Obesity, Health, and the Liberal Self

Transatlantic Perspectives on the Late Nineteenth and the Late Twentieth Centuries

September 26-28, 2013
Conference at the GHI
Conveners: Nina Mackert/Jürgen Martschukat (University of Erfurt), Susan Strasser (University of Delaware), Uwe Spiekermann (GHI)

  • Call for Papers

    Obesity has been identified as an important contemporary social and cultural problem in many European countries and the United States. Often described as an epidemic, obesity is perceived as a major threat to the health and wellbeing of individuals. At the same time, obese individuals are often perceived as lazy and incapable of making the right choices or of taking care of themselves. Self-responsibility is always linked with the underlying idea that a rational subject will make the right choices to secure the needs of the body and to remain a fit and productive citizen.

    The proposed conference seeks to historicize these observations. It wants to investigate the interwoven histories of food, health, and the modern self from a transatlantic perspective. By comparing perceptions and practices, we aim to explore the social and cultural embeddedness of the interconnections between the body, health, fat, and food in the late nineteenth and late twentieth century.

    During the nineteenth century, a capable and efficient body came to be understood as an indicator of the individual's ability to function properly as a liberal subject. A new socio-cultural order, rooted in the Enlightenment, rested upon the idea of a free, rational, self-governing subject who acted wisely and in compliance with liberal paradigms. A culture of advice emerged that assisted people in navigating the pitfalls of liberal society and in avoiding "wrong" choices. Medicine and nutritional science established themselves as scientific disciplines and were accepted as the guarantors of a healthy living. Individual deviance was widely discussed and, generally, denounced. At the same time, a growing market of interventions for the best of both individual and society was established. Large groups of people - women, non-whites, immigrants, the lower classes - were denied full autonomy and on account of their alleged inability to act in compliance with the requirements of liberal society.

    This conference seeks to address the self-definition of modern societies in the fields of obesity, health, and eating. It will compare discourses and practices during the period 1880-1920 with those of the late twentieth century (1970 to the present). We would prefer papers with a transnational/transatlantic perspective but welcome innovative case studies covering American and European history as well. Class, gender, and race issues should be reflected in all contributions.

    We are especially interested in the following topics:

    • Discourses on the "healthy" body and its management by eating and exercises
    • Scientification and professionalization of the definition of fit/unfit and productive/unproductive people
    • Commodification of the "normal" and/or "ideal" body, including the creating of new service markets and commodities
    • Exclusion and inclusion based on the dominant ideas of a particular vision of the body
    • Individualism, rational choice, and the principals of modern liberal societies

    As the study of food and eating practices is highly interdisciplinary, we are looking for scholars from a variety of disciplines in historical, social, and cultural studies. We also hope that nutritionists and medical experts can contribute to these topics.

    Those interested should send an abstract of 1,000-1,500 words and a one-page CV to Susanne Fabricius by March 15, 2013, with invitations to be sent out by April 15, 2013. Full papers or longer abstracts are due by September 1, 2013.

    For further information please contact Uwe Spiekermann or one of the co-convenors.