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Fat Shame

Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture

Amy Erdman Farrell
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 219
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qg7v0
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  • Book Info
    Fat Shame
    Book Description:

    To be fat hasn't always occasioned the level of hysteria that this condition receives today and indeed was once considered an admirable trait. Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture explores this arc, from veneration to shame, examining the historic roots of our contemporary anxiety about fatness. Tracing the cultural denigration of fatness to the mid 19th century, Amy Farrell argues that the stigma associated with a fat body preceded any health concerns about a large body size. Firmly in place by the time the diet industry began to flourish in the 1920s, the development of fat stigma was related not only to cultural anxieties that emerged during the modern period related to consumer excess, but, even more profoundly, to prevailing ideas about race, civilization and evolution. For 19th and early 20th century thinkers, fatness was a key marker of inferiority, of an uncivilized, barbaric, and primitive body. This idea--that fatness is a sign of a primitive person--endures today, fueling both our $60 billion war on fat and our cultural distress over the obesity epidemic. Farrell draws on a wide array of sources, including political cartoons, popular literature, postcards, advertisements, and physicians' manuals, to explore the link between our historic denigration of fatness and our contemporary concern over obesity. Her work sheds particular light on feminisms' fraught relationship to fatness. From the white suffragists of the early 20th century to contemporary public figures like Oprah Winfrey, Monica Lewinsky, and even the Obama family, Farrell explores the ways that those who seek to shed stigmatized identities--whether of gender, race, ethnicity or class--often take part in weight reduction schemes and fat mockery in order to validate themselves as civilized. In sharp contrast to these narratives of fat shame are the ideas of contemporary fat activists, whose articulation of a new vision of the body Farrell explores in depth. This book is significant for anyone concerned about the contemporary war on fat and the ways that notions of the civilized body continue to legitimate discrimination and cultural oppression.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2875-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. 1 Considering Fat Shame
    (pp. 1-23)

    Toward the end of fall semester in 2006, leaders from the national office of Delta Zeta sorority visited its DePauw University chapter, ostensibly to encourage the sisters in their recruitment efforts. Membership in what one unofficial survey on the campus had called the “socially awkward” Delta Zeta chapter had declined to the point that the national office was considering shutting it down. The national officers met with the thirty-five members individually, discussing each one’s specific plans to increase membership. A week before finals, twenty-two of the members received a letter from the national chapter explaining that they had been placed...

  5. 2 Fat, Modernity, and the Problem of Excess
    (pp. 25-58)

    In 1869, an article titled “Cure for Obesity” in theSan Francisco Daily Evening Bulletinreported that an ammonium compound might be a cure for those who “suffer from an excess of fat.” A longer article that appeared the same year, titled “How to Reduce Obesity,” described the work of a Mr. Banting in England, whose popular pamphlet on the “dietetic means of reducing the superfluous fat” had supposedly drawn letters from two thousand people thanking him for their “emancipation from obesity.”¹

    In 1887, amidLifemagazine ads for resorts, whiskey, trouser stretchers, and products that promised to “ease digestion,”...

  6. 3 Fat and the Un-Civilized Body
    (pp. 59-81)

    In 1864, one of the earliest anti-fat physicians, Dr. Watson Bradshaw, wrote that in “advanced nations” (and by these he meant England, the United States, and France) a “multiplied chin and an abdomen of enormous periphery do not entitle the possessor of any distinction.” He compared this to “primitive cultures” where, he argued, a big stomach continued to bestow cultural status.¹ In the early 20th century, an American physician, Dr. Leonard Williams, also pointed to the supposed link between civilization and obesity: “It is to be admitted that there exists a settled belief among the uneducated, and even among many...

  7. 4 Feminism, Citizenship, and Fat Stigma
    (pp. 82-116)

    On the 1910 cover of the American humor magazineJudgewe see a fat white woman staring at us menacingly.¹ She has a mean face with protruding eyes, a thick neck, large muscular arms, and a wide girth and ample chest that are belted tightly with an unbecoming apron. Her feet, planted wide apart, are adorned with men’s oxfords; her thick ankles sport red socks. She is surrounded by pots and pans, and holds tightly to a huge wooden spoon in one hand and an oversized rolling pin in the other. Clearly she threatens to hit the viewer with these...

  8. 5 Narrating Fat Shame
    (pp. 117-136)

    At one point in Pixar’s computer-animated 2008 blockbuster filmWALL-E, the white captain of the spaceship looks forlornly at the series of “captain” portraits hanging in his quarters. The ones on the left all show robust, virile former captains, standing erectly and looking quite formidable. As the portraits move toward the right, the captains become increasingly bloated and fat, and in the final ones the captains are no longer even standing or sitting but are lying nearly prone in lounger chairs so loaded with electronic options that they have obviated the need for actual bodily movement. The message is clear:...

  9. 6 Refusing to Apologize
    (pp. 137-171)

    InFAT!SO? Because You Don’t Have to Apologize for Your Size!Marilyn Wann writes that the words “large, big-boned, overweight, chubby, zaftig, voluptuous, Rubenesque, plump, and obese are all synonyms for fear.” She urges readers to “practice saying the wordfatuntil it is the same asshort, tall, thin, young, or old.Chat with your fat. Give it pet names. Doodlefaton your notepad during meetings. . . . Use the wordfatwith your parents, with your partner. Let friends in on your secret. Say, ‘By the way, I’m fat.’”¹ In her 1998 book, Wann urges fat...

  10. Conclusion: “The horror! The horror!”
    (pp. 172-176)

    In 2006, I came across an “Over the Hedge” cartoon strip that pointed to the crux of my argument about fatness. Written and drawn by Michael Fry and T. Lewis, “Over the Hedge” recounts the observations and experiences of three animals—a raccoon, a turtle, and a squirrel—whose habitat has been taken over by suburbia. In this particular strip, we see R. J., the raccoon, and Verne, the turtle, observing something in the distance. R. J. begins by saying, “Oh, Lord.” Verne, the turtle, then chimes in, “The horror . . . the horror . . . ” “We...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 177-188)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 189-198)
  13. Index
    (pp. 199-208)
  14. About the Author
    (pp. 209-209)