Jon Verriet, Radboud University Nijmegen
‘A fiercely antifat culture’, is how the LA Times described U.S. society in 1976. In the corresponding article, the founder of the activist Fat Underground, Vivian Mayer – then known by her radical name Alderbaran – was interviewed about prejudice against people with high relative body weight. At the moment of publication, the California-based FU (an acronym which delighted its members) had been in existence for four years, seeking to inject debates about the necessity of strict diets and physical exercise with a healthy dose of scepticism. Not only did the group disrupt Weight Watchers gatherings with speeches about the inefficacy of dieting, it also published pamphlets with titles like Health of fat people: The scare story your doctor won’t tell you. The Fat Underground consisted of radical feminists: as fat prejudice was often aimed at women, they equated it with the patriarchal objectification of their bodies. ‘Fat people of the world, unite!’, the LA Times article concluded, ‘You have nothing to lose!’
In my new article for Cultural and Social History, I explore how popular media covered both the rise of fat activism and other challenges to the lifestyle instructions of medical experts in the 1970s and 1980s. In this era of pervasive diet and fitness advice, in the middle of an outright ‘war against obesity’, groups like FU aimed to shift the discourse to what we today would call ‘body positivity’. However, in their early years they received only modest attention in national U.S. newspapers. By the end of the 1970s, though, journalists were starting to show more interest in what they called a ‘militant minority’.
By the early 1980s, fat activism had taken on an international dimension. In countries like Britain and the Netherlands, feminists had started to form their own clubs. The Dutch Vet Vrij (‘Fat Free’) looked closely at the activities of their ‘sister groups’ in the U.S., and quickly gained the interest of the press. The goal of their Fat Women’s Day in Amsterdam, the acceptance of fatness, was quickly becoming a commonly heard appeal in the Netherlands. Additionally, Vet Vrij published a ‘book of complaints’, which highlighted (among other things) how the health advice of Dutch physicians seemed decidedly shaped by existing beauty norms.
The arguments of these activist movements in the U.S. and the Netherlands fit into a broader narrative in which other aspects of the idealised healthy lifestyle were deemed problematic as well. Though journalists in both countries generally agreed that physical exercise was good for your health, a vocal minority protested the popularisation of jogging and aerobics. Defying these instructions, as well as dietary guidelines, some proudly acknowledged ‘years of careful pastry selection and strain aversion’. Popular books, like The Non-Runners Book (1978) and The Official Couch Potato Handbook (1983), also made fun of ‘fitness freaks’. But not all criticism of experts’ lifestyle advice was playful. Many critics held reservations about the actual health effects of dieting and physical exercise. Journalists sought out self-styled ‘medical mavericks’, who used a number of high-profile running incidents, like president Jimmy Carter’s famous collapse in 1979, to argue that jogging was unhealthy, or even ‘a miserable post-collegiate athletic travesty that has already killed scores, possibly hundreds’. To some, they claimed, health was becoming an obsession, and the negative psychological consequences this fixation (what we would now call orthorexia) surely outweighed any physical advantages.
In my article, I argue that this debate about healthy living reflected a broader shift in how U.S. and Dutch media represented expertise. Firstly, from the 1970s onwards, more and more reports came out on the complexity and the contradictory nature of scientific knowledge – particularly regarding nutrition. Readers were shown that even among trained experts, ideas about healthy living diverged significantly. More importantly, the press brought attention to the views of fat activists, exercise sceptics, and celebrity athletes, who increasingly claimed their own form of expert knowledge, gained through personal bodily experiences. Ultimately, the popularisation the insights from these diverse groups resulted in a difficult-to-navigate cacophony of lifestyle advice, that is still with us today.
About the author: Jon Verriet is a PhD candidate at Radboud University Nijmegen, specialised in the history of popular ideas about health. His publications examine how complex cultural values affect lifestyle – specifically food habits and physical exercise. Verriet’s current project is titled: The Pursuit of Fitness: Representing Contested Ideas about Healthy Living in the Netherlands, 1940-2020. You can read his Cultural and Social History article here.