Sander L Gilman has delved into culture (from Verdi to Gone with the Wind) to demonstrate that our belief that fat can be identified with a number of character flaws –sloth, avarice, greed, lack of control – has run very deep for a very long time indeed. He shows how fear of fat is entangled with issues of age, nationality and race – fat youngsters, fat Jews, fat Baptists, fat ‘little emperors’ of modern China – and ends up casting a sceptical eye over whatever prejudice we might have.
The book has the advantage of making fat an interesting historical phenomena rather than simply a self-hating pathology. Still, I found it incredibly irritating. So filled is it with endless diversions that you lose any sense of what the main point might be. Although he doesn’t use the language, Gilman seems wedded to the postmodern ethos of debunking with no obvious purpose in mind. In the end you lose any sense of whether obesity is a problem or not. As well as what causes it. Or what to do about it. The book is thus strangely innocent of politics. Gilman seems to believe that we are obsessed with ‘perfectibility’ of our human form but spells out few of the implications of this. There are a lot of ‘wheres’ and ‘whens’ in this history of fat but far too few ‘whys’.