HIST 410: Week 8

The fat and malnourished body

Is fat bad? Of course not! But to say its role within dietary advice is controversial would be a huge understatement. Why is this? We’ve looked at the morality of dietary advice in several ways already, and one aspect that has persisted is the idea that some people can be “too fat” (and we even have quantified thresholds, which can be highly biased as we’ve read about), representing some kind of moral deficiency. This week examines how the idea of fat and fat bodies became something to avoid during the early 20th century and how the legacy of vitamins and micronutrients came to define “proper” nourishment. Check out the PREview video

bad example

  • importance of thin bodies

good example

  • Veit argues that thin bodies were becoming more of a social and cultural expectation. To be thin was to be modern and moral.

a more complete sample using last friday’s reading

You’ll only do EITHER main points or connections depending on what group you’re in. I’ve done just three each; you’ll have five.

  • Vitamin advertising—along with the way physicians’ endorsements appeared on them—played a significant role in developing the popular conceptions of the need for vitamins and the fear of not getting enough.

  • Ads directed toward women invoked the ideals of scientific motherhood that played on hopes and fears about raising healthy children. Images of sickly children made the idea of NOT taking vitamins an unnecessary risk.

  • To understand how people became so fascinated with vitamins, we have to understand the popularization of scientific knowledge generally through consumer culture.

  • The ads give us a new look at visual culture of health, but they also relate some of the same ideas about moral diets that we’ve been reading about, particularly the idea that you are doing something “wrong” by not following the latest diet advice.

  • The fact that many ads targeted mothers shows how the field of domestic science (that we first explored in Biltekoff in the context of the New England Kitchen) was continuing to shape society and women’s roles in the US.

  • One key difference emerging via the ads and attention to vitamins is dietary health becoming defined by specific things like vitamins that you’re putting into your body rather than a general emphasis on balance or fluidity as we saw in Galen and Cheyne.

Mon 10/5

  • Helen Zoe Veit, Modern Food, Moral Food, Chapter 7: The Triumph of the Will: The Progressive Body and the Thin Ideal, 157–80.

Wed 10/07

  • Catherine Carstairs, “‘Our Sickness Record Is a National Disgrace’: Adelle Davis, Nutritional Determinism, and the Anxious 1970s”, 461–91.

Fri 10/09

  • Originally we were going to read A. F. La Berge, “How the Ideology of Low Fat Conquered America,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 63.2 (2007): 139–77. But this is VERY long and given how the course has unfolded, it no longer fits as well as I thought it would when I was pulling the readings together. So we’ll skip it. But if you’re interested in the popular discourse of low-fat diets (mostly 1970+, but with some earlier history, too), it’s got a lot of great information and shows how popular diet advice columns (like Jane Brody’s in the New York Times) become sources in which both outdated and cutting-edge nutritional research mingle together.