Some Weighty Thoughts on Dieting

How controlling our weight became a cultural—and industrial—phenomenon / Sander Gilman

In July 2004, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson announced that Medicare was abandoning a long-held policy that obesity was not a disease, opening the way for the government to pay for a whole range of possible treatments. Soon there appeared a cartoon: A portly little boy, having read the headline “Obesity now considered a disease,” says into the telephone, “Hello, principal’s office? This is Tommy Frobish. I won’t be in school today; I got a disease.”

We know what type of disease Tommy Frobish had. As early as 1987, the media began to evoke the specter of a forthcoming epidemic of obesity. Parallel to the seemingly unstoppable spread of this new epidemic was the development of new, radical cures. Would the answer be surgical (stomach stapling), genetic (the “obesity gene”) or would it be the old, tried-and-true “cure” of dieting?

Fat is truly in the eye of the beholder. Each age, culture, and tradition defines unacceptable weight for itself; yet all do have a point beyond which excess weight is unacceptable—unhealthy, ugly, or corrupt. We today call this morbid obesity, and it is always seen as an issue of health. Yet health, as we well know, is a code word for a range of positive qualities that any given society wishes to see in its citizens, from beauty to loyalty, responsibility to fecundity, and the list marches on.

From the 1860s, it was the diet culture that dominated the market even as biomedical science developed tools to understand the nature of metabolism, endrocrinological imbalance and, more recently, genetics. Dieting was the tool of the physician, but it was also the means by which lay practitioners of the modern “health culture” were able to claim the fat as their clients. Dieting, or in modern parlance, “lifestyle change,” became a way to halt the obesity epidemic, to intervene to improve the private life of the individual and thus the health of the nation. The general stigma associated with a potentially unhealthy body made it imperative that the fat seek treatment.

There were financial incentives to seek out this group and rehabilitate them. The American food faddists of the late-nineteenth century, who produced machine-made foods such as “corn flakes,” sought to reform the body politic; today we hear their heirs advocate “natural” or “organic” food. All of their remedies were aimed at healthier, better citizens; and all succeed in making a profit. The early cereal manufacturers moved from fringe food-fad operations to dominate the food market; “organic” food today may well rescue the small farm as it returns much greater profit than “traditional” food. Health and wealth are linked by more than a rhyme.

Dieting aims at both cure and profit; it is thus very modern. It arose in the post-Copernican world when scientists and laypeople from the late-seventeenth to early-nineteenth century increasingly began to think of the body as a machine and then as a collection of chemical processes; the dieting body is no longer an extension of the divine. Dieting becomes the means of self-liberation, self-control, or self-limitation. Through it, individuals claim control over their bodies and reveal their ability to fulfill their roles in society. From the Enlightenment to the present, the healthy body is also the body in control of its own destiny—a basic claim of Enlightenment ideology.

Mind over body: the key to “lifestyle changes” in the twenty-first century. But now with a twist—you need the social structure to accomplish this, because fat is also a sign of another disease, the lack of will. The will becomes that which is healed by the dieting process and enables the rational mind to control the body. Fat is dangerous because it is now globalized. Fat is now a sign of the deleterious effect of the modern (read: the American) on the body. We have to restore the healthy mind and thus heal the unhealthy body.

Dieting is modern. We can cure ourselves and improve the world. We know where the weapons of mass destruction are hidden. They are within us, and we can seek to control and even destroy them—with a little help from the dieting culture.





 © 2007 Emory University