Isn't He Lovely: The Sexist, Racist, Male Invention of Dieting

Cristen Conger
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1970s swanson hungry man fish and chips tv dinnerAs Isn’t He Lovely comes to a close this week, it seems appropriate to offer some historical insight into where and when the Western masculine body ideal emerged. But since I don’t have the word count allowance—or time—to expound on all of those fat-shaming, muscle-praising intricacies, this chicken nugget of information about the relationship between masculinity, dieting, and gendered food (along with as many dietary puns as possible) will hopefully satisfy your appetite.

In the U.S., food marketing and consumption is highly gendered. In the funny pages, Cathy gobbles down chocolate and Dagwood constructs towering, meaty sandwiches. On the Internet, the Women Laughing Alone With Salad is an exemplary (and hilarious) meme. Guy vegans seemed like such a quaint anomaly that a Boston Globe reporter tried to make “hegan” happen in 2010. I say “in the U.S.” because the nation apparently has an extreme case of food gendering, thanks to our robust and omnipresent advertising industry and a steady, though not necessarily high-quality or healthy, food supply. In a Salon article exploring gendered representations and connotations of food, Riddhi Shah writes “In the U.S., instead, it was an extension of one’s identity, a phenomenon made possible by the United States’ unique history of unrivaled luxury.” Put another way: you are what you eat.

I hadn’t really thought about how true that statement can be and how much food and eating fits into gender constructs until I stumbled across the fascinating paper Regime Change: Gender, Class, and the Invention of Dieting in Post-Bellum America by Katharina Vester. As if there weren’t enough negative things we can say about the Dieting Industrial Complex and how it peddles body dissatisfaction, Vester’s research on the invention of dieting in the 19th century uncovers its sexist and racist roots. Popularized by William Banting and his 1863 manual, “A Letter on Corpulence,” dieting, better known as “banting” back in the day, became part of a self-control regimen espoused by white, upperclass men. In something that sounds vaguely Atkins diet-y, Banting recommended eating meat up to four times per day (hello, gendered food!) and washing it down with plenty of booze. Veggies and grain—who needs ‘em? Likewise, Vester writes that “the first word denigrating the obese entered the American language—”slob,” designating the overweight male.” Societies that didn’t adhere to the American Meat & Three standard, particularly in Asian countries, were derided as uncivilized. Who knew a steak could contain so much symbolic weight?

Early male dieting in the late 19th century was adopted as a way to reinforce gender difference and distinguish the masculine physical form from the feminine. Popular medical theory at the time maintained that women, as opposed to men, had no control over their body weight. We fair creatures surely lacked the mettle to convert any fat to muscle. Horatio Alger-esque men, on the other hand, could control what they ate and how they looked; gynmasiums, swimming, bicycling and exercise in general were mostly male-only activities at the time, too.

And in addition to establishing “gender-specific embodiments,” dieting also marginalized non-white ethnicities. Vester explains:

At their advent in U.S. culture, dieting practices presented a novel system of middle-class body management allegedly based on rationality and willpower. The male body exhibiting visible self-control was used as testimony for the biological superiority of men over women, class privilege, and white supremacy… The new slender body ideal appropriated first by white men and eventually by white women also served to further exclude African Americans and immigrants from access to equal political and cultural representation.

But here’s the biggest historical twist: Dieting didn’t enter the women’s sphere because men somehow imposed it onto us. Rather, our more progressive foremothers adopted dieting and body weight management another form of gender equality, along with swimming in public, riding bicycles, pursuing higher education, and becoming politically involved. Dieting helped disprove the female-as-inferior thesis, demonstrating, in a way, that women are indeed in control of their bodies. Of course, consumer culture eventually lends a helping hand, with the Ladies’ Home Journal employing a diet columnist by the turn of the century.

What was the effect of Banting’s weighty “Letter…” and that male dieting fad? As Vester explains, it fuels the development of the masculine image ideal:

Male facial hair became fashionable. A new fitness culture promoted manly outdoor exercise and sports. Men’s bodies were now imagined as muscular and active as opposed to the imagined softness and passivity of female bodies.

Does it really sound like much has changed for how we collectively perceive the male body? Considering how much the idealized female figure has fluctuated over the past 150 years, the male physical ideal is static, almost frozen in time, by comparison.

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4 Comments Have Been Posted

Is cause and effect being confused here?

As mentioned in the article, the first popular diet was created by William Banting in the middle 19th century. It is in essence a low-carbohydrate diet, limiting starch and sugar. I find it telling that Banting's diet, and dieting in general, came about shortly after the invention of industrialized and nutrient-poor food, namely white flour and white sugar. And as these foods were luxury items at first, wouldn't it follow that the white middle and upper classes would be the first people to suffer the ill effects of over-consuming those foods? And thus they would be the ones to invent dieting?

Contemporary nutrition

Contemporary nutrition certainly had something to do with it, but there was always a moralistic and sexist edge to it, starting out in the UK and spreading to the US in the the 19th century:

"In Great Britain obesity slowly started to be classified as a medical problem in the early 18th century, when overweight was linked to a wider cultural debate about the morality of conspicuous consumption. “Excessive fatness” was associated with “material corruption.”5 Overeating was regularly condemned in advice manuals for gentlemen in early modern England on the grounds that indulgence is unhealthy, unmanly, and un-English."

I agree with you on that

My contention is that dieting was adopted, not "as a way to reinforce gender difference and distinguish the masculine physical form from the feminine", but as a way to lose weight. The diet pamphlet you link to by William Banting does not have any sexist or racist overtones that I could discern; instead it's a rather touching description of one person's struggles with obesity and the reduced quality of life he experienced as a result (not being able to tie his shoes or walk for any distance without tiring), along with a method he found for reversing course.

To your point, attitudes towards dieting and the obese as portrayed in various forms of media & marketing clearly take on moralistic/racist/sexist/classist tones (which continues to this day). I think that calls for a critique of media & marketing, not the act of dieting itself. We need better stories & truths about obesity & dieting. For the record, the most plausible scientific theory of obesity, IMHO, is that modern industrialized foods disrupt hormones like leptin that regulate how much we eat. Hunger is a subconscious biological force that trumps willpower over the long-term, so obesity is not a character flaw so much as a symptom of malnutrition. And it's gotten so much worse because food manufacturers are intentionally engineering food to not satisfy hunger - it's no mistake that people sit down and eat an entire bag of chips.

I've just received and

I've just received and started reading my copy of Fat Is A Feminist Issue. Interesting and confronting so far.

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