Fatness and Fullness: Health and Harmony

Our theme for Lent term was ‘Fatness and Fullness, Health and Harmony’. Our external speakers were Dr Melissa Calaresu from the University of Cambridge History Faculty and Dr Anna Lavis from the Department of Medical Sociology at Birmingham University. Melissa spoke to us about materialising food history in the recent exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Feast and Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500-1800. As co-curator of the exhibition, Melissa shared some unique insights regarding how the exhibition came together, including the fascinating reconstruction and display of a frozen pineapple dessert by the food historian Ivan Day. She also revealed how the examination of material culture helped build ideas of feasting and fasting, and how these concepts were bound up in matters of religion, class and gender.

Anna gave a thought-provoking talk entitled ‘Fat, food and other people: Exploring the materialities of eating disorders’. Her paper discussed the complex meanings of ‘fat’ in the lived experiences of individuals with Anorexia Nervosa, particularly focusing on the materiality of food and the visceral experiences of eating. Through offering empathetic insights drawn from her ethnographic research, Anna demonstrated that feelings of fatness are often inseparable from experiences of interpersonal threat and vulnerability, and suggested that these nuances hold important implications for the way in which food and feeding are framed in eating disorder treatment.

Our graduate speakers were two history PhD candidates from the University of Cambridge; Holly Fletcher and Lesley Steinz. Holly’s paper was entitled ‘Fatness and Fashion: Dressing the Body in Early Modern Germany’. She considered the importance of dress to the experience of body size and shape in the early modern period, as well as ideas about the fashionable silhouette and how this was created through clothing. Lesley’s paper was entitled ‘Eating their way to Health and Harmony before the Great War: New industrial foods’. She discussed the resonant messages and the trusted scientific and cultural knowledge which underpinned the credibility of ‘health foods’ at the turn of the twentieth century. She provided insights into the contemporary concerns about physical and mental weakness and worries about the pressures of work. 

A big thank you to all of our speakers and participants for engaging with this term’s events.

Words by Niamh Colbrook, Lucy Havard, and Meg Roberts.

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