The Body and Being Human   /   Summer 2001   /    Interviews

Making the Body Beautiful

An Interview with Sander L. Gilman

Jennifer L. Geddes and Sander L. Gilman

Blush with brush. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Body in Cultural Context


In your work, you’ve written about the ways in which our sense of our bodies is shaped by our culture. Could you say more about this?


It’s impossible to talk about bodies unless you talk about the cultural construction of those bodies. Now, culture for me is the overriding force through which the collective limits our individual understanding of ourselves and the world. It is what Freud called the super-ego. Culture is expressed in the way that groups talk about and imagine aspects of the world as a means of controlling individuals. Now, these groups can be very small. You can talk about family culture, national culture, class culture, or group culture. All of us function in multiple cultures simultaneously, especially in relation to the body. On the one hand, we live in a very puritan society in the United States. On the other hand, we are obsessively attracted to and interested in specific kinds of bodies, as every kind of media from advertising, magazines, newspapers, television, and movies shows us. That tension is a real one, and we live within this tension. We make our own bodies out of those tensions. It is not that we don’t have individual bodies with individual differences, but that we constantly re-read our bodies in term of the culture(s) in which we are the most heavily invested.


The working title of your current project is Fat Boys. What is it about?


It’s about obesity. One of the interesting questions across history and cultures is that there has always been a category called obesity, but it changes from culture to culture, from time to time, from nation to nation. Does it mean that there aren’t fat people? Sure there are fat people. But what does “fat” really mean in that context? Do we “know fat when we see it?” Of course we do, but how we know it is determined by the multiple worlds of meaning in which the very notion of “fat” is shaped.

My obesity project is the other side of the coin from the notion that fat is a feminist issue. That problem has been addressed and addressed very well. What has not been addressed well is the question of what happens when fat becomes a man’s issue. I’m very interested in what happens when our society imagines the fat man. It ranges across the horizon from questions like why is it that Santa Claus in the late nineteenth century becomes fat to what happens when we imagine fat singers or fat actors in roles. The original Saint Nicholas was never fat. In fact, if anything, he was very, very thin. He was supposed to be thin as a sign of his religious devotion. Male singers “became” fat only with the castrati in the seventeenth century.

What is interesting to me about the notion of fat today is that it seems to be the last category of the body that is acceptably comic. One of the things that happens in the last 100 to 120 years is that the fat man continues his history of being also the funny man. The explosion of fat movies over the last ten years is fascinating because it has to do with very complicated questions of whether fat men are real men. What happens is that the fat man is emasculated, and in movies such as “Big Mama’s House,” literally—I mean, literally—becomes a fat woman. In this film the question becomes part of a discourse on race and class (at least crime) that becomes a heterosexual love story.


What sorts of cultural changes have taken place in the last few decades that have affected the way we view our bodies and the way bodies are represented?


One of the things that I truly believe is that, in culture, all body images are present simultaneously as both positive and negative images: fat people, thin people, extremely fat people, extremely thin people, men, women. What is interesting to me is: why at any given time does one image seem to dominate? The other images don’t disappear. For example, the big-breasted woman doesn’t suddenly vanish from the horizon of the sexually attractive when Kate Moss becomes the idealized female model type. What is interesting to me is why things seem to shift. If you look back over the last 300 to 400 years (as I’m doing with the obesity project and have done with most of my books) or the last 1,000 years, one of the things that you see is that the changes in terms of what becomes the dominant model of the body changes at an ever quicker rate. Part of that has to do simply with the ability to communicate images more quickly today than a 1,000 years ago, and that’s something that I think is very modern: the speed of the shift of stereotypes.

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).