The Racist Misogyny behind Your “Does My Butt Look Fat in This?”: Reading Sabrina Strings’ Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia

Every so often, a book comes out that arrives as both an answer to a question and an answer to a prayer. For me, Sabrina Strings’s Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia is emphatically both. My scholarly superpower, and an annoying one it is too, is finding the holes in the library shelves where the answers to my questions should be. Until very recently, one of the holes in the shelves of which I was achingly aware was the one that should’ve held a book that explained the cultural origins, and sweeping societal success, of the loathing and hatred of fatness in American society. But then, mirabile dictu, Strings’s lightning bolt of a cultural interrogation arrived, not only offering incisive, insightful answers to those questions but opening the way for a wide range of potential future work.

If you, like me, have ever wondered why we live in a society where there is a commonly-held belief, well documented by researchers, “that people with obesity [are] less evolved and less human than people without obesity,” Sabrina Strings has answers for you.1

Strings’s central argument is quite simply this: the white West’s loathing of fatness was built on and within a system of anti-Black racism. As European exploitation of Black people intensified in the seventeenth century, so did the accumulation of imagery, belief, stereotype, and story that served to distance white Europeans from the Black people they increasingly depended upon to generate their wealth. In time, this combined with eighteenth-century cultural aesthetics that developed within the English-speaking world that connected thinness with moral perfection and intellectual vigor, what Strings has named the “ascetic aesthetic.” Jumping the pond to the newly-independent United States, the thin elongated paleness of the “ascetic aesthetic” becomes a white American signature, a particularly fateful white supremacist abbreviation in a new nation whose economy grew on, and indeed could not have been forged without, the dehumanization and enslavement of Black people.

Book jacket for Fearing the Black Body by Sabrina String. (©NYU Press)

“But what about all the health problems caused by fat?” I hear you thinking, gearing up to cite biomedical chapter and verse. You might want to slow your roll. Scientific racism comes in a lot of different forms, as Strings points out in the book’s third section, “Doctors Weigh In.” Strings puts a savvy fingertip on the profound biopolitics of nineteenth-century U.S. white evangelical Protestantism and its connections to the Popular Health movement. She peers past the surface of the graham cracker and Kellogg cereal stories we all know and love to reveal the racial politics underlying these medico-moral attempts to uplift and perfect the human race through diet and the regulation of body weight, size, and dimensions. Following that trail into the twentieth century, Strings further weaves together worries about Anglo-Saxon degeneracy, military fitness and the ability to maintain empire, the infamous Metropolitan Life Insurance Company height-weight charts, and eugenics in a detailed tapestry of culture-creation. The point, as summed up by Dr. Willard Stone, whose 1930 JAMA article Strings cites, was that “A nation’s preeminence can be measured by the health of its people, and food habits have much to do with health,” and so those food habits had to ensure “the virility of the race.” It was the only way, Stone insisted, that “a race of supermen is ever to be obtained.”2 Thirty years later, in the 1960s, internationally acclaimed metabolism expert Ancel Keys, compelled by his own research to acknowledge that obesity was not the killer the MetLife tables made it out to be, rejustified his “scientific” opposition to it on aesthetic terms: fat was “ugly,” “disgusting,” “repugnant.”3 It is not difficult to connect the dots.

It is just this, connecting the dots, at which Strings excels. We do not, as a rule, chronicle the building of our own cultural norms as they form. This is part of the reason that cultural norms seem so organic and as if they have always existed, unchanging, things whose truth we rarely think to question because they seem so self-evident. Let me say for the record that this kind of historiography is fiendishly difficult — I think of it as akin to explaining water to fish. Even taking the first step in doing this work, and imagining a world in which the historian’s own cultural assumptions may not hold true, is hard psychological as well as intellectual work. I point this out not just because Strings deserves praise for doing it so honestly and well, but because it explains the book’s interdisciplinary, adventuresome methodology. Strings hopscotches from art history to travel writing, the Atlantic slave trade to les Encyclopedistes with ease, displaying an admirably catholic research scope without veering from her main questions. As she explores her questions she fills in, in an almost pointillist manner, a cultural landscape in which white supremacy and thin supremacy are simultaneously and mutually constituted through the use of the language of comparison and opposition. Slavery and the slave trade are not just something that is happening in a sort of vague historical background in Strings’s narrative. Drawing on Simon Gikandi’s Slavery and the Culture of Taste, Strings shows how the form and nature of proper whiteness, a pure and refined thinness, was conferred by its distance from the improper forms and natures of blackness. I would cite details, but I don’t want to give spoilers: suffice to say you will never think of Ralph Waldo Emerson or Godey’s Lady’s Book in the same way again.

Like scholars Dierdre Cooper Owens and Marisa Fuentes, Strings has the gift of listening sensitively to the archive’s silences when it comes to the experiences of Black and other non-white women. The third chapter of the book, “The Rise of the Big Black Woman,” culminates in a retelling of the story of Saartjie Baartman, “the Hottentot Venus.” Strings places Baartman in the context of a web of imperialist white male desires and entitlements: knowledge, sex, fame, science, status, ownership, and, for lack of a better term, assessments of fuckability. The sheer pornography inherent in the ways Baartman was exhibited during her life and dissected after her death was instructively apparent. So was the forcible, ultimately literal, alienation of Baartman from her fat Black body. The nuances of lechery, lust, and disgust were important, Strings reminds us, not letting us forget that the objectification of Black fatness must be considered not only through the lens of racist denigration but also in the context of invoking Venus.

Fearing the Black Body is a joy to read, smooth and erudite. And it is also a joy to experience, to feel Strings pulling the strands of the historical web closer and closer so that their knots and tangled intersections are clear to see. Most important, though, is the intellectual satisfaction it provides in giving a clear and well-argued convincing rationale for the origins, reach, and astonishing success of a bias whose history, as it had previously been presented, was patchy and inadequate. Come for the history of the body, stay for the exemplary interdisciplinary methodology … and celebrate for the deft, pointed, and comprehensive argument that will change how you think about the fat body, and all bodies, for the better.

Notes

  1. Inge Kersbergen and Eric Robinson, “Blatant Dehumanization of People with Obesity,” Obesity 27 (2019): 1005–101, DOI: 10.1002/oby.22460. Return to text.
  2. Sabrina Strings, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia (New York: New York University, 2019), 194. Return to text.
  3. Strings, Fearing the Black Body, 198. Return to text.

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