Monday, July 6, 2009

Tracking fat phobia in pop culture

In 1976, a Senate committee lead by George McGovern listened to expert testimony on diet and health, in which some said fat and cholesterol were bad for the heart, while others said that was nonsense. The committee went ahead and told us to stop eating fat and cholesterol, and we did just that, to the detriment of our health. McGovern was just jumping on the bandwagon that had gotten its first oomph from Ancel Keys in the 1950s. But still, it seems like the 1970s were the transition period.

It would be neat to collect examples of just how entrenched this view became in the culture. So in the interest of a social history, let's have a little audience participation and list the big ones that come to mind. Examples could either be fat-phobic or pro-fat -- to see how long the latter held on. The chronology shouldn't surprise us, but it'll still be a good exercise to see how far back we can find examples.

I'll go first. Born in 1980, I don't remember much pop culture before about 1985, except what I saw later. I used to watch re-runs of All in the Family, and I vividly recall an episode where Archie has to go on a diet or suffer health problems -- and of course it's a low-fat diet with vegetables, vegetables, and more vegetables. Googling around, I found out it came in 1976 -- in February, months before the McGovern committee convened, again showing that the latter was merely a high-profile part of something that had already gotten going.

In Fast Times at Ridgemont High -- the best teen movie after Heathers -- Stacy and Mark go out on a date at a German restaurant. The high school girl, who is surely worried about how she looks, orders -- knockwurst! The camera pans to show all the stuff they've eaten by the end, and most of it is dead animals, plus a pastry here or there. Even in 1982, a movie aiming to be as realistic as possible about every little thing teenagers did portrayed a couple stuffing themselves on animal fat and protein. The anti-fat brigade had not decisively won by then.

The Simpsons had at least two episodes that focused on diet. There's the 1992 episode where Homer has a triple bypass surgery and gets guff about cutting back on animal products. Then there's the 1995 episode where Lisa becomes a vegetarian. It's a great portrayal of how holier-than-thou many such people are, as well as the oneupsmanship that drives people toward veganism -- Lisa is ashamed to learn that there are even more hardcore people than vegetarians. To be fair, you see that among the low-carb people too.

However, one of the greatest capsules of common sense to come out of the show is from the 1990 episode where Bart is training to beat Ned Flanders' son at mini-golf. Lisa tries to persuade Marge not to given Bart steak and eggs but complex carbohydrates instead:

Lisa: Oats are what a champion thoroughbred eats before he or she wins the Kentucky Derby.

Homer: Newsflash, Lisa -- Bart is not a horse! Eat your steak, boy.

Last one that I can think of is Mean Girls, which came out in 2004 during the height of the low-carb craze. The main character Cady tries to sabotage the queen bee of her clique, Regina, by fooling her into eating weight-gaining bars. What jargon does Cady use to convince Regina that it'll really help lose weight? Burning carbs! At one point Regina asks anxiously, "is butter a carb?" It even appears that there's an internet game based on this: Carb Invaders. I don't know how many kids have actually played this game, but still.

You try to keep her from eating starchy and sugary foods -- no more than 30 g or it's game over -- but to eat as much protein and fat as she wants, while still getting 2000 calories. It has one of the best game over screens ever, perfectly capturing the catty nature of teenage girl world:

You ate 44
grams of carbs.

Don't worry, just wear loose
clothes, no one will notice.

And for beating the game:

You ate 8
grams of carbs.

Good work. A Mean Girl
must stay fit to maintain her
social dominance.

OK, so what else is there?


  1. The movie The Devil Wears Prada has a scene where a size 2 girl angrily tells a size 4 girl that she doesn't deserve the great opportunities she's getting: "You eat carbs!" Sort of like, You don't go to church but God is being nice to you! Not fair!

  2. The history of skim milk might be revealing. Back in the '60s when I was a kid it was thought by some to be important to get people off of regular-fat milk and onto skim milk. So I guess some were afraid of fat by then. Also the margarine thing was nuts. Did that all have to do specifically with fear of animal-based fats? A love of anything modern and industrial?


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