Calories and Corsets; Managing the Body
In modern Britain not a day goes by without a new diet fad, intimate coverage of celebrity weight loss (or gain) and advice on the importance of diet and exercise to our health and wellbeing. Alongside this sits a fascination with food, as indulgent recipes fill the pages of glossy magazines and programmes presenting cookery as an art form, as an exercise in voyeurism and as a competition fill the airwaves. This contrast between our fetishisation of food and our obsession with achieving a ‘perfect’ body, however, is nothing new. As these two excellent books demonstrate, the availability of a plentiful food supply, at least for a minority, has always been accompanied by its corollary: concern about its detrimental impact on the body.
Louise Foxcroft, whose previous book, Hot Flushes, Cold Science: A Modern History of the Menopause, won the Longman-History Today Prize 2009, traces a history of dieting from the days of the Ancient Greeks. Ever since Hippocrates observed that overweight people tended to be less healthy than their more svelte counterparts and recommended a regimen of controlled diet, plenty of exercise, rest and (perhaps more controversially) induced vomiting, doctors and self-proclaimed ‘experts’ have been marketing a range of diet and exercise regimes guaranteed to produce painless weight loss. Brillat-Saverin, a French lawyer, politician, lay dietician and gourmet, devised a carbohydrate-light diet in the 18th century, which prefigured the Atkins diet by almost 200 years. The development of the theory of respiration in the mid-19th century led to the belief that an over-indulgence in the ‘respiratory foods’, sugar and carbohydrates, led to weight gain and by the late 19th century a milk-based diet was being recommended to overweight Americans. Celebrities got in on the act too, with the rotund Lord Byron appearing as a Romantic version of Posh Spice, assiduously noting his daily intake of food in his diary, following diets which involved eating nothing more than potatoes soaked in vinegar and leading commentators to fret that his cultural power was causing a dread of fatness among Britain’s impressionable youth.
As today, though, the temptations of indulgence proved too much for many and Foxcroft charts the multifarious ways by which women in particular have attempted to achieve a desirable figure without dieting. Corsets in the 19th century, rubber underwear and cigarettes in the 20th, liposuction, breast enhancement and punishing exercise regimes today: Foxcroft shows how the desire for the perfect body has driven us to measures that can damage, rather than improve, our health.
The perfect body is, of course, a social and cultural construct, an ideal which has shifted over time and which is driven by contemporary concerns. It is at the heart of Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska’s study of the emergence of the modern body ideal from debates about racial fitness and responsible citizenship from the late 19th to the mid-20th century.
Zweiniger-Bargielowska’s study starts from the same premise as Foxcroft’s: that histories of diet, exercise and weight control can tell us about much more than the fads that people have followed. Managing the Body traces the relationship in Britain between health and exercise regimes and moral panics regarding physical decline and racial superiority in late 19th- and early 20th-century Britain. The relationship between individual bodies and politics is traced through a history of government campaigns and institutions created in order to try to ensure the British national body was a healthy one and the multifarious voluntary organisations such as the eugenicist Sunlight League, which emphasised the significance of light and vitamins for the national physique. Underpinned by Foucauldian ideas about the regulation and control of the body, Zweiniger-Bargielowska makes explicit what is implicit in Foxcroft’s study: the body is always political. While we may no longer purge ourselves with vinegar-soaked potatoes, or participate in mass gymnastic displays in Wembley Stadium, this central point remains as true as ever.
Lucy Noakes is the author of Women in the British Army: The Gentle Sex at War, 1907-1948 (Oxford University Press, 2006)