Throughout the 19th century attitudes to the ‘stuff of life’ were increasingly entangled with the ever expanding life of stuff. The sheer quantity of material goods produced and consumed created minute gradations in status that could be deduced from a person’s curtains, or their waistcoat, or the size of the waistcoat. It was now easy to weigh and measure yourself and, moreover, to know the correct weight for your height. Weight-reducing diets and diet pills became more popular while the normal diet grew heavier and indigestion became endemic. Good digestion, said Sydney Smith, ‘is the great secret of life’. The science of nutrition was slow to catch up. The Carlyles’ doctor’s advice to avoid vegetables did nothing to relieve their constipation, as Jane recounted in her journals. In expanding cities space was under pressure. It was important both literally and metaphorically to keep one’s elbows in and not take up too much room, or, as Forth puts it in a typically opaque phrase: ‘the growing containment and closure of bodies … was not only a matter of visuality but part of a developing kinaesthetic that contributed to the lived experience of containment and closure.’ At one extreme this led to anorexia and the fashionable consumptive look that was the forerunner of heroin chic. It also, perhaps, though Forth does not put this argument, marks the point at which fat becomes first a predominantly female and subsequently a feminist issue. While men continued to be allowed a hearty Pickwickian girth a Victorian heroine had to be slender.
Forth feeds the reader some toothsome titbits in this unnerving but gripping book. He comments that the nouvelle cuisine that started in the 1970s sought to distance us from ‘the coarser aspects of animal life’, both by the chefs’ smaller portions and by the minimalist manner in which they served them, and decries our obsession with healthy eating as a species of magical thinking. ‘Diets ostensibly aimed at forestalling death,’ he writes, ‘may result in lifestyles that treat “life” as a problem. We may all be encouraged to eat organic, but not because we are entirely comfortable being organic.’ Our stereotypes of fat, and our dislike, even horror, of those we currently see and shame as departing from some ideal body-shape degrade and dishonour us
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... Forth’s analysis is given an excellent, often unsettling edge by his insistence on understanding fat not just visually but viscerally too. He is interested in fat as an organic, material substance found in humans, animals and even soil. We don’t just look at fat; we touch, taste and smell it as well. Forth immerses us in the lusciously greasy delights of dietary fats, the transcendent luminosity of sacred oils and religious offerings, and the early modern traffic in axungia hominis (human fat), used for medical purposes...when Forth is out of his chronological comfort zone, his analysis and arguments begin to feel unmoored. Some important factors, such as the Christian notion of bodily resurrection and the rise of imperialism, receive considerable attention, but, given that they are very rich areas of historiographical study in their own right, his analysis feels a little undeveloped... Overall, this is 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.