How the female body has been racialized for over two hundred years
There is an obesity epidemic in this country and poor black women are particularly stigmatized as “diseased” and a burden on the public health care system. This is only the most recent incarnation of the fear of fat black women, which Sabrina Strings shows took root more than two hundred years ago.
Strings weaves together an eye-opening historical narrative ranging from the Renaissance to the current moment, analyzing important works of art, newspaper and magazine articles, and scientific literature and medical journals—where fat bodies were once praised—showing that fat phobia, as it relates to black women, did not originate with medical findings, but with the Enlightenment era belief that fatness was evidence of “savagery” and racial inferiority.
The author argues that the contemporary ideal of slenderness is, at its very core, racialized and racist. Indeed, it was not until the early twentieth century, when racialized attitudes against fatness were already entrenched in the culture, that the medical establishment began its crusade against obesity. An important and original work, Fearing the Black Body argues convincingly that fat phobia isn’t about health at all, but rather a means of using the body to validate race, class, and gender prejudice.
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I have seen some amongst them whose whole bodies have been so well-built and handsome that I never beheld finer figures, nor can I conceive how they might be bettered, so excellent were their arms, and all their limbs.
— Albrecht Dürer on the African physique, 1528
Her name was Katharina. In her portrait, drawn in 1521, she wears a simple headdress with a single jewel in the center. Her youth is skillfully captured in the roundness and fullness of her cheeks. Her plump body is covered by an unadorned V-neck shirt and a modest, high-collared frock. The entire effect is one of demure and unassuming beauty. Katharina's eyes are downcast, giving the twenty-year-old an air of solemnity and gravity that might have seemed out of place were she not a slave.
Katharina lived in Antwerp, Belgium. She was one of two slaves owned by João Brandão, the trade representative to the king of Portugal. Albrecht Dürer, the renowned Renaissance artist, happened to be passing through Antwerp in 1521, creating sketches and woodcuts that he sold around the city. On a brief visit with the Brandão family, he encountered Katharina, and was sufficiently moved by her comeliness to immortalize her in silverpoint.
The artist's decision to draw the young African woman may have seemed inconsequential at the time. Hers was one of many sketches of Africans that Dürer completed during his lifetime. Nevertheless, his depiction of Katharina was a momentous event. Portrait of an African Woman, Katharina became the first known portrait of a black person in Antwerp. And it was produced at a time in Dürer's illustrious career during which, after years of studying the human form, he had come to the conclusion that what made something beautiful could never be fully comprehended or definitively laid out. For reasons he could not describe, Katharina too was a beauty.
A great deal has been written about the aesthetic standards for women that prevailed during the Renaissance. While much of this literature shows that larger, fleshier physiques were prized, it also shows that what was considered attractive was not just about the size of the body, but its shape. Proportionate and well-rounded physiques were revered, as they were believed to reveal something of the beauty and mystery of Divinity. A woman might find herself being considered "too thin" or "too fat," given the prevailing preference for proportionate — often implying "medium" — physiques.
But if a lady had to err on one side of the scale, a fat woman was generally preferred to one who might be derisively labeled "lean" or "bony."
Comparatively fewer works, however, have explored how the growing population of black women who came to Europe as part of the slave trade affected representations of female beauty during the High Renaissance (late fifteenth to mid-sixteenth centuries). This is not a minor oversight; the most famous artistic expressions of female beauty during this period derived from northern and western Italy and the Low Countries. The major cities in these regions simultaneously served as key ports of the expanding slave trade. Consequently, black women often appear in meditations on beauty by the era's most important artists.
The burgeoning population of African women as slaves and domestic servants in northern and western Europe between 1490 and 1590 frequently led to the incorporation of black women into the lexicon of what was defined as "perfect female beauty." The inclusion of black women as beautiful in both high art and aesthetic discourse was neither simple nor without problems. African women were described as well-proportioned and plump, and consequently viewed as physically appealing. Yet the burgeoning discourse about Africans suggested that their purported distinctive facial features made them facially unattractive. Black women were further denigrated due to their servile status. Therefore, despite black women's reputation as well-formed beauties, their purported African physiognomy and status as slaves became the early basis of "social distinctions" between low-status African women and their high-status European peers.
What follows is a discussion of notions of perfect female beauty in three of the most trafficked centers of artistic ingenuity: western Italy, northern Italy, and the Low Countries. In all three, the correct model of female beauty was a central topic of conversation. Well-apportioned female figures were venerated throughout these areas. However, in two locations — Antwerp, Belgium, and Venice, Italy — the mushrooming population of black women led to their inclusion as beauties of low status and questionable facial allure, but having the right proportions and just enough embonpoint to titillate European sensibilities.
* * *
Katharina was known by Dürer simply as the "Mooress." His journal tells us almost nothing about what motivated him to sketch the young African woman, nor do we learn about the duration or substance of their encounter. What we do learn from the journal is that Dürer regarded himself as an artist and philosopher of the human form. As such, he took an exceptional interest in the growing numbers of Africans arriving in northern Europe as part of the growing slave trade.
By the mid-fifteenth century, African slaves were being shuttled to European ports by the hundreds. The Portuguese, who in the 1440s became the first European nation to enter the African slave trade, maintained a dominant position until 1492, when Columbus made contact with the Americas. Although Spanish and Flemish traders mounted a challenge to the Portuguese slave-trading monopoly between the 1450s and 1470s, by the end of the century most of the Africans making their way into Europe did so in the holds of vessels manned by Portuguese traders. The Portuguese were thus largely responsible for introducing African slaves into northern Europe, and some of the earliest Africans to be seen in the Low Countries arrived as slaves to Portuguese merchants. This appeared to be the case with Katharina and her owner, João Brandão. Antwerp, where they were settled, had been a key trading hub in the fifteenth century. By the sixteenth century, the city became "the center of a new global economy of luxury goods." Slaves themselves were an important form of luxury commodity in the new economy and were common among wealthy merchants.
Dürer's interest in Katharina within this sociocultural milieu was galvanized by his long-professed desire to understand the contours of human beauty. By the time he visited Antwerp in the early sixteenth century, Dürer had abandoned the idea of locating a singular ideal, concluding that beauty was found in the differences between the various peoples of the world. This conception of beauty-in-difference was inspired, in part, by the gospel. In Dürer's reading of the scripture, God had made all of mankind equal. And yet the Creator produced a tremendous amount of human biodiversity. The task of the portraitist, Dürer believed, was to identify the "big differences" between the various nations of mankind. Doing this would help the artist grasp the beauty of humanity in all its fullness and richness. According to Dürer, "The Creator fashioned men once and for all as they must [sic] be, and I hold that the perfection of form and beauty is contained in the sum of all men."
These sentiments were articulated about the time that Dürer wrote what was titled an "Aesthetic Excursus" detailing the major difference between Africans and Europeans. This document, written sometime between 1512 and 1515, was eventually tacked on to the end of the third book of his Four Books on Human Proportion, published posthumously in 1528. At that time, the artist claimed that the major difference between blacks and whites was to be found in the features and attractiveness of the face.
Thus thou findest two families of mankind, white and black; and a difference between them is to be marked. ... Negro faces are seldom beautiful because of their very flat noses and thick lips.
This tract was written before Dürer's encounter with Katharina in Antwerp. It is likely that rather than working from his knowledge of Africans from live models, the artist relied on stereotypical accounts of "African physiognomy" that were in circulation during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These accounts served to underscore the African's inferior social position as the slave trade expanded.
Indeed, there is reason to believe that Dürer's disdain for African features in the "Aesthetic Excursus" was at least partly motivated by the general tone of European high art and philosophy at the time. In another of his sketches, the Berlin Study Sheet, made during the same period, Dürer drafted a row of humanity that shows "prototypical" faces of the various nations of mankind. The artist placed his version of the "ideal" or "normative" European face at the forefront of humanity. The final "African" visage with its exaggerated features, which some scholars argue represented a cross between a Negro and an ape, looks back warily at the rest of humanity. Historians suggest that Dürer was likely inspired by Leonardo's and other artists' haunting renderings of grotesque wild men.
After his visit to Antwerp, however, Dürer appeared to revise this position. In his Portrait of Katharina and his sketch of Rodrigo, a black man and another of João Brandão's slaves, the artist portrayed the models' faces with dignity and solemnity. They also held a type of beauty that the artist suggested he couldn't quite specify.
If Dürer wavered on the question of the black face, he was resolute when it came to the beauty of the black body. Like many artists, Dürer believed that God had bestowed upon Africans a bevy of physical blessings. The limbs of Africans, he claimed, were shapely and well formed. And there was an elegance to be found in their well-apportioned physiques. In the "Aesthetic Excursus," alongside his derision of the African face, the artist intoned,
Howbeit I have seen some amongst them whose whole bodies have been so well-built and handsome that I never beheld finer figures, nor can I conceive how they might be bettered, so excellent were their arms, and all their limbs.
His views on the excellence of the black physique and the disfigurement of the black face were based on the reigning definitions of attractiveness during the High Renaissance. In other words, rather than reflecting any reality about black people, they reflected what Bourdieu called a "judgment of tastes." This is an aesthetic value system crafted by elites that places qualities symbolizing refinement (and a remove from the vulgar, the common, and the low) atop the aesthetic hierarchy. Within the aesthetic system of the High Renaissance, pointed noses and fine lips were typically associated with a refined facial beauty. At the same time, well-formed, proportionate figures represented the height of bodily beauty. This aesthetic pairing led to the degradation of the African face and the exaltation of the African body. It also contributed to Dürer's uncertainty, by the time he rendered the lovely Katharina, about the precise contours of true beauty.
* * *
Dürer did not simply inherit the value system that placed black people in aesthetic limbo. He had, in fact, been one of the key architects of this system, which, by the time he met Katharina, he himself had come to view as insufficient. Nevertheless, that reassessment came toward the end of his career. As a young man in the 1490s, Dürer had made the quest for true beauty his holy grail. He had left his native Germany in the 1490s and settled in Venice, the artistic heart of the High Renaissance. It was there that he met the well-known painter and draftsman Jacopo de Barbari. Barbari's exact year and place of birth are unknown, but it is believed that he was born around 1470, making the two artists fairly close in age. They met therefore as peers, rather than as an artist and an apprentice. But Barbari's techniques in painting the human form inspired and bedeviled the German artist. As a result, Dürer would chase what he considered to be their perfection for the next two decades.
To Dürer, the genius of Barbari's work was that he drew male and female physiques using measurements calibrated to produce "perfect" human proportions. Dürer was in awe of this approach. Barbari's approach to beauty had generated images of men and women that were, in Dürer's opinion, stunning, and they quickly eclipsed his preexisting singular ideal of beauty. Bodily beauty, like facial beauty, had a variety of manifestations. But the running theme, the one thing that must be present, Dürer believed, was perfect proportionality.
Dürer's wide-eyed zeal might have been something of a tip-off for Barbari. The Italian artist, wary that his secret might get out, kept his method closely guarded. He refused to reveal his process to Dürer despite their continued contact and a visit with Dürer in his hometown. Rebuffed, Dürer set himself to developing his own canon of proportions beginning in 1512, and continuing for the next decade.
Following what was standard procedure during that era, Dürer searched for clues to perfect proportions among the ancients. He took to studying the work of the celebrated Roman architect Vitruvius, and from his studies he arrived at the following conclusion: "The head of a man is an eighth part of him." Further, "one also finds a square from the feet to the crown of the head ... the span (of the outstretched arms) is equal to the height (of the body)." Using these calculations, he believed, Vitruvius had rendered human perfection: "He has brought human limbs together in a perfect proportion in so satisfactory a manner that neither the ancients nor the moderns are able to overthrow it." Dürer used his adapted Vitruvian standard to create his idea of a "normal" male and female form, as would be described in his Four Books on Human Proportion.
The intense attention to detail in the precise calculation of the idealized length and breadth of each body part drew the respect of his contemporaries. Dürer, moreover, added something to the equation that Vitruvius had not: variety. After drawing a "normal" man and woman, he sketched several men and women with the necessary and proper proportions but of different body sizes. Among these sketches there were a disproportionate number of images of plump women.
It is unclear from the manuscripts why there was a preponderance of fleshy, rounded women among the artist's sketches in Four Books on Human Proportion. Surviving reports suggest that Dürer worked with two hundred to three hundred live models in the formulation of his canon of proportions. Therefore, it could have been simply that more voluptuous women had made themselves available as models. But that interpretation belies his dedication to the project of empirically fleshing out the parameters of perfect proportionality and thereby beauty. Because he worked on this project for over a decade, a more likely reason was a personal predilection for rounded women. Many of the women he drew, including Katharina and his own wife, Agnes, were fleshy and curvaceous.
Dürer anticipated that his canon of proportions would offer new insights that would separate his work from the canon of perspective current in Italy. As it applied to feminine loveliness, this difference was found largely in the means, not the ends. For if Dürer's mathematical theorizing led him to calculations about perfect proportionality with a seeming predilection for plumpness, a similar standard was in fashion in the most important centers of Renaissance Italy.
Urbino is a case in point. A thriving center of the Italian Renaissance, Urbino was distinct from other centers of the Renaissance such as Antwerp and Venice in one critical respect: its involvement in the slave trade was minimal. For this reason, the question of black aesthetics was not a topic that many artists or philosophers considered, and Africans were less commonly represented in art from the region. Urbino was, however, an important place for the discussion and dissemination of ideas about female beauty. It was also the birthplace of Raphael, one of the most influential painters of the High Renaissance. Raphael devoted less energy than did Dürer to waxing intellectual about method. Nevertheless, as an artist, he remained deeply invested in the craft of representing true beauty.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fearing the Black Body"
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Original Epidemic 1
Part I The Beauty of the Robust
1 Being Venus 15
2 Plump Women and Thin, Fine Men 42
Part II Race, Weight, Gob, and Country
3 The Rise of the Big Black Woman 67
4 Birth of the Ascetic Aesthetic 99
5 American Beauty: The Reign of the Slender Aesthetic 122
6 Thinness as American Exceptionalism 147
Part III Doctors Weigh In
7 Good Health to Uplift the Race 169
8 Fat, Revisited 187
Epilogue: The Obesity Epidemic 205
Selected Bibliography 245
About the Author 283
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings was phenomenal. Her explanation on when, who and where the relationships between race, weight and examining centuries of Western artistic values blew me away! Starting with the renaissance era to current day had me highlighting nearly the entire book. Everything she found was backed with notes a reference, Strings dotted her I’s and crossed her t’s in this gem. I love books that give clarity and understating on things in life we always questioned. Thanks to Netgalley and NYU Press for the advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.
This is one of the best researched and most in-depth books I've ever written, about a subject I knew hardly anything about. The subject might seem small, the racial influences on the fear of obesity, but it goes in depth about the history of black people in Europe and the rise of the ascetic aesthetics. A very interesting and highly recommended read.