Scandalous bodies and our relationship with food

January 15, 2014
Scandalous bodies and our relationship with food
Pathological Bodies: Medicine and Political Culture

Attitudes toward over-indulgence, obesity and body shape were being hotly debated and used for political purposes as early as the 19th century, a new book claims. 'Pathological Bodies', by Dr Corinna Wagner from the University of Exeter, shows that body consciousness is not just a modern-day phenomenon.

Instead, medical warning about excessive eating and drinking, and about self-control and discipline emerged more than 250 years ago, when the perceived decadence of the Georgian period gave way to the more moderate and austere approach adopted by the Victorians.

Dr Wagner's book demonstrates how political turmoil, the rise of the middle classes and new medical knowledge about 'corpulence,' and related disorders like gout, resulted in a greater emphasis being placed on the value of self-discipline.

These medical conditions became linked to historical political events. For instance, drinking rum and taking sugar with tea was frowned upon because it was linked with the slave trade, with exoticism, and with poor health. The book also highlights how political propaganda, including the popular caricatures of James Gillray and the satirical images in magazines like Punch, set out to fully exploit these cultural and medical changes.

An example is of King George IV, whose extravagant lifestyle led to vitriolic public condemnation. His obesity became the focus of press and public ridicule – to be fat was to be immoral, irresponsible, and out of control. As a result, George IV's weight was seen as a sign of his unfitness to rule, and politicians agitated for a transfer of power from the monarchy to government.

Increasingly, physicians, moralists, poets and political philosophers in late Georgian England argued that the history of eating paralleled the history of humanity's decline or progress. Dr Wagner said: "King George IV is just one of many cases that show how the habits, practices, and the bodies of individuals became the focus of public attention. The practice of publicly naming and shaming became more widespread and the general public felt the pressure to conform to the new culture of austerity and self-control. Public figures like George IV were used as an example to promote polite, responsible, communal styles of eating. This embraced good, honest British foods like roast beef and beer, and shunned exotic foods like George's beloved mulligatawny soup and 'Persian' delicacies."

Dr Wagner charts these changes, from the eighteenth-century milk and vegetable diet of George Cheyne to the strict Victorian regimens (sea-biscuit for breakfast and boiled macaroni and a piece of lean meat for dinner) prescribed by diet doctor Thomas King Chambers. In books with titles like The English Malady, Cheyne described his own weight loss (from 32 stone to a 'normal' size), for aristocrats who were used to city life, sedentary pursuits and groaning sideboards. There was a growing emphasis on a lean body. In 1780, James Graham opened his "Temple of Health" for celebrity clients. He gave lectures, sold tonics, treated patients with electricity, and displayed his assistants, the Goddesses of Health, who were held up as models of physical perfection.

But by the mid-Victorian period, fighting fat was a pastime for a much larger part of the population: middle-class urban dwellers with office jobs. Since then, moderating one's intake of food and alcohol has been a sign of credibility and social accountability for almost everyone.

Dr Wagner explained:"We are defined and regulated by modern definitions of the normal and the abnormal, the natural and the unnatural, the healthy and the pathological. To a large extent, we owe those definitions to the Victorians."

Explore further: High-fat diet may cause change in hypothalamus

Related Stories

Study links 'food addiction' to obesity

September 30, 2013

(Medical Xpress)—University of Queensland researchers have found most Australians and Americans believe food is addictive and comparable to drug addiction.

Study finds parental stress linked to obesity in children

December 6, 2013

Parental stress is linked to weight gain in children, according to a new study from St. Michael's Hospital. The study found that children whose parents have high levels of stress have a Body Mass Index, or BMI, about 2 per ...

Recommended for you

A metabolic master switch underlying human obesity

August 19, 2015

Obesity is one of the biggest public health challenges of the 21st century. Affecting more than 500 million people worldwide, obesity costs at least $200 billion each year in the United States alone, and contributes to potentially ...

Scientists probe obesity's ties to breast cancer risk

August 20, 2015

Obesity is a well-known risk factor for breast cancer, but researchers haven't figured out what connects the two. A new study suggests the link may be due to a change in breast tissue structure, which might promote breast ...

Can a new drug brown the fat and trim the obese person?

May 28, 2015

New research has found that a variant of a drug used to treat pulmonary arterial hypertension prompts weight loss in obese mice. Among mice fed a high-fat diet, those who did not get the medication became obese while medicated ...

Changing stem cell structure may help fight obesity

February 17, 2015

The research, conducted at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), found that a slight regulation in the length of primary cilia, small hair-like projections found on most cells, prevented the production of fat cells from ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jan 15, 2014
Food and overall well-being are very important in the fight against gout pain, however, there are other, up-and-coming methods being used to help fight the pain too. For instance, topical pain relief is on the rise, and it is one of the most effective and safest methods of fighting gout pain. It provides the same, usually greater, relief that specific pills do, however, there are no pills or side effects. I myself am currently a user of topical pain gels, which I easily get through my pharmacy in the midwest, A&R Pharmacy in Liberty, MO, and simply apply the gel whenever I'm in pain. I've been using them for roughly 18 months and have had more than significant results since going this route and I highly recommend it for anyone struggling with pain and/or pills. Take over the pain before it takes over your life. I hope this helps a few of you.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.