Taking a broad view informed deeply by his previous scholarship in the history of European masculinities and bodies, Forth explores the ambiguous meanings of fatness in Western cultures. Although the title does not so indicate, Forth’s study covers only Western cultures—from the ancient world through the fall of the Greek and Roman Empires, the development of Christianity, modernity, colonialism, and into the twentieth century. His examples are numerous and rich—drawing from anthropology, classical studies, Biblical studies, literary studies, travelogs, and early science writing—forever putting to rest the idea that fatness had been valorized from prehistory (think Venus of Willendorf) until the emergence of modernity.

According to Forth, “fat” has a rich and storied history: The “fat of the land” represented “fertility...

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