Fat chance of keeping off kilos
According to author Louise Foxcroft, ''Science tells us that our body's basic instinct to store calories is stronger than our sexual instinct."
If you thought the mass preoccupation with food, weight and body image was unique to our time and place in history, think again. It is as old as Western civilisation itself, according to Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting over 2000 Years, by Cambridge-trained historian Louise Foxcroft.
This is not the point the book tries to prove. ''Few people in recent decades have had what we might call a 'normal' relationship with food,'' Foxcroft writes in the first chapter, which details the quick fixes, ''magical thinking'' and shrinking female beauty ideals that have come to define our times.
But it is the inevitable conclusion to Calories and Corsets's jaunty 200-page journey through Greek philosophers, diet-obsessed 19th-century dandies and 1920s advertisements urging women to ''reach for a Lucky [cigarette] instead of a sweet'':
When it comes to weight loss, it seems there is little that is new under the sun. The trendy Dukan Diet, high on protein and low on carbohydrates, is a direct descendant of the Banting System a century before it. Celebrity trainer James Duigan, author of the The Clean & Lean Diet, advises those seeking to drop a few kilos to chew each mouthful of food ''at least 20 times''; in 19th-century England, Foxcroft writes, fashionable people held ''munching parties'', timing each other with stopwatches ''to ensure a good five-minute chewing of each forkful of food''.
The seemingly new-age ''raw food'' plan followed by actors such as Demi Moore, in which meals cannot be heated above 40 degrees, was first promoted by one Dr William Leonard at the turn of the 20th century.
The specifics may have changed - one 1930s dieting guru, for instance, warned that even drinking too much water could be a ''weight builder'', while Banting banned carrots alongside cake - but the principles have remained the same.
Eat enough sugar, breads or fat and you'll gain weight; replace them with vegetables, lean meats and soups (or cigarettes, if you're a ''Lucky'' girl, as above) and you'll lose it. The moral judgments tied to weight and size are older still: the ancient Greeks declared fat a ''pathological condition … thought to indicate a lazy, phlegmatic, stupid person who just could not control themselves''.
What Calories and Corsets doesn't answer - at least, not directly - is where these beliefs came from or why they have had such staying power.
Foxcroft infers that we have at some point gone off course, trading the ancient Greek ideals of balance and moderation for artificial sweeteners, kilojoule counting and dieting pills. But the Greeks were no less bigoted about bodies than anyone who has followed them, and while moderation suggests reason and restraint by definition, it is not so easy to achieve in practice.
Just ask the Hollywood types who find themselves slapped on the cover of NW or Famous whenever they dare to gain (so fat!) or lose (wasting away!) five kilograms.
If anything, the Western quest for the perfect body during the past two millennia has served as an outlet for a deeper yearning for ancient Greek-style moderation … even as we have gone to extremes to achieve it. Those who are very fat may be dismissed as less intelligent, greedy and innately ugly but the very thin fare little better: associated with vanity, sickliness and, historically, sexual deviance. It is not the extremes that most of us aspire to but a precarious, ever-changing happy medium.
The other answer to our endless obsession with weight may lie in our biology. ''Science tells us that our body's basic instinct to store calories is stronger than our sexual instinct,'' Foxcroft tells us - and tries to deny that instincts are rooted in the same fears of the body and its associated sins as high-school sex education classes that preach abstinence only. They are also equally doomed to fail, if the two-thirds of dieters who gain back more weight than they lose are any indication.
Indeed, the lasting impression of the endless lists of contraband foods, quirky historical figures and ultimately ineffective weight-loss fads that Calories and Corsets regales us with is the utter pointlessness of the exercise, which is probably just as Foxcroft intended. We are programmed to take pleasure in what we eat, so why not enjoy the choices at our disposal? Moderately, or otherwise.
CALORIES AND CORSETS
Profile Books, 320pp, $29.99