Sometimes a book, movie, or piece of art enters the public consciousness to such a degree that you feel like you know what it’s all about, even if you haven’t actually read it or seen it. I had this experience when I visited The Art Institute of Chicago for the first time last summer. It felt familiar to me, because it was featured in the movie “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.”
I knew that “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat was in this museum, and made a point of going to see it. I had an idea of the scale of this famous painting because I had watched Cameron stand gobsmacked and slightly depersonalized in front of it in “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off” countless times, allowing himself to disappear into the faceless faces of the painting’s subjects. But when I entered the room where “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” was displayed, I stopped in my tracks. My breath caught in my throat. It was massive. I knew that, but I didn’t actually know what that felt like. I stood in front of it, just as Cameron did, a mixture of amazed and overwhelmed. The experience of seeing it, in person, in front of me, being able to just make out the tiny dots that together formed this idyllic scene, the way it tricked my eye, was worlds apart from seeing a character in a movie see it. Or even looking at a print of it.
I stood back and tried to take a picture, which of course didn’t do it justice, the same way “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off” could never do it justice (but does accurately portray the sensory experience of seeing it for the first time):
In the world of Health at Every Size (HAES), Sabrina Strings’ book “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia” has become a little bit like this exquisite, large painting, though it was only published in 2019. It gets talked about and recommended a lot, especially as many people’s attention has (very rightfully) turned to racial justice after the murder of George Floyd and nationwide protests against police brutality in the United States. This book is at the tip of everyone’s tongues, and is getting recommended by anyone who is anyone in fat activism and HAES. In a few cases, it’s being cited as a reason why those who consider themselves fat activists and HAES advocates must concentrate their efforts on racial justice, because fatphobia is a mere byproduct of racism.
Like viewing “”A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” for the first time, reading Strings’ book was surprising. I thought I understood the gist of it before I cracked it open, but reading it was surprising. It’s not the book I thought it would be at all, and it certainly wasn’t the book people were telling me it was. Much like that day at The Art Institute of Chicago, the experience of reading it was overwhelming and totally different than I expected.
A History of Whiteness & Beauty
What I had expected from “Fearing the Black Body” was a history of racism — specifically, an account of how white people have mistreated Black people throughout history. That seemed like a fair assumption from the recommendations it was given.
What I was surprised to realize, not too far into this book, was that “Fearing the Black Body” was in fact a history of whiteness.
The book starts in the Renaissance with examinations of what constitutes beauty — can it be distilled into a formula? Measurements? Proportions? We follow German painter Albrecht Dürer’s quest to crack the code of beauty, as the transatlantic slave trade brought many Europeans into contact with Black people for the first time. Strings explores how the presence of Black women was used throughout the Renaissance in relation to white women — sometimes, surprisingly, they were portrayed as sensual and to some degree equal in beauty. But often, they served as contrasts (and literal servants) that bolstered the beauty of white women. The first few chapters trace the preferences of white men of the era for “plumper” and “fleshier” figures, like those of Venus de Medici and the women portrayed in the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens (whose paintings of fat-bottomed girls gave us the term “Rubenesque.”)
(To be honest, I struggled with this portion of the book. Rubens’ painting, the Venus de Medici, “The Birth of Venus” by Botticelli… these women are not fat. They are medium-sized. If you put a t-shirt and jeans on Venus de Medici and took her out to The Cheesecake Factory, no one would consider her “fleshy” or “plump.” She’d be one of the thinner women there.)
As slave trade brought more and more hostage Black people into Europe, men of the Enlightenment sought to understand the differences they noted between themselves and the African slaves they were buying, selling, and keeping as hostages. Strings follows Le Raciste Journey of a French physician named Francois Bernier, whom is credited with being the first to attempt to classify people based on “race.” This chapter, “The Rise of the Big Black Woman,” is a fascinating history of how “race,” as a concept and as a tool, came to be, with French, English, and German men cataloguing the size, shape, and beauty of women of various races and countries like AKC breed standards. Many of the men who penned respected works on the subject of race had actually never traveled to the regions they described and simply repeated (and added to) the descriptions provided by the few men who had set foot on the African continent.
Aside from the terrible tale of Khoikhoi woman Saartjie “Sara” Baartman, which is more or a story about the things white men did to her than Saartjie herself, “Fearing the Black Body” is a book that focuses quite thoroughly on white men. Strings uses art, the science of the day, and literature to connect concepts of “beauty,” race, and the superiority of the white race. (What constitutes “white” and who gets to be included in that classification is hotly debated as the American experiment is underway in the second half of the book.)
Health as White Nationalism
Moving into the 1700s, the concerns of the white men of the day move from beauty to “health.” We’re introduced to some new players (or new to me, at least) in the second half of the book, such as pioneering physician George Cheyne. Cheyne was a fat dude, and like many fat dudes on the internet still do today, lost a whole bunch of weight on a weird diet and would not shut up about it. He combined his faith, philosophy, and interest in medicine (such as it was at the time) and decided that a restrictive vegetarian diet of “milk, bread, seeds, mealy roots, and fruit” was the way to be healthy and godly. And that seed of thought eventually shifted the narrative from beauty to “health.” (And all of those things, of course, are about whiteness and racial superiority.)
Through the rest of the book, we also meet old friends like cereal innovator and eugenics enthusiast John Harvey Kellogg, John Calvin, Ancel Keys (whose “starvation experiment” we keep citing as evidence that diets don’t work even though the guy really hated fat people, I mean, really hated them), and Charles Dana Gibson, who became famous for his drawings of “Gibson girls.” Through 18th, 19th, and early 20th century, the obsessive concern that men had for beauty is a concern for the “health” of white women — though, as readers of this blog probably already know, “health” and “beauty” are different words for the same thing. Monitoring and policing the “health” of white women was mainly achieved through policing their body size and appetites. (A “gluttonous” appetite was seen as ungodly, unbecoming, and in proximity to Blackness, as Black people were considered to be unable to control their appetites, a theme we still see today in coverage of weight and its relation to race and health.) The chief concern was upholding the superiority to white women, and by extension white men, not the happiness, healthiness, or well-being of anyone involved. (A true Protestant attitude, to be sure.)
White women, it seems, were unable to win, even as they got involved in the game with the advent of women’s magazine and fashion plates in the 1800s and the temperance movement. There was a never-ending parade of men telling them that they were too beefy, too thin and wispy, too fashionable, not fashionable enough, they must eat more but only the “correct” kinds of foods, they must gain weight but only in the correct places, they must slim down but maintain the correct proportions to remain lovely, and they must to these things for their love of God and country and to keep their men atop the racial hierarchy and produce lovely white children. Black women are not mentioned often in the second half of “Fearing the Black Body,” except as a spectral Other to be avoided at all costs.
None of this is exactly new information or mind-blowing, and a lot of these tales, biographies and connections are ones that have already been made. (Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth” paints a similar portrait.) However, Strings book is exhaustively researched (the citations alone are about a quarter of the book’s length), and the addition of race science to this familiar tale of patriarchal control is powerful. Like “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” that day at The Art Institute, “Fearing the Black Body” feels familiar and taken in as a whole is a much more complex and overwhelming experience.
The final chapter and epilogue of “Fearing the Black Body” are, in my opinion, its strongest pieces. These chapters detail how the groundwork Strings spent the book laying hold up our current system of “health” and “wellness,” discussing the actuarial chart used to determine the likelihood of mortality than Ancel Keys hated and substituted with a very old statistical chart he would dub the “body mass index,” the measure of “health” we still use today. (It should come as no surprise than neither scale used to codify “normal” size and weight took into account any race but white people.) The final chapter and epilogue tie together the history that’s catalogued in the rest of the book with our modern age and how our experience of “health,” “wellness,” and weight are consequences of centuries of white men trying to decide what the proper and superior size is. The quest to determine what the “correct” size is truly fascinating, and basically, for centuries, can be summed up as “medium.”
Unfortunately, this section of the book is also quite short, so the book is heavy on history and light on the modern implications of this history. Strings says of the slim white ideal:
They served as a mechanism for white men and women to denigrate the racially Othered body. They also worked to police and applaud the “correct” the behavior of other white people, especially white women.
This is the crux of the issue. The image of fat black women as “savage” and “barbarous” in art, philosophy, and science, and as “diseased” in medicine has been used to both degrade black women and discipline white women.
A Heavy Book
I have seen “Fearing the Black Body” recommended as a great introduction to the issue of weight being racialized. I have to admit — it took me two tries to finish this book. I tried once, and gave up. It’s a dry, academic text. Is it well-written? Yes, though at times I found the language to be purposefully inaccessible. (Why refer to something as “Janus-faced” when one could simply say “two-faced” or “contradictory” instead?!) If you’re looking for a well-researched history into art, race science and weight science, this book is excellent and well worth the effort. If you’re looking for an introduction to these issues, a place to start learning about this subject, this book is probably one you’ll also put down once or twice or not even get through. And if you’re looking for a book that will tell you what’s right, what’s wrong, and what to do, you’re looking in the wrong place. It’s a history lesson, not a call to action.
It’s also not prescriptive. Again, this is a history book. If you’re looking to understand where to go after reading it, how to untangle weight science from racism, how to untangle pretty much all of Western thought and history from the 1400s on from its horrific racial history, you’re left on your own. Sabrina Strings does not take a position on what to do now.
I have seen this book cited or used to emphasize that racism, not fatphobia, should be a focus of fat liberationists, activists, and HAES advocates. I can’t say I agree that “Fearing the Black Body” makes a strong case for this — it does however explicitly present fatphobia, particularly the medicalized variety of it so many fat activists and HAES advocates rail against, as a structure created for the purpose upholding white supremacy that is currently being used for that purpose. Therefore, chipping away at this fear of fatness (which is, historically, at its core, a fear of Blackness) is antiracist work. It’s striking at a piece of the scaffolding used to uphold white supremacy in the Western world. These things are inextricably connected. The way forward is not Either/Or when it comes to racism or fatness. It’s Both/And.
I did find myself wondering if some of the people using it to advocate for an Either/Or position have actually read it. (My guess is that they didn’t, or didn’t make it to the end — which, again, is understandable. It’s not a breezy beach read.) There have been many people suggesting that the way to end fatphobia is to “rip it out at the root,” which is systemic racism. But fatphobia is one of those systems being referred to by the word systemic. Racism is a tangled, knotted, ancient tree with roots that overlap, intertwine, and weave in and out of each other. Tearing it out at the root isn’t as simple as it may seem. But, by continuing to work to advocate against this one system, alongside other systems used to oppress, perhaps one day we can finally fell this diseased tree.