The Metamorphosis of Fat: A History of Obesity, by Georges Vigarello, Translated by C Jon Delugo
Reviewed by Sander Gilman
The Metamorphosis of Fat: A History of Obesity
Georges Vigarello Trans. C. Jon Delugo
Columbia University Press
Recently the American Medical Association declared obesity to be a disease. The World Health Organisation had warned us in 2001 of the dangers of “globesity”, global obesity. Indeed, sit in any cafe anywhere in Europe (or, especially, in North America) and stare at those walking past: it is clear that all about you are larger and larger men and women.
The walking wounded, damned by their girth to early death and long and expensive medical treatment before that. Nonproductive members of society drawing on our taxes to fund the results of their gluttonous, lazy lifestyle: deep-fried Mars bars and chips followed by a Coca-Cola or 10.
The problem with this rather ominous warning about the end of our slim and healthy civilisation as we know it is that it is only a fragment of the truth, seen through our anxiety about controlling our (and everyone else’s) body. Whether body size or sexual practices, we are constantly monitoring those about us for healthy or unhealthy, for natural or unnatural practices, practices that will damn the rest of us unless we force them to control themselves.
Contrary to the claims of the AMA, obesity is not a disease: it lacks a single cause, single outcome or single treatment. It is not global: individual weight may be spiking in China, as in the United States, but its complex causation and results are very different, and, at least in China, malnutrition remains a greater health problem than overweight. Even in the United States there are concentrations of obesity, using existing epidemiological definitions, such as in the poverty-ridden southeast.
Fat really does have a history, and Georges Vigarello’s book presents its complexity in readable and intelligent form. From medieval struggles with food (remember gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins) to the complex history of the science of fat in the 19th-century age of biology, how fat is understood, what meanings it is given and, perhaps even more centrally, how it is defined evolve and change based on any given society’s need to control the bodies of its members.
It is not merely that obesity is omnipresent as a medical category from the earliest written records of the Greeks and the Egyptians but that it is constantly redefined. The boundary between the healthy and the diseased is in constant negotiation at every level. The healthy Victorian gentlemen that WS Gilbert noted in his Victorian Ballad of the Sugar Broker
. . . had one sorrow – only one –
He was extremely bulky.
A man must be, I beg to state,
Who owns his chief
And only grief
Is – being very bulky.
And this poor sugar broker, living in the first modern age of public debate about dieting and fat, is undone by his healthy though bulky body. As Gilbert notes:
I hate to preach – I hate to prate
– I’m no fanatic croaker,
But learn contentment from the fate
Of this East India broker.