Radical Psychology
Volume Eight, Issue 1

"This is the Face of Obesity": Gender and the 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 weight.

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. … (Lamm, 1995, 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 Medical Association Journal (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 2004; Evans 2006; Gard and Wright 2005; LeBesco, 2004; Longhurst 2005; Monaghan 2007; Monaghan 2008; Rice, 2007). Arguing that neither the negative 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), individual experiences are necessarily informed and created by a subject’s negotiations and struggles with pre-existing discourses, I 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, 1988). Writers 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; McDowell, 1997). One such writer is Emily Martin (1987), who argues that the hormonal changes associated 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 that body 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 body 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 historical framework

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 development of 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), for example, argues that Canadian psychologists advocated the nuclear family form for normal psychological adjustment. For psychologists 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. 13).

Phyllis Chesler’s (1997) classic Women and 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, p. 26).
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, p. 27), middle-class mothers also worked throughout the 1950s (Sangster, 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 of 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 Association, 1968), 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 demonstrated.
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 unattractiveness.

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, p. 11, 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 Globe and 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 overweight (Metropolitan Life 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 their pregnancies.

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 et al, 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 emotional obesity 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 underlay obesity.

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, 1993Martin, 1987; Mitchinson, 2002; Poovey, 1988). Medical management of women’s 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 familiar 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, the 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. 42).

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 the obesity syndrome must be treated. (Canadian Medical Association Journal, 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 visits your office.
‘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 that “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, and 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 why ‘dieting with its attendant psychological pressures and its withdrawal of the stabilizing 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, 1966c). Of 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 man, fat, 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 labour.

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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Biographical note:

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.