These are busy times for Sander Gilman, a scholar who has long studied Western cultural constructions of health and disease. Though American life expectancy is at an all-time high, our public discourse seems more crowded than ever by anxieties about our physical well-being. New Yorkers and Californians have stopped smoking in bars, 40% of Americans are deemed to be obese, and some of the most contentious domestic political issues of the coming election are connected with health care and how we can provide it.
For Gilman, distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences and of medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he was recently appointed the first director of its Jewish studies program, this is no time to sit on the sidelines. He has several books coming out in 2004, beginning with “Fat Boys: A Slim Book” (University of Nebraska Press), which surveys how obesity and masculinity have been regarded over time, followed by a cross-cultural analysis of smoking. A confirmed polymath, Gilman is also preparing “The Nazi Sourcebook,” a textbook of primary source materials aimed at, he said, “18-26 year olds with a ‘Schindler’s List’/‘Life is Beautiful’ exposure to the Holocaust,” and recently edited a special issue of the quarterly journal Patterns of Prejudice, “The New Genetics and the Old Eugenics: The Ghost in the Machine,” a collection of essays on how longstanding issues of race and nationality are sometimes transplanted into discussions of the new science of genetic engineering.
Those looking for simple answers will not find them in Gilman’s work. Complexity is something of a credo for Gilman, who taught at the University of Chicago for six years before moving across town to the University of Illinois. “You’ve got to be more complicated when you talk about these issues,” he said in an interview with the Forward. Case in point: “Fat Boys” argues that, far from being a set-in-stone biological condition, obesity is a culturally constructed idea that changes over time. Of course, being overweight is a real condition, with attendant health consequences. But “the fine line between acceptable and unacceptable weight,” Gilman said, changes radically over time. Only a hundred years ago, he notes, men we would now regard as obese were thought of as ideally healthy and strong. “Fat male bodies do not have a single meaning. They have multiple meanings that change over time,” he said.
What’s more, talking about obesity is inextricably bound up with issues of gender and normalcy, Gilman contends. “Overweight males are always the equivalent of something other than healthy, real men. To think that ‘fat is a feminist issue’ that only applies to women precludes the way we understand male bodies.”
Issues of body image have long been connected in Gilman’s work not only with gender but also with questions of identity in general, and Jewish identity in particular. In the 1991 book “The Jew’s Body,” Gilman examined at great length how Jewishness has been described in terms of fleshliness, disease, odor and ugliness. Jews since Augustine had been regarded as “carnal,” he says, and eventually an entire European discourse developed that regards the Jewish body as alien, threatening and sick.
These issues return in “Fat Boys,” which focuses on 19th-century medical discussions of overweight Jews and diabetes. “Europeans defined themselves as against being Jewish,” he said. “In the 19th century, they drew the line between healthy and unhealthy bodies — we always want to draw this line, to constitute what it is to be healthy. And so they noted that Jewish bodies, which they thought of as ‘Oriental,’ were more susceptible to diabetes even than other overweight bodies.” Gilman added that the linking of diabetes to “otherness” has resurfaced today, particularly in black communities.
Once again, though, it’s not so simple as “fat is bad, and thin is in.” Gilman notes that some fat bodies are praised — the “fat detective,” for example, who “thinks with his gut” as well as with his brain (think Dennis Franz’s character Andy Sipowitz on the TV series “NYPD Blue”). And of course, there is the biological reality that Gilman does not deny. “What I would say is, don’t ignore the health aspects of [weight], but ask yourself what it is we think about when we think about weight in terms of how each culture, group, and moment of history defines the line between the dangerous and the benign.”
To Gilman, there are few aesthetic absolutes, and the terms we use to discuss beautiful, and ugly, bodies are loaded with meanings that go well beyond the carnal. For example, Gilman pointed out that since the news of the current Michael Jackson scandal broke, the word used over and over again to describe the singer’s appearance has been “freakish,” a term that connotes as much about his sexual behavior as it does about his cosmetically altered face.
These days, Gilman says, his work is becoming more and more “real-world concrete.” “I’m believing more and more that the abstract question of how we generate and internalize images has to be seen in terms of how we function in the world,” he said. His work as founding director of the University of Illinois Humanities Laboratory, which supports interdisciplinary research, reflects that emphasis: He is trying “to take really good scholarship and make it accessible in ways it hasn’t been accessible before.” Of course, when working with complicated postmodern meta-discussions of identity and difference, accessibility can be a tall order. But, Gilman said, that’s one of the advantages of being involved in so many different enterprises: “If they work, great, and if they don’t, you’ve got a million other projects you can try.”
Jay Michaelson teaches “Embodied Judaism” at the Sol Goldman 14th Street Y in Manhattan.