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by Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen Lebesco (editors)
University of California Press, 2001
Review by Kayhan Parsi, JD, PhD on Nov 26th 2002

Bodies out of Bounds

In a country known for its excessive consumption, it’s no surprise that obesity has become one of the major public health issues of our time.  A study in the October 9, 2002 issue of JAMA reported that two thirds of Americans are overweight and one third are obese.  A recent WHO study listed obesity as one of the top risk factors for premature morbidity and mortality throughout the world.  Obesity has garnered the attention of physicians, researchers and members of the media (witness Al Roker’s dramatic weight loss as a result of gastric bypass surgery).  Even academics are getting into the fray.  Yet the contributors to Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression aren’t really interested in obesity.  Rather, they’re interested in “fatness” and how fat bodies are represented in the media and arts and how fat people are marginalized in the general culture.  This seems to be a curious proposition—how can fat people who constitute the majority of this country’s population be rendered “invisible and absent” as the introduction attests?  Yet, the contributors to this volume cogently argue that similar to other disenfranchised and “invisible” groups (women, gays and lesbians, people of color) fat people have been consistently marginalized in the mainstream culture.  Thus, certain constructions of fat have become the dominant means to interpret fatness (for instance, the medicalized discourse of fat, i.e. obesity, that treats it strictly as a pathology).  The editors of this book ask the question why are we hostile to fat? and instead offer essays that celebrate expressions of corpulence.

            The editors of Bodies Out of Bounds, Jane Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBasco, are, respectively, assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse and assistant professor in the Communication Arts Department at Marymount Manhattan College. They divide the book into five parts, with titles such as “Revaluing Corpulence, Redefining Fat Subjectivities” and “Deconstructing the Carnivalesque, Grotesque, and Other Configurations of Corpulence.”  The contributors to this anthology are mostly scholars in university English departments.   The early chapters provide readers some useful historical interpretation of how fat has been conceived in the past (for instance, the ancient Greeks thought one should not be too fat or too thin; in Victorian England, fat was a topic of great study but there was no hegemonic interpretation of fat as there is today).  Other chapters, such as “Letting Ourselves Go” address the oppression of fat women: “[f]at women in American society are perpetually victimized by public ridicule….Fat-phobia is one of the few acceptable forms of prejudice left in a society that at times goes to extremes to prove itself politically correct.”  Still other chapters examine the way fat people are depicted in exercise videos and in televisions programs, from the 1970s detective show Cannon to later sitcoms such as Cheers and Roseanne.

            Perhaps the book’s greatest shortcoming is its inability to address obesity on the level of public health.  The contributors earnestly attempt to deconstruct our cultural notions of fat as abject, carnivalesque, or “as a transgressive and performative hyperbolization of American ambivalence toward bodies and queerness” (unfortunately, such academic jargon permeates many of the chapters in this anthology).  No contributor attempts to examine obesity within a cultural milieu where suburbanization, fast food, and sedentary lifestyles are the norms for many people. 

            Nonetheless, the book is probably of greatest interest to cultural critics who are interested in representations of corpulence in the culture.  Certain chapters of the book would also be useful to an instructor who is interested in teaching issues regarding the body and body image.  Our culture’s obsession with appearance (rather than health) drives much of the multi-billion dollar diet and fitness industry.  Bodies Out of Bounds provides a timely and provocative antidote to our stereotypical ways of thinking about fat and corpulence.

 

© 2002 Kayhan Parsi

           

Kayhan Parsi, JD, PhD is an assistant professor at the Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy at the Stritch School of Medicine, Loyola University Chicago.  He is the graduate program director for an online master’s program in bioethics.