Fat is a Historian's Issue

With Millennium reshowing on UKTV History, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto offers an ecological look at the world in the 19th century.

Obesity is our obsession. Most societies, for most of history, esteemed fat bodies and fat diets. The fat were rich, the thin, poor. Now – for the first time ever – it is the other way round: you can never, said the Duchess of Windsor, ‘be too rich or too thin’. But why, in the late nineteenth century, did opinion-makers start overvaluing thinness and excoriating fat?
Long-term hostility to fatness built up gradually in the Western tradition; but why did it cross a critical threshold in the late nineteenth century? Dietetics and couture created demand for thinness; but the capitalists who promoted it were following, not creating, demand. As men lost their ability to force women into corsets, they encouraged them in diets; but what made men want thin women? Physicians increasingly saw fat as a threat to health; but on the whole, medical opinion followed aesthetic trends, rather than leading them.
The real explanation, I suggest, lies in the history of the global environment in the nineteenth century: in particular in two revolutions of the time: a fat revolution, and a food revolution.

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