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Review of Stearns' Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West

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Review of Stearns' Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West

Wow, I mean, your sister, she's so fat that when she wears a yellow raincoat, people shout out, "Taxi!" Your brother, gosh, he's so fat that his driver's license says, "Picture continued on the other side!" About your mother, well, she's so fat that when she walks in front of the television, you miss out on three commercials! I'm tellin' ya! Fat!

Those humorous one-liners are just a few of the many out there. In the United States today, we are obviously obsessed with weight, but how did this cultural craze with heaviness start? When and why, even? Are we the only ones? Peter N. Stearns is a Carnegie Mellon history professor and dean, and in his book Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West, he explores and compares the weight-consciousness over the past century in both the United States (arguably the most obese Western country today) and France (arguably the slimmest); he also attempts at explaining why such contrariety exists between these two countries, despite both being heavily infatuated with body and beauty. It is Stearns' stance that this modern struggle against fat is actually very deeply rooted within our American culture, and dieting and rampant hostility toward the obese continue to become one of the underlying themes in our society today. He also notes the differences in attitudes toward the obese in both countries. He does not really believe that the French approach to obesity could so readily be adopted in the United States, but possibly recognizing a different attitude may help to later reshape the views and opinions that have been formed this past century in our society.

With respect to the United States, Stearns reveals that before the 1890s plumpness was healthy and in fact preferred over frailness; full-figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton's were linked to successful motherhood and were indeed quite fashionable. In the decade just before 1900, however, as we became more sedentary, fashion changed, and dress sizes became standardized, greater attention was drawn toward the more oddly shaped bodies, possibly creating a new public concern for body weight, especially for women. Fat-controlling devices like "reducing corsets", dieting gimmicks such as Kissiengen water, and other advertisements for products to help against weight also began to spread during this time period. Morality even came into play, as obese individuals were seen to not only be lazy and weak but also on their way toward what one may call "fat hell". Responding more to this new public worry rather than to the health risks involved, physicians were suddenly forced to address this growing interest in weight control. All of these factors helped contribute to and intensify the popular trend in the United States toward our strict standards of slenderness and indications of weakness in obese individuals.

Stearns reports that the past century in France with regard to weight-consciousness is very similar to that of the United States; French weight-control moved right along in analogous stages. There is one exception, though. Instead of interpreting the obese as morally defective and indolent, obesity in France is just plain ugly, almost a crime against beauty. Obesity is also seen as a dangerous health risk that should be corrected quickly and easily by the individual.

Another major contradistinction also occurs in France, though. The country is known for its very high aesthetic standards of beauty, and the French are equally committed to such ideals of slimness. They, however, are on average fourteen pounds lighter than Americans, and, unlike the current drift toward obesity in the United States, the French are in reality getting lighter.

Having read this book, I found it, on the whole, very informative and amusing at the same time. Stearns included many real advertisements to support his perspective on fat history, and most were very entertaining, for example (on page eighteen):

"The normally cautious Ladies Home Journal carried periodic notices Ð'--not just advertisements but columns-- touting a few products as early as 1900. Ð''Obesity is Curable without inquiry or dieting, or much expense,' hailed Mrs. Warren. The magic? Drink a glass of Kissiengen water half an hour after each meal, and then the next day a similar glass of Vichy water. The two waters balanced acid and alkaline and acted directly on the fat, allowing a loss of two pounds per week. Tablets could replace the waters if these were unavailable. Mrs. Warren noted that thousands of readers should hail this formula Ð''with delight,' which Ð''has been thoroughly tested and its efficacy proved.'"

This book surely was a lengthy read that seemed to reiterate a couple of historical observations over and over and over again, but Stearns did manage to bring everything together in the last two chapters of the book. What frustrated me were his chapters covering the 1920s-1990s in the United States, though. Stearns would like to assert that women have clearly been subjected to more weight concern this past century, but he then goes on to tell the reader that men have recently (as of the 1990s) become equal victims of the same regulation, quoting the director of an eating disorders program in St. Louis on page 103: "Now they're subjected to the same concerns about body image that have plagued women for years." I, however, would disagree. I would like to argue that, even in more recent advertisements, one actually sees very little "progress" in images geared toward upsetting such normative gender inequalities; without it being forcefully stated, advertisements today are still geared toward the female viewer. Men are still not subjected to the same restraints concerning the body and dieting as women are.

There are many socially and culturally embedded standards of women's relations to food. Advertising has had a huge effect on how we see such in our society. Stearns states on page seventy-three that:

"American women may have had more weight problems than men in the twentieth century in certain measurable respects, which would help explain why their need for restraint was particularly emphasized."

Yet advertisements are prolonging the cultural trends that refer to the female gender. Advertisements such as "99.9% Fat Free" products or dieting pills like Adipex or weight-loss programs like Jenny Craig's are almost always with the female viewer first in mind.

Stearns also states on page seventy-three that:

"Public insistence on women's



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