Dr Katherine Harvey is an Associate Lecturer in Medieval History at Birkbeck, University of London, and in receipt of a Postdoctoral Fellowship funded by the Society for Renaissance Studies. She is currently researching the interactions between bishops, medical knowledge and the medical professions in England (c. 1350-1550).
Georges Vigarello is well-known as a historian of the body over the longue durée: his books include widely-read histories of bodily hygiene, rape, and beauty. Given society’s current obsession with weight, it was perhaps inevitable that he would one day turn his attention to the history of obesity. The result was The Metamorphoses of Fat: A History of Obesity (first published in French as Les metamorphoses du gras (Seuil, 2010) and now available in English translation by Jon Delogu), a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary study covering the twelfth to twenty-first centuries, with particular emphasis on the French experience.
Divided into six chronological sections the book opens with Part 1 (‘The Medieval Glutton’), which focuses on attitudes to obesity between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. At a time when famine was common and most Europeans were hungry (and consequently thin), fat symbolised wealth and power. At the beginning of this period, the bodies of the obese attracted little comment; size became an issue only if an individual was too large to perform his duties. But concern about the dangers of obesity was building. Clerics worried about the vice of gluttony (indicative of a troublesome lack of self-control), and doctors warned that extreme obesity could endanger individual health. The emergence of a ‘courtly culture’ based on refinement and grace produced new bodily ideals, and by the fifteenth century some high-status women were actively trying to lose weight.
Part 2 (‘The “Modern” Oaf’) explores the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, uncovering two key trends. The first is a growing emphasis on the slowness, laziness and ignorance of ‘the fat’, who became a target for satire and contempt. In literature, obese characters were figures of fun or objects of denigration. Artistic representations were less hostile, but equally stereotypical, with the obese individual usually depicted as ‘a perfectly round sphere.’ The second key trend is an increase in efforts to understand and care for the obese body. Although medical understandings of fat were still based on humoral theory, there was increased interest in the creation and composition of fat, and in diseases of obesity (e.g. apoplexy and dropsy). There was a corresponding increase in the range of treatments available to the obese, from bleeding and purging to diet and exercise, and from thinning agents (including vinegar and chalk) to the wearing of corsets.
Part 3 (‘From Oafishness to Powerlessness’) interrogates the eighteenth century, and uncovers new, more subtle ideas about obesity and the fat body. There was an increasing interest in weights and measurements as a way of gauging the size of the body. At the same time, written descriptions of fat people became more detailed, and visual depictions more realistic: bigness was no longer a straightforward question of roundness. Whilst stoutness could lend gravity to elite males, women were expected to be thin. Extreme girth was problematic in both sexes, because new medical theories associated fatness with weakness and melancholy. In men extreme fatness was sometimes linked with the abuse of office. It is unsurprising, then, that this period saw an explosion in efforts to ‘cure’ the fat, usually by toning and tensing the body- whether through diet, exercise and bathing, or through pills, tonics and electric shocks.
Part 4 (‘The Bourgeois Belly) moves the narrative into the nineteenth century, and thus into the scientific age. The measurement of weight and size and the accurate description of human physiques became increasingly important, but the most significant development of this period was the new conception of the human body as an engine fuelled by food. Experiments demonstrated that fat and water were distinct substances, and that different foods had different nutritional contents. Obesity- and nutrition-related diseases were better understood; for example, dropsy was now identified as a kidney disorder. This new knowledge produced novel diets, and fatness continued to be stigmatized, especially in women. At the same time, fat people were beginning to be perceived as sufferers, struggling not only with their size but also with psychological and social problems.
Such attitudes solidified in the decades around 1900, and are addressed in Part 5 (‘Toward the “Martyr”’). Interest now focused on calories and the importance of exercise and lifestyle (including hereditary factors), as well as on the innate susceptibility to weight gain of certain individuals. Such concerns were reinforced by rapid developments in medical and scientific understandings of food and fat. The stigma of fat was enhanced by a raft of lifestyle changes which made people more self-aware, including the widespread introduction of scales and full-length mirrors into domestic settings. Consequently, a slender figure became desirable for both sexes, and slimming became a big business.
However, for Vigarello it was the 1920s which saw the emergence of modern ideas about fat. Henceforth, thin was fashionable for both sexes, and obesity was associated with the unhealthy diet of the lower classes and ‘a failure to reform oneself.’ Yet, as medical research revealed the health risks of obesity but failed to find cures for it, the fat also became victims of an invincible foe and the object of pity.
Part 6 (‘Changes in the Contemporary Debate’) brings the story up-to-date with a brief consideration of modern-day obesity. The current epidemic of obesity, Vigarello argues, has made it ‘a social malady and costly problem resulting from the individual’s lack of will’, and a matter on which governments legislate. Yet obesity is also a very personal issue, since the body has become the lynchpin of our identity. To be obese, Vigarello suggests, is to be betrayed by one’s body, but obesity is also part of self-identity- and thus many fat people feel that to lose weight would be to change the person.
Along with Sander Gilman’s Obesity: The Biography (OUP, 2010), this volume certainly fills the gap in the market for an accessible and concise volume on the history of obesity in the western world. For the general reader seeking a wide-ranging introduction to the subject, this is certainly a worthwhile and enjoyable read. The specialist reader, however, may be less satisfied; this is a broad topic, considered over a long time-frame, in a relatively slender volume with inevitable omissions. The most obvious is the lack of any detailed consideration of obesity outside of France- although The Metamorphoses of Fat is marketed as a study of ‘European ideas’ about obesity, it is essentially a book about Vigarello’s homeland. There are also some strange thematic choices. Given, for example, the massive impact of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation on European culture (including attitudes to the body), it is disappointing that Vigarello does not consider how these movements influenced attitudes to obesity.
It might be helpful to give more specific examples. From the perspective of this medievalist, there are at least three significant flaws in Vigarello’s interpretation of medieval obesity. Firstly, he demonstrates no awareness of the long tradition of concern about obesity and gluttony in the ancient and early medieval worlds, instead seeming to suggest that such hostility originates in the ‘middle centuries of the [later] medieval period.’ Secondly, his brief consideration of ecclesiastical attitudes to over-eating fails to recognise the importance of gluttony as a gateway sin which led to all manner of other failings- especially lust and a lack of charity. According to medieval thought, when the glutton overindulged he ate food which should have been given as alms, and thus deprived the needy. Finally, it seems bizarre that Vigarello does not mention complexion- a notion which was absolutely central to medieval medicine, and which was believed to influence all aspects of the individual body, including the figure. It is certainly necessary to be selective when writing a book like this, but the omission of such fundamental points does raise questions about the comprehensiveness of Vigarello’s research.
Nor is the rest of the volume without its problems, not least because some of Vigarello’s assertions raise difficult questions. For example: If scarcity of food was the chief reason for positive attitudes to fat in the earlier middle ages, why did negative attitudes to the fat body become widespread in c.1500, at a time when food shortages were still common? If the term ‘obesity’ first appeared not in 1701 (as Vigarello claims), but in the mid-sixteenth century (as the Oxford English Dictionary states), does that alter his narrative of early modern obesity? If, for women, ‘thinness […] is an uncontested rule across the centuries’, how does one account for the voluptuous nudes of Renaissance portraiture, or indeed the nineteenth-century stereotype of the stout prostitute to which the author himself draws attention?
In a sense, however, such questions are indicative of the book’s greatest strength, which is that it forces the reader to think about the meanings of obesity, both in the past and in the present. For this reason alone, The Metamorphoses of Fat is a valuable study of an extremely relevant issue, and deserves to be widely read.