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Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West 2nd Edition

2 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0814798249
ISBN-10: 0814798241
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 294 pages
  • Publisher: NYU Press; 2 edition (September 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0814798241
  • ISBN-13: 978-0814798249
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,208,321 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 6, 2003
Format: Paperback
There are very few books on the history of our cultural obsession with weight and/or with "weight bigotry" in the U.S. When did it start? Why? How did it get so vehement? So an attempt at perspective is definitely welcome.
Stearns reports that before the 1890s, plumpness was preferred, and signals began to change only as fashions, fat-control devices, and increased public comment on fat began to emerge in the decade prior to 1900.
After that, the trend grew and intensified over an entire century. Stearns sees this growing obsession as a "compensation" for our indulgence in other pleasures about which we are ambivalent--consumerism, sex, women's freedom. As long as we demonstrate strict discipline about our body size as a kind of puritanical guilt-laden compensation, we can allow ourselves these other indulgent, consumerist pleasures.

Stearns likens the vehemence of fat hatred to Calvinism: only the elect (thin) are "saved," glorified through "salvation" stories of heroic weight loss, and rewarded with welcome entry to the cultural pleasures now available. Those who fail or refuse to measure up to the strict standards of slenderness are punished by being relegated to "fat hell" where open season--in the form of attacks and endless analyses of moral failings, character flaws, and psychological weaknesses--is allowed, imprisoning the recalcitrants in the consequences of their supposedly deplorable lack of self-discipline. Clothes, love, and the good life are not to be theirs.
By way of contrast, the French, who have equally strict standards of slenderness, are committed not to compensation for other pleasures but to high aesthetic standards of beauty.
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13 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Ricky Hunter on September 24, 2000
Format: Paperback
It was difficult rating this book as it took much longer than normal for me to finish reading it (finishing many other books while working on this one) but I tremondousl enjoyed the last part of the book. It takes a slow approach. First, it looks at the United States during this century and then it examines France in the same time period. This is supposed to represent the modern West as France is the thinnest of the western countries and the United States the most obese and the book looks for a cultural explanation for this phenomemon. It was slow going. It could be because I was looking for a historical attack on body fascists (possibly to assuage guilt over my own body image) and that is certainly not with what the book is concerned. The last two chapters are the best and bring the points made previously forward very clearly and, even, add what seem even more relevant arguments. There are not very many hard statistics and the history of science is blended a litle too much with the history of culture but the book does make very interesting points.
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