Sander L. Gilman is a distinguished professor of the Liberal Arts and Sciences as well as Professor of Psychiatry at Emory University, where he is also the Director of the Program in Psychoanalysis and the Health Science Initiative. His new book, Obesity: The Biography, traces the history of obesity from the ancient Greeks to the present day, acknowledging that its history is shaped by the meanings attached to the obese body, defined in part by society and culture. In the excerpt below we learn about “globesity”.
The view that fat spreads across the map, spread by chickens or by genetic transmission across generations, means that there could be populations free from obesity. This fantasy of the Enlightenment physicians, of utopias where obesity could not exist because of the very nature of its inhabitants, their diet, the activities, reappears today with the public health model of globesity. The “French diet” and the “Chinese diet” as cures for obesity: all assume populations without even the potential for obesity. In 2001, the World Health Organization stated that there was a brand new pandemic of “globesity” sweeping the world. What is labeled as “globesity” is in fact the more recent iteration of an obsession with bodily control and the promise of universal health. Its modern iteration, however, comes with an unstated and complex history. If, said the ancients, you would only eat well, sacrifice to the gods, and avoid beans, then your health would improve or simply never decline. There have always been changes in eating patterns. Perhaps in the twenty-first century these changes speed around the world more quickly than in the past. But the notion of a world in decay due to the growth of girth carries with it odd and complex subtexts. What the central implications of “globesity”?
“Globesity,” according a publication of the Pan American Health Organization in 2002, “places the blame not on the individual but on globalization and development, with poverty as an exacerbating factor.” The focus on what have been called earlier in the twentieth century “disease of extravagance” postulates a model not so much of change but of invasion – a Gresham’s Law of Food in which the bad drives out the good. It is a modern version of “degeneracy theory,” with the new assumption that the ills of the world are to be traced directly back to the developed world. In this way it is a dietary version of the basic global warming thesis: developed nations destroyed their environment and now they are invading the rest of the world, corrupting it. “Nature” was benign, even kind; now it has become threatening. “Globesity” argues that inherently healthy eating practices have been corrupted by the expansion of development and the resultant poverty. “Fat” is a product of globalization and modernity. The utopian “undeveloped” world, in Enlightenment jargon, the world of the “noble savage,” is a world in which “diseases of extravagance” could not exist, as they are a reflex of a “civilized” model of exploitation and capitalism. The “cure” for “Globesity” in the twenty-first century is “natural” or “slow” food as a prophylactic against obesity as well as illness…It is a return to the inherently “healthy” eating practices of the Edenic past.
Such views have a relatively long history. The French food writer, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, could write as late as 1825 that “Obesity is never found either among savages or in those classes of society, which must work in order to eat, or which do not eat except to exist.” But he provided a caveat: “Savages will eat gluttonously and drink themselves insensible when ever they have a chance to.” This is very much in line with Immanuel Kant’s view of “savages” and alcohol use in his lectures on anthropology first held in 1772-3 and published in 1798. Obesity, therefore, could be an illness of natural man as well as of civilization because of the “savages” weakness of will. Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (1762-1836), who was, as we have seen earlier, one of the first modern medical commentators on dieting, recognized this when he commented that “a certain degree of civilization is physically necessary for man, and promotes duration of life. The wild savage does not live so long as man in a state of civilization.”