Eating, Body Shapes, and the Making and Unmaking of Race and National Belonging in 20th-Century America and Europe

AHA Session 195
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Columbia 10 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Jürgen Martschukat, University of Erfurt
Fat Shaming as Race Shaming
Psyche Williams-Forson, University of Maryland, College Park
Paula-Irene Villa, Ludwig-Maximilians University Munich

Session Abstract

The panel explores the nexus of eating and the body and its role in shaping and transgressing racial and national boundaries. In particular, the panel focuses on understandings of fatness and fitness and shows how eating and body shape formed a site of conflicts about citizenship, race, and national belonging.

As historians have argued in recent years, practices of eating are more than just means of bodily sustenance, yet their meanings and effects have changed over the centuries. In the late 19th and 20thcentury and what has been called the “age of biopolitics,” (M. Foucault) they have become a means of the (self-)government of individuals and the society and, as such, had a powerful impact on which individuals and groups were recognized as citizens and to what extent. Numerous experts, reformers, and other historical actors have shaped understandings of “eating right,” rendering body shape as a display of one’s ability to act responsibly, and be a proper and productive citizen.

In this biopolitical configuration, fatness and fitness served as agents of race making. Since the 19th century, weight and body shape have turned into powerful means for producing racial belonging and otherness. For instance, nutritional science made food and eating crucial factors in the “struggle for survival” (C. Darwin), and when fatness was rendered a sociocultural problem in the modern West, it was often racialized, presented as particularly prevalent among “primitive” people in the colonies, among African Americans, Mexican Americans, or the so-called white trash. Yet fatness has not only been described as predominant among “other” bodies, but has also been employed in a transatlantic discourse to signify Americans as “the other,” and as belonging to a “fat nation.” However, while fatness and fitness have shaped racial demarcations and articulations of national belonging in history, they have also contributed to the transgression of such boundaries. For instance, the ideal of a bodily malleability, promoted by nutritional knowledge, also implied that bodies and race could be shaped and were, thus, more fluid than assumed.

Discourses and practices of body shape present an excellent gateway to understandings of racial and national belonging in history. The panel will trace how body shapes and related knowledge and practices contributed to the making and unmaking of race and national belongings in modern America and Europe. A first paper explores the power of nutritional science in the early 20th century and shows how dietary studies racialized different bodies in different countries by ranking them according to their caloric and dietary needs, but also how they challenged fixed ideas of race and national distinctiveness. A second paper traces the character of the “fat American” through the second half of the century, highlighting a complex dynamic of nation building in Europe and America via body shape. A third paper focuses on fat shaming as race shaming in history of the United States and in a global perspective. Finally, the three historical papers will be commented on from the perspective of a body sociologist.

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