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The Metamorphoses of Fat: A History of Obesity

Georges Vigarello
Translated from the French by C. Jon Delogu
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  • Book Info
    The Metamorphoses of Fat
    Book Description:

    Georges Vigarello maps the evolution of Western ideas about fat and fat people from the Middle Ages to the present, paying particular attention to the role of science, fashion, fitness crazes, and public health campaigns in shaping these views. While hefty bodies were once a sign of power, today those who struggle to lose weight are considered poor in character and weak in mind. Vigarello traces the eventual equation of fatness with infirmity and the way we have come to define ourselves and others in terms of body type.

    Vigarello begins with the medieval artists and intellectuals who treated heavy bodies as symbols of force and prosperity. He then follows the shift during the Renaissance and early modern period to courtly, medical, and religious codes that increasingly favored moderation and discouraged excess. Scientific advances in the eighteenth century also brought greater knowledge of food and the body's processes, recasting fatness as the "relaxed" antithesis of health. The body-as-mechanism metaphor intensified in the early nineteenth century, with the chemistry revolution and heightened attention to food-as-fuel, which turned the body into a kind of furnace or engine. During this period, social attitudes toward fat became conflicted, with the bourgeois male belly operating as a sign of prestige but also as a symbol of greed and exploitation, while the overweight female was admired only if she was working class. Vigarello concludes with the fitness and body-conscious movements of the twentieth century and the proliferation of personal confessions about obesity, which tied fat more closely to notions of personality, politics, taste, and class.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53530-4
    Subjects: History, Anthropology, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
    (pp. ix-xvi)

    In one of her letters from the end of the seventeenth century, Elizabeth Charlotte, the Palatine Princess, gives the reader this image of herself: “my waist is monstrously wide, I am as square as a cube, my skin is red, speckled with yellow.”¹ This testimony is precious because physical self-description is rare in old regime France. It supposes a distance, an objectification of the self, a dominating judgment that only a slow process of cultural labor could make possible. The testimony is especially valuable because it confirms that a definitive change in thinking has occurred: big is now only bad....


    • 1. The Prestige of the Big Person
      (pp. 3-9)

      The prestige of the big person derives first of all from a certain context. The world in 1300 is one of hunger, severe restrictions, and food shortages that recur at less than five-year intervals. For several centuries during the Middle Ages, poor degraded soils, inadequate storage, slow and difficult transportation networks, and vulnerability to inclement weather all contribute to raising the accumulation of calories into an ideal. During these times, lands of plenty, the so-called pays de cocagne, also become marvelous symbols.¹ These fictional worlds are described as earthly paradises filled with spices, fatty meats, and white bread; dizzying landscapes...

    • 2. Liquids, Fat, and Wind
      (pp. 10-16)

      An initial ambiguity arises around the very existence of the “adipose.” Hippocrates is careful to distinguish the big size of the athlete from that of the “fat man.” The first weighted down by flesh, the second by fat.¹ The distinction is sometimes difficult to pin down, however. Caelius Aurelianus, one of the rare Latin authors to comment on physical sizes, groups them together under the generic term flesh (superflua carnis incrementa),² thus mixing together fat and that which is not fat exactly, and assimilating this excess to cachexia or wasting syndrome when he insists on the slowness of movement and...

    • 3. The Horizon of Fault
      (pp. 17-22)

      Many types of bigness coexist in the Middle Ages. One is a sickness due to liquid laxness and hydropsy; a second is a sickness due to the worrisome extremity of being “too big”; and a third, “the big person,” is the picture of health with a forceful appearance. The latter figure is also the most important, being the outcome of ascendancy and linked to the prestige of accumulation and a tolerance for enormous meals and “endless drinking.”¹ It is a figure that translates power and certainty.

      Next to nothing is said, however, about the passage from being big to very...

    • 4. The Fifteenth Century and the Contrasts of Slimming
      (pp. 23-30)

      The criticism of “ordinary” bigness increases in the fifteenth century. Access to images with identifiable sizes in illuminated manuscripts and frescoes occurs for the first time by the end of the medieval period, and this brings about a slow but explicit attention to contours, including attempts to specify and stigmatize excess. The theme takes on importance in the fifteenth century. Fat people who are now present in iconography for the first time understandably give rise to a new way of looking at them.

      Bigness, for a long time, was hardly ever represented in the medieval universe. If the theme of...


    • [PART 2 Introduction]
      (pp. 31-32)

      Criticism of the fat person changes during the Renaissance, becoming more centered on the slowness, laziness, and ignorance about things and people. “Care” for the fat person intensifies as well, becoming more centered on diets and physical constraints, especially belts and corsets that are applied directly over the flesh.

      The cultural perspective shifts. Large physical size means above all heaviness. To become rounder is to fall behind, to be unadapted to a world where activity takes on a new value. Not that weakness or slowness had up until then been neglected or ignored; it’s simply that medieval attention was most...

    • 5. The Shores of Laziness
      (pp. 33-44)

      Renaissance storytellers pause first over the awkwardness of the oaf: for example, the “fat cleric” who provokes a fall and impedes an escape in a story from the Heptameron¹ or the “big, heavy Dutchman” whose heavy drinking and general heaviness render all activity impossible in a tale from the Hundred New Stories.² More clearly still, there is Vauban’s refusal in the seventeenth century to give jobs to big eaters and fat people who are judged “incapable of good service and not to be trusted with important affairs.”³ The poles of attention change. What matters now most is incapacity and awkwardness....

    • 6. The Plural of Fat
      (pp. 45-54)

      Doctors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries use fat to accentuate their emphasis on a norm. Their examples become more precise. Their repertory of symptoms becomes more diverse. The observations are more numerous even though they still avoid questions about possible “stages” of bigness and their possible gradations.

      There is no extensive transformation of the image of fat, which is still strictly limited to intuitive markers; but there are new attempts to specify its origin, its states, and its particularities. All arguments, statements, and even wild ideas confirm a heightened preoccupation with bigness. Hydropsy and adiposity are distinguished, plethora and...

    • 7. Exploring Images, Defining Terms
      (pp. 55-63)

      Beyond the world of medicine, a new curiosity about size expresses itself in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through more developed iconographies and a wider array of terms for thin and fat.

      Engravings and paintings attempt more than before to represent the heavy person, to give visible detail to the apparent shortening of the limbs, the squashed neck, and the flabby chin and cheeks. The associated terminology tries to suggest nuances in the absence of all quantified measurements. New words try to express degrees of profiles beyond the sorts of insults already mentioned. These gradations remain obscure and vague, however,...

    • 8. Constraining the Flesh
      (pp. 64-76)

      In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, original treatments that also lead to more systematic and better categorized actions occur. There are the very first steps toward an evaluation of weight based on physical signs: the tightness of clothes provoked by fatness and the tightness of rings and various other points of tension. The “feeling” of fat and its quasi-internal perception is supplemented now and then by an evocation of the empirical, even though the words are missing to express it. There are also diets, now more frequently mentioned in letters, customs, and stories, with their simple recommendation of the smallest...


    • [PART 3 Introduction]
      (pp. 77-78)

      Body volumes become more individualized during the Age of Enlightenment. A disorderly agitation becomes possible. The notion of size supposes many sizes and diversity supposes degrees of difference, even if they are more sketched than studied. Procedures for measuring emerge modestly but insistently.

      These slow but steady changes permit formerly latent distinctions to come into view. For example, the profile of a man where a certain roundness is acceptable versus the profile of a woman where such tolerance is absent. There are also social differences where here a certain visible ampleness might carry value but not there. This training of...

    • 9. Inventing Nuance
      (pp. 79-89)

      The judgment of contours is the first thing that changes in the Age of Enlightenment. Numerical measuring of weight appears here and there in the medical literature, and a ranking of volumes also appears in the most ordinary circumstances. The social milieu depicted in engravings and paintings is signified and even ranked by, among other things, different physical “thicknesses,” even if the associated vocabulary that would explicitly define traits comes late and remains imprecise. The history of the fat person is the history of this slowly arriving consciousness of the variety of forms and their possible progressions, while, at the...

    • 10. Stigmatizing Powerlessness
      (pp. 90-98)

      The possible prestige accorded to certain types of thickness that are relatively moderate and very culturally embedded has no effect on the rejection of the very heavy, whose condition is practically assimilated to an infirmity. Besides the heightened attention paid to degrees of bigness, the contribution of the Enlightenment era is surely a more acute stigmatization of “excesses.” Already their organic significance is turned upside down. Eighteenth-century culture is sensitive to excitements and reactions and worried about their possibly being crushed under too great a heaviness. This new culture has a different vision of the body that is focused less...

    • 11. Toning Up
      (pp. 99-108)

      Treatments for the fat person change direction considerably in the Enlightenment era. The image of powerlessness and the theme of a collapse that favors fat buildup are central to the orientation of new slimming programs. An illness explained as a slackening of tissues logically calls for a remedy based on their reinforcement. This causes anti-obesity recipes to become an arsenal of toning formulas and stimulants all designed to “fortify” the flesh in order to better eliminate all excess. This leads to a diversification of practices that give greater importance to exercise and elevate the discovery of electricity and the promise...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)

    • [PART 4 Introduction]
      (pp. 109-110)

      Businessmen, financiers, and civic leaders of the Enlightenment era succeeded in making a prominent belly into a mark of prestige, even if the strict requirement for women was to remain thin. Yet this celebration of masculine volume is ambiguous, since eighteenth-century social criticism strongly denounces the physiques of those judged to be “profiteering” for themselves and “starving” others. This equivocation about the bourgeois remains identical during the Restoration (1815–1830) and the July Monarchy (1830–1848). His physical thickness may be persuasive, even while satires that mock the pear-shaped belly of certain authority figures multiply. The denunciation increases in tandem...

    • 12. The Weight of Figures
      (pp. 111-115)

      The increasing importance of figures merits attention. It is not weight that first becomes significant, but rather circumferences and visible volumes and contours. It is sight that first seeks the supplement of figures to judge the physical envelope, whereas weight relates to a more complex set of references. Nevertheless, in the wake of industrialization this culture relies more on measuring instruments. Figures are the center of the sudden explosion in statistical publications at the beginning of the nineteenth century that scrupulously record quantities of production, results, etc.¹ Numbers change the way people think.

      By the beginning of the nineteenth century,...

    • 13. Typology Fever
      (pp. 116-124)

      The presence of numbers is not the only factor contributing to the new evaluation of silhouettes at the beginning of the nineteenth century. There are also social factors, especially the stir-up that the Revolution is said to have introduced into the codes of physical appearance. Travelers and observers in the years 1820–1830 report being suddenly confronted with a more confusing world. “Castes” are said to have disappeared. The old borders erased. Resemblances multiply once the society of orders is abolished.

      This gives rise to the desire to “look” with greater precision, inventory more, single out specific looks and their...

    • 14. From Chemistry to Energy
      (pp. 125-130)

      Numbers and measurements accentuated a more precise reckoning of fatness at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Categories are established. Differences in size carry social consequences often defined through tolerances or rejections. Heavy profiles, male of course, may have a positive value that confirms ascendancy, but may also be “deflated” with irony.

      Alongside this social dimension, the scientific work on pathologies, material identifications, and chemical changes leads to a body of knowledge about fat that is increasingly distant from the spontaneous popular notions of earlier times. Thoroughly revised thinking about physiological mechanisms starts at the beginning of the nineteenth century....

    • 15. From Energy to Diets
      (pp. 131-138)

      Numbers, knowledge, and ideas about the organic are significantly revised at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The obese body is now viewed as a body more sensitive to morbidities. And the organic is now conceived as an energy-producing machine, an “appliance” whose inputs, outputs, and surpluses can all be measured. In this context fat takes on a new meaning, when linked for the first time to an account of efficiency and yield, as a product of unconsumed energy. This in turn reorients the diet for the obese person that now rules out many foods long considered ordinary staples, notably...


    • [PART 5 Introduction]
      (pp. 139-140)

      The theme of organic combustion developed in the first half of the nineteenth century transformed the way obesity was approached, correcting explanations and modifying treatments. It took the second half of the century, however, for this theme to fully and precisely assert itself. This came, for example, with heightened attention to the caloric specificities of various diets, to exercise and lifestyles, and to distinctions between organisms categorized as more or less “high burning” and therefore more or less susceptible to becoming fat. The idea of the body as a fireplace takes hold definitively. The obese person therefore has a vital...

    • 16. The Dominance of Aesthetics
      (pp. 141-153)

      An illustration by Crafty in an issue of Paris on Horseback from 1884 might seem anecdotal. It shows a heavy female rider being lifted with difficulty into the saddle. The situation is rather delicate and the physical contact not a little bit ambiguous. The helper has his hands full, literally, and the body is “wobbling.” Crafty’s teasing caption reads, “One of the thousand reasons why women over fifty kilos should give up horseback riding.”¹ The derision is clear even without the caption, but the weight reference puts it over the top. Such references are becoming ordinary and resonate in everyone’s...

    • 17. Clinical Obesity and Everyday Obesity
      (pp. 154-165)

      In the second half of the nineteenth century, the way of perceiving and judging bodily forms was influenced by the ascendancy of “free time,” the revolutionary changes in customs of dress, and the reorganization of private living spaces. An everyday obesity develops that relies on categorizing profiles, distinguishing hips, chest, belly, and abdominal muscles, differentiating male and female cases, and usually stigmatizing the second more than the first.¹ A threshold of expectations of slenderness is also established even as a certain conviction holds firm, namely, that “there are more obese people in the upper classes than in the working class.”²...

    • 18. The Thin Revolution
      (pp. 166-173)

      Silhouettes became thinner in the second half of the nineteenth century, and treatments for obesity become more numerous. The multiplication of pastimes, the new attention to the self, and the revolution in medical knowledge were all factors. One important change that is totally decisive takes place in the 1920s and is the outcome not of new knowledge but new habits. The transformation of the status of women brings with it a new thinness—an avoidance of references to breasts and other curves—and a new technically inspired imaginary that insists on fluidity, reactivity, agility, and lankiness. There is also a...

    • 19. Declaring “the Martyr”
      (pp. 174-184)

      The specter that rises up in the 1920s behind the increasingly sophisticated weight charts influences the development of a corresponding haunting prospect surrounding pathologies. Obesity’s gradations develop, as do its evils. Medical concern changes its tone and embraces the new culture of thinness. Publications of the day show this through their insistence not just on evaluating bigness but on tactics that will guarantee weight loss. How to Lose Weight, Why Lose Weight? Why We Get Fat—How to Lose Weight, The Art of Losing Weight, etc.¹ “Weight loss” becomes the priority to the point of imposing a new injunction during...

  9. PART 6 CHANGES IN THE CONTEMPORARY DEBATE: An Identity Problem and an Insidious Evil
    (pp. 185-196)

    An entirely new phenomenon shaping all discussions of obesity today is its epidemic status. Obesity has become a common “malady” that is generally identifiable and identified. It is considered to be a steady invasion, ill-controlled, and attributed as much to overconsumption as to certain lifestyles. These attitudes sharpen the public’s view of the obese person and of his or her problem, which is judged a public disturbance—a social malady and costly problem resulting from this individual’s lack of will. In addition, there are the ambiguities of treatment that ordinary thinking considers simple and straightforward but empirical evidence and testimonies...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 197-200)

    There is no doubt that the stigmatization of the fat person is strongly dominant in a history of obesity. This stigmatization changes over time, which justifies the historical approach. The medieval glutton does not receive the same denigration as the modern oaf or the obese person of today who is often considered “incapable” of losing weight. The values of a culture are at the center of the denunciations. Those centered around “the sinner,” for example, in a predominantly religious context are not the same as those directed at round-bellied graspers who make others starve in a world of class warfare,...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 201-248)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 249-262)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 263-268)