“The White Man's Burden”
Female Sexuality, Tourist Postcards, and the Place
of the Fat Woman in Early 20th-Century U.S. Culture
While doing research at the Alice Marshall Women's History Collection at Penn State, Harrisburg, I came across an entry reading “FAT WOMEN.” Hoping to find information on dieting products and schemes, I had not expected such an explicit reference to my research on fat stigma. What I found were two huge notebooks that Marshall had meticulously filled with tourist postcards of fat women, dated from the 1910s through the 1940s, sent from beach destinations or national parks. Pictured on the cards are cartoon images of fat working women, of fat homemakers doing the laundry or getting dressed, of fat middle-class women traveling on trains and ships, and many, many of fat women sunbathing at the ocean.
These postcards reveal an important irony in the history of U.S. women. They mark the growth of tourism in the United States and of an increasingly mobile population, one that travels not only to follow work (which had been true for centuries) but now, with money and new opportunities, also for pleasure. Often written by women, these cards also provide evidence of the increased mobility and independence of women, particularly those who were white and middle class, enhanced by the strong feminist movement of the first decades of the century as well as the advent of car travel in the 1910s and 1920s (Scharff, 1991; Shaffer, 2001). (African American women still faced the danger and discrimination of Jim Crow laws; working-class women had less money available for leisure travel.) These cards, however, also reveal the decreased figurative and literal space available to any woman who did not toe the line of bodily control. The fat women in the postcards are all white, some middle-class consumers and tourists, some working-class or middle-class homemakers, some clearly “ethnic” and immigrant women; the images, however, mock all the women for their fatness. In other words, they demonstrate the establishment of the symbolic place—or rather, no-place—of the fat woman in the 20th century.
By the beginning of the 20th century, fatness for women became associated less with prosperity, healthful fertility, or attractive sensuality than with a body out of control. These postcards illuminate this shift in the cultural meaning of fat. Many