Calories & Corsets: A History of Dieting Over 2000 Years

Peter Atkins is left wanting more from a retrospective of dieting trends

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Reviewed by: Peter Atkins
Author: Louise Foxcroft
Publisher: Profile
Price (RRP): £14.99

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This book is a welcome addition to the fields of food and body histories. It is an engaging synthesis of existing research and delves into a number of original health, beauty and slimming advice books published from the 16th to the 20th centuries.

Author Louise Foxcroft has previously written a popular history of the menopause and this book is in the same genre.

There is some substantial scholarship here, for instance an interesting account of the “dawning age of slenderness” in the 1920s. Foxcroft also has a light touch and a sense of humour: I had not known before about Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s opium-induced constipation and Dorothy’s Wordsworth’s complaints about his “bad bowels”.

Yet I found Calories & Corsets to be a curiosity in terms of style. The book feels like the work of a serious historian who has grafted on self-consciously chatty language in order to achieve a broad appeal.

Thus we are informed that “everyone was getting in on the diet act during the 19th century”; then that “fat people are nothing new”, and that “in 1829… being too fat was a commonplace complaint”.

Given that many ordinary working people in Britain were short of calories right through the 19th century, and that as late as the 1930s one-third were said to be malnourished, this is loose wording. Even a cursory glance at the literature shows that obesity was relatively rare in Europe before the fresswelle (eating wave) that in the 1950s swept over those countries that had been short of food during the Second World War.

A reference to the feminist advocates of ‘fat studies’ at the end of the book might have proved a helpful corrective to the stereotyping of women’s attitudes to dieting. In essence they argue that obesity has been over-medicalised and that one reason for dieting is therefore undermined.

Although Dr Foxcroft’s book is an easily digested and informative read, it seems that we still await the definitive history of eating habits and bodily form that is long overdue.  

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Peter Atkins is a joint editor of The Rise of Obesity in Europe (Ashgate, 2009)