Talk – Identity, Culture and Representation Research Cluster Seminar Series, University of Derby

I’m delighted to be sharing new work from my visual and material cultures of fatness in the long eighteenth century project during this semester’s Identity, Culture and Representation Research Cluster Seminar Series at the University of Derby. You can find my abstract below.

‘Visual and Material Cultures of the Fat Body in Britain & its Empire, 1680-1830’

This project seeks to make a vital intervention in the history of the body by analysing fatness through an unprecedented focus on its manifestations within visual and material culture in Britain and its empire in the long eighteenth century. This was a period in which size took on unprecedented cultural currency: with the corpulent bodies of the nobility lampooned in satirical prints, and famously large people commodified in portraits, prints, and decorative consumable goods. Fatness also emerged as a shared language that shaped interactions between colonized peoples and their British colonizers, as demonstrated in both visual images and printed texts. At the same time, those bodies marked by unusual corpulence were put on public display as spectacular objects, while the clothing that evidenced their former owners’ size, and furniture made or altered to accommodate fat bodies, became desirable items and objects of renown.

Although changing ideas of fatness have been sketched in broad and transhistorical terms by cultural historians such as Sander L. Gilman and Georges Vigarello, attention to fatness during this period has been shallow, fragmentary, and unduly focused on its pathologisation through medicalised discourse. Following work that firmly establishes the necessity of visual and material approaches to the body, such as Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight and Bill Brown’s conception of the body as a ‘thing among things’, this paper contends that previous accounts have fundamentally misunderstood the fat body by overlooking the crucial role played by visual and material culture in its manifestation, representation, and materialisation. Offering a corrective to such studies, this paper will use visual images (such as portraits and satirical prints) and modes of production and display (including the public exhibition and creation of souvenirs) to understand how corpulence was culturally inscribed during the long nineteenth century, and employs surviving material objects (such as furniture and clothing) to consider the everyday realities and lived experience of being overweight at this time. Examining both reality and representation, the paper will therefore analyse the visual and material culture of fatness in order to demonstrate the importance of art historical methodologies to creating a deeper understanding of a condition that is characterised by the co-option of visual space and the perceived undisciplined materiality of the body. In so doing, the paper will highlight the central role played by visual and material culture in how fatness was conceptualised, experienced, and understood both during the eighteenth century, and throughout its broader histories.

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