There are very few books on the history of our cultural obsession with weight and/or with "weight bigotry" in the U.S. When did it start? Why? How did it get so vehement? So an attempt at perspective is definitely welcome.
Stearns reports that before the 1890s, plumpness was preferred, and signals began to change only as fashions, fat-control devices, and increased public comment on fat began to emerge in the decade prior to 1900.
After that, the trend grew and intensified over an entire century. Stearns sees this growing obsession as a "compensation" for our indulgence in other pleasures about which we are ambivalent--consumerism, sex, women's freedom. As long as we demonstrate strict discipline about our body size as a kind of puritanical guilt-laden compensation, we can allow ourselves these other indulgent, consumerist pleasures.
Stearns likens the vehemence of fat hatred to Calvinism: only the elect (thin) are "saved," glorified through "salvation" stories of heroic weight loss, and rewarded with welcome entry to the cultural pleasures now available. Those who fail or refuse to measure up to the strict standards of slenderness are punished by being relegated to "fat hell" where open season--in the form of attacks and endless analyses of moral failings, character flaws, and psychological weaknesses--is allowed, imprisoning the recalcitrants in the consequences of their supposedly deplorable lack of self-discipline. Clothes, love, and the good life are not to be theirs.
By way of contrast, the French, who have equally strict standards of slenderness, are committed not to compensation for other pleasures but to high aesthetic standards of beauty. In France, fat is not an indication of moral or psychological weakness but is simply an offense against beauty--fat is just ugly. Divergence from the norm is not considered blameworthy but is assumed to be remedied fairly easily with a little restraint and maybe some reducing creams. With a little work, no one *need* be ugly. It is, therefore, the personal responsibility of each individual to make those moderate efforts and meet the beauty standards amidst an environment of reminders and encouragement.
The result? Both patterns are oppressive, unrelenting, and rigid, but the French are 14 pounds lighter on average and weight in France has been declining rather than increasing.
Stearns does not see that historical French patterns or approaches can be adopted in the U.S. However, he notes that merely recognizing another, different pattern opens the door for reconsideration of U.S. attitudes. Those attitudes were shaped over a century; they can also be reshaped.
Stearns believes that we place too much responsibility on individuals for what are, essentially, social issues. To require everyone to immerse themselves in personal battles against weight while indulgence and excess in all other areas remains unaddressed in the public arena seems not only unfair but unbalanced. Basically, Stearns hopes we will lighten up a little on individual weight issues and look more seriously at larger cultural indulgences.
Simply for the effort to bring historical perspective to the issue, the book gets four stars. But it is sometimes a frustrating read. It is fraught with equivocations and reminders that many factors are at play, all of which preclude crispness. It is not until the very end that clarity begins to emerge from the discussion.
And finally, it describes the scene without benefit of factors that could, conceivably, change all the rules and the analysis as it relates to new trends. If, as research is increasingly showing, fat and related major diseases are common in cultures based on animal-based diets and uncommon in cultures based on plant-based diets, the emphasis shifts from "how much" one is eating to "what" one is eating; from "restraint" to "plenty" without weight gain.
Such a major shift in our understanding of food, nutrition, disease, body weight, and nutrition medicine would shift blame from individuals to a diet that we thought served us but in fact did not. This would chart a very different course--and analysis--for the new century.