Morality, aesthetics, and fatness: review of Sabrina Strings’ Fearing the Black Body

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Emilie Egger //

Strings, Sabrina. Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. New York: New York University Press, 2019.


Bathroom scales, sugar, Cosmopolitan magazine: these three items are linked in contemporary Western understanding of weight loss and management. The first is a gauge of adherence to medical and cultural norms of health; the second: a forbidden treat made into the antagonist of that gauge; the third, a publication that in various periods has promoted crash diets, absurd standards of thinness, and more recently, vague prescriptions of  “wellness” and “lifestyle changes.” In her book Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, sociologist Sabrina Strings takes readers back a few centuries to examine additional dimensions of the long-time association among these cultural icons as she adds them to the backstory of contemporary standards of thinness one by one. 

First, her argument: Strings contends that fatphobia and thin supremacy originated with the dual purposes of disciplining white women into adherence to bodily ideals and structurally punishing Black women for not fulfilling them. The context for this, she argues, was the interwined histories of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the rise of Protestantism in Europe and the United States. Strings employs the methods of process tracing and historical narrative to bring together studies of race, aesthetics, medical racism, and morality. 

Fearing the Black Body begins in the fifteenth century with Strings’ examination of depictions of Black women in Renaissance paintings. Strings focuses on the hubs of the Renaissance such as Italy, the Low Countries, and England, where many Black women were enslaved. Strings argues that the paintings of Dürer, Titian, Rubens, and others reflect the growing cultural imperative of creating racial difference over the several centuries of the Renaissance and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Many of the iconic painters included in Strings’ analysis were also theorists of beauty and therefore contributed another, technical, aspect of racial formation. 

The transatlantic slave trade also thrust sugar into its role as a social force that encompassed whiteness, wealth, health, and morality narratives about sugar as a substance. This is where the second point in Strings’ argument, thin supremacy as a Foucauldian discipline, is developed. While nutritional information contemporary readers would recognize was scarce during this period, associations among large bodies, wealth, leisure, and sugar consumption were already emerging. During the time enslaved people were forced to grow and harvest sugar, the substance also became a cultural tool with which to discipline white consumers of sugar, who were to maintain their slight bodies by remaining temperate. By the time of the Enlightenment, fatness and gluttony had already been coded onto Black bodies. Strings uses the theories of Francois Bernier, who centered both race and the female body as central to racial theory to bridge Europe and the United States in this discussion. 

Meanwhile, the association between thinness and whiteness continued to grow in the United States, where the priorities of temperance, of creating protectable white women, and more took on their own American sensibilities, thanks to events such as the Second Great Awakening and the Popular Health Movement of the 1930s. Strings analyzes how women’s magazines (like Cosmopolitan) promoted this particular twist on morality and thin bodies, especially on middle-class white women. 

These threads of visual and moral ideals culminate in Part III, which focuses on medicine’s foray into fatphobia. Here we find more familiar touchstones of the history of weight control: scales in US homes beginning in 1913; actuarial charts establishing ideal body weights based on white, middle-aged men around the same time, and the invention of  Body Mass Index (BMI) in 1972. The epilogue examines the obesity epidemic of the early twenty-first century that readers will recognize. 

This book covers broad historical and theoretical ground that is at times challenging to synthesize. Yet, the broad scope is critical to the academic conversations that Strings is entering. While I craved more from the section on medical fatphobia, the space allotted to the development of visual culture and morality in Parts I & II was necessary to establish Strings’ major arguments. With the addition of each section, the book becomes an intellectual history of how aesthetic and moral ideals led to medicine becoming a knowledge regime that continues to generate and perpetuate racism. 

The extensive scope of the book also provides many entry points for scholars to add to conversations of race and gender in aesthetics, morality, and health. I would have liked to see the genre of women’s magazine historicized more clearly, as well as to read more about how Renaissance paintings functioned as visual culture. Who had access to these texts? How did the ideology they generated reach the larger public? 

Possible new studies include: gender in contemporary wellness diets; fatness, race, and reproductive justice, as well as further examinations of visual culture through the twinned lenses of race and health in institutions from all eras of history. With her skilled integration of several histories, Strings’s book is an invaluable contribution to the histories of medicine, science, health, and religion. 

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