16 December 2009

Archival images of fat people, pathology and medicalisation

The Wellcome Library is one of my favourite places in London. Interested in vintage accounts of sexual deviation framed as medical concern? Or illuminated medieval manuscripts of nuns being bled? Or recipes for Laudanum? Sure you are! The Wellcome, a repository for all things medical, including the social history and social construction of health, is the place to find this stuff. It's magical.

Part of the Wellcome Library's online presence includes wellcome images, an image library that features a load of creative commons material, which means that you can download digital versions for free. I like to mooch around the image library from time to time, it's a visual delight. Have a click and waste some time there.

Of course the search keywords that interest me the most are: 'obesity,' 'obese' and 'fat'. The contemporary results are a mish-mash of stock images, which are fascinating in the way that they code fatness. So we get photographs of tape measures, 'unhealthy' food, fat cells; measured bodies, energy balance, abstracted fatness. I often wonder what it's like to be a fat model posing for these kinds of images eating junk food, standing on scales, prodding at their bodies. I wonder what they get paid, how they feel about reiterating stereotypes.

But the historical images are where it's really at.

Pictures of remarkable-looking fat people make up the majority of these images. Can we get a round of applause for Tom Ton, Miss Rosie and Ruby Westwood, William Ball, Paul Butterbrodt and the amazing Mr Campbell? Or Edward Bright of Maldon, who now has a street named after him? Or Daniel Lambert, another famously fat man? Thank you for existing, fat ancestors.

It's interesting to see incredible/gruesome late medieval woodcuts of fat men apparently being treated for their obesity with leeches, though I wonder if this is a more contemporary interpretation of what is going on in the images. There are a number of etchings, too, of various 'obese gouty men'! So fat people turn up as patients quite early on, but they are also presented in the collection as as caricatures, and as health professionals too. I really like the image of the fat midwife heading off to work.

The images show some of the ways in which fatness has become medicalised. The photograph of a fat man with "infantilism and thyroid disorder" interests me, not least because this poor fellow is utterly dehumanised in the photograph, but because infantilism and thyroid disorders were some of the earlier ways that fatness was pathologised. 'Race' and fatness are also medicalised and pathologised in colonialist images of 'a female Hottentot with steatopygy.'

One set of images disturbs me in similar ways to the racist 'Hottentot' imagery. It's a series of photographs from the late 1880s by Eadweard Muybridge. He's the photographer-scientist who pioneered the use of photographs to capture motion. You might be familiar with his images of people jumping, or horses running. The Wellcome has a series of photographs of a fat woman walking and 'getting up off the ground.' She's described as 'gargantuan' in the catalogue, and one of the accompanying keywords is 'huge'. Again, I wonder who she is, what it was like for her to be photographed naked. I'm searching for the scraps of her humanity that have been obliterated by the way she has been classified by whoever catalogued these photographs of her. I'm appalled, though not surprised, by her Othering in the eyes of the anonymous picture librarian who labelled her, and that this way of seeing her is constructed here as neutral, scholarly, scientific fact.


wriggles said...

Funny, 'gargantuan' and 'huge' actually sound better to me-as that's just size- than 'morbid' and 'supermorbid', so much for progress.

As for the term dehumanised, I don't know if it's just me but I'm having increasing problems with the way it is used at times.

She is photographed unsympathetically and without empathy, but I feel like saying she is dehumanised is playing into the hands of the photographer or whoever directed that she should be treated this way.

I feel like it is they who have dehumanised, or reduced themselves. She seems to have real dignity and actually possesses her own body, if that makes sense. There is a shot of her looking shy, but on the whole, no sense of shame.

The fact that she yielded to no more than doing as she was told, makes these pictures tolerable for us.

I feel in that sense, she defeated them.

Jackie said...

I appreciate you critique of the nameless-ness of this woman. I love her smile! And the way she's touching her body she looks like she's having a good time. It made me smile back at her. She is not a 'medical' image to me at all. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

You mean to tell me that fat people existed before the 1970s? Surely not! /sarcasm

Anonymous said...

I love that picture of the fat midwife. I myself am a fat nurse in training - for the nurse part, might I add, I've got the fat part down - and I find those kind of searches fascinating.
The last picture made me feel quite sad, because she'll forever be known as search: "fat." Rather than whoever she really was.

wm schupbach said...

Was very interested to read this posting and the comments, many thanks. I have changed the Wellcome Library description as a result. See my posting on the Wellcome Library blog:

William Schupbach
Wellcome Library

Charlotte Cooper said...

William, that's incredible! Thank you!