Fat, desire and disgust in the colonial imagination.
Address: University of Kansas.
This article tracks the relatively unexamined ways in which ethnographic, travel and medical knowledge interrelated in the construction of Fat stereotypes in the nineteenth century, often plotted along a temporal curve from ‘primitive’ corpulence to ‘civilized’ moderation. By showing how the complementary insights of medicine and ethnography circulated in beauty manuals, weight-loss guides and popular ethnographic books – all of which were aimed at middle-class readers and thus crystallize certain bourgeois attitudes of the time – it argues that the pronounced denigration of fat that emerged in Britain and France by the early twentieth century acquired some of its edge through this ongoing tendency to depict desire for and acceptance of fat as fundamentally ‘savage’ or ‘uncivilized’ traits. This tension between fat and ‘civilization’ was by no means univocal or stable. Rather, this analysis shows, a complex and wide-ranging series of similarities and differences, identifications and refusals can be traced between British and French perceptions of their own bodies and desires and the shortcomings they saw in foreign cultures. It sheds light as well on those aspects of their own societies that seemed ‘primitive’ in ways that bore an uncomfortable similarity to the colonial peoples they governed, demonstrating how a gendered, yet ultimately unstable, double standard was sustained for much of the nineteenth century. Finally it reveals a subtle and persistent racial subtext to the anti-fat discourses that would become more aggressive in the twentieth century and which are ubiquitous today.
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