Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Representations: Obesity in Hawaiʻi

L. Massard, Namahana (1830)
Private Collection 
(reproduced in Forbes, Encounters with Paradise)

Historians have recently paid more and more attention to the history of human bodies (for example, see this recent article on "Martin Luther's body" in the AHR). Words and ideas are surely important, but so is our humanness - our animalness - our very physicality. Of course, whether examining textual or visual representations of human bodies, we have to keep in mind how bodies are so often used as cultural symbols (with meanings that vary across race, ethnicity, gender, class, region, time, space) and thus I think it is particularly hard to read most any representations of human bodies as truthful ones. Yet these representations still tell us something....

Lydia Namahana Piʻia

She wears a blue European dress, European shoes (men's shoes in fact), and a lei poʻo on her head that, as Russian Captain Otto von Kotzebue tells us, was composed of Chinese fake flowers. Kotzebue is in fact an important actor in the construction of Namahanaʻs visual identity: a replica of this image of Namahana graced the frontispiece of the published account of his transoceanic voyages (1823-26), A New Voyage Around the World, published in 1830. I am not sure who the painter L. Massard was - either he traveled with Kotzebue, or made copies of sketches from the trip after the fact.

Map of Kotzebue's Transoceanic Journey, 1823-26

Namahana was one of the lesser known wives of Hawaiian King Kamehameha I. She had taken on a Christian name, Lydia, sometime during the 1820s after the arrival of American Protestant missionaries in the islands. At the time of her portrait (1823-26), she was a widow (Kamehameha I died in 1819). Her sister (and other wife of Kamehameha I), Kaʻahumanu, was a powerful leader in the Hawaiian Kingdom during these years. When King Liholiho and his entourage were overseas in 1823-25 she and Prime Minister Kalanimoku effectively ran the Kingdom. As for Namahana, she is hardly mentioned in the historiography of this period. She apparently had very little power or influence...

Thus I imagine she was pleased and honored to be painted by Massard. And she was pleased to be allowed to wear the articles of clothing that she felt most proud of - that she felt best expressed her status as an aliʻi (from a ruling family) and as a cosmopolitan consumer. (See my post on Princess Nāhiʻenaʻena for evidence of just how hard it was for Hawaiian aliʻi to convince European portraitists to depict them wearing "modern" European - rather than "traditional" Hawaiian - fashions.)

Massard (and Kotzebue) might have found their constructed image of Namahana comical. Perhaps they took delight that her legs and feet were so big that she must wear men's European shoes (although while shoe size might have been a factor in her purchase, she was not alone among Hawaiian aliʻi in purchasing cross-gender articles of clothing and it might have been that she just liked that particular shoe style). Furthermore, these haole (foreigner) men apparently took delight that a dress that was meant to sweep along the floor only came down to Namahana's ankles because of her large torso. And finally, perhaps they found it comical that she wore a lei poʻo of fake Chinese flowers rather than one of real Hawaiian flowers, which must have been easy enough to procure (although we cannot discount that the portraitist may have insisted that she wear certain aspects of this assemblage such as the Chinese lei).

Namahana might look awkwardly at the portraitist because the men behind the easel are snickering at her. Or, she might look awkwardly only because Massard and Kotzebue wanted us to see her that way, as a "misfit" who was trying to act European but could hardly pull it off. However strong and confident Namahana may have been in her consumption and fashion choices, and in her body, we cannot know because Massard and Kotzebue cannot see her that way.

(Mis?)-Representing Obesity

Descriptions of Hawaiian bodies, and especially obesity, abound in the 1820s European and Euro-American literature about Hawaiʻi:

- Sandalwood trader Charles Hammatt was surprised in 1823 that the king of Hawaiʻi, Liholiho, looked as he did laying at home "on an old canvas-covered sofa, almost entirely naked, having nothing on but a small 'marro' [malo: tapa loincloth], sufficiently dirty." Hammatt went on to call Liholiho both ugly and fat.

- Dutch Captain Jacobus Boelen, in 1828, similarly called the young King Kauikeaouli, who was only a teenager at the time, fat and ugly.

- Kuakini, Governor of Hawaiʻi, was frequently noted as being very large. Boelen even makes much a do about how difficult it was for his crew to hoist Kuakini up from a canoe to his ship's deck for a formal gathering. According to Boelen, multiple ship's crewmen had to hoist Kuakini up with ropes. Another incident onboard involved Kuakini falling down while onboard and Boelen remarks that the whole ship shook. 

- Most recently I have been reading accounts of Hawaiian whalers working on European and Euro-American ships...and again stories of huge men falling and bouncing around abound in the literature.

But Hawaiian wahine (women), more so than Hawaiian men, were subjected to the strongest European and Euro-American insults about their bodies:

- Captain Boelen in 1828 remarked that Kapiʻolani, wife of Nāihe, living at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaiʻi, was obese and ugly, even though she wore "a black nankeen skirt which she wore over a white cotton shirt." Respectable enough, except that Boelen said that she wore nothing else underneath (hinting that you could see her breasts through the shirt, which, apparently, he did not like).

- French Captain Auguste Duhaut-Cilly commented in 1828 about Queen Kaʻahumanu and the "princesses" who lived with her: to him they were all fat. Of a 20 year old "princess," Duhaut-Cilly had these not-so-nice words: "Even at that age she had become so enormous that she could not walk without being helped. She much resembled that huge seal, the sea elephant, which because of its great weight remains for weeks at a time in the same place, its soft body molding itself to the irregularities of the rock."

Duhaut-Cilly knew what he was talking about: transpacific traders frequently mixed seal hunting with provision-stops at Hawaiʻi: he was probably not lying to think that the women reclining on their tapa mats on the floor appeared to him like seals on rocks that he had also once seen. Of course, he is dehumanizing these women... highlighting their animality in a way that he would never apply to himself, much less to his own wife or daughters!


Stereotypes are, in a sense, exaggerated truths. Based on the overwhelmingly frequency of references to Hawaiian obesity in the early European and Euro-American literature, there must have been a kernal of truth there. But, that Hawaiian men and women shared a different conception of bodily beauty than haole (foreigners) did is probably also quite true. That Hawaiian women had control over their bodies in ways that white women back in Europe or America did not also probably made most haole men uncomfortable with Hawaiian femininity. Indeed, another stereotype, of the powerful (and often obese) Polynesian matriarch, has great cultural capital in haole minds (for example, see the representations of the Tongan matriarch in the film The Other Side of Heaven, or just think of "Bloody Mary" in the musical South Pacific).

Hawaiian public health experts and policy makers remain concerned about obesity in Hawaiʻi, which, just like all across the United States today, is considered to be an epidemic.

In the end, it is apparent to me that while some Hawaiians were indeed quite large during the early nineteenth century (importantly, these are almost always aliʻi elites, not commoners, who are depicted as obese), "obesity," as a concept suggesting bodily abnormality, was (and still is) a relativistic construction placed upon Hawaiians by others. Europeans and Euro-Americans who favored/idealized skinnier body types looked down upon Hawaiian men and women and used their large bodies as one of the unique, defining "Hawaiian" attributes for their categorization of Hawaiian people into a larger taxonomy of the world's "races". That Hawaiian bodies appeared to these haole as abnormally obese, a taxonomic stereotype - a major generalization - was thus constructed about Hawaiian bodies. We should even question, by the 1820s, if textual and visual representations of Hawaiian bodies were more the product of stereotypical expectations rather than actual appearances. Perhaps Massard's Namahana was meant to meet viewer expectations of what a Hawaiian woman should look like, rather than to represent this woman as she really was. Furthermore, I am convinced that male haole representations of female Hawaiian obesity were a reflection of white male anxieties over Hawaiian femininity, matriarchy, and sexuality. 

For more on representations of Hawaiian bodies, see:

David W. Forbes, Encounters with Paradise: Views of Hawaii and its People, 1778-1941 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992).


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