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Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia

by Sabrina Strings New York University Press
Pub Date:
Pbk 304 pages
AU$59.99 NZ$63.47
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How the female body has been racialized for over two hundred years

There is an obesity epidemic in this country and poor black women are particularly stigmatized as “diseased” and a burden on the public health care system. This is only the most recent incarnation of the fear of fat black women, which Sabrina Strings shows took root more than two hundred years ago.

Strings weaves together an eye-opening historical narrative ranging from the Renaissance to the current moment, analyzing important works of art, newspaper and magazine articles, and scientific literature and medical journals—where fat bodies were once praised—showing that fat phobia, as it relates to black women, did not originate with medical findings, but with the Enlightenment era belief that fatness was evidence of “savagery” and racial inferiority.

The author argues that the contemporary ideal of slenderness is, at its very core, racialized and racist.  Indeed, it was not until the early twentieth century, when racialized attitudes against fatness were already entrenched in the culture, that the medical establishment began its crusade against obesity. 

An important and original work, Fearing the Black Body argues convincingly that fat phobia isn’t about health at all, but rather a means of using the body to validate race, class, and gender prejudice.

"In Fearing the Fat Black Body, Sabrina Strings fills what has long been a gaping hole in scholarship on fatness and body size. Her careful historiographical exploration of the racialized roots of anti-fat, pro-thin bias should figure prominently in any academic, medical, political, or popular discussion of the contemporary American 'Obesity Epidemic.' In looking at the complex intersections of race, gender, class, and morality in current American framings of fatness and size, Strings does not simply add race to the conversation but shows that any analysis of body size that does not center race is necessarily incomplete."-Natalie Boero,Author of Killer Fat: Media, Medicine and Morals in the American Obesity Epidemic

Sabrina Strings is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine, and a Berkeley Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Sociology and the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley.  Her work has appeared in the Journal of Women in Culture and Society, The Feminist Wire, and Feminist Media Studies.