Book review: Curvology - dissecting fat and the female body shape

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 February, 2015, 11:12pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 February, 2015, 11:12pm


by David Bainbridge
Portobello Books

"Being fat isolates and invalidates a woman," wrote Susie Orbach in 1978's Fat is a Feminist Issue. "What is it about the social position of women that leads them to respond to it by getting fat?"

It is an intriguing question, as is the reverse: what drives women to starve themselves into unhealthiness? In Curvology, David Bainbridge mulls this point: "The most confusing aspect of eating disorders is why they occur at all - how humans evolved into creatures who could suffer them … no animal evolves specifically to suffer bouts of starvation, bingeing, emaciation, infertility and death." The best he can come up with is speculating about a "complex set of inbuilt responses" and a "fiendishly complex" relationship between our bodies and our minds. Well, thanks for clearing that up.

It should be noted that when Bainbridge uses the word "curves", he means it in the Daily Mail sense: fat. Women have always been fatter than men: Bainbridge says the average woman has 27 per cent adipose tissue, compared with 14 per cent for the average man. What distinguishes female humans from other animals, though, is the distinct way our body distributes our padding: no other primate has breasts, for example. In chimpanzees and gorillas, the mammary glands only swell with pregnancy: the author notes wryly that it is odd for a species to evolve so that many members of it cannot run unsupported without pain.

Bainbridge's training is in veterinary medicine, and the first part of the book takes a scientific look at how natural selection (survival of the fittest) and sexual selection (survival of the hottest) have moulded the female body shape. This section is interspersed with many intriguing statistics. The age of female puberty, for instance, dropped from 15 to 11 during the 20th century, the equivalent of an incredible 12 days a year.

Bainbridge's attempt to uncover the factors that influence eating disorders, body image and clothing choices ultimately collapses in a welter of contradictory claims and on-the-other-hand-isms.

The answers offered by this book are both simple and complicated. The subtitle promises a disquisition of "the origins and power of female body shape", and the glib explanations are: women have curves because fat stores increase survival rates, and because heterosexual men like them; those curves have "power" because heterosexual men like them. Why women simultaneously love and hate those curves, desire them and repress them, feel valued and devalued because of them - well, that is another story.

The Guardian