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Plump or Corpulent? Lean or Gaunt? Historical Categories of Bodily Health in Nineteenth-Century Thought

  • David J. Hutson

Although “excess” weight today is usually associated with poor health, nineteenth-century classifications present an interesting historical puzzle: Physician concern with “corpulence,” on the one hand, was balanced by praise for “plumpness,” on the other. This is quite different from contemporary understandings of weight, where the focus is overwhelmingly on overweight and obesity. Through an analysis of nineteenth-century medical, health reform, and popular journals, I find that there was concern with weight on both ends of the spectrum—thin bodies and fat bodies were potential states of health, as well as illness, through the categories of plumpness, corpulence, leanness, and gauntness. In this way, body weight held multiple symbolic positions up until the early twentieth century when plumpness receded as a category of health. Such findings problematize the standard historical narrative of valued-to-stigmatized fatness, and suggest that the symbolic position held by body weight constitutes a more complicated phenomenon than previously believed.

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