cover image Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia

Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia

Sabrina Strings. New York Univ, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4798-8675-3

Strings, a University of California Irvine assistant professor of sociology, delivers a thoroughly researched exploration of the historical relationship between race- and weight-related prejudices, examining centuries of Western artistic values, race-based pseudoscience, and Anglo-Saxon religious teachings. Her study begins in the Renaissance era, in which “larger, fleshier physiques” were commonly revered and depicted in the paintings of the masters, and moves through the early, racist anthropological texts by European visitors to Africa during the 18th and 19th centuries. The ideas disseminated in these texts are epitomized by the story of Sara Baartman, a full-figured Cape Town woman sold into slavery and hailed as the “most correct and perfect specimen of that race of people.” The 19th century also saw the rise of the first women’s magazines, which incorporated Protestant ideals of “temperance” and racist rhetoric to shame women into losing weight; one magazine suggested that women who were not sufficiently thin ought to go to Africa “where women, like pigs, are valued at so much a pound.” Strings also traces the history of medical concern about obesity, stretching into the 20th century with the development of the body mass index (BMI) concept, noting the many racial biases underlying that concern. This fascinating and carefully constructed argument persuasively establishes a heretofore unexplored connection between racism and Western standards for body size, making it a worthy contribution to the social sciences. Illus. (May)