Review of Stearns’ Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West

Review of Stearns’ Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West

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Wow, I mean, your sister, she’s so fat that when she wears a yellow raincoat, people shout out, “Taxi!” Your brother, gosh, he’s so fat that his driver’s license says, “Picture continued on the other side!” About your mother, well, she’s so fat that when she walks in front of the television, you miss out on three commercials! I’m tellin’ ya! Fat!
     Those humorous one-liners are just a few of the many out there. In the United States today, we are obviously obsessed with weight, but how did this cultural craze with heaviness start? When and why, even? Are we the only ones? Peter N. Stearns is a Carnegie Mellon history professor and dean, and in his book Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West, he explores and compares the weight-consciousness over the past century in both the United States (arguably the most obese Western country today) and France (arguably the slimmest); he also attempts at explaining why such contrariety exists between these two countries, despite both being heavily infatuated with body and beauty. It is Stearns’ stance that this modern struggle against fat is actually very deeply rooted within our American culture, and dieting and rampant hostility toward the obese continue to become one of the underlying themes in our society today. He also notes the differences in attitudes toward the obese in both countries. He does not really believe that the French approach to obesity could so readily be adopted in the United States, but possibly recognizing a different attitude may help to later reshape the views and opinions that have been formed this past century in our society.
     With respect to the United States, Stearns reveals that before the 1890s plumpness was healthy and in fact preferred over frailness; full-figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s were linked to successful motherhood and were indeed quite fashionable. In the decade just before 1900, however, as we became more sedentary, fashion changed, and dress sizes became standardized, greater attention was drawn toward the more oddly shaped bodies, possibly creating a new public concern for body weight, especially for women. Fat-controlling devices like “reducing corsets”, dieting gimmicks such as Kissiengen water, and other advertisements for products to help against weight also began to spread during this time period. Morality even came into play, as obese individuals were seen to not only be lazy and weak but also on their way toward what one may call “fat hell”.

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Responding more to this new public worry rather than to the health risks involved, physicians were suddenly forced to address this growing interest in weight control. All of these factors helped contribute to and intensify the popular trend in the United States toward our strict standards of slenderness and indications of weakness in obese individuals.
     Stearns reports that the past century in France with regard to weight-consciousness is very similar to that of the United States; French weight-control moved right along in analogous stages. There is one exception, though. Instead of interpreting the obese as morally defective and indolent, obesity in France is just plain ugly, almost a crime against beauty. Obesity is also seen as a dangerous health risk that should be corrected quickly and easily by the individual.
Another major contradistinction also occurs in France, though. The country is known for its very high aesthetic standards of beauty, and the French are equally committed to such ideals of slimness. They, however, are on average fourteen pounds lighter than Americans, and, unlike the current drift toward obesity in the United States, the French are in reality getting lighter.
Having read this book, I found it, on the whole, very informative and amusing at the same time. Stearns included many real advertisements to support his perspective on fat history, and most were very entertaining, for example (on page eighteen):
“The normally cautious Ladies Home Journal carried periodic notices –-not just advertisements but columns-- touting a few products as early as 1900. ‘Obesity is Curable without inquiry or dieting, or much expense,’ hailed Mrs. Warren. The magic? Drink a glass of Kissiengen water half an hour after each meal, and then the next day a similar glass of Vichy water. The two waters balanced acid and alkaline and acted directly on the fat, allowing a loss of two pounds per week. Tablets could replace the waters if these were unavailable. Mrs. Warren noted that thousands of readers should hail this formula ‘with delight,’ which ‘has been thoroughly tested and its efficacy proved.’”

This book surely was a lengthy read that seemed to reiterate a couple of historical observations over and over and over again, but Stearns did manage to bring everything together in the last two chapters of the book. What frustrated me were his chapters covering the 1920s-1990s in the United States, though. Stearns would like to assert that women have clearly been subjected to more weight concern this past century, but he then goes on to tell the reader that men have recently (as of the 1990s) become equal victims of the same regulation, quoting the director of an eating disorders program in St. Louis on page 103: “Now they’re subjected to the same concerns about body image that have plagued women for years.” I, however, would disagree. I would like to argue that, even in more recent advertisements, one actually sees very little “progress” in images geared toward upsetting such normative gender inequalities; without it being forcefully stated, advertisements today are still geared toward the female viewer. Men are still not subjected to the same restraints concerning the body and dieting as women are.
     There are many socially and culturally embedded standards of women’s relations to food. Advertising has had a huge effect on how we see such in our society. Stearns states on page seventy-three that:
“American women may have had more weight problems than men in the twentieth century in certain measurable respects, which would help explain why their need for restraint was particularly emphasized.”

Yet advertisements are prolonging the cultural trends that refer to the female gender. Advertisements such as “99.9% Fat Free” products or dieting pills like Adipex or weight-loss programs like Jenny Craig’s are almost always with the female viewer first in mind.
Stearns also states on page seventy-three that:
“Public insistence on women’s obligations toward slenderness, and considerable internalization of these same norms on the part of endlessly dieting women, link to wider shifts in gender relations in recent decades.”

He, though, would like to argue that this unequal focus on women really only lasted until the 1950s, yet I would say that contemporary advertisements still greatly shape our views on the female gender. Women’s roles and behaviors seem to be fixed and centered on maintaining themselves as slender, beautiful, dainty, and care-giving individuals, whereas men are primarily focused on cultivating a strong sense of independence. Products depicting how to more effectively “control” or “master” one’s body have been directed toward women, but “control” and “mastery” over others (striving for a spot at the top of the corporate ladder, for instance) has been the theme for the ads directed toward men. Just for fun, I have opened up the People magazine near me. Let us consider three advertisements from this popular magazine for both men and women. All, I am sure, will illustrate what we see and want today, what Stearns would like to say ended over fifty years ago.
     To begin, in a Cover Girl eyeliner advertisement for women, we read the lines: “Perfect Cover Girl Eyeliner. Puts you in control. And isn’t that nice for a change?” Advertisers are well-aware that women’s lives are generally perceived as being out of control, and these ads attempt to “enhance” or even “correct” that self-image. It reflects the public sense that females are more concerned with appearance than males are; females are supposed to worry more about being in control of their bodies than males need to be.
In a better example, though, we see, in an Orville Redenbacker’s Smart Pop! Kettle Korn ad, a box of “gourmet popcorn” and above it, the words: “94% fat free. 100% delicious. Now you can eat all you want.” In the background there is a young lady (not a man) lying on a comfortable couch eating --not stuffing herself but, rather, eating the popcorn in a more confident, carefree, relaxing manner. We could even say that she is taking in each kernel in a more self-disciplined style; she is carefully dropping each kernel precisely into her small mouth. We would not want to see her devouring the popcorn; she should be under control and also sensible in her snack. The ad also tells us that, before, a woman could not eat as she wanted and therefore not eat as much, but this has all changed now with it being fat free. A woman can now “control” her appetite in a more intelligent way.
     Essentially, this ad appeals to many women’s intense obsessions with minimizing and reducing fat in the body. It also gives women the opportunity to maintain society’s perfect body while avoiding the guilt and shame of indulging in as much popcorn as they would actually prefer. As noted, we do not see a man here. Rarely do we ever see advertisements for food in which a man is depicted worrying about his weight or figure; he is allowed to be greedy and hungry and satisfied.
     In a final advertisement to improve how we eat, we see a figure --traced in the sand-- of what might be perceived as a slender woman wearing a bikini. With the phrase “Draw your own lines in the sand,” it cleverly yet subtly tells the female viewer that she can command more of her physique with this product and will not be as constrained by difficult boundaries or even worried about how she eats anymore, as Starch Away is “a new way to control carbs” leaving her “without any of the guilt”. Our Western society’s idea of “control”, specifically a woman’s “control” of her body, reemerges within this ad. Not only can females control their weight, but also they can actively construct their physical appearance and fulfill the prevailing cultural standards of slenderness while appeasing their cravings for carbohydrates.
     Why must a woman feel guilty when eating the starchy foods she rightfully enjoys in the first place? In our culture, we would not expect a successful woman to be gluttonous in how she eats, although we could see a corpulent man as being able-bodied or wholesome. Even when the ad tells her, “Finally, a diet aid that lets you diet sensibly without eliminating the starchy foods you love,” it plays on this assumption of a “love” for food, a female craving or obsession (all of which are elements of binge behavior). The ad contributes to a “need” or even a “requirement” to diet if you’re a female in our culture, but the ad does not actually display a woman. Imagining how she looks is often more effective than truly seeing her.
     I agree with Stearns that, especially in 1980s and 1990s, slenderness has been increasingly equated with beauty and success. I also would believe that many women have, from a young age, learned to control their weight (as sort of a feminine art passed from generation to generation). Moreover, I would also say that, today, the female who can actually afford to eat a large meal will often diet or just remain hungry.
There are a wide variety of ways in which advertisers shape our unconscious conceptions of the female woman as being slender and having eating problems that must be curtailed. As in the previous century and continuing on today, dieting advertisements are seemingly specifically made for women, as if men rarely, if ever, had to consider their body image.      In the recent ads I found in People, I did discover that the dietary ads connected with losing weight and slimming down were indeed focused on and directed toward women and not men. When these gender differences are seen over and over and in an assortment of media, we, as a culture, are definitely influenced to think in one way, in one pattern, in one model about how each gender is supposed to be and look like. Even going back to my introduction of one-liners, I actually changed the first two jokes from “your mother” to other figures in the family. Why is it that, still today, the mother is always perceived to be the fatter one and not the father, the son, the brother, or other male figures?

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