February
10th 2010
“Let’s Move” and the civilized American body of 2010

Posted under: American history, book reviews, childhood, class, the body

Does this washtub make me look fat?

Yesterday, Michelle Obama announced the “Let’s Move” initiative to end obesity in children.  And, as I mentioned in my previous post, I just finished reading Kathleen Brown’s Foul Bodies:  Cleanliness in Early America (2009), which is a fascinating exploration of ideas about cleanliness as well as the technologies and somatic experiences of cleanliness (or its absence) and how they change over time from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries.  I haven’t had the time to do a lot of reading on “Let’s Move,” but I’m already struck by how rhetoric about obesity today tracks with the same concerns 200 years ago about civilizing American bodies through cleanliness, and children’s bodies in particular.  It’s really uncanny.

Brown makes the point that nineteenth-century bourgeois reformers identified the clean body as a site of virtuous citizenship.  But of course clean clothing and clean bodies, and the means and ability to achieve them, were above all a marker of one’s class status, since it was only the middle-class who could afford to do laundry weekly (and/or have a “hired girl” in to do it), and only the wealthy who had running water, bathtubs, and the means to travel to fashionable spas for soaking in and drinking up healing mineral waters.  Brown also tracks the convergence in the later eighteenth century and early nineteenth century between discourses on spiritual or moral cleanliness, and bodily and household cleanliness.  Early in the nineteenth century particular attention was paid first to children’s bodies as an index of their mother’s moral worth, and then later in the century as the bodies of poor and/or immigrant children came into contact on a regular basis with the bodies of middle-class and even elite children in public schools. 

If we replace the words “unclean” with “fat,” and “cleanliness” with “thinness,” we’ll come very close to the rhetoric and language of the “Let’s Move” campaign.  Here are a few selections from Brown’s book with the relevant substitutions from page 327: 

The diverse cluster of meanings attached to the concept of cleanliness [thinness] by the 1840s [2010s] fitted it for multiple purposes and endowed it with moral force.  Attention to cleanliness [thinness] signified not only refinement and health but empowerment and responsibility for oneself.  The clean [thin] person who took care to live in a clean [thin] environment displayed agency, decency, and virtue, and could claim humanity in full.  In contrast, filth [fat] connoted vice, disease, and degredation. . . Few considered that city squalor and southern rural poverty made such standards impossible for the nation’s poorest citizens. . . .

Those who made it their mission to transform the bodily habits and living conditions of the allegedly unclean [fat] engaged in a dynamic process that was at once an act of distinction, humanitarian intervention, cultural imperialism, and intimate intrusion into the lives of others.  By making cleanliness [thinness] their mission, they announced their own bodily refinement and claimed the authority to set standards.  Privacy was the privilege of the indisputably clean [thin] who peered at the bed linens [clothing], dinner tables, and scalps [bodies] of those they aimed to reform.

Don't be greedy!

Melissa McEwan at Shakesville had some thought-provoking posts on ”Let’s Move” yesterday.  She regrets the campaign’s apparent mobilization of fat hatred–part I is here, and part II is here–and makes some excellent points about the structural and economic reasons for obesity in children.  It was her posts yesterday that got me thinking about the related discourses on dirt and fat.  Just read a little bit of the coverage, and you’ll see the intertwining of discourses on disease, morality, and self-sufficiency.

For example, ABC’s story talks about ”the American plague of childhood obesity.”  Obama herself uses the language of disease to describe obesity–she’s quoted in several media outlets saying, “This isn’t like a disease where we’re still waiting for the cure to be discovered. . . We know the cure for this.”  Another connection across the centuries is the rhetoric of (in Brown’s words, above) “empowerment and responsibility for the self.”  The Let’s Move website is full of “empowerment,”–for consumers, for parents, and for children themselves.  Similarly, Obama says that this initiative is not about ”having government tell people what to do. Instead, I’m looking at what we all can do.”  Another interesting connection is that the South was thought by Northerners to be full of dirty (and therefore unvirtuous) people in the antebellum period, and today the South is identified as the region of the U.S. that has the fattest citizens

Brown shows that the modern American body was born around the turn of the nineteenth century, but it appears that the variations on it are infinite.  A virtuous body is not just a clean body–it’s a body that conforms to a prescribed shape and size now, too.  Thin is (once again) not just “in,” but part of a new expression of virtuous citizenship. 

(Images from Child-land:  Picture Pages for the Little Ones,by Oscar Pletsch and M. Rictor, 1873)

47 Comments »

47 Responses to ““Let’s Move” and the civilized American body of 2010”

  1. Janice on 10 Feb 2010 at 3:39 pm #

    To be culturally acceptable, you should be clean, white, thin and hairless (except for an abundant mane of hair on top of your head).

    Now, I’m not yearning for the good old days when oil and a strigil were our preferred personal care devices, but it all does point at a wealth of leisure time and opportunities to maintain all of this, doesn’t it? If you’re riding the bus a lot or spending all your time caring for others, how much time, wealth and knowledge do you have to spend caring for your self?

  2. Matt L on 10 Feb 2010 at 4:19 pm #

    Good points Historiann, but there is another time horizon to add to this. I remember the early eighties and the Presidential Fitness Awards as a staple activity of my elementary school days.

    I think that if we pull on the threads, there are not only nineteenth century connections with cleanliness, but probably a good deal of carry over from the late Cold War too (see, Stanley Kubric, _Dr. Strangelove_, 1964).

  3. Historiann on 10 Feb 2010 at 4:28 pm #

    Janice & Matt–good points. I’m not arguing that there’s a direct line from 1810 to 2010 that we can trace, nor that there are no other influences in this modern concern with weight. I was just struck by the similarity in the rhetoric in the book to the rhetoric of “Let’s Move.” (Love the reference to oil and strigil–I thought Bath had a great public history installation/museum explaining and illustrating Roman and Antique body care!) Interestingly, hairlessness is something that goes in and out of fashion–and in the early Americas, it was Indians who were associated with hairlessness (and they found Europeans disgusting, “dog-men,” with their hairy faces, chests, and backs.)

    Another similarity: although today’s reformers use the gender-inclusive term “parent” to identify those most responsible for their children’s cleanliness/thinness or dirtiness/fatness, it’s clear that food and diet reflect more on mothers than on fathers. As in Brown’s book, in which women are responsible for all body work/intimate body care of family members, so women are of course more on the hook for this move towards diet reform in the U.S.

  4. the15th on 10 Feb 2010 at 5:43 pm #

    Awesome post, Historiann. I remember how during the Amanda Knox trial, her supposed lack of hygiene was mentioned, bizarrely, at every opportunity — the implication seemed to be that while she may seem high-class, and therefore morally pure, with her white skin and blond hair and upper-middle-income background, she’s actually nothing of the sort.

    Now that standards of housekeeping have relaxed somewhat, something has to take their place, and it seems to be standards for eating, exercise and body type. Are you eating every meal together as a family? Are you shopping only on the perimeter of the supermarket? Are you following Michael Pollan’s “food rules”? Are you making sure your kids play outside for hours? No, organized sports don’t count — they’re just another symptom of an “overscheduled” generation. Only forcing your children to go outside for totally spontaneous, unscheduled play counts.

    Actually, I’m not exactly sure how moral panics about “overscheduling” and “helicopter parents” fit into this, but I think it has something to do with trying too hard, the province of the upwardly mobile middle class, which is almost as bad as the slovenliness of the fat/unclean/poor. The truly upper-class don’t have to strive. Pollan’s bete noire, label-reading, vitamin-counting “nutritionism” — trying too hard. Eating “nothing your great-grandmother wouldn’t have recognized as food” — effortless. It’s not enough to get your family together for meals of exquisitely prepared fresh fruits and vegetables from the farmer’s market you walked to this morning; you have to do it without even realizing it’s work.

  5. Knitting Clio on 10 Feb 2010 at 5:59 pm #

    Since I work on the history of child health, I do need to point out that fears about disease are not entirely the product of cultural anxieties. Childhood mortality was high and cleanliness really did appear to reduce that.

    The problem with this initiative, and the childhood obesity program launched by Michelle Obama, is that the focus is on individual behavior rather than larger social forces that prevented people from following health advice. I suggest watching the movie “Food, Inc.” which shows why poor people have higher rates of obesity and diabetes — because they can’t afford to follow Pollan’s food rules. It’s cheaper to buy a bunch of burgers at the local fast food joint than to get vegetables and other wholesome foods at the supermarket. So, unless President Obama manages to get a major overhaul of U.S. agricultural policy passed (fat chance, being from Illinois, pun intended), then Michelle’s efforts will be for naught because junk will continue to cost less than stuff that’s good for you.

  6. truffula on 10 Feb 2010 at 5:59 pm #

    Cleanliness anecdote: Working far off the beaten track is an occasional component of my research enterprise, so far in the wilderness that we (small group, 4 or 5 people) go for weeks without thorough bathing. Basic hygiene is taken care of but one does develop a distinctive personal aroma, exotic hair style, and so on. I’m glad of a good hot soak when back in the embrace of civilization and I recognize the privilege involved in saying this, but: it is to me a wonderful liberty to go without for a while.

    A few weeks ago I was talking with a group of first graders at a private school about the nature of my field work and to my surprise, they were horrified, simply horrified, at the notion of making do without a shower. They were quite pleased with the idea of a pit toilet, once they had proof that hand sanitizer was part of the basic field kit, but no shower? Horrors! They have been well and truly inculcated into the cult of the obsessively clean. I find this very disconcerting.

  7. rootlesscosmo on 10 Feb 2010 at 6:00 pm #

    A friend (now deceased) neatly collapsed two 19th century ideologies into the phrase “If you give them the vote, they’ll only use it to keep coal in.”

  8. Knitting Clio on 10 Feb 2010 at 6:01 pm #

    P.S. another thought — during the early twentieth century, child welfare reformers were concerned about undernutrition. That’s why we have a school lunch program. The funny thing is that when I show modern students pictures of malnourished kids working in factories, they say, “wow, they’re so thin and healthy.”

  9. Historiann on 10 Feb 2010 at 7:15 pm #

    KC–that’s funny, but so, so sad too. Amazing.

    Thanks, all, for your comments. Truffula–I’m really surprised that first graders were squicked out by the concept of not bathing. (I’d think that would be appealing to both sexes until at least 5th grade, and to boys through junior high at least.) Poor kids–I guess they don’t go camping, much!

    Love this from the 15th: “you have to do it without even realizing it’s work.” Well, yes, perfect mothers find all of that work of locating and preparing fresh food a complete joy, as opposed to the rest of us, who’d just as soon shove a twinkie in the kid’s cake hole and be done with it! But, seriously, you raise a great point about the class dimensions of what’s defined as “work” and what’s supposed to be voluntary/pleasure on the part of the worker. Elite women, who have help around the house as well as more leisure time (whether they work for pay outside the home, or not) probably can feel a lot more relaxed about taking a few hours out of their days a few days a week to cook for their families. Others don’t have the luxury of schedule flexibility to do that.

    But, isn’t this also what all women’s work in the home and for their families is supposed to be? It’s not work at all!

  10. Comrade PhysioProf on 10 Feb 2010 at 7:25 pm #

    Few considered that city squalor and southern rural poverty made such standards impossible for the nation’s poorest citizens.

    This sentence really brought home for me how good your analogy is.

  11. chana on 10 Feb 2010 at 8:15 pm #

    Yeah, I noticed this right away, and it makes me really furious. The Obamas could, of course, devote some time and energy trying to address poverty, unemployment, places where kids can’t “just get out and exercise” because it’s not safe for them to play outdoors….but instead-let’s blame the poor! Let’s blame people of color! (NPR had a story on this in which they repeatedly talked about how large a percentage of Hispanic and African American women are obese, while totally ignoring the reasons why that might be the case). Meantime, Obama trundles along supporting a jobless recovery and shows no signs of paying attention to the real issues of employment in the US. Lalala. My one hope here (despite the fact that this whole thing is going to be a huge opportunity to tell people that everyone “could” be thin if they’d just try, is that Michelle Obama may be a bit less in the pocket of the corporations than her husband. One news report I heard did actually mention bringing farmers’ markets to “food deserts” where there are no grocery stores, and that access might actually be helpful to people.

  12. Emma on 10 Feb 2010 at 8:33 pm #

    then Michelle’s efforts will be for naught because junk will continue to cost less than stuff that’s good for you.

    Perfect “work” for the First Lady, then, unpaid useless virtue.

  13. Rad Readr on 10 Feb 2010 at 9:44 pm #

    Historiann, not sure about the slippage from M.O.s “combating obesity” to “thinness.” While the “Let’s Move” announcement does shift form “obesity” to 1/3 of kids are “overweight” (the latter not necessarily being obese), I don’t think this is promoting thinness. I agree with Knitting Clio that this program could focus more on social and economic forces rather than individual behavior, but I don’t think it’s about saying kids should be thin.

  14. Historiann on 10 Feb 2010 at 9:58 pm #

    Rad–I was torn between “fitness” and “thinness,” but there is no major initiative to improve the health of the apparently thin but secretly unhealthy. So, thinness isn’t probably the exact word, as you say, but I thought “fitness” was too morally weighted. (A lot of fit people aren’t necessarily “thin”–but posing “fitness” as the opposite of fatness or obesity erases that possibility.)

    I’m not against “thinness,” “fitness,” or bathing for that mattter. A lot of those children that moral reformers fixed on 200 years ago probably could have used a bath, and then some. And today, a lot of children have substandard diets and no access to safe places to play. I’m not disputing that–I’m just pointing out the rhetorical similarities in these movements, which use bodies (esp. children’s bodies) to engage in conversations about virtue and self-sufficiency (and its opposite, surrender to disease.)

  15. Indyanna on 10 Feb 2010 at 10:07 pm #

    I would sign on to RR’s and KC’s opinion. “Thin” has actual material/behavioral health issues connected to it just as obese does, whatever the cultural superstructure(s) or ideological purposes that may have attached to either or both. I thought that Hillary should have, as I now think Michelle Obama should, just go out and do some kick-ass legal practice, recusing wherever necessary. But, since the spousal position still seems almost constitutionally bound to traditional “first lady-work,” projects relating to promoting health of any sort seem like a basic plus, whatever the cost in weary rhetoric.

    The commentary and exegesis in the post is very good, though. Still haven’t read the underlying book.

  16. Comrade Svilova on 11 Feb 2010 at 12:13 am #

    If I may chime in on the use of the word “thin,” it seems that “thin” and “fat” both carry connotations that go beyond the actual state of the physical body; and in terms of the rhetorical similarities between then and now, “cleanliness” was once akin to godliness, indicating moral virtue and personal worth. Today it seems that “thin” carries those connotations more forcefully than “fit,” for the latter is more often used to address someone’s physical health rather than hir metaphysical worthiness.

    The health problems are real; conflating them with moral “problems” or questions of worthiness is disturbing…

  17. myiq2xu on 11 Feb 2010 at 12:20 am #

    Once upon a time being overweight was synonymous with wealth and “Reubenesque” was the standard of beauty.

    There was also a time when being tanned identified a person as someone who performed manual labor outdoors so the upper classes considered pale skin attractive.

    Standards of beauty and fashion reflect the values of the upper classes.

  18. Historiann on 11 Feb 2010 at 6:48 am #

    Thinking about changing standards of cleanliness, body size, and beauty–our contemporary era is one in which so many women are taught to want surgical intervention. It’s the water cure of today, but instead of traveling to Saratoga Springs or Battle Creek, the wealthy go to botox clinics, and buy silicone body parts to order.

    Another common theme: the medicalization of what’s perceived as good health.

  19. Historiann on 11 Feb 2010 at 6:56 am #

    And, re: Emma’s and Indyanna’s points about the decorative function of most First Lady projects: highly unfortunate, isn’t it? When Hillary Clinton was given some real work to do, people were up in arms about that–so she retreated into a more traditional role for the rest of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

    I had no illusions that M.O. would do anything untraditional. I think it must be intimidating in some ways to be the first non-white First Lady, especially with two school-aged children in the White House. On the other hand–if not now, when? It seems like the American people should grow up and either let First Ladies keep their day jobs and release them from any expectation of volunteer service to the government, or they should give them some real work to do. My guess is that the only way that the First Lady role will change is if/when it’s actually assumed by a First Man.

    It might be better in the long run for the President to be more like a congressperson, with hir family back home and the WH used as an office and place for entertaining, not as a “house” for the family. I know the security arrangements for this might be daunting–but then, the children in the WH now go to school 5 days a week, and they figure it out.

  20. perpetua on 11 Feb 2010 at 7:33 am #

    I have to say that I agree with everyone’s critiques of the Fit effort, in particular its failure to respond to larger issues of food production (which sadly includes food safety) and poverty/ the economics of food. I was impressed, however, earlier in the Obama presidency, by the weight that MO put on gardening – and not just gardening at the White House, but gardening in DC’s poorer neighborhoods, because clearly *basic access* to fresh fruits and vegetables is a huge issue with urban food consumption patterns. (And as part of this, efforts to get public schools to produce better, fresher, more nutritious food for students – focus on schools is one important way to take it off mothers.) I would be nice if these initially promising elements were made part of the larger movement.

    When oh when will we be able to drop any discussion of that insidious phrase “personal responsibility” from our political discourse! Dems, wake up! It was invented by Republicans! STOP USING THEIR DISCOURSE. Until you change this tendency you will always be reactive, unoriginal, and struggling to catch up.

    @ H – I completely agree that the president should be more like a congressperson – well, I like to think of it as more like a prime minister. European prime ministers’ families have significantly more privacy and their wives can work and lead normalish lives. But of course *Celebrity* is the key difference – we want our presidents to be a celebrity, and the European parliamentary system isn’t designed to give that much power (literal or symbolic) to their PMs.

  21. Paul on 11 Feb 2010 at 7:38 am #

    It seems to be a common theme in US history that a reform that is probably good overall (improved cleanliness or public education in the 19th and early 20th century, improved health and weight loss for many children today) also ends up being used for a more sinister purpose of imposing a dominant group’s cultural standards on everyone else and defining every other culture or subculture as inferior.

    Re: First Ladies always being expected to take on traditional roles rather than continue or expand their own careers, I also wonder if the first First Man will also be expected to do that, and if he doesn’t, if the expectation will be dropped for future presidential spouses both male and female. I remember hearing that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s husband is a professor who has continued his academic career, and in fact he has specifically refused to do interviews on the subject of “what’s it like to be the Chancellor’s husband” rather than his own work. On the other hand, the German Chancellor is the head of government but not the head of state, while the US President is both, so the Chancellor position has fewer ceremonial/symbolic/public relations duties, and probably less expectation of any Chancellor’s spouse to play a traditional public role.

  22. Indyanna on 11 Feb 2010 at 7:39 am #

    Oh my god, then the prez. would probably move into one of those hellish Capitol Hill batch-pads with some *actual* congressmen (maybe even Chuck Schumer) that would look like, well, like MY western whitehouse does some days, but hey, the national interest is not depending on that… Or, scenario two–a great way to get that non-partisan 60-vote fillibuster-proof margin– a bunch of actual purported Senators would get to move into the big place and take over the whole East Wing. This reverie is going nowhere good, and the snow has stopped. I have to go find that vacuum…

  23. Bookbag on 11 Feb 2010 at 7:52 am #

    Thanks for posting this, Historiann: I’d heard murmurs about some controversial First Lady initiative but didn’t know the details. I agree with Paul that it’s unfortunate that even well-meaning reform movements often have a dark underbelly. Maybe this initiative, limited and overly focused on the individual though it might be, will spark some kind of top-down reform involving agriculture, food deserts, and the other food source problems? Here’s hoping.

  24. Daniel S. Goldberg on 11 Feb 2010 at 8:54 am #

    Historiann,

    Some of this comes closer to my interests in the relationships between the history of disease (esp. chronic illness), the history of stigmatization, and the history of disability.

    I think you are correct to note the family resemblance between the discourse on fatness and the historic discourse on dirt and lack of cleanliness. In fact, Gard & Wright’s seminal 2005 interrogation of obesity talk includes several chapters in which they make some of the links you mention here. Moreover, one of the most fascinating questions here is the historical connection between illness and responsibility. Some illnesses feature a very tight link between these two notions, while others do not, and the reasons why we link sin and suffering is, I think, critical to understanding health and illness in society, and the pathologization of fatness along with it.

    (Thanks much for addressing this now, since I am teaching a unit on fatness next week. In the interests of utterly shameless self-promotion, you may or may not be interested in a brief discussion of some of these issues, and especially the social determinants of fatness, here).

  25. The Rebel Lettriste on 11 Feb 2010 at 9:53 am #

    There’s a line in the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales about the Prioress, a woman so elite that she feeds fine white bread (the absolute fanciest and most expensive kind) to her lapdogs. She is described as being “nat undergrowe,” or not undergrown.

    My students always think that this phrase is describing her boobs.

    They are shocked when I point out that, in medieval societies where food was difficult to come by, growth was frequently stunted. The poor looked different because as children they lacked food, and/or because their mothers hadn’t gotten enough to eat either. They were short, bow legged, deformed, their limbs twisted, because of nutritional deficiencies. The Prioress’ wealth and status is apparent in her proportional shape and height.

    I live in the fattest city in America, so the idea that wealth could correlate to larger bodily size is a revelation to my students.

    And living here, I lament the fact that “personal responsibility” constitutes the entire rhetoric around obesity. Let’s never actually discuss the horrific city planning that privileges automobiles over walking/biking/public transport, let’s ignore the crappy food shed and the food deserts in poor neighborhoods. Poor people just need to “move” more.

  26. Knitting Clio on 11 Feb 2010 at 9:58 am #

    I just went to the “Accessing Healthy and Affordable Food” section of the Let’s Move website and some of the issues I mentioned above are being addressed — e.g. the problem of “food deserts” where it’s impossible to get healthy food options. There is only one supermarket in the city of Hartford, it’s on the border with West Hartford, and difficult to get to without a car. So, many folks rely on convenience stores which seldom carry fresh fruits and vegetables.

  27. Cattyinqueens on 11 Feb 2010 at 10:10 am #

    I agree with a lot of the criticisms here, but like Knitting Clio, I also noticed the “Accessing Healthy and Affordable Food” section and think there is some important acknowledgement there that it’s not just about personal responsibility. Of course, the fact that the section is all the way over to the side of the page suggests that it’s less important than exercise or personal responsibility.

    Still, taking on how food works in schools could really do a lot for the country. I often feel grouchy that my building doesn’t have a vending machine in it, but then I remember days when my public schools didn’t have any access to junk food in the early 80s, and realize that presenting this kind of stuff as a “consumer option”–or worse, a “right”–for young people is just a terrible thing to do. On a college campus, it’s one thing, as we’re all adults at that point. But conflating the bad choice inherent in big agra/corn with choice, period, is part of why the republican shtick works so well. Any kind of governmental intervention into business and consumer habits gets pitched as socialism, of course, and though we tend to shake our heads at these fairly meager attempts at reform, I think we also have to remember the crazy that these people are up against when they present their agenda to the public.

  28. Historiann on 11 Feb 2010 at 11:20 am #

    Paul’s comment gets to the point of evangelism, which for me is the real issue. It’s why we should be modest in assuming that we have science, disease, and health all figured out, as opposed to those superstitious dummies of yesteryear.

    Daniel, thanks so much for stopping by again. I read your post on this–fascinating stuff. Here’s the nut, for those who might be interested:

    One of the most compelling criticisms of the lifestyle model of disease is not that it is false; but rather, it is incomplete inasmuch as it pays no attention to the ways in which social and economic conditions substantially determine one’s lifestyle choices. Even if we were to grant the exceedingly dubious proposition that fatness causes diabetes, drilling the causation down to individual lifestyle choices ignores, in my and many others’ views, the robust evidence that lifestyles are primarily the product of social and economic conditions (the social determinants of health).

    But, of course, treating the social and economic conditions of people’s lives is difficult and expensive, whereas telling them to get off their butts and to eat more fresh foods is a lot cheaper and easier. This is not a criticism of Michelle Obama–but rather of the genre of advocacy that she’s limited to. But, the American people are unwilling to tolerate a First Lady with a real budget and real authority–so we get what we deserve.

    (And by “we,” I mean all of us, but only some people’s bodies will be subjected to scrutiny. So far, I have a thin and healthy body–but that will change, later if not sooner. All of us, if we’re fortunate enough to make it to old age, will eventually have imperfect bodies that will be subject to more scrutiny and more invasion by others. Memento mori, my friends.)

  29. Fat is the new dirty « The Confluence on 11 Feb 2010 at 11:51 am #

    [...] Historiann discusses the new the “Let’s Move” initiative by Michelle Obama to end obesity in children: I haven’t had the time to do a lot of reading on “Let’s Move,” but I’m already struck by how rhetoric about obesity today tracks with the same concerns 200 years ago about civilizing American bodies through cleanliness, and children’s bodies in particular. It’s really uncanny. [...]

  30. John S. on 11 Feb 2010 at 12:03 pm #

    Historiann–for my part, I am *hoping* to make it until old age until my body is subject to more scrutiny and invasion. Which is to say: I am currently employed and have a pretty generous plan through my university. Were I ever in the position where I had to purchase my own coverage, however, the “pre-existing condition” flags would go up for insurance providers, making my life difficult. Without too much detail, I’ll say that my issues aren’t related to weight–the specific topic here–but they can be seen as having strong “lifestyle” or behavioral components.

    So I do have these persistent worries about being “blamed” for my health in ways that I see as very suspect, especially when that blame may express itself as denial of coverage, an excuse to hike up rates, etc. I apologize that this is slightly OT, but I do see this thread as part of a larger discourse about personal responsibility and health that can be threatening when you’re the one who’s been “irresponsible.”

  31. Historiann on 11 Feb 2010 at 12:11 pm #

    John–not o/t at all. That’s where I was going with the last paragraph in my last comment. I meant to include a link to this post, which is about why single-payer universal health care is the only just system. All others discriminate on the basis of wealth and health (the insidious “pre-existing condition” b.s.)

    Having a body is a pre-existing condition, because all bodies are doomed to fail, eventually. It’s all a part of the same conversation with blaming the unwashed and the fat for their poor health. There is no health, diet, or exercise regimine that will stave off disability or death indefinitely.

  32. Indyanna on 11 Feb 2010 at 12:36 pm #

    Like John S., I also have a “pretty generous plan…” provided by my employer, etc., but I also recall my former Dean, when ze interviewed me (and the pro-forma fifteen minutes with the Dean here is an actual hour +, with hir associate deans tag-teaming in and out, wish they told me that…) cackling and saying, “this good coverage won’t last out your time here…” It has, but like the Edict of Nantes, it’s being pared back.

    Now we have an idiotic interventionist regime cutesily called “Healthy U” (sic). To even begin it, which limits your co-pays and contributions, you have to log on and “Take the Pledge…” Talk about paternalism. To log on you have to jump through about fifteen hoops on a crazed corporate homepage. Since we have two days off because of snow I decided to take the plunge and “Take the Pledge” (r) last night. And I almost lost it in silicon Thrombosis Alley. I still haven’t gotten through, my “account [is] suspended,” and who knows when this state (sic) will open back up for business. Once you’ve Taken the Pledge, (r) , you can join a gym for 30 points, but you have to “log” individual workouts. You can see your doctor for 30 more points, but if ze recommends certain screenings, you… cycle back to the beginning of the line and “Take the Pledge…” (r)

    So, Historiann and John S. (and others) are right. “Personal Reponsibility” (r) is comin’ to get your Momma” ™.

    And the effing union AGREED to all this!!!

  33. KC on 11 Feb 2010 at 1:08 pm #

    In theory, shouldn’t reducing childhood obesity cut down on health-care costs? It seems like a pretty major issue to me. Every time I travel abroad, I’m always struck when I come back to the States by how obese a country the U.S. has become. I’m sure that my judgments tie into the historical trajectories that center around class and hygiene, as Historiann’s OP argues, but nonetheless, my judgments remain.

    I tend to think that the kind of “boutique” projects that First Ladies have taken on over the years can have a pretty big impact, long term, on the culture if they are marketed well. And targeting children is the best way to make that happen, so at first sight this looks like a pretty smart idea to me.

  34. thefrogprincess on 11 Feb 2010 at 1:46 pm #

    But KC, targeting children is all well and good but it’s to no avail if when they grow up, they’re completely dependent on their cars to get around because there’s no decent public transit. I lose weight too when I go to Europe, through no massive endeavors of my own, but just because I’m walking to bus stops and subway stations or walking down the street to the nearest cafe, not walking to and from my car.

    Targeting children is all well and good but it matters little if their parents don’t have the time or money or car to go to stores that sell fresh produce. There was a great Washington Post article last year about how expensive it is to be poor in time and money. No matter how you slice it, fresh produce is more expensive than processed foods (because the way the government subsidizes corn makes it so) and when money’s tight and you’ve got mouths to feed, you’re going where your money gets the most. And if you have to take a few buses to get to the grocery store, that’s hours of time you don’t have.

    Not to mention the fact that surely some of the reasons people are obese or otherwise unhealthy is due to a lack of access to proper medical care and the benefits of having a long-term relationship with your family physician. Oh wait, two-thirds of our doctors are specialists, a ratio that is reversed everywhere else in the world.

    Yeah, obesity is a serious problem. But if we’re honest, the reason people care about obesity is because they don’t like to look at fat people. If we as a society cared about the health issues of being overweight, we’d do more than tell children to move more. We’d make sure recess didn’t get cut, fresh produce was cheaper than Doritos, everybody could see a doctor, and there were decent public transit networks that make walking a part of daily life.

  35. HealthyFit on 11 Feb 2010 at 2:32 pm #

    Obesity is an actual problem, but its opposite is not “thinness,” it is being fit, or at least a healthy weight. So the corresponding virtue of “cleanliness” is not “thinness,” it’s a healthy body weight. It is so easy to attack “being thin” as a false virtue, which is what I see in this article.
    If we were a nation of anorexics, of course health advocates wouldn’t be pushing obesity as a “cure,” just as they are not advocating “thinness” as a “cure” for obesity.
    It seems like you’re blaming them for urging obese people to get fit, as if it’s a prescribed notion for how to be, when it’s not. It’s being urged for health reasons: Being fit as opposed to being obese is objectively healthier for the individual. Our society is made up of individuals, so the healthier each person is, the healthier we all are.
    That being said, healthy, “fit” people can be horrible, disgusting people too. Not always, but they can be.

  36. Historiann on 11 Feb 2010 at 2:34 pm #

    KC–I meant to say this earlier, but you’re making great points, and I’m grateful that you stopped by to comment on this, because you’re much more of an expert than I am on all of these issues! I don’t think Michelle Obama’s initiative is a bad one or a good one–it just is. (And I can think of worse ones. She has worked to highlight getting fresh food into city neighborhoods, which is all to the good.)

    Children are targeted by reformers everywhere, for the past 200 years or so, because 1) they can’t vote, and 2) they are captives of our system of free public education until they’re 16 (or so, in most school districts.) I live in a state that specializes in passing laws that apply only to those who can’t vote, which strikes me as the most chicken$hit way to legislate. (For example: our new law banning phone use while driving only covers people under age 18. Weak!)

    This is exactly it, thefrogprincess: “If we as a society cared about the health issues of being overweight, we’d do more than tell children to move more. We’d make sure recess didn’t get cut, fresh produce was cheaper than Doritos, everybody could see a doctor, and there were decent public transit networks that make walking a part of daily life.

    But, that would take effort and MONEY. Benevolent education by volunteer ladies is low-cost, and it mostly involves bossing around the poor without giving them any meaningful help in following instructions.

  37. Historiann on 11 Feb 2010 at 2:42 pm #

    HealthyFit said: “Obesity is an actual problem. . . “

    Well, it may be, but Daniel’s comment above suggests that we should be cautious about many of the claims made about the connections between fat and disease.

    I addressed above the reason I chose to use the term “thinness” instead of “fitness.” Neither word is perfect. The poverty of our language on this issue may be telling.

  38. Daniel S. Goldberg on 11 Feb 2010 at 3:13 pm #

    We should indeed be cautious about drawing the connections, because the causal (as opposed to correlative) connections between fatness and chronic illness are vastly more complicated than professional and lay discourse typically allows. There are millions of fat people who will never develop chronic illness, millions of skinny people who will, and our ability to distinguish across and between populations of fat and skinny persons is generally quite poor.

    This is not to argue that fatness is good for one’s health, per se — although there is an increasing body of evidence suggesting that increased adiposity may have a protective effect in some groups — but rather to highlight Gard & Wright’s claim that the connections between obesity and illness are marked by significant uncertainty. Uncertainty in and of itself is no sin — quite the contrary — but there is excellent evidence that causal uncertainty is generally poorly tolerated within the American culture of biomedicine, and there is even better evidence that such uncertainty is only thinly represented in lay media and even in professional public health discourse on the subject.

    This latter point invites the question that, if our comprehension of the links between obesity (itself a rapidly moving target, as Eric Oliver has shown) and illness are fraught with uncertainty and confusion, why it might be that these elements are not remotely representative of cultural discourse on the subject. Gard & Wright argue that much of it is ideological in nature, although I think a great deal of important work remains to be done in unpacking why the “epidemic” nature of obesity (itself an obviously freighted term) is taken as a given in lay and professional discourse.

    Sorry for threadjacking, Historiann.

  39. Historiann on 11 Feb 2010 at 3:46 pm #

    Daniel–please, no apologies necessary! This is right on point. We invest supernatural goodness in the things of which we approve (thinness, or “fitness”) and we ascribe all manner of evil to the things of which we disapprove, as a culture (fatness, obesity).

    Interesting point about the word “epidemic” in describing obesity. As though it’s contagious–and isn’t that what all of the reformers fear? That they might succumb to fatness, too?

    Here’s something else I wonder about: how much of fat hating is really a projection of a kind of self-loathing? My guess is quite a lot.

  40. Rosa on 12 Feb 2010 at 8:56 am #

    With the cleanliness changes – did the campaign to convince mothers come before or after public water lines and public school health officials? Did people turn around and use the rhetoric of cleanness to get public systems built? I can see using the anti-obesity rhetoric to get things that actually are good for kids (safe parks, crossable streets, more recess, enough time to actually eat their lunches). The food deserts and work hours so long nobody can cook aren’t going to change for adults, though.

    I have a young underweight child – so underweight he’s had several full batteries of medical testing to figure out why. I get a LOT of compliments from parents who think I must be controlling his eating well (I’m not) and non-parents who see so much obsessive veggies-and-whole-grains-only parenting that they compliment me for letting my kid eat. We were at a party last week and my kid had a piece of cake and several people said how great I was for letting him eat cake. Tomorrow we are going to a child’s birthday party where there will be fat-free angel food cake with unsugared fruit.

    It’s clearly a class thing. The urban professionals we hang with eat only the foods that my small-town working-class family members kids don’t eat.

  41. Kelly on 12 Feb 2010 at 1:39 pm #

    Marie Griffith’s book, _Born Again Bodies_ (UC Press, 2005) explores the religious and moral emphasis on thinness in American culture. Her last couple of chapters are particularly good on the equation of white, thin bodies with morally pure bodies and the understanding that fat is often coded as sinful. This might be an interesting book to pair with the one you reviewed here Historiann.

    This might be a little late, but I thought it might be worthwhile to understand how this language often contains religious dimensions, too.

  42. Historiann on 12 Feb 2010 at 3:34 pm #

    Kelly–thanks for stopping by to comment. That sounds like a terrific book to pair with Brown’s book. Thanks so much for the suggestion!

  43. Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » Virtuous Versus Disgusting Bodies, Then And Now on 13 Feb 2010 at 9:42 pm #

    [...] Historiann makes the most interesting comment I’ve seen on Michelle Obama’s dreadful anti-fat “Let’s Move” campaign, pointing out parallels to 18th century cleanliness campaigns: …nineteenth-century bourgeois reformers identified the clean body as a site of virtuous citizenship. But of course clean clothing and clean bodies, and the means and ability to achieve them, were above all a marker of one’s class status, since it was only the middle-class who could afford to do laundry weekly (and/or have a “hired girl” in to do it), and only the wealthy who had running water, bathtubs, and the means to travel to fashionable spas for soaking in and drinking up healing mineral waters. Brown also tracks the convergence in the later eighteenth century and early nineteenth century between discourses on spiritual or moral cleanliness, and bodily and household cleanliness. Early in the nineteenth century particular attention was paid first to children’s bodies as an index of their mother’s moral worth, and then later in the century as the bodies of poor and/or immigrant children came into contact on a regular basis with the bodies of middle-class and even elite children in public schools. [...]

  44. Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » It’s not OK on 14 Feb 2010 at 1:49 am #

    [...] Michelle Obama’s crusade against childhood obesity. My favourite response to this was from a feminist historian. But I’m not even capable of that sort of rational analysis, because there’s only one [...]

  45. links for 2010-02-14 « Embololalia on 14 Feb 2010 at 11:05 am #

    [...] “Let’s Move” and the civilized American body of 2010 : Historiann : History and sexual politic… Brown makes the point that nineteenth-century bourgeois reformers identified the clean body as a site of virtuous citizenship. But of course clean clothing and clean bodies, and the means and ability to achieve them, were above all a marker of one’s class status, since it was only the middle-class who could afford to do laundry weekly (and/or have a “hired girl” in to do it), and only the wealthy who had running water, bathtubs, and the means to travel to fashionable spas for soaking in and drinking up healing mineral waters. Brown also tracks the convergence in the later eighteenth century and early nineteenth century between discourses on spiritual or moral cleanliness, and bodily and household cleanliness…. If we replace the words “unclean” with “fat,” and “cleanliness” with “thinness,” we’ll come very close to the rhetoric and language of the “Let’s Move” campaign. (tags: bodypolitics:fat society history obamaadministration obamafamily class) [...]

  46. america adrift : Drug use at the academy on 18 Feb 2010 at 6:53 am #

    [...] Along this vein, the always provocative Historiann recently took up a similar discussion spring-boarding from Kathleen Brown’s, Foul Bodies: [...]

  47. Fat is the new crack : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 24 Mar 2010 at 5:44 am #

    [...] I wrote here last month about the disturbing similarities in the rhetoric of cleanliness, civic virtue, and individual moral worth at the turn of the nineteenth century compared to our modern rhetoric about fat, virtue, and morality.  It looks to me like the popular media are just refreshing another stereotype and, replacing “crack” with “fat” to blame women–especially poor women–for deploying their uteri against their children yet again.  As the FAIRblog said about the “crack baby” craze, The saddest part: Early on, researchers recognized that the social stigma attached to being identified as a “crack baby” could far outweigh any biological impact. The Times piece underscores that, with a source who says, “Society’s expectations of the children and reaction to the mothers are completely guided not by the toxicity but by the social meaning” of the drug. [...]

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