Constructing the “Obesity Epidemic:” A Chronology of the Pathologizing and Enfreakment of Fatness
Date of Award
Honors College Thesis
Biological Sciences BS
Emily Stanback, Ph.D.
The “obesity epidemic” is framed by medicine and media as a public health crisis that urgently demands medical intervention and policy. Despite this common narrative, the cultural and scientific dimensions, as well as the historical roots of the “obesity epidemic,” have been subject to much less scrutiny than necessary. Part of this inadequate scrutiny is due to the pervasive pathologizing of fatness that has roots back in 18th- and 19th-century ideals of normative bodies. While the contemporary American medical system holds the “obesity epidemic” as objective truth, scholars both within and outside of medicine have challenged that idea. Furthermore, recent scholarship has detailed the overwhelming amount of fat stigma within medicine, and this scholarship highlights the dangers of pathologizing fat bodies. Yet, the beliefs that fatness is unhealthy and that the “obesity epidemic” poses a threat to our society remain widespread.
Using a health humanities framework, my research seeks to more fully assess the origins of the “obesity epidemic.” In particular, I identify a pervasive and longstanding connection between the pathologizing of fatness and the enfreakment of fat bodies. To do this, I use varied methodologies including fat studies and disability studies, along with historical and literary analysis, to trace the dynamic relationship between fat enfreakment and pathology. In Chapter 1, in addition to an overview of the thesis, I offer an overview of the “obesity epidemic” that focuses largely on how medicine defines the “problem” and the unreliable science behind its conclusions. In Chapter 2, I examine Daniel Lambert and other contemporaneous white, fat performers as cultural touchstones to illustrate how fat bodies were seen as freakish bodies. Importantly, however, in Chapter 2 I also focus on the life and legacy of Sara Baartman, a South African woman whose exploitation and enfreakment can illuminate the racial origins of the pathologizing of fatness. As I continued through history, in Chapter 3 I look to Celesta Geyer (aka “Dolly Dimples”) and 21st-century weight loss television shows The Biggest Loser and My 600-lb Life to highlight the contemporary intertwining of fat enfreakment and pathology. Finally, in Chapter 4 I turn to current fat studies scholarship, fat activism, and fat advocacy work in healthcare to imagine a path toward deconstructing the “obesity epidemic.”
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Smith, Brooklynn, "Constructing the “Obesity Epidemic:” A Chronology of the Pathologizing and Enfreakment of Fatness" (2022). Honors Theses. 877.
Honors College Award: Excellence in Research