Fat, Gluttony and Sloth

Haslam, DavidHaslam, Fiona

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction
Secondary Category: Visual Arts / Visual Arts

Genre: History

Annotated by:
Lam, MD, Gretl
  • Date of entry: Apr-07-2015
  • Last revised: Mar-27-2015


This book examines the rise of the obesity epidemic through the perspectives of art, literature, and medicine, particularly in Britain, with brief mention of continental Europe and North America. In the first chapter, the authors set the scene by explaining the medical significance of obesity: namely, how and why obesity leads to illness. The remainder of the book is devoted to discussing historical perceptions of obesity, the history of eating, the history of exercise, and the history of weight loss remedies. Historical perceptions of obesity are addressed from several angles, including the business of “fat folk” circus freaks; the portrayal of obese figures in art, from Paleolithic stone sculpture to seaside post cards to modern film; and the depiction of obese figures in writing, from Chaucer to J. K. Rowling. Throughout the book, the authors are careful to emphasize that obesity is not simply a self-inflicted product of gluttony and sloth, but a condition brought about by many factors, including genetics and social influences. They conclude the book by urging society to take a more aggressive stance against obesity by reminding readers that obesity kills.

David Haslam is a general practitioner in the United Kingdom, He is also Clinical Director of Britain’s National Obesity Forum, a charity formed in 2000 to increase awareness of obesity as a medical condition. Fiona Haslam is a historian of medicine and art, with a doctorate from the University of St. Andrews. She is also the author of From Hogarth to Rowlandson: Medicine in Art in Eighteenth Century Britain (Liverpool University Press, 1996). 


Although other books have been written on the history of obesity, this book is unique in its approach of using art, literature, and a little science. Instead of being a comprehensive examination of every event in chronological order, the book is divided into chapters, each highlighting a specific obesity-related topic (e.g. “Fat folk on show,” “Addressing obesity – drug treatments,” and “Popular images of obesity”). The result is a fascinating and easy-to-read narrative that general audiences will appreciate, but may be less satisfying at times to academics.

In the introduction, the authors propose, “When obesity has been successfully eradicated, it, like smallpox, will be consigned to the history of books, art, literature and other media. Hence the importance of this book in documenting its rise, prior to its fall” (3). Given that obesity is a far more complicated, multifactorial illness than smallpox, this comparison seems somewhat simplistic, yet the value of this book is not overstated. By examining how attitudes towards obesity, as shown in the images and writings that pervade society, have changed over time, the authors provide us with insight into why we address the disease the way we do today, and how that can be improved for the future. 


Liverpool University Press

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