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How the female body has been racialized for over two hundred years
There is an obesity epidemic in this country and poor black women are particularly stigmatized as “diseased” and a burden on the public health care system. This is only the most recent incarnation of the fear of fat black women, which Sabrina Strings shows took root more than two hundred years ago.
Strings weaves together an eye-opening historical narrative ranging from the Renaissance to the current moment, analyzing important works of art, newspaper and magazine articles, and scientific literature and medical journals—where fat bodies were once praised—showing that fat phobia, as it relates to black women, did not originate with medical findings, but with the Enlightenment era belief that fatness was evidence of “savagery” and racial inferiority.
The author argues that the contemporary ideal of slenderness is, at its very core, racialized and racist. Indeed, it was not until the early twentieth century, when racialized attitudes against fatness were already entrenched in the culture, that the medical establishment began its crusade against obesity.
An important and original work, Fearing the Black Body argues convincingly that fat phobia isn’t about health at all, but rather a means of using the body to validate race, class, and gender prejudice.
Strings, a University of California Irvine assistant professor of sociology, delivers a thoroughly researched exploration of the historical relationship between race- and weight-related prejudices, examining centuries of Western artistic values, race-based pseudoscience, and Anglo-Saxon religious teachings. Her study begins in the Renaissance era, in which "larger, fleshier physiques" were commonly revered and depicted in the paintings of the masters, and moves through the early, racist anthropological texts by European visitors to Africa during the 18th and 19th centuries. The ideas disseminated in these texts are epitomized by the story of Sara Baartman, a full-figured Cape Town woman sold into slavery and hailed as the "most correct and perfect specimen of that race of people." The 19th century also saw the rise of the first women's magazines, which incorporated Protestant ideals of "temperance" and racist rhetoric to shame women into losing weight; one magazine suggested that women who were not sufficiently thin ought to go to Africa "where women, like pigs, are valued at so much a pound." Strings also traces the history of medical concern about obesity, stretching into the 20th century with the development of the body mass index (BMI) concept, noting the many racial biases underlying that concern. This fascinating and carefully constructed argument persuasively establishes a heretofore unexplored connection between racism and Western standards for body size, making it a worthy contribution to the social sciences. Illus.