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Stearns, founding editor of the Journal of Social History and a historian at Carnegie Mellon University (Millennium III, Century XXI, 1996, etc.) approaches our concern over personal poundage as a construct that, exceeding the demands of fashion or good health, can be understood only in larger cultural terms. We Americans relish the consumer goods with which we surround ourselves but feel a mite guilty about indulging in them. So we have contrived a way to—literally and figuratively—have our cake and eat it too: We diet. Focusing intensely on limiting caloric intake lets us feel virtuous and self-controlled even as we ignore our profligacy as consumers. We are not all equally affected; notably, from the 1920s to the 1960s "weight morality bore disproportionately on women precisely because of their growing independence, or seeming independence, from other standards." In France, the other society considered, Stearns does not detect a view of weight loss as a moral crusade or fat as an outward sign of guilt. For Americans, rewards (a better job or social life) will come when they become thin and healthy; for the French, being thin and healthy is the reward. Interesting as the cross-cultural comparison is, one senses that its neat findings slight some untidy questions. For example, why does Stearns focus on the gender of the target of antifat comments but not on that of their source? To what extent are unattainable standards of slenderness invaluable in allowing people to devote a portion of each crowded day to self- absorption? Does that count as an expression of guilt?
Those who agree with Stearns's premise from the first page will readily accept his illustrations as proof. Others may see this as an interesting study that suggests the complexity of a phenomenon more convincingly than it accounts for it.
"Stearns looks to explain why America is the fattest, and France the thinnest, nation in the West. In his view, 'dieting was ideally suited to an American need for an implicit but vigorous moral counterweight to consumer indulgence.' At the turn of the century, obesity was suddenly regarded as unhealthy and unpatriotic. Good American citizens should be fit, and a generation of fad diet experts sprung up to guide."
-Elaine Showalter,Times Literary Supplement
"Offers new, reliable information and insights."
"Explores the interaction of weight-control cultures with gender, class, and ethnicity issues. A meaty study of historical facts and fears about fat."
|Pt. I||American Fat|
|1||The Turning Point||3|
|2||The Medical Path: Physicians and Faddists||25|
|3||Fat as a Turn-of-the-Century Target: Why?||48|
|Pt. II||Intensification of the Culture, 1920-1990s: Expiation and Its Limits|
|4||The Misogynist Phase: 1920s-1960s||71|
|5||Stepping up the Pace: Old Motives, New Methods||98|
|6||Fat City: American Weight Gains in the Twentieth Century||127|
|Pt. III||The French Regime|
|7||The Evolution of Weight Control in France||153|
|8||The French Regime||187|
|9||Atlantic Crisscross: The Franco-American Contrasts||217|
|10||Conclusion: The Fat's in the Fire||247|