Why do Americans cherish thinness while condemning heaviness? According to sociologist Sabrina Strings, contemporary fatphobia has roots in anti-Blackness. Here, she explains how corpulence became associated with both Black women’s bodies and “savagery,” which led to white society’s embrace of slenderness
When Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman arrived in France in 1814, the air was electric. Bulletins declaring “Just arrived from London! The Hottentot Venus!” met the tantalized gazes of 19th-century urbanites. All were invited to ogle the body of the famous South African woman, billed as a unique specimen of humanity. For most in the country, it would be the first opportunity they’d ever been given to see a real, live African woman.
A slave from Cape Town, Baartman was the human property of the British entrepreneur Alexander Dunlop. It was Dunlop’s idea that she be brought to Europe and exhibited for lurid delight. Exhibit goers, both the curious and the lecherous, would encounter her in a small enclosure. On a typical night, Baartman would be adorned with jewels and garments that had been poorly curated to represent the raiment of her tribe, the Khoikhoi, also referred to by Westerners as the “Hottentot.” She’d emerge from a dark corner wielding a spear. Then she’d slowly remove her coat, allowing it to dangle coquettishly from one shoulder to give the crowd a moment to take in her undulating curves. Her thick thighs, soft arms, and rounded belly, were all major draws. But it was her general rotundity and jutting backside that brought throngs of spectators. It was these qualities that made Baartman an archetype of Black femininity in the popular imagination. They were also what many believed proved racial scientific claims of African barbarity.
Baartman’s international fame popularized an idea that had been percolating since the 1700s—that Black women were constitutionally thickset, and that this was evidence of their savagery. Some six decades prior to her arrival, Georges-Louis LeClerc, Comte de Buffon, the keeper of the royal botanical garden in Paris, had been working on a catalog of the royal’s collection of natural history artifacts. In 1749, he published his findings in a book titled, Histoire Naturelle, Générale Et Particulière (Natural History: General and Particular).
The 18th century was the height of both the transatlantic slave trade and race-making, its philosophical companion. As race was, at that time, believed to be a set of natural differences between presumed species of mankind, it was not uncommon to find natural historians waxing intellectual about racial differences. In his masterwork, Buffon dedicated one chapter to the “Varieties of the Human Species.”
In the view of Buffon and other so-called “race scientists,” Africans were a sensuous people. This, it was argued, proved they were intermediaries between apes and Europeans. Unlike Europeans, Africans, they claimed, lacked the intellectual or moral capacity for rational self-discipline. Rather, they were given to indulging in the basest vices of the flesh: food and fornication. According to Buffon, Sub-Saharan Africans, especially, were able to remain “well fed” with little effort, given the local climate and their lush green surroundings. The result was that they were “tall and plump…but simple and stupid.”
However, in Buffon’s estimation, Black women’s especially well-appointed physiques were not inherently a deficit. And this was not an uncommon view for the 1740s. Scientists like Buffon had inherited the Renaissance ideals of beauty, in which voluptuousness was prized. In the early to mid-17th century, the artist Peter Paul Rubens, whose very name has become synonymous with curvaceous women, created images of female beauty that were representative of the ideals of his time. In describing what made for an attractive woman’s body, he wrote that, “the hip, or the tops of the thighs, and the thighs themselves should be large and ample…the buttocks should be round and fleshy…the knees should be fleshy and round.” Of course, Rubens also believed that the whiter the skin, the more beautiful the woman. But his work is evidence that, during the late Renaissance and its immediate aftermath, a female with a plump physique was not to be admonished, but admired.
Later colonial scholars, however, would take the general idea of Black women as prone to fleshiness and recalibrate its worth to fit changing opinions about race. Denis Diderot, a friend and colleague of Buffon, published his own compendium of natural history not two years later. At first, Diderot appeared to be only marginally interested in questions of race. He published the first edition of his Encyclopédie, Ou Dictionnaire Raisonné Des Sciences, Des Arts Et Des Métiers (Encyclopaedia, or A Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts) in 1751, with only scant mention of Africa or Africans. In subsequent iterations of his influential Encyclopédie, however, this would change. For the 1771 edition, he invited another of his friends, Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Romain, to beef up his section on Black people.
Le Romain was a philosopher in his own right. And, having completed a short stint in the Caribbean, he was also a self-anointed expert on les nègres in the colonies. Le Romain (and by proxy Diderot) would maintain the stereotype of sensuousness among Africans depicted by Buffon. But he would replace the praise of their “plump” physiques with vitriol for their greediness. In the new encyclopedia, Africans were described as having a “penchant for pleasure [that] makes them fairly unfit for hard labor, since they are generally lazy, cowardly, and very fond of gluttony.”
The scorn for African sensuality that was palpable in Diderot’s encyclopedia cannot be credited to Le Romain alone. For over a century, colonists traveling to diverse regions of Africa returned with sensationalistic accounts of purported “negro gourmandizing.” The late-18th century, which was not coincidentally the apex of the transatlantic slave trade, saw a critical mass of stories decrying Africans’ penchant for overindulgence. In bustling European cities, the newly literate public could read about great feats of overfeeding across the Atlantic. Their titillated horror was often placed on the specter of the Black female body, as numerous reports suggested that African men incited their women to grow to the size of “sows” in what was described as an “art of fattening.”
By the turn of the 19th century, the idea that Africans were excessive eaters, and that African women in particular were known to grow to an “unwieldy” size, was taken as gospel. In the years leading up to Baartman’s arrival in Paris, French anthropologist and naturalist Julien-Joseph Virey would put a fine point on the matter. In Virey’s estimation, “negresses” were apt to grow large in general. And the so-named “Hottentot” women proved a representative example of this propensity to fatness. In his own Histoire Naturelle du Genre Humain (Natural History of Mankind), Virey wrote that Hottentot women developed protruding buttocks and bellies that push out. Intensifying the link between blackness and animality, which had been the aim of race scientists since at least Buffon, Virey charged that Hottentot women’s buttocks resembled those of four-legged creatures, and that they’d get so large they’d need to be supported with a small cart, like a domesticated animal.
It was into this cultural climate that Baartman made her London debut. By the time she made it to Paris, she was heralded as the “Hottentot Venus” or the template of beauty for the Hottentot people, and by extension all Black women. In 1812, as she was wrapping up her stint in London, an enterprising songwriter devised a new rendition of an old ballad in her honor, inviting spectators to gaze upon “The Wonderful and Surprising Hottentot Wenus [sic], who measures three yards and three quarters round.”
As far as fair-goers were concerned, there was only one problem with these advertisements: they were rubbish. The bills promised a woman of epic proportions. Exhibiters in bustling European city centers had long been used to seeing the fat-body-as-spectacle in the form of Daniel Lambert, the 700 lb man who exhibited himself in London in 1803. With Baartman, they were expecting someone who was not just fat but also savage and bestial. Confirmation bias being what it is, the Journal de Paris cautioned would-be patrons of the exhibit that African and European women diverged significantly in terms of appearance and aesthetic preferences, remarking, “ideas of beauty vary according to the climate; amateurs should not expect to discover in the Hottentot Venus the Venus de Medicis,” referring to the renowned Roman goddess of love and beauty. Others apparently left feeling bamboozled. Lamenting that Baartman possessed nothing approximating the proportions that had been advertised, one visitor griped that, instead of the “imposing and majestic” figure he expected to see, “I found only a svelte Venus.”
Indeed, the inconsistency of her representation across the many fliers used to promote her show should have been a tip-off. Adverts differed by up to 100 pounds in their depictions of her form. The plaster cast of Baartman’s body that was made after her death and was later repatriated to South Africa provided further proof of her long-standing misrepresentation in various advertisements. But whether fact or fiction, her purported rotundity placed Baartman beyond the pale of fair-skinned, European norms of beauty. Racial theorists had finally succeeded in linking fatness to Blackness in the European imagination, while also linking thinness to whiteness.
The fear of African women and their purported largess, of which Baartman became a totem, made its way to American shores in short order. Baartman herself never made it to the U.S., however. She died from alcohol intoxication while living in Paris, supposedly triggered by the loneliness and isolation she experienced after having been abandoned there by her former handler. Still, sensationalized portrayals of the fat women of Africa suffused American media.
As a result, writers in New York and New England, many of them women, set out to encourage white women to slim down, lest they find their names uttered in the same breath as the by now famously fat women of African descent. In Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most popular women’s magazine of the 19th century, an 1830 article by a socialite named Leigh Hunt described the relationship between overeating, femininity, and race, reminding the gentle Anglo-Saxon reader that women who want to preserve their looks must never eat too much. According to Hunt, no lady in American high society could hope to maintain her esteem while corpulent; only in Africa could a fat woman find her stride, since it was rumored that on the continent “no lady can be charming under twenty-one stone,” or nearly 300 pounds.
But not everyone embraced this sudden rush to thinness among American women, a trend that, to many, seemed far removed from questions of slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the abolitionist, feminist, and celebrated author, was bewildered by the phenomenon, observing in 1866 that “Our willowy girls are afraid of nothing so much as growing stout,” adding that if a young lady does put on a few extra pounds, “she is distressed beyond measure and begins to make secret enquiries into a reducing diet, and to cling desperately to the strongest corset.”
Stowe wasn’t the only feminist perturbed by this state of affairs. One of her contemporaries, Abba Goold Woolson, railed against the trend of über-svelte women being depicted as the epitome of femininity and beauty. In contemporary fiction, she admonished (mostly male) writers who chose to “immortalize maidens as slender and wandlike.” This, to Woolson, meant that women who were stout in body and character would be scorned or feared, rather than respected.
American women’s horror of corpulence was, to many First Wave feminists, more than a curiously misplaced anxiety. Stowe herself found it to be one of the most compelling factors in young women’s ill health, driving them as it did to tightly lace their waists, crushing their ribs and displacing their organs in the process. Woolson deemed dieting as a way to diminish women physically and metaphorically, reducing them to the traipsing nymphs of men’s sexist fantasies. Neither, however, devoted considerable energy to uncovering the root cause of cultivated women’s anti-fat disposition. Had they done so, they might have found that slavery and its brainchild race science were at the center of the trend.
The racialized reasoning that degraded fatness and linked it to Blackness, and prized thinness while linking it to whiteness, had been all but forgotten by the twilight of the 20th century. When it resurfaced under a new medical guise in the late 1990s, most thought it a simple coincidence that there might be a moral panic surrounding Black women’s “obesity,” tallied using the flawed instrument of body mass index (or BMI).
By then, Americans had long since stopped talking so openly about race. So much so, that when Second Wave feminists lambasted the slender ideal as a form of gendered oppression they only had it half right, as they had been focused on only half the problem. The thin ideal, like other physical ideals, oppresses people (often women) by compelling them to conform to an arbitrary bodily standard. But gender wasn’t the only, or even the primary, organizing principle in the disciplinary force that is the slender aesthetic. The impetus for the ideal was to avoid the unseemly association with an adiposity that had been deemed “Black.” The fear of the imagined “fat Black woman” was created by racial ideologies that have been used, for almost 300 years, to both degrade Black women and discipline white women. Anti-Blackness is the forgotten rationale that underlies both thin privilege and fat stigma.
By Sabrina Strings
Top photo: Love and Beauty – Sartjee the Hottentot Venus by Christopher Crupper Rumford, 1811 via the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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