Volume Eight, Issue 1
production of emotional obesity
in 1950s and 1960s Canada
Deborah McPhail [*
Wally Lamb’s popular novel She’s
Come Undone, selected for “Oprah’s Book Club,” tells the tale of
Dolores Price, a fat woman. After surviving an adolescence
characterized by sexual violence, her mother’s death, and her father’s
abandonment, Dolores finds herself committed to a mental hospital in
Rhode Island where she undergoes treatment with Dr. Shaw, a man with
self-described “unconventional” methods. Dr. Shaw decides to take on
the role of Dolores’ mother, and asks Dolores to meet him once a week
in the hospital’s swimming pool. After years of swimming in the
chlorine womb of her mother/psychiatrist, Dolores finds herself on the
edge of a break-through, lashing out against Dr. Shaw-as-mother:
My arms, my fists, flew with anger finally let free. I lashed out at
her, walloped her, smashed her with the truth.
“All those things you used to buy me
to eat and I’d eat them, sit up there in my room and eat them, swallow
the truth. …Get fat! Get fat! Get fat on your lies and I’m sick of it!
I’m sick, Mommy! I’m sick!” My voice was a moan outside of me. …
I saw Dr. Shaw then. Saw him wet and shaken in the…pool. Blood dripped
from his nose. A ribbon of blood floated in the water. He wrapped me in
his arms. …
“How are you doing?” He whispered, finally. “Are you okay?”
“When I came here, I was this fat…And now – “
“And now what, Dolores?”
“I’m empty.” He hugged me, cradling my head. “You’re triumphant!” he
said. (Lamb, 1992
, pp. 244-5).
By the close of the novel, thanks in large part to Dr. Shaw’s aquatic
psychotherapeutic techniques, Dolores has discovered self-empowerment,
secured herself a decent man, and, most important, has lost all excess
Lamb’s depiction of Delores Price, a woman whose psychological
unbalance materializes in her obesity, is not unusual. The prevalent
notion that women’s excess weight results from emotional disarray has
been noted by feminist fat activists and theorists of the fat body who,
since the 1980s, have challenged discourses attributing women’s fat to
their (over) emotionalism. For example, in Laura S. Brown and Esther D.
Rothblum’s edited collection Fat
Oppression and Psychotherapy, feminist writers reject the notion
that women’s obesity is the result of psychopathological eating. Brown
and Rothblum state in the introduction: “we aim to disconnect the
issues of food intake and eating disorders from those of weight. Our
perspective is that being fat is simply one variant of human size, not
an indication of disordered eating. …”(1989, p. 2). More recently,
self-proclaimed “fat grrrl” Nomi Lamm has argued:
The new "liberal"
view on fat is that it is caused by deep psychological disturbances.
Her childhood was bad, she was sexually abused, so she eats and gets
fat in order to hide herself away. She uses her fat as a security
blanket. Or maybe when she was young her parents caused her to
associate food with comfort and love, so she eats to console herself. …
, p. 92).
Going on to reject such psychopathologies of obesity, and to assert
pride in and acceptance of her body, Lamm insists: “Therapy won't help,
because there's nothing to cure.” (Lamm,
1995, p. 92).
Feminist responses to psychopathologized obesity, or what I call
“emotional obesity,” point to the fact that discourses conflating
emotional trauma, over-eating, body fat and women are common-sense in
North American society. The psychopathology of obesity was not always
so obvious, however. In the Canadian context, the notions that
emotional over-eating caused obesity, and that psychopathological
obesity was a problem particular to women, emerged in the post-war
period, gaining credence throughout the 1960s. I argue that the
conflation of obesity and psychopathology was far from a natural or
obvious occurrence in the 1950s and 1960s. Rather, demonstrating that
fat increasingly became an emotional disorder associated with white,
middle-class housewives of this era, I maintain that emotional obesity
arose in part to reassert normative femininity during a time of gender
upheaval in Canadian society. I use feminist critiques of Cartesian
Dualism to link the general history of mental health to discussions of
emotional obesity, drawing on examples from government and insurance
company texts, articles from the popular press, and professional
journals of the time, including the Canadian
(CMAJ), the Canadian
Journal of Public Health,
and the Canadian Psychiatric
Association Journal. With specific emphasis on diet drug
advertisements printed in the CMAJ, I suggest that discourses of
emotional obesity were mobilized to re-assert the traditional gendered
division of labour during a time in which greater numbers of women were
said to be entering the public sphere to work for wages and demanding
what came to be known as “women’s rights.”
Similar to other histories of obesity (Gilman,
2004; Gilman, 2008;
Schwartz, 1986; Stearns, 1997), the
paper contributes to a growing
literature critiquing the common belief that obesity is a transparently
bio-medical, psychological or public health problem in need of a
solution (Campos 2004; Campos et al 2006; Colls, 2007; Evans
2006; Gard and Wright 2005;
LeBesco, 2004; Longhurst 2005; Monaghan
2007; Monaghan 2008; Rice, 2007). Arguing that neither the
health effects nor the statistical prevalence associated with obesity
have been irrefutably proven, critical scholars of obesity point to the
cultural reasons for past and present obesity panics. This paper
provides an example of the socio-political contingency of obesity in a
historical context, and suggests that if emotional obesity can be
partially exposed as a social construction of the 1950s and 1960s, then
today’s understandings of obesity as a psychopathology can also be
scrutinized as a cultural phenomenon.
To argue that emotional obesity was and is the result of socio-cultural
processes of normative feminization is not to discount women’s use of
emotional and binge eating as a last-resort resistance to patriarchy,
racism, homophobia and systematic poverty, as described by such
feminists as Orbach (1978) and Thompson (1994); this paper is not
intended to critique the actions and feelings of individual women who
claim to use eating self-medicinally. Rather, I argue that the
mainstream discourse of emotional obesity, which historically has and
continues to target women, is problematic in that it re-inscribes
oppressive gender relations that are inherently raced, classed, and
founded in hegemonic notions of normative (hetero)sexuality. In that,
as Joan Wallach Scott has argued (1991),
maintain that it is possible
to critique the idea of emotional obesity as a mainstream and, as Lamb
(1992) has named it, a fat phobic concept
whilst holding on to the
legitimacy of women’s very real experiences with food, eating and
processes of embodiment.
Theoretical context: Cartesian Dualism
and the fat body
Much theory of the fat body is based on critiques of Cartesian Dualism.
Cartesian Dualism positions the body as “threatening” to the
cohesiveness of the Western Rational Man (Malson,
1998, p. 119), and as
basic, animal, and as that which must be transcended through the
exercise of reason (Braziel, 2001).
Feminists argue that, in Western
patriarchy, the reproductive capabilities that are apparently distinct
to women as well as women’s traditional role as “caretakers”
over-associate them with the Cartesian body (Bordo,
1993, pp. 4-15;
Grosz, 1994; Malson,
1998, pp. 118-20), which, in turn, serves as the
ideological basis for sexist oppression (Butler,
1990, 1993, 2004;
Martin, 1987; Riley,
concerned with women’s labour
patterns in patriarchal-capitalism, for example, have linked the
systematic ghettoization of women into low-paying jobs to the
persistent alignment of women with their reproductive and, hence,
Cartesian embodiments (Longhurst, 2001;
1997). One such writer
is Emily Martin (1987), who argues that the hormonal changes
with women’s reproductive cycle have been understood to cause emotional
instability in women, not only rendering women as irrational, but as
completely unsuitable for the most highly paid, highly skilled labour
in the public sphere (Martin, 1984, pp. 113-38).
Despite the fact that women are positioned as Cartesian bodies, some
women are imaginatively more embodied than others, a phenomenon that
Iris Marion Young has called the “scale of bodies” (1990, p. 123). On
the “scale of bodies,” feminists argue that fat women are downwardly
mobile because fat itself is representative of the feminine (Braziel,
2001; Kent, 2001; Longhurst, 2001). Many theorists maintain
fat is a feminized embodiment, devalued because it is a type of
biological matter necessary for women to reproduce (Kelly, 1983; Wolf,
1990). As Carla Rice argues, “…women have a higher percentage of
fat than men, because fat is necessary for menstrual and reproductive
functioning” (1999, p. 311). Fat women are
therefore doubly associated
with their reproductive embodiment and hyper-representative of
Cartesian embodiment. As fat is a feminized embodiment associated with
women’s physiology, fat phobia is, to feminist theorists, a clear
extension of the sexism grounded in the logic of Cartesian Dualism,
mobilized to re-draw biological distinctiveness between women and men,
and to contain, control and restrain women. In the words of Rice, a war
against fat is a “war against women” (1999,
p. 308). Evidence that
anti-fat rhetoric constrains women’s bodies in particular can be found
in the fact that women are most often the target of slim-down regimes
and fat phobic medical intervention (Bordo, 1993;
Chernin, 1981; Wolf,
1990). While feminists make important connections between Cartesian
Dualism and fat phobia, theorists have yet to study the potential
overlaps between discourses of the feminine over-emotionalism
associated with Cartesian embodiment and narratives which claim fat to
be an emotional pathology. Further, important links have thus far not
been made between narratives of emotional obesity and the feminist
insight that discourses of over-emotionalism relegate women to
reproductive labour. I bring together theories of Cartesian embodiment,
labour, and emotional obesity to argue that discussions of emotional
obesity in the 1950s and 1960s rearticulated feminine irrationality and
discursively collapsed women with the reproductive labour of the
private sphere. This emergence of feminized emotional obesity, based in
well-entrenched patriarchal understandings of Cartesian Dualism, was
only possible given more comprehensive anxieties about the emotional
well-being and mental health of Canadians. I therefore first outline
this history of mental health, then turn to describe the role that
psychological and psychiatric discourses of the time played in the
development in women’s psychopathological obesity.
Gendering of mental health: The
Various parties began to express concerns regarding the mental health
of Canadians after World War II and throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In
Canada, it was argued, mental illness was a sign of the times
(Stevenson, 1959). Indeed, in 1956, the president of the Canadian
Public Health Association, J. Arthur Melanson, called mental illness
“the nation’s number one health problem” (Melanson, 1956, p. 273). Such
sentiments were repeated in a 1966 Canadian Nurse article, in which
mental illness was named “the Quiet Disaster” and “a leading cause of
the social and economic problems of our nation” (“Fighting the Quiet
Disaster,” 1966, p. 57). Mental illness, the anonymous article
maintained, caused “accidents and death. It contribute[d] to poor
achievement in education, absenteeism in industry, juvenile
delinquency, crime, addictions, broken homes” (p. 57). The article
concluded by asking: “Are we…ready to tackle our biggest problem – MENTAL HEALTH?” (p. 57, emphasis
in original; see also Philpott, 1960).
The belief that mental health was a problem of national proportions
spurred the development and expansion of mental health disciplines in
Canada, particularly psychology and psychiatry (Gleason, 1999;
Pankratz, 2001). Along with the
development of professional
organizations like the Canadian Psychiatric Association and
publications like the Canadian
Psychiatric Association Journal, this
era witnessed the development of psychopharmaceuticals which could be
prescribed by psychiatrists or any medical doctor (Awad, 2001). Prior
to the use of pharmaceuticals, psychiatrists employed methods on the
mentally ill which were neither effective nor popular, such as insulin
comas, shock treatment without anesthetic, and lobotomies (Awad, 2001; see also Rae-Grant, 2001, pp. ix-x). With the
pharmaceuticals like chlorpromazine and lithium, however, which seemed
to improve even the worst cases of schizophrenia, drugs were often the
cure of choice for many mental health and medical practitioners.
The development of mental health disciplines and psychopharmaceuticals
had gendered consequences, and psychology and psychiatry have been
critiqued as normalizing disciplines which upheld and produced
status-quo subjectivities. Gleason (1999),
of the era, a childhood
spent happily ensconced in a nuclear family of a stay-at-home mother, a
breadwinning father, and a brother or sister was the precursor to a
psychologically balanced adult life. Psychologists claimed to possess
the key to such a happy family life which, though the norm, was not by
any means common (Adams, 1997).
Psychologists argued that they could
halt the perceived decay of the nuclear family, as experts in the field
maintained that they could repair already-existing nuclear families
weathering such threats as “mothers’ paid employment, marriage
breakdown, divorce, and juvenile delinquency” (Gleason,
1999, p. 7).
Women, and particularly mothers, were psychologists’ primary targets.
Within the context of the Canada’s post-war patriarchy, “[f]ar more so
than men, women were pathologized with psychological discourses
regarding the family. They were interpreted as prone to parental
pathologies such as overmothering, undermothering, nagging and
selfishness” (Gleason,1999, p.
Phyllis Chesler’s (1997) classic Women
Madness makes similar claims regarding the pathologizing of
women as mentally ill. Chesler’s book is based on interviews conducted
with women clients of male psychotherapists and psychiatrists through
the 1950s and 1960s, and her text is therefore an invaluable historical
source which provides both a critique of psychiatry and psychotherapy
and a description of their normalizing practices over two decades.
Women and Madness demonstrates
two things: that women in the 1950s and
1960s were over-classified as psychiatrically disturbed and were
therefore over-prescribed psychopharmaceuticals, and that mental
illness itself was coded “feminine” at this time. Chesler argues that
normative feminine personalities were considered psychopathic inasmuch
as they were supposedly emotional, nurturing, hyper-relational and
dependant -- all characteristics which were considered ill in and of
themselves in that men, purportedly, did not have them. At the same
time, women who rejected their gender roles, who were highly rational,
unemotional, and uninterested in men and children, were also labelled
as emotionally disturbed.
In the 1950s and 1960s, then, women had to negotiate a plethora of
extremely difficult catch-twenty-two's which, though reproduced by
psychological and psychiatric disciplines, were upheld by popular,
government and medical sources, and were adopted as common-sense
discourses (Adams, 1997; Gleason, 1999). Whilst performing their
reproductive labour, women were to be nurturing without being
smothering, caring without being nagging, sexually available without
being promiscuous, meticulous without being neurotic, concerned without
being anxious, and unexcitable without being depressed. Most
importantly, women were to be in the home at all times, ready, willing,
and available to provide their domestic labour to their children and
husband. Such a frustrating, and frightening, conundrum was an
inflection of misogyny, and was a mechanism by which patriarchy
contained women within stifling gender roles.
While Gleason’s and Chesler’s accounts of psychology and psychiatry
point to the patriarchal dynamics of mental health and illness in the
1950s and 1960s, mental health discourse was also bound tightly to
patriarchal-capitalism, as definitions of women’s emotional wellness
were tied to the degree to which women took up their reproductive roles
in the private sphere. Acknowledging this popular belief that domestic
responsibilities provided women with a sense of well-being and
happiness, for example, Betty Friedan railed against the notion that
women could find fulfillment whilst scrubbing the floor or doing the
dishes in 1963’s The Feminine Mystique. Friedan famously argued that
the psyches of housewives were not well, but exhibited a “problem with
no name” that resulted from their suffocating roles as housewives and
mothers. Friedan insisted that the fact that housewives were “taking
tranquilizers like cough drops” was a socio-cultural, not
psychodynamic, phenomenon (1963,
Those women who eschewed traditional gender dictums by leaving the
private sphere to work for wages were constructed by mental health
professionals as selfish at the very least and mentally unbalanced at
most (Bruch, 1957, pp. 119, 205, 252; Gleason, 1999, p. 71). While such
women were thought to be primarily immigrant and working-class in the
early post-war period, and psychological and psychiatric cures were
often aimed at these women (Adams, 1997,
1995). The fact of working
middle-class women was increasingly noted as time wore on, and as
numbers of middle-class women with jobs outside the home grew. By the
1967 Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada (RCSW), a
federal government inquiry into the lives and concerns of Canadian
women, the popular press was reporting that middle-class witnesses at
the Commission were demanding equity in the paid labour force (Freeman,
2001). Mental health discourses peddling the supposed superiority
middle-class normalcy and the nuclear family must therefore be
understood to have not only been directed at working-class and
immigrant populations as Adams (1997)
and Gleason (1999) suggest, but
also at middle-class women who were challenging prescribed gender roles
by working outside the home. Narratives of obesity as a psychopathology
were part of this discursive milieu whereby definitions of mental
health and illness helped contain middle-class women by reasserting
dominant gender norms.
A women’s problem: Obesity, the
feminine, and mental illness
Though obesity was listed in neither the 1952 nor the 1968 Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual as a mental illness in and of itself (American
Psychiatric Association, 1952; American Psychiatric
writings in medical journals, the popular press, and government
publications indicated that obesity was often conceptualized as a
psychopathology. More to the point, emotional obesity was a feminized
“problem” primarily attributed to women, as a number of articles
published in the “Women’s” or “Family” pages of Canada’s national
newspaper The Globe and Mail
For example, the January 28, 1956, edition of Josephine Lowman’s
regular Globe and Mail column
“Why Grow Old” was subtitled “Tensions May Cause Overeating.” In it,
Lowman discussed the psychodynamics of obesity, expressing her
“concern” for those women who, having established “emotional patterns”
of eating in their childhood homes, continued to overeat “in order to
make up for emotional lacks” (1956,
p. 13). “This even has a name,”
Lowman wrote: “‘Emotional Obesity’ and [it] is a recognized term in
doctors’ offices, as well as in the offices of psychologists” (1956, p. 13).
Lowman was particularly worried about the “middle-aged woman” who was
sabotaging her marriage by emotionally eating herself to
Reporting on the writings of a Dr. Roscoe P. Carney, “a St. Louis City
Hospital specialist in internal medicine,” Marvin Schiff similarly
wrote in an April 30, 1964, edition of The Globe and Mail column “March of
Medicine” that obesity was the result of overeating, “a habit with
deeply rooted psychological causes” (Schiff,
1964, p. W09). Schiff
noted that emotional over-eating was understood as gendered by the
doctor, as “one of the more common examples” of the obese mentioned by
Carney was “the housewife who eats continually to calm emotions caused
by disappointments in her marriage” (Schiff,
1964, p. W09.).
Echoing Lowman and Schiff was an article titled “Obesity, Emotions Said
Closely Tied” printed on September 18, 1964, which reported on a
Toronto conference presentation given by Dr. Charlotte M. Young of
Cornell University. Though Dr. Young contended that “tense and anxious
people” were particularly
susceptible to obesity (“Obesity, Emotions
Said Closely Tied,” 1964,
my emphasis), it was clear that Young
was mostly concerned with women. Young warned that while weight loss
was essential for the obese, an emotionally disturbed woman who used
food as a coping mechanism “such as a woman with a dying husband, or a
college girl facing examinations” should probably wait to start her
diet (1964, p. 11).
At the same time that psychic trauma, over-eating, obesity, and women
were discursively connected in the popular press, fat was becoming
strongly conflated with the biology of the female body by insurance
companies, government agents and medical researchers. Often, research
was cited in medical and insurance company publications which claimed
more women than men to be obese. In a 1965 edition of the CMAJ, the
same Dr. Young who had been quoted in The
Mail warning women
“with dying husbands” not to diet argued that: “the female of all ages
(above 9 years) is on the average fatter than the male” (Young, 1965).
Young’s comments were not made in isolation. The Chief of the
Government of Canada’s Federal Nutrition Division, L. B. Pett,
similarly found more women than men to be obese in his 1957 study of
the heights and weights of 22 000 Canadians. Pett found that 23% of
Canadian women were obese, while only 13% of Canadian men were
(Macbeth, 1963). Meanwhile, the
Metropolitan Life Insurance Company of
Canada reported statistics in its 1966 pamphlet, Four Steps to Weight
Control, that claimed 17% of men and 25% of women to be
Insurance Company of Canada, 1966, p. 1).
Though this statistical edge that women possessed over men was not all
that gaping, medical researchers acted as if it were, experimenting on
women almost exclusively in their obesity studies. Logistically
speaking, it is hard to say why this gender imbalance might have
existed in the literature. Women may have volunteered themselves for
experiments, particularly those carried out in “obesity clinics” like
the one housed at the University of Toronto, sponsored in part by the
Canadian government’s Nutrition Division and supervised by Dr. Barbara
McLaren (McLaren, 1967). It may also
have been that women’s family
doctors referred them to such clinics. Whatever the situation, it was
women’s bodies upon which medical knowledge of obesity was founded,
since, particularly in the 1960s, an unbalanced proportion of subjects
in obesity studies were women (Chirstakis,
1967; Gilder, 1966; Hazlett,
1961; Hirsh and Morse,
1960; Leith, 1961; LeRiche, 1960; LeRich and
Csima, 1967; Martel, 1957; Morse and Soledner, 1964; Peel, 1965;
Resnick and Joubert, 1967; Verdy, 1968; Verdy and de Champlain, 1968).
Corroborating the feminist theory that body fat has been historically
associated with women’s reproductive capacities, conflations between
fat and female physiology made by medical researchers were bolstered by
the argument that fat more easily accrued to women’s bodies because of
pregnancy. Researchers of the era argued that women had greater
potential for obesity than men because of unchecked weight accrued as
women carried a child to term (Beaton, 1966;
Best, 1957; Chochrane,
1965; Peel, 1965). A 1966 article
by George H. Beaton in the CMAJ
provides an example. Beaton argued that the extra fat that women’s
bodies collected during the first stages of pregnancy was necessary to
lactation. Under normal circumstances, he maintained, the simple act of
breastfeeding would cause women to lose excess pounds spontaneously.
Since, however, the “modern” North American woman chose to feed their
newborns “artificially,” “the physiologically normal tendency to
deposit fat is detrimental because the woman completes the reproductive
cycle with a net increase in body fat” (Beaton,
1966, p. 625). Echoing
Beaton’s concerns, Best (1957) advocated
the prescription of weight
loss pharmaceuticals for women who gained over twenty pounds during
Such biological essentialism on the part of the medical profession,
which over-determined women’s reproductive embodiments with the problem
of obesity, was expanded to include women’s psychic make-up.
Psychiatric experiments regarding obesity were also conducted with
women subjects. In a 1967 Canadian
Psychiatric Association Journal, for
example, Sletten et al. reported
the results of a study conducted on
twenty-one obese “but otherwise physically healthy” patients of a
psychiatric hospital (p. 553). The patients, who “volunteered” for the
study, were placed on drastic fasting regimes, and were “hungry,
anxious irritable and unhappy during the first 48 hours” but, in the
end “became calm, pleasant and happy” (Sletten
1967, p. 554). Many
patients were also thinner. All of them were women. Writing in the same
journal, Dr. F. W. Hanley described his experiment with a group of
obese subjects. Titled “The Treatment of Obesity by Individual and
Group Hypnosis,” the article argued that, given “the prevalence of
obesity in our society today,” which he construed as “a challenge to
the profession,” psychiatric techniques would prove helpful to weight
loss (Hanley, 1967, p. 551). In his
experiment, Hanley combined
hypnosis and group therapy to promote weight loss in his female
patients, and found his techniques to be effective for “individual or
group treatment” of obesity (1967).
In emotional obesity discourse, then, women were both ontologically
obese and inherently over-emotional, two conditions that were related
given that women’s weight “problems” were supposedly exacerbated by the
emotional imbalances which were, along with excess body fat, believed
to be biologically innate in women. Representations of emotional
obesity therefore fed into the larger misogynist mental health
discourses identified by Chesler (1997)
that furthered notions of women’s collective instability and, hence,
inferiority. In addition to re-inscribing power-imbued gender roles
based in sexist understandings of mental health and wellness, by
depicting women as over-emotional and irrational, two Cartesian
characteristics that have traditionally helped to portray women as
reproductive labourers, obesity discourse also furthered the material
relations of patriarchal capitalism. Indeed, representations of
furthered the notion that women -- particularly white, middle-class
women -- belonged in the private sphere. Nowhere are the discourses of
emotional obesity and those partnering middle-class women with un- and
under-paid private sphere labour more evident than in advertisements
for weight-loss psychopharmaceuticals contained in the pages of the
CMAJ over the 1950s and 1960s.
Fat and pharmaceuticals: Diet drugs
and the feminization of obesity
Historians, including Franca Iacovetta (2006), Valerie Korinek (2000),
and Mary Louise Adams (1997), have
argued that visual images from the
1950s and 1960s helped not only to communicate the norm of the white,
middle-class nuclear family, but to regulate the behaviour of those who
differed from it. In their article “Jell-O Salads, One-Stop Shopping,
and Maria the Homemaker,” for example, Iacovetta and Korinek (2004)
analyze images of food preparation in social workers’ pamphlets of the
period along with Chatelaine
magazine to argue that classed and racialized ideals about health and
hygiene were visually communicated to recalcitrant working-class and
immigrant women who did not or could not live in nuclear families. In
addition to their punitive functions, such images of food preparation,
which generally depicted a white, middle-class housewife in her
gadget-laden kitchen, also produced the norm, and furthered the notion
that most Canadian women were, or certainly should be, tucked safely
away in their homes performing reproductive tasks.
Advertisements for weight-loss pharmaceuticals can be understood as
having a double function similar to images described by historians,
chastising women even as they produced normative female subjects. While
the images of white, middle-class housewives in diet drug
advertisements sold the ideal of the nuclear family form, the women
depicted were not perfect. In being fat, these women were doing
something wrong. As punishment, the advertisements advised the
prescription of psychopharmaceuticals, which companies claimed would
not only precipitate weight loss, but ease the psychic stresses said to
The marketing of drugs for emotional obesity was part of the more
general explosion of psychopharmaceutical commercialism in the 1950s
and 1960s which, as Chesler (1997) and
Friedan (1963) have noted, had
gendered consequences. The over-drugging of women with tranquillizers
and anti-depressants described by these two feminist critics was part
of a larger historical pattern by which the mostly male medical
establishment exerted control over women’s bodies (Bordo, 1993; Martin,
1987; Mitchinson, 2002; Poovey, 1988). Medical management of
bodies, wielded most potently on women’s reproductive processes, began
to be formally rejected by feminists of the late 1960s. In 1968, a
McGill University students’ group published the McGill Birth Control
Handbook, the intent of which was to encourage women to become
with their bodies’ reproductive organs and cycles, and to empower them
against a draconian medical establishment (Morrow,
2007, pp. 43-4).
Recognizing that women could not freely participate in the public
sphere without the ability to control when and whether they would have
children, the final report of the Royal Commission on the Status of
Women in Canada similarly called for access to birth control, abortion
and child care, which would free women from their “automatic” roles as
mothers and caregivers and allow women to work for pay (Royal
Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, 1970, p. 11). As well,
inaugural publication of Our Bodies,
Our Selves by the Boston Women’s
Health Collective occurred in 1971. Popular in Canada, Our Bodies, Our
Selves also encouraged women to take control over their own
reproductive capacities (Morrow, 2007, p.
Within the context of a growing challenge to the medicalization of
women’s bodies through such publications as the McGill Birth Control Handbook and Our Bodies, Our Selves, and through
conversations about abortion and birth control sparked by the Royal
Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, diet drug advertisements
in the Canadian Medical Association
Journal proliferated. The most popular diet drug was
amphetamine, what is now more widely known as speed. At first, in the
1950s, diet drug companies marketed their drugs primarily as appetite
suppressants. By the 1960s, diet drugs that promised both relief from
appetite and its underlying psychic causes really hit their stride, and
drugs such as Desbutal Gradumet, which combined amphetamine for
depression and weight loss and barbiturates for anxiety, were marketed.
For an example of the combined anorexiant, anti-anxiety, and
anti-depressant drug advertisement, I turn to the 1962 ad for the diet
drug Desbutal Gradumet from which this paper takes its title. In the
ad, a well-made-up white woman stares sadly at the camera. Under her
runs the text “This is the Face of Obesity.” According to the text:
It is a sad face. And each time she
looks in the mirror she feels more depressed. At times, there are even
tears. She doesn’t draw the attention that is
so important to a woman, and the latest fashions aren’t to be
found on the size 40
rack. Is it any wonder then that her problem is an emotional one as
well as a
physical one? If this patient is to be really helped, all aspects of
syndrome must be treated. (Canadian Medical
, 1962, p, 27)
The ad goes on to explain that Desbutal Gradumet is a combination of
Desoxyn, “to curb the appetite and lift the mood,” and Nembutal, “to
calm the patient” (Canadian Medical
Association Journal, 1962, p, 27).
Similar claims were made in a 1966 advertisement for Ambar #2
Extendtabs. A white teenaged girl sits frowning, fat and lonely, at a
school dance, able only to observe the heterosexual revelry unfolding
around her. The text underneath this sad scene reads:
She tried to lose weight – but her
emotions won’t let her. She becomes irritable and depressed when she
doesn’t eat, and anxious when she considers her
future. So each time she gives up. ‘What can I do?’ she asks when she
‘How can I ever stay on a diet and lose weight?.’ (Canadian Medical Association Journal
, 1966b, p. 645)
The text continues, noting that Ambar, which was “formulated to
specifically meet both the physical and emotional needs of the woman who is trying to lose
weight,” suppressed the appetite and “provid[ed] a gentle psychic lift
to improve mood” (ibid., my emphasis).
While the ads I describe here for Desbutal Gradumet and Ambar implied
connections between obesity and underlying psychic problems, some
advertisements made this link much more obvious. An ad for Ionamin from
1966 pictures a white woman, thin, staring longingly at an enormous
banana split. Above her head run the words: “Former Food Addict…and
Still Susceptible.” The text, quoting a British medical textbook, and
highlighting the problem of compulsive eating, continues: “Addiction to
food, like alcoholism, is often a symptom of psychological
maladjustment” (Canadian Medical
Association Journal, 1966a, 14).
An ad for Biphetamine-T from 1967 features a scowling, white,
middle-aged fat woman standing in a circle drawn on the floor around
her. She is surrounded by words: “Overeating,” “Hyperinsulinemia,”
“Satiety Lack,” “Anxiety-Tension-Depression” (Canadian Medical
Association Journal, 1967, pp. 10-11). The text explains
“Biphetamine-T can help your patients escape from the vicious cycle of
obesity” Canadian Medical
Association Journal, 1967, p. 11). The ad notes “recent
work” which proved that
“once a person has become obese, a physiologic and psychologic [sic]
chain of events is established that tends to make the condition
self-perpetuating” (Canadian Medical
Association Journal, 1967, p. 10). Quoting Medical Science,
associating the “cycle of obesity” with compulsive eating, the ad reads
under the subtitle “Psychologic [sic] pressures and dieting”:
Since food reduces tension and imparts
a sense of well-being, emotional disturbance predisposes to overeating.
Many resort to food in order to
fulfil some emotional need not otherwise satisfied. This may explain
with its attendant psychological pressures and its withdrawal of the
influence of food may precipitate mild or even severe depression.’ (Canadian Medical
Association Journal, 1967
, p. 11)
For the most part, the diet drug advertisements I found in the CMAJ
feature women, women’s silhouettes, or mannequins in the shape of
women’s torsos, and two types of drugs were designed specifically for
women and “women’s needs” (Canadian
Medical Association Journal, 1966b;
Canadian Medical Association Journal,
the sixty-four ads I
studied, thirty-two picture women exclusively (50%), fourteen feature
men exclusively (23%), six depict both men and women (9%), and twelve
have neither men nor women in the ads (19%). In advertisements which
include men, or in which both men and women appear, obesity is rarely
related to psychopathic causes. In the three instances in which men are
pictured in ads that cite emotional causes of obesity, the men featured
become feminized by the image. An ad for Eskatrol, for example,
includes the text: “psychic security?: Food is a source of psychic
security for many people who overeat. It offers them a feeling of
comfort, particularly when they are tense or anxious. Unfortunately,
overeating usually leads to overweight” (Canadian Medical Association
Journal, 1964, p. 47). Pictured above the words is a white
wearing a suit and tie and sitting on a plush chair. He holds onto a
giant fork which rests upright in between his legs, placed so exactly
in the manner of an erect penis that the viewer must assume that the
fat man has been castrated by his compulsive desire for food.
Diet drug ads therefore had explicit gendered overtones, that were
also, implicitly, raced and classed, as the advertisements ubiquitously
depicted the gendered division of labour associated with the
middle-class nuclear family. The women pictured in them were always
white, always well-dressed, and, if doing anything at all, were
performing such reproductive tasks as shopping for food, taking care of
children, and maintaining their own appearance by brushing their hair
or trying on clothes. Women were generally not depicted performing paid
By the end of the 1960s, diet drug advertisements began to peter out in
the CMAJ. In surveying the journal I found a sharp drop in frequency
around 1969. Not coincidently, in that same year the Government of
Canada established the LeDain Commission to determine the reasons for
and volume of recreational drug use, and to recommend legislative
changes regulating the use and sale of a number of drugs that had
become popular in the 1960s, including amphetamines (Burns, 1969). The
government eventually disallowed the medical use of amphetamines in
1972 (Hartney, 1972), due in
large part to over-prescription of the
drug to middle-class women by their doctors (Canadian Medical
Association Journal, 1969, p, 76).
In their heyday, however, diet drug advertisements littered the pages
of the CMAJ, a phenomenon that, due to the challenge the women’s
movement was beginning to pose for the medical management of these
reproductive functions, one might understand as a reification of
medical authority over women’s Cartesian physiologies. While the birth
control pill promised women freedom from their gender roles, diet pills
promised control for the medical establishment. Advertisements for
weight loss pharmaceuticals thus provide a small example of how
discourses of emotional obesity were employed in the 1950s and 1960s as
a “backlash” (Faludi, 1991) against women demanding control over their
own bodies and, relatedly, to women entering the public sphere to work
for wages. Contentions that obesity was an emotional disorder that
sprang from feminine biology both relied upon and helped reproduce the
notion that women could only be what their biological destinies
ordained. Advertisements for Ambar #2 Extendtabs or Preludin connected
notions of female irrationality to the already-established “fact” that
women were simply, and ubiquitously, housewives. Naming obese women as
once and forever “food addicts” with a “psychological maladjustment”
(Canadian Medical Association Journal,
1966b), as one advertisement did,
while at the same time always depicting women as housewives, helped
establish women as over-emotional Cartesian bodies, unable to transcend
the realities of their reproductive capacities which tied them to their
biology and, hence, to the home.
Hinged to femininity and reproductive labour through discourses of
emotionalism, obesity of the 1950s and 1960s came to represent women’s
doomed departure from the ideal white, middle-class nuclear family
form. Emotional obesity contained, restrained, and re-attached women to
the private sphere by acting as a regulatory measure, encouraging women
to stay in the home through representational means. As well, emotional
obesity produced women as over-emotional Cartesian bodies who, with
their distinct biology and predisposition to the irrational, were
simply fated to undertake reproductive labour in domestic space(s).
By reifying both the distinctiveness of middle-class women’s bodies and
the over-emotionalism and irrationality associated with feminine
embodiment, narratives of psychophathological obesity constituted a
“backlash” against middle-class women’s paid work and their resistance
to gender norms. Discussions about emotional obesity in the medical and
popular presses, and in government and insurance company research,
re-associated women with the reproductive labour which “naturally”
flowed from feminine biology while women were demanding a modicum of
control over their reproductive capacities, and participating in the
paid labour of the public sphere.
Dolores Price of She’s Come Undone
has a history, and that history is
imbued with the power and politics of the gendered discourses of mental
health of the 1950s and 1960s. The fact that emotional obesity is not a
simply the obvious result of chemical imbalance or a traumatic
childhood, but a socio-cultural category of subjectivity that emerged
to quell, partially and unsuccessfully, women’s challenges to normative
middle-class gender roles, suggests that we should think twice before
assuming that fat people have mental health problems, be they mild or
major. My analysis further suggests that obesity in general should be
regarded as a cultural phenomenon, grounded in social structures and
discourses mobilized to reproduce the status quo. If, as Nomi Lamm put
it at the beginning of this paper, “there’s nothing to cure” about
being fat, then questions should perhaps shift from how to help the
emotionally overwrought obese, to why obesity is currently constructed
as an emotional pathology in the first place.
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Deborah McPhail recently defended her dissertation in Women's Studies
at York University, Toronto, Canada. Titled "Canada Weighs In: Gender,
Race, and the Making of 'Obesity,' 1945-1970," her dissertation uses
Foucaultian genealogy, feminist geography, critical obesity
scholarship, and psychoanalytic theories of subjectivity to explore the
development of a "national obesity problem" in post-war Canada. Deborah
is now a postdoctoral research fellow for the Family Food Practices
Study at the University of British Columbia.