Stearns, a Carnegie Mellon history professor and dean, and founding editor of the Journal of Social History
, has written a classic study that dissects "the meaning of fat and antifat in modern Western society," concentrating on the U.S. and France during the past century. In two sections Stearns focuses on the U.S., first analyzing nineteenth-century attitudes toward weight and the roles of faddists and physicians in making fat "A Turn-of-the-Century Target" and then exploring "Expiation and Its Limits," as antifat culture intensified between 1920 and the 1990s. A third section compares "The French Regime" of weight control, which celebrates food more wholeheartedly while critiquing corpulence more cruelly than in the U.S. Stearns recognizes fascinating contrasts, e.g., French "emphasis on aesthetic norms" vs. Americans' use of weight control as a new restraint to balance newly liberated consumer and other energies. He also explores the interaction of weight-control cultures with gender, class, and ethnicity issues. A meaty study of facts and fears about fat. Mary Carroll
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From Kirkus Reviews
This leftist academic examination of our collective fascination with dieting depicts it as a manifestation of capitalist consumer culture duking it out with the secular remnants of puritanism. Stearns, founding editor of the Journal of Social History and a historian at Carnegie Mellon University (Millennium III, Century XXI, 1996, etc.) approaches our concern over personal poundage as a construct that, exceeding the demands of fashion or good health, can be understood only in larger cultural terms. We Americans relish the consumer goods with which we surround ourselves but feel a mite guilty about indulging in them. So we have contrived a way to--literally and figuratively--have our cake and eat it too: We diet. Focusing intensely on limiting caloric intake lets us feel virtuous and self-controlled even as we ignore our profligacy as consumers. We are not all equally affected; notably, from the 1920s to the 1960s ``weight morality bore disproportionately on women precisely because of their growing independence, or seeming independence, from other standards.'' In France, the other society considered, Stearns does not detect a view of weight loss as a moral crusade or fat as an outward sign of guilt. For Americans, rewards (a better job or social life) will come when they become thin and healthy; for the French, being thin and healthy is the reward. Interesting as the cross-cultural comparison is, one senses that its neat findings slight some untidy questions. For example, why does Stearns focus on the gender of the target of antifat comments but not on that of their source? To what extent are unattainable standards of slenderness invaluable in allowing people to devote a portion of each crowded day to self- absorption? Does that count as an expression of guilt? Those who agree with Stearns's premise from the first page will readily accept his illustrations as proof. Others may see this as an interesting study that suggests the complexity of a phenomenon more convincingly than it accounts for it. (15 illustrations, not seen) -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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