Georges Vigarello maps the evolution of Western ideas about fat and fat people from the Middle Ages to the present, paying particular attention to the role of science, fashion, fitness crazes, and public health campaigns in shaping these views. While hefty bodies were once a sign of power, today those who struggle to lose weight are considered poor in character and weak in mind. Vigarello traces the eventual equation of fatness with infirmity and the way we have come to define ourselves and others in terms of body type. Vigarello begins with the medieval artists and intellectuals who treated heavy bodies as symbols of force and prosperity. He then follows the shift during the Renaissance and early modern period to courtly, medical, and religious codes that increasingly favored moderation and discouraged excess. Scientific advances in the eighteenth century also brought greater kwledge of food and the body's processes, recasting fatness as the relaxed antithesis of health. The body-as-mechanism metaphor intensified in the early nineteenth century, with the chemistry revolution and heightened attention to food-as-fuel, which turned the body into a kind of furnace or engine. During this period, social attitudes toward fat became conflicted, with the bourgeois male belly operating as a sign of prestige but also as a symbol of greed and exploitation, while the overweight female was admired only if she was working class. Vigarello concludes with the fitness and body-conscious movements of the twentieth century and the proliferation of personal confessions about obesity, which tied fat more closely to tions of personality, politics, taste, and class.
Georges Vigarello is research director at the Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris. He has published prolifically on topics ranging from Concepts of Cleanliness: Changing Attitudes in France Since the Middle Ages (1988) to The History of Rape: Sexual Violence in France from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century (2001) and The History of the Body: From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (2011). C. Jon Delogu is university professor in the Department of English at the Universite Jean Moulin, Lyon 3 in France. He is also the translator of the Columbia University Press books Murder in Byzantium: A Novel (2006) by Julia Kristeva and After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order (2003).
Columbia University Press
Date of Publication
History: Specific Subjects
European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism