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Distributed for Reaktion Books


A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life

Distributed for Reaktion Books


A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life

Fat. Such a little word evokes big responses. While "fat" describes the size and shape of bodies—their appearance—our negative reactions to corpulence also depend on something tangible and tactile. As this book argues, there is more to fat than meets the eye. Fat: A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life offers reflections on how fat has been perceived and imagined in the West since antiquity. Featuring fascinating historical accounts as well as philosophical, religious, and cultural analyses—including discussions of status, gender, and race—the book digs deep into the past for the roots of our current notions and prejudices. Two central themes emerge: how we have perceived and imagined corpulent bodies over the centuries, and how fat—as a substance as well as a description of body size—has been associated with vitality and fertility as well as perceptions of animality. By exploring the complex ways in which fat, fatness, and fattening have been perceived over time, this book provides rich insights into the stuff our stereotypes are made of.

352 pages | 60 halftones | 6 1/4 x 9 1/4 | © 2019

History: General History

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Fat is a thoroughly researched and capable book . . . . A timely reminder of the cycles of our organic existence in the face of ever greater outer forces.”

History Today

"Fat was, then as now, a political and moral issue, Forth declares, as illustrations of porcine popes, belly-hugging bishops, and ravenous rabbis show. . . . Forth feeds the reader some toothsome tidbits in this unnerving but gripping book.”


"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? 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. . . . A 'fat’ book in the most agriculturally positive sense of the word. It is an impressive, lively study and an enjoyable read. Forth’s book breaks new ground and will provide historians of the body with much to think about for years to come.”

Literary Review

"Ideologically electric. . . . Without compromising the medical realities of obesity, Forth lucidly argues the case for what is, in essence, love against the disgust inspired by the ancient doctrine of intolerance and 'mechanical efficiency.'"


“Forth's remarkable book serves to see how lipophobia (the fear of fat) shares a common root: a utopian will to transcend matter and achieve a kind of ethereal perfection above contingencies. It has always been so. Diet, in this sense, is not a declaration of war on fat. It is a declaration of war on our imperfect and mortal humanity. Is it worth it?”

Gazeta do Povo (Brazil)

"Forth builds on this existing scholarship to contribute something wholly new to the literature. Through his investment in the history of emotions, his fascination with the literal substance of fat, and the extraordinary temporal and geographic scope of the book, Forth produces something quite unique. . . . Forth uses an extraordinary variety of sources, from ancient artifacts to eighteenth-century political cartoons and paintings, and from colonial travelogues to weight loss advice books from the early twentieth century. . . . In excavating this story of how we have come to modern stereotypes about fatness, the work still to be done is clear. Forth opens up the possibility for that future research with this fascinating and original take on the evolving meanings of fatness in European history that complicates both popular and historical assumptions.”

Medical History

"With his lucid ‘historical reflections,’ Forth . . . paints an intriguing picture, which expands the existing interpretations of this period of time, well labored-upon in the historiography on fatness,
both in scope and depth. In this sense, his approach . . . remains a groundbreaking contribution."

Social History of Medicine

"One of the more common preconceptions in the history of the human body is that, before the modern era, being fat was an outward sign of wealth and status. In this wide-ranging and well-researched volume, Forth puts this simple assumption to rest. He illustrates in ample detail the ambivalent attitudes toward fat and obesity that echoed throughout Western history. Simply put, fatness could be a signifier of wealth and leisure, but it could equally connote sloth and indolence. As the author suggests, transcending this ambivalence often has characterized the West’s relationship to the body, especially in the modern capitalist era. How can Westerners strive to emulate Spartan-like fitness and athleticism, for example, and, at the same time, fulfill natural and manufactured desires to consume? This book incorporates not only a wealth of research into ancient, medieval, and early modern sources but also a healthy familiarity with ethnographic studies and sociological theory. . . . This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book. Recommended."


"Place[s] fat front and center in Western—and perhaps especially American—history, and both underscore its central importance to other forms of oppression."

Elena Levy-Navarro, University of Wisconsin–Whitewater | American Historical Review

“Forth’s examples are numerous and rich—drawing from anthropology, classical studies, Biblical studies, literary studies, travelogs, and early science writing—forever putting to rest the idea that fatness had been valorized from prehistory (think Venus of Willendorf) until the emergence of modernity. . . . The substantive details and analysis of the development of Western ambiguity and antipathy toward fatness in Forth’s book are a useful addition to the history of Western culture, the body, and fat.”

Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"The vast buffet of historical (and selective) examples that Forth sets out to support his arguments does not disappoint. . . . He sketches out a broad timescale, beginning in antiquity and ending in today’s world, which offers a wide-angle lens through which to view attitudes toward fat bodies in our present slice of time. . . . Stuffed with thoughtful reflections and animated connections between past and present."

Fat Studies

"Fat: A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life proposes 'that the building blocks of our contemporary anti-fat imagery have some of their sources in the distant past, long before the "war of obesity" was declared.' There is much more to discover though, the spotlights on fat masculinity, the intriguing parallel of the materiality of fat and the perception of human fatness, in addition to the interplay between fat stigma, disgust, and imperialism qualify this book as an essential reading for the study of fat, bodies, race, and gender."


"Drawing on everything from classical studies to travelogues and early science writing, Forth bursts the myth that fat has ever really been associated with prosperity, health, and beauty. (Thank the Venus of Willendorf for that canard.) Via a diverse cast including the plump woodland god Silenus, Rubens's ample Three Graces, and some obese hindus, we delve into the roots of the West's lipophobia."

World of Interiors

"Tracing the history of fat through the centuries and in various fields of human activity (agriculture and the economy, politics and sport, medicine and art), Forth puts forward a very interesting and almost unique hypothesis in fat studies: the problem is not fat people, but the meanings of the fat itself. [Fat] is ambivalent, endowed with sensory undecidability: slippery, greasy, soft, smooth, capable of being neither liquid nor solid, or both. In fact, the merit of Forth’s book is the hypothesis that the ambivalent meanings of fat are related to the material, concrete, and expressive traits of the substance itself, whatever it is: not only human flesh, but also the earth, food, gods, animals, oils, secretions."

Ilaria Ventura Bordenca | Doppiozero (Italy)

"The book deploys a mass of fascinating historical evidence, over an impressive span of time, to illustrate and develop Forth’s arguments."

Journal of Modern History

Fat is the definitive overview of what bodily excess means and has meant in Western society. . . . Forth’s dramatic account of how we got to this point, written with grace and a touch of irony, points out that no other bodily state, not sexual orientation, not addiction, not mental illness, remains so totally demonized as the world of the XXXXL. A vital and critical addition to the cultural history of the body by a master of the genre.”

Sander Gilman, author of "Fat: The Biography"

"Forth is a myth buster. This is the book to read if you are wondering why people in the West are so obsessed with fat."

Joanna Bourke, author of "The Story of Pain" and "What It Means to Be Human"

"This is a distinctive and ambitious analysis, tracing body imagery from the classical period to the present and offering a striking argument about the relevance of past standards to contemporary debates. The book also offers a strong case for the interconnections between historical and scientific assessments."

Peter N. Stearns, author of "Fat History"

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