so, it almost appears as if Farrell is ignoring or denying any health issues that are connected to carrying too much weight.
Farrell also speaks negatively about television shows such as Biggest Loser, claiming that these shows mock and taunt fat individuals. She could ideally however incorporate a discussion of the show since the individuals who appear in Biggest Loser are often morbidly obese and suffer health problems such as diabetes.
Overall, this is a very interesting book that is easy to read and engage with. Farrell's use of visual information (showing some of the cartoons, post cards, and posters that she discusses in text) is compelling and adds to her arguments. This book is a suitable read for a wide audience but would be especially useful in Women's Studies classes that focus on past and current social expectations and media depictions of body size and what is seen as normative.
© 2012 Elin Weiss
Elin Weiss has a Bachelor's degree in psychology and a Master's degree in women's studies from University College Dublin, Ireland.