In the book Calories & Corsets, Cambridge historian Louise Foxcroft explores the history of diets, which reaches back 2,000 years in Europe. She not only explores the emergence of fad diets and the weight loss industry, but also a history of attitudes towards fatness.
In Western civilization, people who are overweight have been judged as morally and spiritually weak, so by logical extension, diets and weight loss regimes were something punishing. The Ancient Greeks induced vomiting and used enemas in an effort to reduce body fat. The rise of Christianity further enforced the association between fatness and sin. Being fat was not only a proof of gluttony, but also represented too strong an attachment to worldly pleasures.
As the title suggests, female bodies have been submitted to higher pressures to become thin. Foxcroft looks at how the ideal female figure has evolved, along with the schemes and fads that promised to mean the means of achieving this goal. Once a problem only for the rich, over time weight gain and obesity became a problem for all classes as sedentary lifestyles became the norm and unhealthy snacks became less and less expensive.
Although Foxcroft critiques the obsession with achieving the perfect body, she does champion the historical figures who worked to use science and medicine to understand weight gain and healthy diets.
Released this week, Calories & Corsets is available in hardcover and for Kindle via Amazon.