What Bodies Matter

As I posted yesterday, I just finished reading Amy Erdman Farrell’s FAT SHAME: STIGMA AND THE FAT BODY IN AMERICAN CULTURE. The book works in the tradition of Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s THE BODY PROJECT: AN INTIMATE HISTORY OF AMERICAN GIRLS, Hillel Schwartz’s NEVER SATISFIED: A CULTURAL HISTORY OF DIETS, and Peter Stearns’ FAT HISTORY: BODIES AND BEAUTY IN THE MODERN WEST, in examining the past and relating it to the present, with Farrell looking specifically at the stigmatizing of fatness beignning in the late nineteenth century and relating it to the “obesity epidemic” rhetoric of the current moment. FAT SHAME is valuable in several ways: one, in connecting to these other seminal texts; two, in connecting the methods and the findings of those texts to the contemporary moment; three, in looking specifically at the stigmatization of fat previously unconsidered in many significant cultural artifacts, then making thorough and profound observations about them; and four, in recording her findings with conviction and clarity. While all the aspects listed here are important, I think that the last one may be instrumental in circulating the others as her clarity allows the book to be read and clearly understood by those who have likely never encountered these ideas before. The book would be perfect for introductory undergraduate classes Body Studies or Fat Studies, or even potentially classes on historiography and historical methodologies. I was especially pleased with her closer look at nineteenth century scientistic texts on the meanings of race such as those by Cuvier and Lombroso to consider how body size has factored in to constructions of race and civilization that have impacted our understandings of bodies since. I had a class on the history of race, gender, and science last year, and throughout the class that was one of my own interests; I just didn’t have a scholar who had done that kind of analysis or a way to do the work myself to confirm what I was thinking about those connections.

One note I’d like to make about the book, though, extends to many other books written about body size, including those in Fat Studies. It happens in the first chapter, when Farrell is trying to contextualize the meanings of body size and specifically fatness historically and culturally.

“Like all other forms of stigma, fat stigma is relative, dependent on the historical and cultural context. Perceptions about fat… differ from place to place and from time to time. Women in the United States today face a far different standard regarding body size than those of other times or other cultures. In 1825, the French writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin exclaimed that ‘thinness is a horrible calamity for women’…. From the perspective of an American woman in the 21st century, it’s difficult to imagine a world where being thin would be a calamity…. Even today, however, body size standards in some cultures are far different from those in the United States. Young women in Namibia, for instance, describe themselves in positive terms as ‘fat and attractive’…. And it was only with the introduction of American television in the 1990s that the Fijians in the South Pacific began to experience eating problems on any significant level. Until then, a plump, rounded body meant the epitome of social approval.”

If you’ve read any text about body size–not just those published in the past decade but pretty much ever–you’ve encountered a section like this that provides some examples from another time and another place to demonstrate how there are different ways of appreciating a (fat) body. Understanding the variation in such appraisals is important. However, my concern lies with the way that the go-to examples tend to focus on how fat can be understood as attractive and acceptable, while implicitly suggesting that in these other times and places, thin is considered unattractive and unacceptable. That may seem like a revelation to many, but the bigger concern for me is how aspects of identity determine who is included and excluded from the cultural imaginary, in effect who is included and excluded from civilization, citizenship, and even humanity. As Judith Butler explains in BODIES THAT MATTER,

“(The) exclusionary matrix by which subjects are formed thus requires the simultaneous production of abject beings, those who are not yet ‘subjects,’ but who form the constitutive outside to the domain of subject. The abject designates here precisely those ‘unlivable’ and ‘uninhabitable’ zones of social life which are nevertheless densely populated by those who do not enjoy the status of the subject, but whose living under the sign of the ‘unlivable’ is required to circumscribe the domain of the subject. This zone of uninhabitability will constitute the defining limit of the subject’s domain; it will consitute that site of dreaded identification against which–and by virtue of which–the domain of the subject will circumscribe its own claim to autonomy and to life. In this sense, then, the subject is constituted through the force of exclusion and abjection, one which produces a constitutive outside to the subject, an abjected outside, which is, after all, ‘inside’ the subject as its own founding repudiation” (3).

Although Butler is talking primarily about gender and sexuality within the book, the main idea of this passage specifically and the text generally is that humans define what bodies matter through those that don’t. In reference to Farrell’s passage (and many others unmentioned) above, what matters to me is not just the abjection of fatness but abjection generally, not just why bigger bodies don’t matter specifically but why certain bodies don’t matter generally. Thus, when we as scholars point out those examples of when fatness “matters”, when larger bodies are included in the domain of subjectivity, we also have to acknowledge those bodies that don’t “matter”, those other bodies that may be excluded in the domain of subjectivity and how those marginalized figures still play in to this process of subjection.That process of inclusion through exclusion is the primary problem, and one that must be continually and generally addressed to get to the larger issues surrounding the constructions of humanity–and thus the treatment of people–in our world today.

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