I used to think that fat hate was a product of the 20th century – starting with the Roaring 1920s, peaking in the 60s with the popularity of Twiggy and perpetuated by the diet and weight-loss industries of today.
Unfortunately, I was wrong. (Well, about fat hate being a fresh 2oth-century invention; definitely not the part about the diet industry.)
I’m currently reading Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture by Dickinson College professor Amy Farrel. And I wanted to share some facts with you on fat shame and stigma.
This isn’t to depress all of us – even though it is depressing and infuriating! It’s to better understand history and how the media and others have manipulated their messages to sell us lots and lots of lies.
And it’s also to highlight our progress. Today, there are so many voices speaking up against dieting and weight discrimination, and researchers and professors like Linda Bacon, Ph.D, who get to the bottom of bad research and reveal the facts.
Without further ado, here are five surprising facts about dieting, weight and the thin ideal from centuries ago.
1. Dieting and fat hatred didn’t start in the 20s.
They started way earlier, in the 19th century. According to Farrel, in the late 1800s, publications like Harper’s Weekly and Life featured tons of ads for diet products along with cartoons mocking fat people.
In the 1920s, companies simply took advantage of the increasing hatred and fear of fat to make money.
For instance, in 1869, the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin published an article called “Cure for Obesity,” which talked about some ammonium compound to reduce excess fat.
Less than 20 years later, an ad in Life magazine stated: “To ladies! Are you corpulent? Corpus Lean is a safe, permanent and healthful flesh reducer-ten to fifteen pounds a month.”
More quick-fix weight-loss products followed in the pages of Life by the early 1900s.
It got so bad that by 1912 the American Medical Association published the “first list of dangerous or ineffective ‘Obesity Cures’ in its Nostrums and Quackery, written by Dr. Arthur J. Cramp, who joined the AMA in 1906 to investigate deceptive medical practices, including weight loss remedies.”
2. Anxiety about one’s body shape and size also started early.
Farrel gives the example of one ad from the 19th century that she says speaks to the anxiety surrounding body size. It was an ad for Dr. Jeanne Walter’s Famous Medicated Rubber Garments, which promised to eliminate the “superfluous” and “unnecessary.”
But this anxiety ran deeper than having a lean figure for appearance sake. As Farrel explains (on pg. 27):
“A fat body came to be seen less as one that was successful, healthy or wealthy, but rather as one that was ineffectively managing the modern world. That is, a thriving, upwardly mobile person needed to demonstrate those aspirations by controlling the wealth and abundance that came with an improvement in class status; and the fat body revealed an inability to handle that new wealth.”
The emerging middle class was especially mocked because they were viewed as enjoying everything to excess, including shopping, eating and traveling, which, Farrel writes, “came in direct conflict, however, with an older Victorian, Anglo-Protestant ethic of deferred gratification, of containing one’s impulses and desires, of working continually and diligently.”
3. The diets of today are nothing new.
As Farrel writes (on pg. 4):
“William Banting’s 19th-century high-protein and no-starch diet became today’s South Beach and Atkins diets. The milk diets of the early 20th century became today’s Slim Fast and NutriSlim liquid diets. The incongruous mixture of whole grain foods and Christianity by Sylvester Graham, Horace Fletcher and John Harvey Kellogg became today’s wheat and fig ‘Bible Bar’ marketed by Tom Ciola, the author of Moses Wasn’t Fat. One-food fixes for obesity have remained a constant, though the specific item has changed: in the early 20th century it was the banana; in the 1960s, melba toast and cottage cheese; in the 1970s, grapefruit; in the 1990s, cabbage; in the first decade of the 21st century, olive oil.”
4. Surprisingly, doctors didn’t think much of weight.
With all these negative connotations around weight, you’d think that there’d be an outcry from doctors about health problems (however, false or exaggerated).
But that’s one interesting distinction between today and the 19th century: According to Farrel, doctors were actually pretty lax about weight. She writes (on pgs. 34-36):
“‘Wasting’ diseases like tuberculosis and malnutrition made doctors much more concerned about encouraging their patients to eat than to lose weight. Physicians perceived it ‘natural’ that one would gain weight with aging. The ritual of the weigh-in, so key to our understanding of how physicians perceive and diagnose us as patients, was not at all a part of the medical lexicon until far into the 20th century. Even as late as 1949, records from the American Medical Association indicate that many doctors needed to be convinced of the relevance of weighing children.
Significantly, two of the earliest marketers of diet programs and products – William Banting and Helen Densmore – rejected their own doctors’ advice about the naturalness of their hefty and aging bodies.
It is important to realize that it was at first middle-class patients who put pressure on physicians to take seriously the ‘crying evil of obesity,’ not physicians who urged their patients to lose weight.”
5. Thin wasn’t exactly in either.
It wasn’t that fat was out or thin was in, necessarily. Instead, individuals called for a “balanced body.” Farrel writes (on pg.36-37):
“Just as thinness destroyed the ‘graceful curvings’ of a woman’s body, obesity destroyed ‘beauty by wrecking the basic harmonies of proportion,’ by filling up ‘those hollows which Nature formed to add highlights and shadows.’ Fashion plates from magazines like Godey’s Lady’s Book, published in the 19th century, highlight women whose arms are round and cheeks plump. We even see the shadow of very full thighs under their voluminous skirts. The waists are thin, to be sure, but this was accomplished with a form-fitting corset, not through an overall reduction in weight. As Peter Stearns so cleverly put it in his book Fat History, fashion required the redistribution of fat into desirable locations, rather than an elimination of fat.”
Of course regardless of the specifics of an ideal, it’s clear – and problematic – that there is one. Instead of celebrating body diversity, history shows us that there’s always been an “in” look.
But I’d rather look at the bright side: What this really means is that we can never win – so why even play?
Self-acceptance and a positive body image are so much more rewarding than running around trying to fit yourself into some arbitrary ideal. Because that’s what it is: Virtually each decade has its own physical ideals. Keeping up isn’t just exhausting – it’s unhealthy, physically and mentally.
Also, this is further proof that there’s always been charlatans peddling their harmful products for the sake of making a buck. It’s important for us to realize this and be smart consumers – and skeptics about media messages and even medical research.
And again, amazingly, with movements like Health At Every Size and other awesome body image books and blogs, look at how far we’ve come!
Are you surprised by this information? What do you know about the history of dieting and the thin ideal?
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Last reviewed: 15 Jun 2011