Fearing The Black Body
In this episode, Heather sits down with Sabrina Strings author of “Fearing The Black Body” This is a fantastic book analyzing the often overlooked connection between racism and fat phobia in the US. Ms. Strings has been able to uncover a long history of how weight and body shape has been used to other and denigrate people of color. She also dives into Eugenics, Race Science, Religion, and what it historically even meant to be “white”. Finally she talks about how the slimness ideal is not based in medical science and even physicians can fall victim to the racist standards.
Heather Warburton 0:02
This is Wine, Women, and Revolution with your host Heather Warburton coming at you here on New Jersey Revolution Radio. Hi, and welcome to Wine, Women, and Revolution. I’m your host Heather Warburton coming at you here on New Jersey Revolution Radio. You can find us online www.njrevolutionradio.com, follow us on all the social medias and get us wherever you get your podcast from. Today I have someone with me. Her name is Sabrina Strings. She’s the author of “Fearing the Black Body, The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia.” Welcome to the show, Sabrina.
Sabrina Strings 0:39
It’s great to be with you, Heather.
Heather Warburton 0:41
So first off, I wanted to say you know that I loved your book, I saw an article about your book, I think it was Mark Lamont Hill had tweeted it out. And before I even finished reading the article, I was on email trying to reach out to your office to get you on my show. That was how exciting I found your book. So I’m really glad that you can be here today.
Sabrina Strings 1:01
Oh, well, thank you so much for those comments that really does help. Its uplifting to hear thoughts such as is that.
Heather Warburton 1:07
So the first question is what sparked you to write this book? It’s a fairly unique topic. So how did you get to doing the research and writing this book?
Sabrina Strings 1:16
Well, it’s all began in 2003. In 2003, I was working in an HIV medication adherence clinic in San Francisco Bay Area, a neighborhood known as Bayview Hunters Point, which at the time was predominantly black. And so I was a research assistant for this program, and it was my job to interview participants about their HIV medication usage. And in one day, I talked to two different women. And each of them said to me that they were not taking their HIV meds because they were afraid of gaining weight. And this was mind blowing, because I thought the stakes are literally life and death. And yet they’re willing to risk death, in order to not gain weight to effectively remain their current size. And it sort of triggered a memory of conversations that I had with my grandmother.
My grandmother moved from rural Georgia in 1960 to California to Los Angeles, California. And it was the first time in her life that she had seen so many people on diets, as you might imagine, in rural Georgia in 1960. This is the middle of Jim Crow, people aren’t doing their utmost to lose weight. In fact, people are doing everything that they can to get as much food as possible. And so she was like, confused, to say the least by this. So that in the 1990s when I was a teenager, she would consistently asked me like, Why are white women on diets? What is this? Because of something that she had puzzled over for years, and I never had an answer for during her lifetime. But after my encounter in 2003, I decided that I would research this.
Heather Warburton 3:02
And it developed over the years into “Fearing the Black Body”. So that’s great. And actually, you talked about something I want to get more into like the topics of the book. But you did hit on something that you mentioned in the book that for long periods of history, it really was just white people that had this fascination with slimness. And for the large part people of color kind of didn’t even know it was going on.
Sabrina Strings 3:25
Right. So that was one of the more fascinating findings to me, which was that all that I basically had to do to begin this project was just to take a look at women’s magazines from the 19th century. So many people who are listening to this may be unaware that Cosmopolitan actually began in the 1890s. And Harper’s Bazaar began in the 1870s. And so there is this long trajectory of some of these magazines. And I just decided to say, Well, what were they telling women in the 19th century, about their appearance was itthe same thing that women are being till today?
And it turns out that one of the first things I found in my research was an article describing this the beauty of some local woman because she was a Scotch Highlander, which meant she had skin this color. And she was tall and she was thin, which meant that she was also, you know, part Anglo Saxon, and I was like, What is happening? And that formed the basis of my dissertation, so that when I went back to rewrite this, and the rewriting really began, about five years ago, I decided, let me see what took place between the Renaissance when these more voluptuous and curvaceous women were prized. And the 19th century, the time period by which I knew from the dissertation that this relationship between whiteness and thinness already existed.
Heather Warburton 4:50
Right. And I thought that was kind of how you started off your book. And for me, it was very fascinating since I do our as my day job was you really went through and looked at representations of people of color in classical paintings and just women in general, in paintings, and what did you find that was different and what was the turning factor of when things started to change.
Sabrina Strings 5:12
So many of us are familiar with the paintings of people like Albert Durer or Titian in which women appear to be more voluptuous than we would see today. And in fact, that was the mainstream standard in the Renaissance. What I noticed was that during the time of Peter Paul Rubens and many people associate him with the beautiful and voluptuous nudes that he drew. By the time of Rubens in his own journal, he had written that the most beautiful women in the world had skin white as snow. And this was a departure from what I was seeing in some of the early artistic renderings, and then also the journals that artists had left. And the difference was really the rise of the slave trade. So that we have in some of the paintings by Durer or Titian, actually, African women do appear. But they’re considered to be equally beautiful, at least in terms of the physical body, as white women. But with the rise of the slave trade, what we see is that now they’re attempting to make a hierarchy, a distinction between Europeans and Africans.
Heather Warburton 6:21
And this was sort of the beginning of how they were trying to justify to themselves this travesty, they were committing on people, that they started othering people and saying that they were different and inferior. And that was even showing up in art of the time.
Sabrina Strings 6:35
Yes, that’s right. And so I think when we think about art today, as I’m sure that you are an expert, and you are well aware of this, that people think that art is somehow separate from politics, or separate from intellectualism, like it’s some creative endeavor that exists in a vacuum. But what we notice we look back at the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, is that people who were artists were often also philosophers. So they were part of the circle of intelligentsia with whom, like various important ideas of the day were exchanged. And so we would expect that artists would depict some of the important cultural and political shifts that were taking place.
Heather Warburton 7:16
Yeah, and that’s very cool. Like I’ve talked about the power of art a few times on the show before that, it really documents things that aren’t necessarily being written down in other places. And that fascinated me that you found in art proof of exactly what you’re talking about that body standards have changed, and how we view different color skin has drastically changed. I mean, I think it’s not surprising to anyone, especially if you’re listening to this show, that the European beauty standard has been pushed on us. But you know, from coming from an anti capitalist perspective, I’ve often like, kind of pinpointed in on Oh, capitalism is trying to sell us things. But really, you kind of plugged in a major missing piece here with the racism inherent in this slim ideal. And I thought that was fairly fascinating.
Sabrina Strings 8:08
Yeah, I think there had been a number of critical and important works, in which people describe the relationship between class and weight, because we had noticed that in American society for decades, that it was people with the most money, the wealthiest individuals in society, who tended to be thinner, and also who tended to adopt this ideal of fitness, which I’m sure we’ve seen depicted in many different films from the 1980s, right, and we could see the middle class people running to stay in shape. And of course, when you look at data from medical researchers, you will also notice that there’s this class divide in weight. And so I think that a lot of people had done important work on that points, but the racial component i thought hadn’t been fully explored.
Heather Warburton 8:55
No, it really hadn’t. I had not seen anything that was so I was so fascinated that I wanted to read your book right away, because it really had not been explored. And aside from othering people, you also uncovered that there was a lot of religion tied into this creating this thin ideal.
Sabrina Strings 9:12
That’s right. And I think for many of your listeners, it’s sort of like, Ah, yes, you know, we know that there’s some type of Protestant ethic within the United States, and that, that this idea of sort of disciplining yourself being rational, being self controlled, that there have been many theorists who have suggested that this comes out of like, this Protestant shift, or the shift towards Protestantism that took place in Europe in the 16th century. And so then what I saw in my research was that, by the early 18th century, as Protestantism was really spreading throughout Western Europe, there was this very clear religious rationale for people to eat as little as possible. And so I talked about this man, who was almost going to head into the clergy, but ended up being a diet reformer instead, who went around proselytizing largely to audiences packed with women, about the necessity of eating right for God, which to him included eating a lot of fruits, maybe a little bit of nuts, but relying largely on milk, because these were all foods that were not stimulating. And that would not build, in his estimation, excess flesh,
Heather Warburton 10:22
Excess flesh. So much judgment is placed upon women’s bodies. Throughout history, this hasn’t changed. Like, I think that’s one of the things that you saw that throughout history, there’s a lot of men writing about what the ideal beautiful woman is.
Sabrina Strings 10:39
Right? That was so strange to me, because we don’t often talk about that when we talk about race science, like so much of race science has described how men have degraded other men to make them into slaves, or, you know, to make them into laborers and sort of like internment camps or on railroads. And all of that is an important history. But they haven’t noticed that since the beginning of race science, the very first race scientific treatise, was really about trying to create like a geo locator for hot chicks. Okay. In China, the women look like this in Egypt, they look like this. And so like just going around the world and trying to describe what women look like. And to me as like, I want to do more work here, because people haven’t attended to the centrality, of race science and being able to hierarchically order the women of the world.
Heather Warburton 11:28
And I think you illustrated really well that they would the same people, like the exact same group of people as time progresses. And as the slimness ideal developed, they’re being described totally differently, even though it’s the exact same people with the exact same body types.
Sabrina Strings 11:43
Yeah, right. I mean, so we took a look at what was happening, for example, in South Africa, with the women of the Coursan tribe, who would have been considered either a Bushman, or Hottentot by the Dutch, and then later British colonists. And so at some point, you can see them being described as an exceedingly dark skin, small, slender people, and then later, they’re lighter skinned, and then later, they’re actually quite fat. And it’s sort of like, there’s all of this contradiction that’s happening. And in reality, I’m sure if we were to actually meet members of the tribe, we would find that they have a variety of skin tones, a variety of body sizes, because there’s a tremendous diversity amongst any group of people. And yet, there was always this attempt to try to pin them down as being inferior based on the current model of what made Africans distinct from Europeans.
Heather Warburton 12:39
Right. And it was a way of saying that Europeans were somehow better. And there was a lot of discussion about what constitutes an actual white person to that for a while, like the Irish were described kind of, in the same way as they were trying to other people of color. They were trying to other the Irish as well.
Sabrina Strings 12:59
Yeah. And that was actually one of the more interesting findings for me, because I did not necessarily set out to become a scholar of Irish American history. And yet, at the end, I actually did feel like I knew a great amount about Irish American women in the United States. The reason being that when I was searching for terms like black, within the various women’s magazines in the 19th century, for incidence, frequently, the Irish would appear in my data. And I thought, well, what, how is this happening? Like why I would actually find in a lot of these magazines, more discussion of the so called Black Irish than a Africans or African Americans. And it was one of the ways in which I was able to understand on a deeper level, like the falsity of race, can we learn when school that race and social construct, and that may be seems a little bit amorphous, but to be able to see very clearly how one group the Irish were white, and then they became black, and then became white again. Really to understand the fictitious nature of racial categorization?
Heather Warburton 14:03
Yeah, and I think because I kind of sat and read your book kind of from cover to cover in one sitting, the pure ridiculousness of all of this, like really stood out when you’re watching these same groups of people. Okay, they’re this way. And then there’s this way, and then there’s this way.
Sabrina Strings 14:17
Right! That’s like, what, what is the basis for these changes, but it was just really like, shifts really in within the political organization. Okay, well, now we’re sort of more aligned with people in northern Italy. And so we think that the southern Italians look like this. You know, there was always some political foundation to these racial reorganizations,
Heather Warburton 14:37
Right. And at least in America, this was deeply tied to immigration at the time, it was who the immigrants were, and it was an anti immigrant sentiment as well.
Sabrina Strings 14:45
Yes. And I think for some people who are reading this who are interested in this particular relationship between immigration, race and aesthetics, you will notice that there was all of this negative depiction of the Irish of their character. There was like this attempt to degrade fatness and link it to a denigrated Irishness. And then, within 30 years, we can see that the Irish have assimilated in the United States. And they’re just one of the many groups considered to be white, whereas the Russians, Polish people, Jewish people who were the new immigrants at that time period, this is the late 19th and early 20th centuries, suddenly, they’re the ones who are swarthy, and also fat. And like, these are indications that they’re part black and therefore inferior.
Heather Warburton 15:34
Right, because they tried to say, I think a lot that you pointed out that the people that were fat were inferior, and that they tried to, I guess, portray people of color, no matter how they described it, at the time as gluttonous and amoral and all these kind of terms. I don’t know it’s angering of course. But, you know, it’s really strange to see how people delude themselves into believing that. I know that’s not exactly the topic of your book.
Sabrina Strings 16:07
But I think it’s actually helpful for us to recognize it, like what you’re talking about, that there’s this delusion that exists, but it feels so real. And that can even be applied to our current understandings of quote, unquote, obesity. I remember when I was in graduate school, and absolutely just beginning this research, I was speaking to another graduate student, otherwise an intelligent man. And, you know, I remember him saying to me, I can look at a fat person and tell they’re unhealthy. And my response to him is what you just described is eugenics. We don’t have the right to think we can look at someone and know their health status. That’s silly. But it seems logical at the time. And when he said it, it seemed to make perfect sense. So we can see how all of the negative understandings that we’re getting about various groups, and about their bodies, we take for granted as natural. And it’s not until we start investigating the history of these things, the roots of these relationships, you we notice just how preposterous they are.
Heather Warburton 17:09
Right, and the medical field has been deluded, I think you do talk about that a bit that the medical field has been caught up in this anti fat bias, where they do form a connection that may not necessarily be there, then I think you talked a little bit about if you’re a tiny bit overweight, you actually have better longevity outcomes, right?
Sabrina Strings 17:29
Yes, that’s true in the United States. And it’s also true in other countries like Germany, where data does exist. I think for me, one of the fascinating things about performing this research was, I started to ask myself, where did BMI come from? Is it the case that there were a number of scientific experiments conducted, that led to some medical consensus based on the research that this is the body mass index, which is a measure of weight to height that the entire world would need to adopt in order to be healthy? I mean, so when we can already start to think, hmm, that probably won’t work. Why should we have the same bodily standard for men and women, and also for people of all racial ethnic identities in all parts of the world? That seems already to be unlikely.
And what I discovered was that it wasn’t a matter of medical consensus, at least not based on scientific findings. But there was one man in particular in the medical community, his name is Ansel Keys, who was pushing for the institution of BMI as the gold standard for measuring so called adiposity or fat on the body. Now, of course, we know how problematic BMI is. And yet, we’re still using it to determine people’s health status.
Heather Warburton 18:46
I mean, and that reminded me of something else that you mentioned in the book was, at the time, it was like the insurance actuarial tables that seemed kind of made up because they talk about medium frame and large frame without ever defining any of that. It was just purely out of like a capitalist construct of insurance at the time where these tables came from.
Sabrina Strings 19:06
Yes. And I also want to mention the work of JJ Brumberg, and “Fasting Girls”, which is a book that I read years ago, I think it came out in like the late 80s. And what she also talked about the significance of these weight tables, and I remember thinking, okay, but this is surely this can be the true foundation, you know, sort of you read a book, and it moves you. But it’s not until, at least for me, I started to do research and could see, again, not just the fact that there was very little science, but the tremendous power of the insurance companies that was then challenged by Ansel Keys, in fact, in his construction of BMI, that I could see, oh, even within medicine, which we hope will be objective, there’s all of this, there’s all these ways in which politics and money are actually driving a lot of what we consider to be medical standards.
Heather Warburton 20:02
Yeah, well, I mean, obviously, I’m preaching to the choir a little bit here, because my audience is very anti capitalist, but it does control so much of our lives, that it is setting our definitions of who we are. And that should never be happening, allow people to define themselves don’t set these outside definitions for them.
Sabrina Strings 20:25
Yes, I think that’s why it’s so important that there’s this movement, Health at Every Size, in which we simply allow people to be who they are. But what we attempt to do is to encourage, like, Americans, for one thing, because this is a tremendous problem, fat phobia is a tremendous problem in our country, but also medical practitioners to view all bodies as equally valid, and yet to try to give advice where possible, and also resources that’s important for healthy living. So for example, not just telling people, they should eat fruits and vegetables, but being a part of a public health initiative that encourages the free and available access of fruits and vegetables, especially to low income populations, who may live in food deserts and may not have access.
Heather Warburton 21:14
Yeah, we’ve talked about food deserts here on the show quite a bit that right here in New Jersey, in Camden, they don’t have a grocery store. It’s literally just this is a large city with lots of people. There’s no grocery store. It’s just little bodegas and corner markets.
Sabrina Strings 21:30
Yeah, you know, and I’m sure that people get a lot from the bodega. And I’m sure that they’re very fond of them in the community. But there’s something to be said, for having a place where you can go to that you can get fresh produce. And I’m not sure if that’s going to be the case. And in some of the bodegas that may be in local communities, so it does raise significant questions about how we expect people to adopt healthy lifestyles, if we cannot guarantee that there’s going to be somewhere that they can go to be able to access nutritious food.
Heather Warburton 22:02
Exactly. And I did want to tie it back. So we’ve gotten off subject a little bit less much talking about race, but you did mention eugenics and eugenics does play a role in your book for sure. And I wanted to add that like you start, I’ve always kind of been interested in the Kellogg and Graham people when somebody told me in college once, you know, graham crackers were invented to keep you from masturbating.
Sabrina Strings 22:28
Oh, yes, yes.
Heather Warburton 22:34
Seeing Kellogg, and Graham and all those mentioned in your book really looks like oh, yeah, I remember back in college. But there was a big role eugenics and race science and the slim ideal. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Sabrina Strings 22:47
Yes. Actually, I think you were exposed to more than I was because I definitely remember reading about , Sylvester Graham and his anti masturbation campaign, especially as it applies to young men. But I didn’t know so much about John Harvey Kellogg. And as I was researching this book, and I was just sort of looking for any information again, especially in high profile sources. So for the aesthetic portion, I was looking in top women’s magazines. But then for the medical portion, obviously, I was looking at top medical journals. And what happens when you do that is that you will run across multiple articles written by John Harvey Kellogg in the Journal of the American Medical Association, because he was a respected physician, not just a purveyor of fine breakfast cereals, which is how we know him today. And part of his whole crusade was to encourage white women to eat more actually, to add healthy flesh, because of his estimation, women’s magazines had gotten women on the entirely wrong track, they had gotten to be too slender by taking the advice of women’s magazines. And so he was stepping up as a doctor to offer in his mind a corrective, we’re going to get our women to the correct weights, we’re going to get them to eat right to gain flesh. Because in his mind, this is how we will secure the future of the most racially elite nation.
Heather Warburton 24:14
Right, he wanted to make more white babies, and this was how he thought it was going to happen.
Sabrina Strings 24:17
Yes, that’s exactly it. And so he Yeah, he spent a great deal of his career writing about that.
Heather Warburton 24:26
I mean, and part of that, too, was this belief at the time, the inferiority of other races. And I think it was a Kellogg that had said, like, well, the other races will just die off because they’re purely, purely inferior. And we just have to secure the future of the white babies.
Sabrina Strings 24:45
Right. So his idea was that black people in particular, he called them blood clocks. You know, basically, they’re ticking time bombs, they’re definitely going to die off because they’re racially inferior. But to secure the white race, we need to make sure that we give people the best possible models. So when you tell them how to eat, what you tell them, also how to look. And so that was part of what he was invested in.
Heather Warburton 25:12
It was amazing how many different sources you could lay out that all kind of show the same racial bias that I think most people probably have not thought about yet. So I think you’re challenging some perspectives. And that’s a lot of why I wanted to have you on the show. Did you set out to challenge this to challenge people with this? Or was it just here’s what I found?
Sabrina Strings 25:35
Well, no, actually, when I started doing this work, as I mentioned, I sort of came to it through personal reasons and and also familial reasons, my relationship with my grandmother. And so I thought, Why just want to find out why it is that dieting is this massive preoccupation. There were other scholars who had written about this. And they would say things like, in the early 20th century, most Americans appear to be on diets. But we don’t know why. And I thought, well, I want to try to figure this out. However, interestingly enough, pretty much from the beginning, I was getting a good deal of pushback, I was being told that there was research had already been conducted, but people couldn’t tell me who done it, I was being told that it couldn’t be known. Like, this is why these questions have not previously been investigated. It simply can’t be known. I was told in 2013, that my work was dangerous by a scholar of public health. And so it was there were so many people who were trying to discourage me. And even one person told me while I was still in graduate school, why don’t you just tell people how to lose weight, as if there aren’t already 10s of thousands of manuals instructing people on the best diets? And so I thought, No, I’m not going to do that, because the market is saturated. And also, this is not my political leanings. So it was definitely not that I was setting out to ruffle feathers. But I absolutely have along the way, which is fine.
Heather Warburton 26:57
Yeah, I can imagine, especially the weight loss. I don’t know like, Is it a weight loss industrial complex? Can I call it?
Sabrina Strings 27:07
I mean, I think that’s fair, and like a beauty industrial complex. And there’s another work that I want to mention, the book is by Natalie Boero, and it’s called “Killer Fat”. And her book was actually very helpful to me when I went back, because what she’s doing is she’s showing all the various weight loss organizations, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, etc, that were lobbying the federal government to make body size a priority for their healthy populations manual. And they were ultimately able to get their wishes granted.
Heather Warburton 27:44
Yeah, and I think that’s so great that you did something or have produced something that challenges and pushes back and says, you know, maybe you need to think about where your perceptions come from. Because challenging perceptions is one of the most important things I think that we can do. Because people sometimes just believe things just because that’s what’s believed. And when you can challenge that and make people really evaluate that is when you can change the world. And so I’m going to include you in you know, the people I really look up to that you’re trying to change the world, even though that wasn’t originally your goal.
Sabrina Strings 28:15
Well, I thank you so much for that, Heather, you know, and I feel like there’s been overwhelming love and support for the project, which is not to say, I have not gotten my fair share of hate mail, because I have. But that has been minimal compared to the outpouring of people who have said to me, like, I never thought about these relationships. But thank you so much for doing this, because it makes me feel like, as a lowly academic, somehow, my work is helping people. And that’s important.
Heather Warburton 28:44
You probably also get I’m guessing quite a bit of fan mail of people who maybe grew to accept their bodies a little more, because of your work.
Sabrina Strings 28:53
I think so. Well, you know, I maybe it’s been a short period of time for that, that tremendous impact on maybe the individual level, but I feel like people are now having more conversations. And that’s what I’ve been privy to, like people questioning like, Oh, yeah. Why is it true that women are supposed to spend so much time trying to maintain as small a figure as possible? Like, we’re like, how did we come to that? And why do we have to hold on to it? I think that’s the interesting moment. For me, when people start going, wait a minute, we don’t have to do things this way.
Heather Warburton 29:32
So what’s next? Are you working on something else? Now?
Sabrina Strings 29:35
I am actually so one of the things I’ve been interested in in the past couple of years, is thinking about California history. And because I’m a native born, California, and one of the things that I’ve noticed is that first of all, we’re not told very much about California history growing up, which is strange, because I have from the time I was in kindergarten through now, I’m a professor, always been educated in California, and yet didn’t learn very much about California history in the schools that I attended. So I wanted to be able to think about what is the contribution of black women to the history of Los Angeles in particular, when we’re seeing Oscar So White, and when we’re hearing about West Coast Rap, all of those narratives are about white persons or about black men. But what is the role of black women? And so my new book examines that. Who are the black women who made LA? I’m going to tell you.
Heather Warburton 30:31
And where can people get books either fearing of the black body or your new book about women, the role of black women in forming LA?
Sabrina Strings 30:39
Well, that book, they can’t get the second look yet because it has not been written, but they can follow me on twitter @SAStrings. You can also check me out on raceinyoga.com, and also academia.edu, for those of you who are affiliated with universities, its a cheap and easy way to be able to get access to most of the articles. I’ve written about this and other topics over the course of my career.
Heather Warburton 31:06
I definitely encourage people to check you out. Did you have any closing words that you’d like to get the last word for today?
Sabrina Strings 31:12
I suppose I’ll just say that fat phobia is not rooted in medical concerns. It’s rooted in race science, and also Protestantism. Hopefully knowing that will help us to move against fat stigma in our society.
Heather Warburton 31:25
Thank you again, so much for being here. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you.
Sabrina Strings 31:28
Same here, Heather, it’s been a pleasure.
Heather Warburton 31:30
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