The Real Skinny: Expert Traces America's Thin Obsession

thin and obese woman
Credit: Hartphotography | Dreamstime

When you consider the average weight of a supermodel, the $70 billion dieting industry, or the 6 million to 11 million people who struggle with eating disorders, you come to one conclusion: America is virtually obsessed with thinness. But it hasn't always been this way. Many non-Western cultures view female fatness as a sign of health and vitality, and, before the 1800s, so did Americans.

According to Sarah Lohman, a "historic gastronomist" and the author of Four Pounds Flour, a blog dedicated to cooking and eating practices of the past, Americans have always been heavier than our European counterparts. There's simply more land available in this country for growing food, and since colonial times, Americans have worn the extra bounty on their bodies. However, being "plump as a partridge" used to be a compliment, Lohman said yesterday (Jan. 24), at a lecture at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Then, everything changed.

The seeds of dieting were sowed in the 1840s, when a Presbyterian minister named Sylvester Graham began advocating a plain, abstinent diet for women as the key to health — and morality. "Spices, stimulants and other overindulgences lead to indigestion, illness, sexual excess and civil disorder," Graham preached. His followers, known as "Grahamites," ate mostly bread made of coarse graham flour (also used to make the original graham crackers), as well as vegetables and water. "This is the start of the mainstream as opposed to the wealthy being aware of their diet," Lohman said.

Next, in the 1860s, the Banting diet — a protein-heavy prototype for today's Atkins diet — became wildly popular. Its creator, William Banting, considered corpulence to be a physical disability, and his teachings set the stage for a nationwide plunge into anti-fat obsession.

"By the end of the century, Americans had fallen headfirst into this battle against fat," Lohman said. "Between 1890 and 1920 specifically, America's image of the ideal body completely changed from one of healthful plumpness to one where fatness became associated with sloth. There was a surprisingly strong current of disgust against people who were perceived as obese."

Several key factors converged to bring about the sea change, Lohman said. First, health concerns regarding the corset were gaining acceptance, and that organ-squishing undergarment was phased out of fashion. Corsets were never intended to make women look thinner, but rather to rearrange their fat, pushing it in whatever direction was fashionable at the time. The departure of the corset at the turn of the century left women alone — and dissatisfied — with their natural shapes. [Men vs. Women: Our Key Physical Differences Explained]

The industrial revolution also played a role: As standardized dress sizes became popular, women were more aware than ever before of their relative sizes. "Before, you went to a seamstress, and she made a dress for you. Now you were going to a department store and you were buying small, medium and large, or 8, 9 and 10, and it gave a very easy way to compare who was larger than who," Lohman said.

Additionally, America was urbanizing, and that meant more people in sedentary jobs with access to more food choices. Americans were gaining weight, and this trend put obesity in the forefront of the national conversation.

Most influential of all were advances in food science. "We discovered the calorie," Lohman said, and soon after that, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals. "Now we had a way to quantify our health."

The development of the person scale completed the picture, giving people a way to monitor their own weight. "Now you knew the calories (your intake) and the output (your weight). The smaller those numbers were, the heathier you were," Lohman said.

By the 1920s, dieting and calorie counting were part of daily life, she said. Most American women were either on a diet or feeling guilty about not dieting. And the rest is history.

This story was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience. Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover. Follow Life's Little Mysteries on Twitter @llmysteries, then join us on Facebook.

Natalie Wolchover

Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the  Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.