Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession
Edited by Don Kulick and Anne Meneley
Reviewed by Ann Folino White, Ph.D.
Michigan State University
As its title intimates, Fat is geared toward a North American popular audience facing unprecedented obesity rates and investing in quick-fix solutions for fashioning new (read: thinner) selves. The editors state in the introduction that the anthology “points no fingers … preaches no message” about fat, however destabilization of naturalized Western fat ideology – “good” and “bad” fats, corporeal and otherwise – through ethnographic papers on diverse community formations culminates in fat activist and performance artist Allyson Mitchell’s performative piece of writing, “Pissed Off.” Mitchell’s poetics for combating North American body-based biases concludes the volume on a prescriptive note. This, combined with the essayists’ frequent use of the first person plural, transforms readers into a monolith of the North American fat obsessed to color this anthropological study of fat’s myriad conceptions a cultural corrective.
Taken together, thirteen short ethnographic essays demonstrate the variety of meanings and purposes of fat throughout the world. To Nigerien Arabs, fat women epitomize beauty. Alternately, slender Swedish girls use fat (anxiety) talk to “fit in” and snub chubby girls. Portuguese Catholics pilgrimage to the homes of anorectic adolescent girls to call on the divinity manifest in their living, fasting bodies. Tuscan olive oil producers strive to attain the extra virgin designation for their commodity, as it connotes the healthfulness and refinement desired by North American consumers. In the hip-hop community, an obese man symbolizes powerful African American masculinity. While white pig fat exhibits Bergamascos’ claim to a distinctive ethnicity which exceeds Italian, gelatinous spam serves as means of resistance for Native Hawaiians and manifestation of their domination. Individuals reward themselves for their dietary asceticism with a splash of cream in their gourmet coffee drinks in Seattle cafés. Fat’s loss and its misdistribution throughout the body are feared by men, as this discloses instantly their HIV-positive status. In Andean mountain villages, Indians’ tales of the loss of fat, cut from victims by a thieving white stranger, reflects the experience of historic and contemporary capitalist exploitation. Brazilian women declare their middle-class status and, by extension whiteness, when they spend large sums on diet pills. And just as fat pornography featuring obese women eating represents powerfully female pleasure independent of the male phallus; gay men’s pornography depicting “chubbies” transforms them into objects for the “chaser’s” gaze.
The above description makes apparent that this collection’s primary strength lay in the ways in which everyday practices, pressures, doubts and suspicions based on gender, sexuality, race, economics or national power resonate across essays. The writings on pornography, female beauty standards, and the effects of colonialism offer ready points of comparison, but less obvious pairings also illuminate secondary aspects of individual studies. For instance, Joan Gross’s work on hip-hop foregrounds the significance of masculinity in Anne Meneley’s study of olive oil production. Likewise, Lena Gemzöe’s piece on holy female ascetics draws forth potential connections between purity, gluttony and morality in Margaret Willson’s look at café-goers indulgence and Don Kulick’s documentation of eating as a pornographic pleasure. The multiple possibilities for such cross readings suggest that Fat might be most productively used as a series of provocations for seminar discussions not only in the field of anthropology, but also in gender, race, media, cultural and post-colonial studies.
Nevertheless, at times the brevity of an essay results in cursory explication of complex issues and hurried conclusions. Most problematic is Matti Bunzl’s analogy, “Chaser is to chubby as male is to female” and his pat equalization of 1970s feminists seeking lesbian relationships as a means of liberating themselves from patriarchy with chubbies developing partnerships with other chubbies in order to emancipate themselves from chasers. Asserted without explanation, Bunzl collapses gender, sexuality, and the distinct power dynamics, gender roles, and identifications constituting heteronormativity and non-normativity. On the other hand, Rebecca Popenoe’s work among Saharan Arabs eventuates in a provocative, even if under-explored, claim that Naomi Wolf’s theory that media images wield the power to create body ideals may be incorrect. Her comprehensible application of theories about the embodiment of cultural norms exemplifies this collection’s pedagogical utility for introductory courses.
The readability of these essays and their clear explication and use of theoretical concepts may be due to the book’s intended audience, but it makes the collection a fine text for students new to the field of anthropology. Kulick and Meneley’s introduction offers an ethics and definition of anthropology. Throughout the anthology, scholars introduce the work of Foucault, Lacan, Irigaray, Bourdieu, Mintz, and Levi-Strauss and concepts such as political-economy, racialization, symbolism, gender performativity, and deconstruction with an ease that makes the ideas accessible to readers who may be encountering these concepts for the first time.