Weight of the Nation
In 2010 First Lady Michelle Obama announced a national weight loss and fitness initiative called "Let's Move." The public health project encouraged increased nutrition education and labeling as well as changes to school lunches. It emphasized cooperation between schools, corporations, celebrities, and government. Almost immediately, the initiative came under sharp criticism. Fox News correspondent Sean Hannity said the program was "taking the nanny state to a new level." "Michelle Obama," he explained, "is suggesting what you should feed your children." On another television show that night, outspoken conservative Glenn Beck also sounded off on the initiative. Sure, it seemed like it was just a suggestion now, but Beck insisted such a plan would eventually become coercive. When people continued to make bad choices despite federal suggestions, he reasoned, "now you have to start thinking about punishments. Maybe a fine, maybe even jail." The road to the french fry police, he explained, "always starts with a nudge."
Glenn Beck's concern about so-called government nudges was pointed. At the time, Cass Sunstein, President Barack Obama's regulatory czar, was working to make nudging central to administration policy. In 2008 Sunstein had coauthored a book, Nudge, in which he argued that most people do a poor job of making their own decisions on everything from health to finances to the environment. Sunstein advocated managing citizens' choices through what he called "libertarian paternalism." This meant nudging people, or changing the way different choices were presented in ways that would encourage citizens to make more desirable choices while still letting them believe they were choosing freely. President Obama appointed Sunstein to head the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs; Glenn Beck labeled him "the most dangerous man in America."
At the heart of the controversy over "Let's Move" and government nudging was a larger debate about the proper boundaries of state power. The body is often imagined as too intimate or too private a matter for regulation. Indeed, such body projects involving the government are often hotly contested, whether they concern abortion, maternity care, smoking, or disability. American physique and related matters like diet and physical activity fall into this category. Over the course of the twentieth century, policy questions ranging from physical standards to nutrition guidelines have helped make the shape, size, and development of a person's body an object of government regulation. These body projects belie the idea of any clear boundary between the public and private or the personal and political.
This book centers on the physical bodies of citizens and the government efforts meant to reshape those bodies. From federal research on working-class dietary needs to programs for measuring and weighing children in the 1920s, and from physical standards for soldiers during World War II to Cold War school fitness programs, there is a rich history of the political uses of physique. I place cases of government intervention into bodies into a century-long narrative. This is a history of federal governance that infuses political history with cultural and social history, gender and sexuality, and the body itself. In the process, I draw attention to the body as both an instrument and an object of public policy. This allows us to see state power at work in unexpected ways.
Most government projects designed to shape American bodies were part of what I call the advisory state. Advisory state projects are instituted through neither physical force nor legal obligation. I conceptualize the advisory state as both a repertoire of governing tools, such as quantification, advertising, and voluntary programming, and the actual implementation of these tools with the aim of encouraging citizens to engage in behaviors that cannot be explicitly legislated within the American political context. The advisory state is subtle but powerful.
While state interest in weight and physique has been a constant for the last hundred years in the United States, the implementation of such policy has varied over time along a spectrum from the understated nudge to the coercive prod. In the modern context, these advisory state approaches to monitoring citizen physique appeared around World War I. Progressive Era nutrition science and increased attention to low-income Americans' food choices were mobilized around physique when the United States entered the war. The Children's Bureau used the context of anxiety over military unfitness to propel programs that encouraged mothers to weigh and measure their children and use the new height-weight tables to assess the children's health. World War I brought attention to military unfitness, and spurred efforts to improve the bodies of future generations. That goal, alongside the fact that already existing child health projects could be easily adapted, made an advisory approach ideal in this moment.
While this advisory approach worked in the 1910s and 1920s, in the following decades economic depression and another world war changed the landscape for American body projects. During the Great Depression, low-income young men who enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps experienced a more intensive state management of weight and physique than previous civilians. Since these men were welfare clients, and since state expansion was somewhat normalized through the New Deal, the agency had a lot of leeway in monitoring these men's bodies without it appearing to be federal overreach. The context of World War II then allowed for an even greater expansion of federal management of physique, this time through the Selective Service. Since the Selective Service was a draft system, both men who did and men who did not want to participate now found that they were part of a federal body project. This World War II moment transcended the gentle arm of the advisory state. The physical examinations had material consequences for the young men on the scale. While there was some discontent with the Selective Service and the draft, for the most part the context of war emergency, and vastly increased federal spending and power, meant that this unusual, aggressive federal body project raised few eyebrows.
After World War II, however, the "hot war" context gave way to an extended Cold War. While the desire for strong men was as intense as ever, the changing political context necessitated a move back to gentler advisory state mechanisms for managing physique. The President's Council on Youth Fitness became an exemplary body project of the early years of the Cold War—years when federal power continued to grow in many arenas while, at the same time, the shadow of the U.S.S.R. convinced Americans to fear a powerful centralized government. As a result, the President's Council on Youth Fitness of the 1950s and 1960s encouraged fitness through a revival of advisory work. These body projects relied on relatively informal structures and voluntary efforts, with an emphasis on public service announcements, celebrity endorsements, and noncompulsory fitness tests.
As the President's Council for Youth Fitness expanded the role of the advisory state in the lives of middle-class youth in the 1960s, other federal agencies began more aggressive body projects focused on low-income children. It was in this period that the nation rediscovered extreme poverty, and as criticism of government intensified over the course of the 1960s, the image of the emaciated black body came to symbolize the limits of existing social policy. Amid that critique, left-leaning politicians came to embrace an expansion of food aid in the late 1960s. By the 1970s, however, this fueled the political project of increased control over welfare clients' diet and physique. While food aid expansions of the late 1960s offered material aid with limited control, by the early 1970s programs like WIC (the Supplemental Food for Women, Infants, and Children program) suggested the physiques of low-income Americans ought to be addressed through advice, not material aid. Liberals and conservatives alike argued that low-income Americans, especially mothers, were irrational consumers. Echoing the nutrition science arguments at the turn of the century, the dietary choices poor women made on behalf of their families were once again on trial. Building on previous twentieth-century body projects, WIC adopted advisory state techniques and then added a degree of force and compulsion not found in programs aimed at middle-class Americans. Advisory techniques of governance were applied regularly in modern American politics, and we must recognize their role. At the same time, we must also recognize that, by design, body projects were not applied consistently or equally.
Concern over body image and physique has a long history in the United States. Late nineteenth-century dieting often focused on improving male bodies, alongside improving male financial and social status. In 1863 William Banting published A Letter on Corpulence. The pamphlet advocated limiting bread, sugar, and beer for rapid weight loss (four to five glasses of wine a day, though, was fine). Middle- to upper-class men increasingly fought body fat in the late nineteenth century, associating it with femininity and a lack of self-control. At the same time, plumpness was valued in women of the same socioeconomic class. Victorian women were encouraged to have curvier figures, and the corset reigned supreme. The famous Gibson Girl of the early 1900s offered a thinner but softer bodily aesthetic, although she showed more skin than the Victorian woman. This ideal for women's bodies had shifted by the early 1910s, as women's magazines, advertising, and silent films began adopting a thinner female form. Once the flapper ideal emerged in the 1920s, the growth of off-the-rack (rather than tailored) clothing necessitated size and measurement standards, and ultimately defined some bodies as normal and others as abnormal. It was in this context that a commercial weight loss industry emerged, selling diet advice, cigarettes, and magic cures. Dieting became a rite of passage for adolescent girls and twenty-something women, an obsession that intensified over the course of the century as diet plans, fads, and foods exploded in popularity. This history of the popular promotion of diet is critical to understanding American bodies, but the emphasis on it tends to obscure the role of the state in shaping those bodies, too. Governing Bodies works from existing cultural and social histories of dieting and weight, but differs from them in its focus on the political and policy dimensions of such body projects.
This is the story of why the federal government cares about weight and muscles and of the mechanisms through which it regulates them. It is the story of which bodies it cares about, which bodies seem in need of regulation at which moments, and which bodies go untouched. Above all, it is a story about redefining what we understand as politics. In this story, federal agencies, voluntary organizations, politicians, and ordinary citizens take center stage in efforts to shape the American physique. Readers should note that this is not the story of all body projects undertaken in the twentieth century. For example, I do not discuss food rationing, pure food and drug laws, water fluoridation, or mandates to enrich foods with vitamins. Nutrition, enrichment, rationing, and public health all certainly have an indirect impact on the shapes and sizes American bodies take. Rationing might whittle away at a citizen's waistline, while milk supplemented with Vitamin D might increase skeletal development in youth. For my purposes, I have chosen to focus on those body projects in which physique was a stated and central concern of policy makers. Sometimes the justifications were related to the military, other times to public health and nutrition, and still others to social welfare. The thread I follow across this varied terrain is that of a stated, central concern for physique during policy debates.
The subtlety of state behavior has become a topic of greater interest in political history over the past decade. Historians and political scientists have revealed a hidden state that has influenced everything from security, to transportation, to tax cuts, to trade: all federal interventions critical to American development yet often overlooked. Scholars have looked at the way different levels of government operate, at the voluntary state that has relied on the unpaid labor of women's clubs, schools, and charities, and at the public-private and often improvisational organization of the modern state. Recognizing the hidden, voluntary, and public-private aspects of the American state expands our understanding of the meaning and means of federal governance, and the interdependence of state and society. Advice, standards, and outsourced government must be understood in conversation with one another, and as part of a single conversation about state development. Ultimately, paying attention to advisory state projects shows the inadequacy of big government versus small government models of state capacity and models of state power that assume a simple dichotomy between choice and coercion.
In chronicling the advisory state, I draw from the literatures on weight and physique culture, biopolitics, and feminist body history, while insisting on their connection to policy, politics, and American state development. Recognizing the connection between the realm of governance and the realm of culture obliges us to refocus our ideas about how federal policy-making works. Policies and projects of the advisory state are not peripheral but are in fact central to modern governance. Sometimes federal body projects related to weight and physique were subtle or indirect. Sometimes they were more aggressive. The implementation of such policies varied widely by era, by agency, and by policy subject. One needs an advisory state during peacetime to accustom citizens to the more intensive body projects of wartime, for instance. This book considers a range of state interventions into physique, as those interventions moved along the spectrum between the subtle and the aggressive, and as citizens maneuvered their physical bodies through the apparatus of the state.
That apparatus took many forms, but one regular feature of advisory state body projects was a reliance on the authority of numbers and quantification. Height-weight statistics, physical standards, and scale readings offered an aura of unassailable truth to political ideas about the body. Statistics gave the appearance of objectivity, of making knowledge seem neutral. The use of standards conjured the image of a rational, organized project. When height-weight standards were invoked to determine whether or not a body was war-ready or work-ready, the assessment appeared to be expert, above the fray of opinion and bias. In this regard, I use weight and related health data as evidence like any other historical evidence, but I do not accept that there was a single, stable scientific or medical concept of physique that ever existed (or that exists today) outside of politics. This distinction is critical in assessing the history of weight and physique for its larger political meaning.
The federal reliance on quantification was especially important when tied to another tool of the advisory state, maternalism. The nurturing roles accepted by most American women in the first half of the twentieth century, whether through motherhood and wifehood or through the caring professions such as teaching and nursing, made women useful allies. Wrapping state body projects in gendered, maternal language made certain advisory projects possible, normalizing everything from scientific meal planning to child measurement. Mothers, wives, nurses, and teachers were called on to monitor bodies and implement legislated health standards, while making American body projects seem apolitical and personal. When agencies asking women to monitor bodies relied on numerical standards for that monitoring, they simultaneously heightened the apparent importance of women's labor by making it more scientific and decreased anxieties about shifting health monitoring from expert to lay hands by emphasizing the seeming objectivity of numbers. When lay women engaged with these health projects, their involvement was technically voluntary labor, but it was voluntary within a system of gendered political power undergirded with powerful languages of medical and professional expertise. In such a system, women's so-called voluntary political participation was often obligatory.
Although female actors are at the heart of the maternalist component of this advisory state story, adult female bodies were rarely the ones being measured and monitored. Following decades of feminist scholarship on the body, it may seem strange that a study of weight, shape, and physique in the United States is heavily focused on male bodies. While other aspects of women's bodies, especially anything related to reproduction, have long been monitored and managed by state entities, women's body weight only developed as a serious state concern when participation in the paid workforce became permanent for large numbers of white middle-class women, roughly in the early 1960s. The story of twentieth-century advisory state body projects, perhaps surprisingly, is a story of primarily male bodies. Male bodies were more present in the public gaze and in public roles in the first half of the twentieth century. At the very least, publicly laboring and militarized bodies were imagined as male, even when they were not actually all male. These imagined male citizen bodies became the objects of advisory state body projects with far greater frequency than female bodies did.
The fact that male bodies, usually white male bodies, are so often the object of government interest is evidence of how important both masculinity and heteronormativity have been to the modern state. American masculinity has long been grounded in the ideals of independence, autonomy, and self-reliance. With these ideals, white men differentiated themselves from white women, who were increasingly defined as both selfless and dependent in the early nineteenth century. These ideals also served to reinforce heteronormativity, which has been imagined by some as a building block of society and is embedded in many state policies and institutions, from marriage to breadwinner wages to immigration policy. As a result, for much of the twentieth century, the federal government has maintained its investment in at least the appearance of the heteronormative family unit, which has compounded the state compulsion to manage and monitor sexuality alongside masculinity. With the critical exception of the draft, political interventions designed to repair American manhood—to improve laborers, providers, or soldiers—could not be too aggressive without undermining autonomy, heteronormativity, and independence as central tenets of white masculinity.
The importance of highlighting male autonomy while initiating body projects was not only about masculinity and heteronormativity, but also about emphasizing the value of certain types of bodies to the nation. As historians of disability have found, normative American masculinity is deeply tied to ideals of the male body. While those ideals have changed over time, the notion that a man must be able-bodied to function as a breadwinner has deep roots. That man's status as a useful citizen might also be tied to his earning potential, in ways that favor the able-bodied man as a more competent citizen than a man unable to materially provide for a family. Anxieties about improving the physical body of the breadwinner regularly channeled fears of dependency. Whether dependent on the state or on other family members, whether barred from factory labor, the military, or white-collar work, the man with a physical disability appeared unable to fulfill the obligations of the autonomous breadwinner. As a result, state agencies concerned with these bodies had to intervene to protect or improve male bodies without appearing to threaten men's autonomy and independence.
At the same time, otherwise able-bodied male citizens could also be subjected to the methods of the advisory state—especially when claims of medical objectivity undergirded those methods. From advice about what wives and mothers should feed these men to standards defining the proper male body, the advisory state chose at different moments from an arsenal of quiet methods. These techniques often shaped a man's mind before they shaped his body. The result was a male body—and an American masculinity—far more shaped by social and political concerns than most histories acknowledge. This is especially critical since the ideal male citizen (imagined as white, able-bodied, and native-born) is so frequently disembodied in histories, particularly political and policy histories, which allows us to miss how critical his own physiological body can be to policy interests.
Considering advisory state projects complicates discussions of both federal interests and techniques of governance. The bullying "french fry police," for instance, are fantasy. Even amid very different political contexts over the span of the twentieth century, the notion of a federal government explicitly and aggressively intervening in most private citizens' physiques remained untenable and, in most cases, undesirable. While economic depression and mobilization for war intensified federal concerns over citizen physique, the techniques of governance that agencies used to address these concerns were never truly policing. That was simply no way to manage the seemingly intimate realm of the citizen body. Moreover, the most aggressive body projects have rarely been meant for those citizens vocalizing a contemporary anxiety about "french fry police." Especially after World War II, when American worries about big government intensified, it was almost exclusively low-income (and typically female and nonwhite) citizens who faced the sharpest interventions of the federal government around body weight and physique. For other citizens in the same period, a far subtler advisory approach dominated. State interest and investment in citizens' productive bodies has a long history, but it is a history built on programs often as concerned with producing and maintaining the illusion of citizen autonomy—especially white, male, middle-class autonomy—as they are concerned with citizen reshaping.