Chronicling the Bizarre History of Western Diet Culture

The idea that “slimmer is better” and “fat is bad” is deeply ingrained in Western society. Glossy magazine covers exhibit the latest celebrity weight-loss transformation. Diet gurus tout tips and tricks, promising instant results. Weight-loss tops many lists of New Year’s resolutions each year. However, Western society’s preoccupation with a smaller waist did not emerge without trace. From early male-targeted rhetoric associating slender body ideals with discipline, aptitude, and social power to later feminist activists encouraging dieting as means for women to build strength and agency, a mesh of social and political factors have shaped today’s tenets of diet ideology. Consequently, it is important to critically analyze the complex and bizarre origins of Western diet culture.

The emergence of diet culture is deeply rooted in rhetoric associating slimness with discipline and fatness with gluttony. The eighteenth century saw a gradual shift in perceptions of thinness from a sign of infirmity, poverty, and starvation to a testament of self-regulation. Lucia Dacome, Professor in the History of Medicine at University of Toronto, describes in Useless and Pernicious Matter: Corpulence in Eighteenth-Century England that “fatness” was seen as a physical manifestation of “material corruption”. Furthermore, indulgence was considered “unmanly and un-English” (Dacome, 2005). William Banting’s A Letter on Corpulence, widely accredited as the first diet book published, begins, “[o]f all the parasites that affect humanity I do not know of, nor can I imagine, any more distressing than that of Obesity [sic]” (Banting, 1863). Banting portrayed fatness as a disease that could only be overcome by those with sufficient strength and willpower.

One cannot discuss the history of diet culture without considering the inherent socioeconomic biases it contains. Banting’s diet guide solely addressed white, upper-middle class men, prescribing a diet focused on red meat, seafood, and alcohol — foods associated with virility and only accessible to the affluent. Furthermore, medical experts claimed that being overweight was characteristic of certain classes, races, and women (Beard, 1871; Schwartz, 1986). Some also believed that obesity was the dilemma of the nouveau riche. An article in American newspaper Spirit of the Times argued that unlike those born into money, the upwardly mobile middle-class are not accustomed to a life of material comfort and are unable to fight the allure of plentiful food and drink. The writer asserted, “[h]e has no other resource—no hunting or cricket to take up his attention—no lectures to attend, and the consequence is that beer and tobacco commences the day, and tobacco and spirits wind it up. Such a man suddenly finds all his energies going— his mind dull and enfeebled—his body weak, flabby, and bloated” (Anonymous, 1855).

Gender prejudices that characterized this time period also heavily influenced early diet culture. An 1882 Scientific American article claimed that body fat was feminine and implied “genital anomalies”. “We know that wethers, oxen, and capons, as well as eunuchs, are usually fat,” the article quips. In addition, many argued that women were physically incapable of controlling their weight. In a Harper’s Bazaar article, a diet expert stated that “overweight young women could not be convinced to diet for anything—even in cases in which their weight severely impaired them—because they were only interested in having fun, sleeping in, and spending time with young men.” In many ways, diet culture served to establish the distinction between the sexes and reinforce male superiority.

Figure 1. Advertisement portraying Shredded Wheat as an optimal source of nutrition for women.

Originally a patriarchal tool, dieting took on a new meaning with the rise of the Women’s Rights Movement in the mid-19th-century. It became a means to prove that women, too, had strength and self-agency. Early women’s rights activists encouraged dieting as a means of increasing strength and fitness (Vester, 2010). American journalist Eliza Putnam Heaton wrote, “[t]here is no reason why—provided she has sufficient willpower—a woman should not mold her figure to her liking” (Heaton, 1890). She refuted claims of male biological superiority and declared that women can achieve the same level of discipline. A lean physique came to embody the modern woman’s demand for liberation and greater access to social and political power.

Today, perceptions of diet are less informed by sociopolitical rhetoric and are increasingly holistic. There is recognition that physical, emotional, and psychological factors impact diet (Foxcroft, 2011). Additionally, attitudes towards diet culture are becoming more critical and analytical. In a qualitative survey, researchers observed that individuals generally characterized “diet culture” as “health myths about food and eating” and a “moral hierarchy of bodies” driven by “systemic and structural factors” (Jovanovski, 2022). It is clear that we are becoming more conscious of the tyranny of diet culture, but it is undeniable that diet rhetoric is still deeply internalized. However, by recognizing it as a product of a sociopolitical environment and not a legitimate measure of worth, we can hopefully dismantle its control over us and move into an era that celebrates diverse body sizes.

Figure 2. Comic bluntly exposing the difficulties faced in the daily lives of fat individuals

Edited by Niki Patel

References

Beard, G. M. (1871).  Eating and Drinking: A Popular Manual of Food and Diet in Health and Disease. 163.

Corpulence. (1882).  Scientific American, Vol 47, No. 19, 289.

Dacome, L. (2005). Useless and Pernicious Matter.

Foxcroft, L. (2011). Calories & corsets: A history of dieting over 2,000 years. Profile, 207-213.

Heaton, E. P. (1890). Physical Culture. Current Literature, 20-21.

Hints on Training. (1855). Spirit of the Times: A Chronicle of the Turf, Agriculture, Field Sports,Literature and the Stage, 561.

Jovanovski, N., Jaeger, T. (2022). Demystifying ‘diet culture’: Exploring the meaning of diet culture in online ‘anti-diet’ feminist, fat activist, and health professional communities. Women’s Studies International Forum, 90.

Schwartz, H. (1986). Never satisfied: A cultural history of diets, fantasies, and fat. Free Press, Collier Macmillan, 143.

Vester, K. (2010). Regime Change: Gender, Class, And The Invention Of Dieting In Post-Bellum America. Journal of Social History, 44(1), 39–70.

Image Citations

Airborne, M. (1994). Chainsaw. Retrieved January 28, 2022 from https://maxairborne.wordpress.com/chainsaw/

Advertisement for Shredded Wheat. (1913) The Fra: A Journal of Affirmation. Retrieved January 28, 2022 from https://digital.library.villanova.edu/Item/vudl:82562#?c=&m=&s=&cv=82&xywh=-3080%2C-411%2C9603%2C5866

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.