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“What are calories, doctor?”

January 20, 2010

One of my favourite blogs in the whole world is Sociological Images, and I especially like it when they post old adverts or public information materials because you can see how trends and attitudes evolve – or don’t. Also, some of them are just plain hilarious. They recently posted this 1960s PSA film, about children and obesity, which, as so many of these things, teeters on that fine, fine line between ‘comic’ and ‘sinister’.

From the SocImages post:

“I was really struck by how little mention fresh fruits and vegetables get in the discussion of a balanced diet at the end of the first segment (about 3:45)–you just need a little of them to get the vitamins you need. (Welcome to 1960s Britain! – ed.) Today, of course, much more emphasis would be placed on them, and fats would get much less.

Of course, while our attitudes toward foods have changed to focus on more fruits and vegetables and fewer fats, other elements of the film would fit in with anti-obesity campaigns today with a little updating. We still often focus on individualistic causes of obesity over structural ones (what types of foods governments subsidize, for instance), implicitly blame mothers for not taking the time to cook wholesome meals at home, and treat fatness as a social death sentence. We usually try to sound nicer when doing it, though.”

Rather troubling was the idea that associating eating with pleasure and security was ‘to our cost‘ – food is the enemy, don’t you know? Also, the film followed three children, two boys and a girl – the two boys were fat because their mothers loved them sooooo much they just couldn’t help forcing their poor sons to eat more and more. The girl ‘began eating chocolate to console herself’ (note the active voice) after her rakish father left home and her mother started going out all the time – whether for work or pleasure is unclear, but either way it’s Not A Good Thing. It’s mostly the girl’s own fault, and partly her mother’s for not loving her enough.*

The film stressed the social consequences of fatness for women – having to buy clothes from special shops and not getting asked to dance at parties. The girl might eventually turn into one of those overweight mothers who force-feeds her children. The boys, by contrast, were at risk of things like heart disease and early death. Hmm. They also got taken to a doctor to be ‘cured’. Hmm. We never found out what happened to the girl – let’s hope, as one of the commenters said,

“Maybe she grew a bit older and realised that beauty is from within and thin =/= healthy/beautiful/a good person and that’s why we see nothing more of her after her mother tells her to stop eating chocolate?”

Humourless-feminist cynicism aside, despite vague allusions to broader social changes – for instance, more people working in sedentary jobs; a reference to sugar substitutes such as saccharin  – obesity was definitely framed as  an individual problem. It’s your ignorance and your bad choices/parenting that makes you/your children fat. It’s things like ‘fats’ and ‘sugars’ that are bad for you, not ‘meat’ or ‘processed food’, or other foods produced by industries with powerful lobbies, and the solution is to educate individual people about what to eat, not, say, stop companies pushing crap food, or ensure that people can actually access and afford decent food, or, heaven forbid, actually reassess what we see as a desirable body – ‘healthy’, rather than ‘thin’. Except, of course, that that would be complicated…

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* Thorny social problem getting you down? Solutions like regulating industry, improving education and social conditions or increasing access to employment too complicated and politically loaded? Never fear – now you can just BLAME WOMEN!!

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