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Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West

Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 294
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  • Book Info
    Fat History
    Book Description:

    The modern struggle against fat cuts deeply and pervasively into American culture. Dieting, weight consciousness, and widespread hostility toward obesity form one of the fundamental themes of modern life. Fat History explores the meaning of fat in contemporary Western society and illustrates how progressive changes, such as growth in consumer culture, increasing equality for women, and the refocusing of women's sexual and maternal roles have influenced today's obsession with fat. Brought up-to-date with a new preface and filled with narrative anecdotes, Fat History explores fat's transformation from a symbol of health and well-being to a sign of moral, psychological, and physical disorder.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-7102-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xvii)
    (pp. xviii-xxiv)
    (pp. xxv-xxvi)
  6. PART I American Fat

    • 1 The Turning Point
      (pp. 3-24)

      Between 1890 and 1910, middle-class America began its ongoing battle against body fat. Never previously an item of systematic public concern, dieting or guilt about not dieting became an increasing staple of private life, along with a surprisingly strong current of disgust directed against people labeled obese. In contrast to patterns in the nineteenth century, when body styles, particularly but not exclusively for women, shifted faddishly every few decades, the growing passion for slimness set a framework that would last at least a century. To be sure, the slimness ideals would be occasionally modified in the twentieth century—women’s breasts...

    • 2 The Medical Path: Physicians and Faddists
      (pp. 25-47)

      Doctors and medical advice participated in the growing campaign against fat right along with the pseudoscientific enthusiasts around the turn of the century. These groups and the arguments they adduced helped cause the new concern about overweight, as we will see. But doctors collectively also hesitated, reflecting commonsense cautions and more traditional standards. Often they seemed (like the commercial vendors of diet products or the authors in women’s magazines) to be responding to public pressure at least as much as they were shaping it. Even the faddists found an audience not only through their ability to appeal to half-digested scientific...

    • 3 Fat as a Turn-of-the-Century Target: Why?
      (pp. 48-68)

      What caused a growing number of Americans, in a growing number of fields from fashion to medicine to bodybuilding, to put fat in the fire around 1900? The explanation for a deep and durable revulsion against excessive weight has not been resolved in previous work, partly because it is inherently complex. Had an interest in dieting been a passing fad—like the preceding approval of plumpness, which developed in the 1860s—a brief reference to the whimsy of fashion might suffice. But the new anxieties about weight affected American consciousness more profoundly, which is why they have lasted for a...

  7. PART II Intensification of the Culture, 1920–1990s:: Expiation and Its Limits

    • 4 The Misogynist Phase: 1920s–1960s
      (pp. 71-97)

      Because the basic dimensions of hostility to fat and their complex cultural roots were well established before 1920 in the United States, one need not linger over every detail to trace subsequent developments. Dieting became part of American faddism, which means the significance of fundamental features is not matched by the gyrations of specific diet formulas and products. The interest in dieting fairly steadily accelerated, which also provides new opportunities to follow its impact in individuals’ lives. The link with a need for discipline and guilt persisted and clearly intensified along with heightened consumerism, accounting for some of the tone...

    • 5 Stepping up the Pace: Old Motives, New Methods
      (pp. 98-126)

      The most important development in the campaign against fat from the 1920s onward involved its sheer intensification. Special features of the constraints on women were significant in this larger context, for there was no question that the campaign—and even more, its reception—were gendered. But men were included as well, particularly from the 1950s onward, and the belaboring of feminine fat must be seen as part of this accelerating effort among middle-class Americans generally. After a few comments on the male battle against fat, we must then convey the overall process of intensification and the reasons for it. As...

    • 6 Fat City: American Weight Gains in the Twentieth Century
      (pp. 127-150)

      No study of the modern American hostility to fat would be complete without exploring its great anomaly: during the very century in which diet standards have been ever more rigorously urged, average American weight has gone up, rather markedly. This is true even when weight gains are controlled for height, which has also increased. Foreign observers often note their surprise at how heavy many Americans are, but homegrown data are quite adequate to make the point. Indeed, a quite noticeable average weight gain during the 1980s and early 1990s made national news in 1995. It is just as important to...

    • All illustrations
      (pp. None)
  8. PART III The French Regime

    • 7 The Evolution of Weight Control in France
      (pp. 153-186)

      French concerns about slenderness paralleled those in the United States in many respects. The two countries shared an artistic and Christian heritage. They industrialized at about the same times, though the American process was more impressive. Both, for example, passed the 50 percent urbanization mark around 1920, though for several decades thereafter the American rural population declined at a more rapid rate than that of France. France like the United States developed more sedentary work patterns plus a greater abundance of foods, including meats rich in fat. Both countries experienced a declining birthrate that could put pressure on women to...

    • 8 The French Regime
      (pp. 187-216)

      American and French patterns of weight control share a combination of consistency and change. Both established certain themes early on, some of them quite similar, some rather different. At the same time, both shifted considerably over what is now a full century of modern weight control history. Both, among other things, worked toward greater rigor. Both incorporated new medical knowledge and new fashions, as well as a variety of changes in specific strategies.

      French weight-control history, as we have seen, went through three fairly well-defined stages, from a definite but contested first phase, through the intensification period between the wars,...

    • 9 Atlantic Crisscross: The Franco-American Contrasts
      (pp. 217-246)

      Explaining the differences between French and American approaches in a common cause—the battle against fat—requires some subtlety. Gross contrasts do not work. If the French were attuned more fully to the dictates of fashion, middle- and upper-class Americans certainly followed most of the same trends with considerable interest, diverging mainly after World War II in their more limited tolerance for partial nudity and the body exposure this entailed. While Americans did tend to eat faster than the French, with implications for the amounts consumed and the types of enjoyment and restraint available, French eating time tended to drop...

  9. 10 Conclusion: The Fat’s in the Fire
    (pp. 247-260)

    Keeping to a diet is a serious component of modern culture and a major innovation in the panoply of personal concerns and commitments. The standards carry deep social roots as well as individual constraints, as weight control adds to but also reflects major features of modern life. The meanings of modern hostility to fat are particularly complex in the United States, but they run well beneath the surface in France as well. In both countries, anxieties about weight provide an essential balance to other modern trends; simply holding the line amid growing affluence, aging, and declining physical exertion requires a...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 261-288)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 289-294)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 295-295)