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240 × 165 × 28 mm
368 pages
46 illustrations
15 Apr 2019

Fat A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life Christopher E. Forth

Fat: such a little word evokes big responses. While ‘fat’ describes the size and shape of bodies, our negative reactions to corpulent bodies also depend on something tangible and tactile; as this book argues, there is more to fat than meets the eye. Fat: A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life offers a historical reflection on how fat has been perceived and imagined in the West since antiquity. Featuring fascinating historical accounts, philosophical, religious and cultural arguments, including discussions of status, gender and race, the book digs deep into the past for the roots of our current notions and prejudices. Three central themes emerge: how we have perceived and imagined obesity over the centuries; how fat as a substance has elicited disgust and how it evokes perceptions of animality; but also how it has been associated with vitality and fertility. By exploring the complex ways in which fat, fatness and fattening have been perceived over time, this book provides rich insights into the stuff our stereotypes are made of.

Fat is a thoroughly researched and capable book, academic and rigorous in tone . . . It remains a timely reminder of the cycles of our organic existence in the face of ever greater outer forces.’ — History Today

‘Why do we in the West have such an intense aversion to fat? Was fatness really celebrated as a sign of health, prosperity, status and beauty at some point in the distant past? Christopher Forth explores these questions in his lively, ambitious book Fat: A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life. Taking a longue durée approach, from the prehistoric to the present day, he resoundingly demonstrates that there really is more to fat than meets the eye. This is a myth-busting book . . . a ‘fat’ book in the most agriculturally positive sense of the word. It is an impressive, lively study and an enjoyable read. Forth’s book breaks new ground and will provide historians of the body with much to think about for years to come.’ — Literary Review

‘Fat was, then as now, a political and moral issue, Forth declares, as illustrations of porcine popes, belly-hugging bishops and ravenous rabbis show . . . Forth feeds the reader some toothsome titbits in this unnerving but gripping book.’ — The Spectator

‘Drawing on everything from classical studies to travelogues and early science writing, Christopher Forth bursts the myth that fat has ever really been associated with prosperity, health and beauty. (Thank the Venus of Willendorf for that canard.) Via a diverse cast including the plump woodland god Silenus, Rubens's ample Three Graces and some obese hindus, we delve into the roots of the West's lipophobia.’ — World of Interiors

Fat: A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life is ideologically electric . . . Without compromising the medical realities of obesity, Forth lucidly argues the case for what is, in essence, love against the disgust inspired by the ancient doctrine of intolerance and "mechanical efficiency".’ — The Australian

‘Forth builds on this existing scholarship to contribute something wholly new to the literature. Through his investment in the history of emotions, his fascination with the literal substance of fat, and the extraordinary temporal and geographic scope of the book, Forth produces something quite unique . . . Forth uses an extraordinary variety of sources, from ancient artefacts to eighteenth-century political cartoons and paintings, and from colonial travelogues to weight loss advice books from the early twentieth century . . . In excavating this story of how we have come to modern stereotypes about fatness, the work still to be done is clear. Forth opens up the possibility for that future research with this fascinating and original take on the evolving meanings of fatness in European history that complicates both popular and historical assumptions.’ — Medical History

‘With his lucid "historical reflections", Forth thus paints an intriguing picture, which expands the existing interpretations of this period of time, well laboured-upon in the historiography on fatness, both in scope and depth . . . a groundbreaking contribution.’ — Social History of Medicine

‘One of the more common preconceptions in the history of the human body is that, before the modern era, being fat was an outward sign of wealth and status. In this wide-ranging and well-researched volume, Forth puts this simple assumption to rest. He illustrates in ample detail the ambivalent attitudes toward fat and obesity that echoed throughout Western history. Simply put, fatness could be a signifier of wealth and leisure, but it could equally connote sloth and indolence. As the author suggests, transcending this ambivalence often has characterized the West’s relationship to the body, especially in the modern capitalist era. How can Westerners strive to emulate Spartan-like fitness and athleticism, for example, and, at the same time, fulfill natural and manufactured desires to consume? This book incorporates not only a wealth of research into ancient, medieval, and early modern sources but also a healthy familiarity with ethnographic studies and sociological theory . . . This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book. Recommended.’ — Choice

‘The vast buffet of historical (and selective) examples that Forth sets out to support his arguments does not disappoint . . . he sketches out a broad timescale, beginning in antiquity and ending in today’s world, which offers a wide-angle lens through which to view attitudes toward fat bodies in our present slice of time . . . stuffed with thoughtful reflections and animated connections between past and present.’ — Fat Studies

‘Christopher E. Forth's remarkable book serves to see how lipophobia (the fear of fat) shares a common root: a utopian will to transcend matter and achieve a kind of ethereal perfection above contingencies. It has always been so. Diet, in this sense, is not a declaration of war on fat. It is a declaration of war on our imperfect and mortal humanity. Is it worth it?’ — Gazeta do Povo

‘His examples are numerous and rich – drawing from anthropology, classical studies, Biblical studies, literary studies, travelogs, and early science writing – forever putting to rest the idea that fatness had been valorized from prehistory (think Venus of Willendorf) until the emergence of modernity . . . the substantive details and analysis of the development of Western ambiguity and antipathy toward fatness in Forth’s book are a useful addition to the history of Western culture, the body, and fat.’ — Journal of Interdisciplinary History

Fat: A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life proposes “that the building blocks of our contemporary anti-fat imagery have some of their sources in the distant past, long before the ‘war of obesity’ was declared”. There is much more to discover though, the spotlights on fat masculinity, the intriguing parallel of the materiality of fat and the perception of human fatness, in addition to the interplay between fat stigma, disgust and imperialism qualify this book as an essential reading for the study of fat, bodies, race and gender.’ — H-Soz-Kult

‘Tracing the history of fat through the centuries and in various fields of human activity (agriculture and the economy, politics and sport, medicine and art), Forth puts forward a very interesting and almost unique hypothesis in fat studies: the problem is not fat people, but the meanings of the fat itself. [Fat] is ambivalent, endowed with sensory undecidability: slippery, greasy, soft, smooth, capable of being neither liquid nor solid, or both. In fact, the merit of Forth’s book is the hypothesis that the ambivalent meanings of fat are related to the material, concrete, and expressive traits of the substance itself, whatever it is: not only human flesh, but also the earth, food, gods animals, oils, secretions.’ — Ilaria Ventura Bordenca, Doppiozero (Italy)

‘Christopher E. Forth’s FAT is the definitive overview of what bodily excess means and has meant in Western society. In a world of ever expanding waistlines, our collective obsession with weight remains the last arena where bodily difference is defined by Victorian morality: the fat are the undeserving poor of today’s medical world, responsible for their own decline, the object of derision and indeed of a very different sense of their own culpability for their state. Forth’s dramatic account of how we got to this point, written with grace and a touch of irony, points out that no other bodily state, not sexual orientation, not addiction, not mental illness, remains so totally demonized as the world of the XXXXL. A vital and critical addition to the cultural history of the body by a master of the genre.’ — Sander L. Gilman, author of Fat: The Biography

‘This is a distinctive and ambitious analysis, tracing body imagery from the classical period to the present and offering a striking argument about the relevance of past standards to contemporary debates. The book also offers a strong case for the interconnections between historical and scientific assessments.’ — Peter N. Stearns, Professor of History at George Mason University, and author of Fat History

‘Christopher Forth is a myth-buster. This is the book to read if you are wondering why people in the West are so obsessed with fat.’ — Joanna Bourke, Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London and author of The Story of Pain (2017) and What It Means To be Human (2013)

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Christopher E. Forth is the Dean’s Professor of Humanities and Professor of History at the University of Kansas, and the author of several books including Masculinity in the Modern West (2008).

Introduction: Life in the Wrong Place

1 The Stuff of Life: Thinking and Doing with Fat
2 Fertile Ambiguities: The Agricultural Imagination
3 Ancient Appetites: Luxury and the Geography of Softness
4 Christian Corpulence: The Belly and What Lies Beneath
5 Noble Fat? Corpulence in the Middle Ages
6 The Fat of the Land; or, Why a Good Cock is Never Fat
7 Spartan Mirages: Utopian Bodies and the Challenges of Modernity
8 Grease and Grace: The Disenchantment of Fat?
9 Savage Desires: ‘Primitive’ Fat and ‘Civilized’ Slenderness
10 Bodily Utopianism: Modern Dreams of Transcendence
Conclusion: Purity, Lightness and the Weight of History

Select Bibliography
Photo Acknowledgements