It's official: after running rampant for more than a quarter of a century, American obesity levels have plateaued for women and perhaps also for men. Although these recent findings have made federal health officials optimistic—as Cynthia Ogden of the National Center for Health Statistics puts it, "Maybe we've gotten as heavy as we can"—many are casting a cautious eye toward the future. As today's obese children grow up, rates may rise again.
Despite today's obesity epidemic, America's preoccupation with fat is not new—it stretches back over a century, during which time it has evolved in tandem with political and popular culture. A trip back through the Atlantic archives offers some revealing insights into American body politics.
America's weight consciousness probably emerged in the 1890s, when the excesses of the Gilded Age spawned consumer guilt, causing conspicuous gluttony to go out of style. Scholars have traced to this time the first known pairing of the words "fat" and "slob." Thinness became not only a fashion statement, but also a sign of virtue.
Those who could not lose that well-fed look eventually grew tired of hiding under tight vests and corsets, and clothing manufacturers recognized a new niche. In 1919 an anonymous Atlantic writer was astounded to come across a ladies' dress advertisement celebrating "Stylish Stouts"—an early example of plus-size fashions. It was only an ad, but the jubilant writer saw in it the dawn of a new era, "an epochal adjustment of fashion to fact." He declared, "The anti-fat nostrum, the recipes for rolling, the panting mountain climb, all the many-doctored advice, all the beauty-parlor pummeling—all this is obsolete, for obesity has come into its own.
On further contemplation, the writer noticed more evidence of feminine stoutness coming into vogue. Novelists were beginning to introduce plump heroines, for example. This he took to be a sign that Westerners were finally catching up to "the Orientals," who had long held that the obese make for more pleasant company. "Knowing that fat women are good to live with," he claimed, "the harem husband long ago persuaded himself and the ladies that they are equally good to look at."
But the writer complained of an unfortunate double standard: portly men still were not getting their share of respect. He speculated that this was a particularly American hang-up. "This ideal of masculine slimness," he wrote, "is explained by our fondness for thinking of our men as lean wrestlers with frontier conditions, for the fact of the frontier is still a pleasant figment of our fancy." He was optimistic nevertheless that "in due time the fat man, like the fat woman, [will] be made heroic in fiction and fashion-plate."
Fat turned out to be more than a fashion issue, however. By mid-century, the health risks of obesity were well publicized. In the prosperous years after World War Two, when fast food appeared and the only frontiersmen left in America were the ones riding their Buicks along the interstate to pioneer suburbia, obesity began to reach epidemic proportions. In his first year in the White House, John F. Kennedy was so concerned about the flabby state of the nation that he formed the President's Council on Physical Fitness and appealed to Americans to get in shape as a matter of patriotic duty. In 1961, Frank R. Neu, public relations director for the American Dairy Association, joined in the campaign with a public interest announcement alarmingly titled, "WE MAY BE SITTING OURSELVES TO DEATH."
Neu's message was couched in Cold War rhetoric:
There is a note of urgency behind this latest call of action to build physical fitness. At a time when the nation faces a growing need for strength in its people as well as in its machines, the record for physical fitness is not one to be proud of.
One of every two Americans called for Army duty was being rejected due to "physical, mental or moral unfitness," Neu pointed out.
Neu proceeded with a scathing description of a day in the life "Mr. Joe Citizen, middle class suburban dweller." Driving, sitting behind a desk, overeating, and TV-watching were the primary activities of the slothful Joe. His most strenuous exercise consisted of the occasional game of golf, assisted by an electric cart.
Neu admonished Americans of all ages to eat nutritionally, exercise daily, and drink lots of milk, not merely in order that they might "stand around on the beach in very brief leopard skins to be admired by one and all," but because "all of us certainly owe it to our communities and to our nation's future to give much more than lip service to President Kennedy and those he has designated to develop better and sensible physical fitness programs."
Was slimming down through exercise and diet really the best Cold War strategy for U.S. citizens? At least one American thought not. In 1962, a young writer named John Crawford submitted to The Atlantic "A Plea for Physical Fatness," in which he made the case that the best way to beat the Russians was to... outweigh them. Crawford's argument was pure logic: in order to win the hearts and minds of the people of the world away from communism, Americans would have to show them how good life was under capitalism.
How can we expect the world's starving masses to believe that a nation of emaciated people is as well off as it pretends to be? We seem to have forgotten that while obesity is the bane of modern America, it remains the ultimate symbol of happiness and security to that portion of mankind which goes to bed hungry every night.