Fat: A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life by Christopher E Forth - review by Sarah Goldsmith

Sarah Goldsmith

O Blubber Mine

Fat: A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life


Reaktion Books 357pp £25 order from our bookshop

Why do we in the West have such an intense aversion to fat? Was fatness really celebrated as a sign of health, prosperity, status and beauty at some point in the distant past? Christopher Forth explores these questions in his lively, ambitious book Fat: A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life. Taking a longue durée approach, from the prehistoric to the present day, he resoundingly demonstrates that there really is more to fat than meets the eye.

This is a myth-busting book. Forth argues that fat has always been a potentially problematic presence in the human body. His chapters are replete with historical examples of how being too fat was consistently deemed unhealthy and physically unappealing, taken as evidence of a whole array of moral, spiritual and intellectual shortcomings, including laziness, stupidity, corruption, effeminacy and a lack of self-control. He locates the roots of today’s prejudices towards fat people in the description in Hebrew scripture of hard, selfish hearts being literally enclosed in fat (hēlebh), in the fourth-century archbishop of Constantinople John Chrysostom’s graphic moral condemnation of the ‘grossness of body, flatulence, pantings, fullness of belly’, and in ‘fat head’, an insult dating from the Middle Ages and beloved of 20th-century children’s writers (looking at you, Enid Blyton).

It would seem that almost any social group was vulnerable to accusations of corpulence. French peasants of the 17th century might dream of the taste of fat, but they also believed that neither a good cock nor a working man should be obese (un bon coq n’est jamais gras; celui

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