I watch a video of professional marathon runner Mirna Valerio. Juxtaposed with the footage of her fat black body running through the woods, she reads—in a static, calm, level voice—an email that was sent to her: “You are a liar and a fraud. You are not a runner. I have seen your few videos where you actually pretend to run. What a joke! You are moving no faster than I can walk.” I watch Valerio’s body zig and zag in between trees. The camera lens lingers on her thick thighs as they land on the damp earth with thuds. I watch the flab on her arms and tummy jiggle, listen in for her deep breaths. She is not fast, but…

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In LOVE Magazine’s 2017 advent calendar, model Emily Ratajkowski is featured rubbing spaghetti on her body as she rolls around seductively on top of a dining table. In a post-photoshoot interview, Ratajkowski professes her love of pasta and “being greased up in olive oil,” urging women to “do what [they] want” in the name of feminism. The shoot – which was intended to promote a ‘feminist’ message about choice in response to sexual assault allegations in Hollywood – used food coupled with the thin, white, pornographized, female body to express ‘female empowerment’; a trope that has been used in advertising many times before. As some feminist researchers have argued, these themes are commonplace in a postfeminist media landscape; one that embraces gender stereotypes and…

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In 1963, patriarchal social structures in the United States seemed to be getting stirred up by female voices challenging the hegemonic imaginary woman, when Betty Friedan published her seminal book The Feminine Mystique. That same year, Jean Nidetch started a company helping women reduce their body weight: Weight Watchers, now called WW. By losing weight, as Marisa Meltzer argues in her book This is Big: How the Founder of Weight Watchers Changed the World (and Me) (2020), Nidetch “basically earned the American dream” (8) and then sold it as a commodity. Meltzer explains that “Jean had a Cinderella story for the ages. She was a maven and mogul who lost weight, spectacularly found her calling, and helped to create a national pastime and obsession that endures today” (276).…

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In Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, exercising is now all the rage. Scores of joggers take to the streets before sunrise, or just after sunset, while others gather in parks and roundabouts to exercise together, often to the commands of an instructor. Some use public staircases for sprints and jump-squats, and benches for triceps dips. The practice of physical activity in this part of the world is, of course, not entirely new, and the colonial histories of sports and leisure offer an important historical backdrop against which to understand current trends. But fitness, as a pursuit driven by a combination of health and aesthetic concerns is a novel and increasingly popular phenomenon. Only a few years ago, gyms and joggers…

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Popular culture produced, circulated, and challenged ideals of the female body in the 19th century as much as in the 21st century. Serials, novels published in installments, and short stories in fashionable literary magazines were as popular and religiously followed as Netflix original series today. As romance was one of the most important genres, what made women attractive was defined in these stories and nationally distributed as normative beauty and gender ideals. The fascination with female body weight at the end of the 19th century is a case in point: it reflected a broader shift in what constituted ideal femininity and how it was to be embodied.  In 1863 a small pamphlet, A Letter on Corpulence, triggered the first dieting craze in the United…

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