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Posts tagged ‘carbohydrates’

Human Beans

A few weeks ago, my friend Nafisa sent me a photograph of a banner outside a cafe in Linden in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. In a particularly good demonstration of why punctuation helps to avoid horrific confusion, it advertises that it ‘now serves TIM NOAKES’—with ‘breakfasts and lunches’ in smaller script below.

In Linden, Johannesburg. Courtesy of Nafisa Essop Sheik.

In Linden, Johannesburg. Courtesy of Nafisa Essop Sheik.

Personally, I would prefer neither to eat Tim Noakes nor his high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet. This sign is interesting, though, because it still refers to a Noakes, rather than Banting, diet. In the past couple of months, restaurants all over South Africa have added Banting friendly meals to their menus, and I think it’s worth taking a closer look at Banting, his diet, and context. William Banting (1796-1878) was a prominent undertaker and funeral director whose family had long been responsible for organising the Royal Family’s funerals. He and what became known as ‘Bantingism’ rose to prominence in 1863 with the publication of A Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public. In it, he described how he shrunk from obesity to a ‘normal’ weight as a result of a miraculous diet. The aptly named Michelle Mouton explains:

After many vain attempts to find a doctor with a cure for corpulence, and after futile experiments with Turkish baths and the like, it is ironically diminished sight and hearing that incidentally lead Banting to his miracle. His ear surgeon suspects a constriction of the ear canals, Banting reports, and advises him to abstain from what Banting terms ‘human beans’—‘bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer, and potatoes’—so called because they are as harmful to older persons as are beans to horses.

The diet was so efficacious that Banting lost forty-six pounds in a year, and reported feeling healthier than ever before. So what did he eat?

For breakfast, I take four or five ounces of beef, mutton, kidneys, broiled fish, bacon, or cold meat of any kind except pork; a large cup of tea (without milk or sugar), a little biscuit, or one ounce of dry toast. For dinner, five or six ounces of any fish except salmon, any meat except pork, any vegetable except potato, once ounce of dry toast, fruit out of a pudding, any kind of poultry or game, and two or three glasses of good claret, sherry, or Madeira—champagne, port and beer forbidden. For tea, two or three ounces of fruit, a rusk or two, and a cup of tea without milk or sugar. For supper, three or four ounces of meat or fish, similar to dinner, with a glass or two of claret. For nightcap, if required, a tumbler of grog—(gin, whisky, or brandy, without sugar)—or a glass or two of claret or sherry.

Noakes-ites will note that Banting included some carbohydrates in his diet, and seemed to shun pork (if not bacon) and salmon, possibly on the grounds that they were too fatty. His injunction against sugar is mildly ridiculous considering the amount of fortified alcohol he drank. No wonder he enjoyed the diet so much—it gave him licence to remain in a permanent state of gentle tipsiness.

Much of Bantingism’s popularity was linked to the fact that it emerged during a period when diets, perceptions of physical and moral beauty, and ideas about health were undergoing rapid change. The wild success of his pamphlet in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere caused intense debate within a medical profession which was increasingly linking weight—Banting’s corpulence—to health. Urban living and industrialised food production reduced the price of food and altered eating patterns. For the middle classes, for instance, meals were now eaten three times a day, with dinner moving to the evening. At the same time, thinness was increasingly associated both with physical beauty and moral behaviour. This diet seemed to offer an easy way to achieve both ideals. Self-denial would result in a more moral, thinner person. Mouton writes:

Toward the end of 1864, George Eliot wrote to a friend, ‘I have seen people much changed by the Banting system. Mr A. [Anthony] Trollope is thinner by means of it, and is otherwise the better for the self-denial,’ she adds.

The diet also offered the new middle classes a way of navigating new food choices, in much the same way that their embrace of evangelical Christianity assisted them in finding a place for themselves within Britain’s class system. As Joyce L. Huff observes, Banting chose to write his pamphlet as a tract. Similar to other confessions of earnest Christians who had come to the light of God’s grace, Banting’s Letter traces the journey of a humble man—a sinner in a fat body—to the light and clarity of a high protein diet. He had achieved full mastery of both his body and his soul.

William Banting (from here), presumably after his diet.

William Banting (from here), presumably after his diet.

Enthusiasm for the diet petered out fairly quickly, but Banting’s writing has been resuscitated more recently by pro-protein evangelicals like Robert Atkins, Gary Taubes, and Noakes. Thinking about Banting’s diet in historical context draws attention to a few exceptionally important points:

Firstly, anxieties about diet occur in the midst of major social change. I don’t think that it’s any accident that Noakes has found an audience among South Africa’s middle classes: whose numbers are growing, but who are also feeling the impact of global recession. Diets—particularly strict diets—offer a sense of being in control and of group belonging in times of radical uncertainty.

Secondly, as a closer look at Banting’s day-to-day eating demonstrates, his diet and that advocated by Noakes are fairly different. In fact, I wonder if Banting lost weight simply because he was eating less food more generally, than as a result of his switch to greater quantities of protein. Noakes cites Banting and other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century high protein dieters to lend his writing greater validity. This is knowledge, he implies, that has been around for some time. All he’s done is to bring it to wider public knowledge. Yet it’s clear that what we define as high protein has changed over time. Noakes’s diet is a diet of the early twenty-first century.

Thirdly, as the short lived initial enthusiasm for Bantingism suggests, this diet is no more successful than other diets at causing weight loss. Put another way, while eating a high protein diet will cause initial, dramatic weight loss—partly through dehydration—those who follow diets which encourage greater exercise and generally lower calorie intake lose the same amount of weight over a longer period of time. This has been demonstrated by study after study. More worryingly, we have no idea what the longterm health implications of high protein diets may be.

Connected to this, Noakes argues that it is largely industry—Big Food—which has been behind efforts to discredit high fat diets. Although Banting was ridiculed by some doctors during the 1860s, this was at a time when medical professionals jostled with quacks for recognition, and did not occupy the same position of authority that they have since the mid-twentieth century. Doctors could not band together to suppress this kind of information. Moreover, food companies were in their infancy. Clearly, people chose to relinquish the diet for a range of other reasons.

Finally, this—as Banting’s contemporaries pointed out—is a diet for the wealthy, and for a planet with unlimited resources. It is out of reach for the vast majority of people who are obese, most of whom are poor. We know that intensive livestock farming has a devastating impact on the environment. Addressing poverty and rethinking agriculture offer the best means of improving the health of the world’s population and of mitigating climate change. Not eating more animal protein.

Further Reading

Sander L. Gilman, Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity (Cambridge: Polity, 2008).

Joyce L. Huff, ‘A “Horror of Corpulence”: Interrogating Bantingism and Mid-Nineteenth-Century Fat Phobia,’ in Bodies out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression, eds. Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBresco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), pp. 39-59.

Michelle Mouton, ‘“Doing Banting”: High-Protein Diets in the Victorian Period and Now,’ Studies in Popular Culture, vol. 24, no. 1 (Oct. 2001), pp. 17-32.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Fairytales

I have an odd enthusiasm for Iceland. I think it stems partly from the fact that in Brave New World, troublesome and insubordinate academics are exiled there. Although when Aldous Huxley published the novel in 1932, the Iceland he imagined was one of the least technologically advanced nations in Europe – and not the socially and politically progressive place it is imagined to be today. In fact, much of the current interest in Iceland stems from its response to the 2008 crash: Icelanders did what so many in the West wanted to do. Laurie Penny writes:

What most of the world appears to believe is that, some time between 2008 and 2009, the country refused to bail out its banks when the global economy crashed and that instead it jailed all of its bankers, overthrew the government, wrote a new constitution on the internet and elected a lesbian prime minister who solved all the nation’s problems with a flick of her magic wand.

Iceland became, seemingly, a Guardian reader’s paradise. But the reality is more complex, and, possibly, less attractive:

Although it is true that the three largest banks – Glitnir, Kaupthing and Landsbanki – were allowed to go bust in 2008, this was hardly a political choice: Iceland could do nothing else, because their debts were ten times the size of its GDP.

Popular protest did force the writing of a new constitution, but this has never been implemented. Earlier this year – for all the promise of Iceland being lead by a Pirate Party – Icelanders re-elected the centre-right coalition which was in power before the recession. And Iceland is no feminist paradise either.

But it remains a compellingly fascinating place. I think Penny sums this up particularly well:

Iceland has always been a land self-authored in myth and legend. Its lava fields and glacial plains are supposedly populated by elves, trolls and huldufólk – hidden folk – in whom 80 per cent of the population believes. At least, that’s what the PR for Icelandair wants you to think… In fact, it turns out that only 30 per cent of the population believes that fairies exist, although that third is prepared to agitate for roads to be diverted around their supposed homes. This is remarkable enough that one wonders why the tourist board bothered to exaggerate.

A few months ago, while visiting another city on the same latitude as Scandinavia – Edinburgh – I bought a copy of Sarah Moss’s memoir Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (2012). It’s an account of a British family’s year in Reykjavik, during which Moss taught English literature at the University of Iceland.

Interested in histories of eating and cooking, some of Moss’s most evocative passages are concerned with how she comes to terms with Iceland through food. The availability of a variety of – occasionally rotting, often seriously under-ripe – exceptionally expensive fresh produce imported from all over the world, suggested the enthusiasm with which Icelanders embraced consumerism during the boom. (Another potent example of this was the stigma attached to buying second-hand goods and clothes. Her efforts to buy a used washing machine were greeted with appalled horror by many of her colleagues and friends.) In fact, she and her family packed with them the foods of home – ‘the manifestations of English metropolitan middle-class identity’:

We have five litres of olive oil, a dozen tins of anchovies and a dozen jars of capers, miso paste, pomegranate syrup, cocoa nibs, seeds for growing coriander, basil and mint. Smoked chillies, sumac, allspice, dried dill, cumin. Preserved lemons, three kinds of paprika, dried lime leaves.

On a quick trip back to Kent, they bought and smuggled into Iceland

two whole salamis, a wheel of Kentish cheese … approximately three kilogrammes of chocolate, from Cadbury to Valrhona, two Christmas cakes and a stollen, half a dozen russet apples, a bag of unwaxed lemons and a couple of dozen tins of anchovies, capers and vine leaves.

Anxious about being caught by immigration officials, she hurries her husband and children through the airport. Max, her eldest son, ‘looks anxiously into [her] face. He’d make a lousy chorizo mule.’

namesforthesea

Moss is not unaware of the irony of importing what are, essentially, the ingredients of Mediterranean peasant food to Iceland, a nation apparently with a close relationship with the natural world. However, she sympathises with the taste that Icelanders’ developed for imported food, given the relative monotony of diets until, at least, the mid-twentieth century. These were heavy in smoked and dried fish, and meat often preserved in whey, blood pudding and liver sausage, potatoes, and plenty of dairy products. Grains and green vegetables were a luxury.

These high-fat diets seemed, though, to sustain farmers through long winters. Matthew, a colleague also from Britain, remembered his introduction to rural cuisine in the 1960s:

the worst imaginable kind of food I could ever think of was put on the table, steaming salted fish with a terrifying smell to it, and hot sheep fat, and potatoes. That’s all there was. And I knew I was going to be there for six weeks, and I would have to eat it or starve. I told myself, you wanted to come to Iceland, you wanted to find out what it’s like here, you bloody well eat their food, and I forced myself to eat it. And it was delicious, absolutely glorious. It’s one of my favourite dishes today.

Matthew’s answer to why they didn’t fall ill – in the absence of fruit and vegetables – was that they ate a lot of fish:

And Iceland moss, swede, and white cabbage. A lot of white cabbage. … And of course a lot of milk, and skyr [curd cheese].

Why didn’t they get scurvy?

People drank a lot of Iceland moss tea, and they were probably using many more grasses and herbs than is recorded. That knowledge has gone.

I think his point about forgetting what people used to eat is an important one. I was reminded of Moss’s book a little while ago when – for various reasons – I attended a lecture presented by Tim Noakes. Once best known for his deep knowledge of sports science, Noakes has recently developed a reputation for his almost evangelical faith in the carbohydrate-free, meat-heavy Paleo diet.

I was struck by Noakes’s use of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts which recommended excluding carbohydrates from diets, to bolster his arguments. And by his insistence that because people – like Icelanders – in the past were able to live healthily off diets consisting mainly of red meat and animal fat we should attempt to replicate them in the twenty-first century.

There are many problems with Noakes’s arguments – not least his dubious methodology in a recent paper – but I’d like to focus on his use of history to argue for a return to what our ancestors (allegedly) ate. As Moss’s friend Matthew makes the point, our knowledge of how eating habits changed over time is patchy, at best. Peasants did not painstakingly record every slurp of nettle tea. Also (and this is taken from a satirical piece, but it’s accurate):

You simply do not see specific, trans-regional trends in human subsistence in the archaeological record. People can live off everything from whale blubber to seeds and grasses. You want to know what the ideal human diet consists of? Everything. Humans can and will eat everything, and we are remarkably successful not in spite of this fact, but because of it. Our adaptability is the hallmark of the human species. We’re not called omnivores for nothing.

Noakes’s reliance on an idealised vision of the past is a significant weakness in his argument. It ignores the fact that we have a tendency to eat as wide a variety of foods as possible: when vegetables and fruit became more easily available, Icelanders happily included them in their diets.

The current obesity ‘crisis’ cannot, in other words, be fixed by returning to the mythical diets of the past. It is caused by such a myriad range of factors – ranging from poverty to urban planning – that to blame a taste for carbohydrates is to demonstrate a very narrow understanding of the problem.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 14.11.2012

The political implications of food shortages.

Cargill’s profits are up 300%.

It’s time to rethink our food system.

Can only organic farming feed the world?

Can Britain farm itself?

Global wheat and maize stocks are set to fall next year.

War rations.

Rising food prices are changing shopping habits.

How not to feed the world.

Mark Bittman’s dream food label.

On healthy school meals: rejected by pupils, and far too good. (Thanks Lindie and Lize-Marie!)

Sustainable food in hospitals.

There’s a shortage of yams in Lagos.

Literature and carbohydrates.

The most astonishing interview with Christopher Kimball of Cook’s Illustrated.

The long history of chicken soup.

Favourite meals of famous writers.

AA Gill is magnificent on the Michelin guide. (Thanks, Jane-Anne!)

Five steps to teetotalitariansim.

A cultural history of the whisk.

How good are Heston Blumenthal’s ready meals?

Flying frozen chicken.

What to eat on the frozen tundra.

Sylvia Plath’s recipe for tomato soup cake.

How to cope with the bacon shortage.

Where to find truffles in England.

On tipping.

Bizarre new flavours for Pringles.

Japanese chewing gum wrappers.

The legend of the potato king.

Jean-Christophe Novelli goes after Nigella Lawson.

It’s time for the spaghetti harvest.

These are courtesy of my Mum:

Outrage about the exclusion of pizzerias in Naples from Italy’s most influential food guide.

General Tso’s chicken by Fuchsia Dunlop.

Free-From Food

Last week I visited the new health food shop in the shopping centre near my flat. I was in search of coconut flakes to add to granola – why yes, I do make my own granola (what else did you expect?) – but, instead, bought nearly my own body weight in almond meal, and came away, amazed by the incredible range of foodstuffs and supplements on sale. I was struck by how little the diet advocated by the makers of these food products tallied with my own idea of healthy eating. While I try to eat a little of everything, and always in moderation, both the health shop and its products seem to view most forms of food with profound suspicion.

In a recent edition of Radio 4’s Food Programme, Sheila Dillon charts the rise of the ‘free from’ food industry. As she makes the point, for all that these lactose-, gluten-, sugar-, and wheat-free snacks, bars, and drinks advertise themselves as the ‘healthy’ alternative, they are as heavily processed as ready meals in supermarkets. I think that one way of accounting for this odd paradox – that people who wouldn’t normally go anywhere near a box of supermarket lasagne are willing to buy heavily processed kale chips or carob bars – is to consider how ideas around what we define as ‘healthy’ food have changed.

When I was preparing lectures on food and the 1960s counterculture my father recommended a story in Tom’s Wolfe’s New Journalism (1975). Written unbelievably beautifully by Robert Christgau, now best known as a music journalist, the essay charts the slow decline of a young woman in the thrall of a fad diet. Titled ‘Beth Ann and Macrobioticism’ the piece begins in Greenwich Village in 1965.  Twenty-three year-old married couple Beth Ann and Charlie, were living as artists, and off money from Charlie’s father, in hippy New York. Discontented with the range of mind-expanding experiences offered to them by the collection of drugs and therapies they’d been taking, Charlie learned about the Zen macrobiotic diet from a friend.

Published in the United States in the mid-1960s, Zen Macrobiotics: The Art of Rejuvenation and Longevity by Georges Ohsawa, a Japanese philosopher and sometime medical doctor,

contends that all of the physical and spiritual diseases of modern man result from his consuming too much yin (basically, potassium…) or too much yang (sodium) – usually too much yin. … Most fruits (too yin) and all red meat (too yang) are shunned, as are chemicals (additives and drugs, almost all yin, as well as ‘unnatural’) and Western medicine. According to Ohsawa, the diet is not merely a sure means to perfect physical health. …it is also a path to spiritual health and enlightenment.

As Christgau makes the point, Ohsawa’s macrobiotic diet is ‘dangerously unsound’. It’s comprised of ten progressively restrictive stages, with the final including only water and brown rice. The American Medical Association denounced the diet on the grounds that those who followed Ohsawa’s directions religiously were at risk of scurvy, anaemia, malnutrition, and kidney failure.

Beth Ann and Charlie devoted themselves to macrobiotics with enthusiasm, quickly deciding on Diet no. 7, which consisted mainly of grain and tea. Unsurprisingly, they both lost weight quickly, and experienced a kind of hunger-induced euphoria:

They slept less than six hours a night. They…felt high on the diet, with spontaneous flashes that seemed purer and more enlightening than anything they had felt on drugs. … One joyous day, they threw out every useless palliative in the medicine cabinet and then transformed their empty refrigerator…into a piece of pop culture, with sea shells in the egg compartments and art supplies and various pieces of whimsy lining the shelves.

Shortly after this, both began to sicken. Beth Ann, in particular, displayed all the symptoms for scurvy. Despite a fellow macrobiotic enthusiast’s recommendation that she add raw vegetables to her diet, Beth Ann began to fast, for stretches of two weeks at a time. She wrote to Ohsawa, who told her to remain on the diet. Soon, she was bedridden, and moved in with her parents-in-law, who urged her to see a doctor. On the morning of her death – with a fever, and very weak – another letter arrived from Ohsawa, informing her that she had misunderstood the diet completely. But it was too late: she died a few hours later.

Beth Ann was not the only person taken in by Zen macrobiotics during the 1960s and 1970s. There were several cases of people who either died from, or were hospitalised for, malnutrition and salt poisoning as a result of a too-rigid adherence to the diet.

I don’t suggest for a moment that Cape Town’s health food hippies are in danger of starving themselves to death in an attempt to follow the teachings of a twentieth-century Japanese loon, but there are remarkable continuities between the 1960s enthusiasm for Zen macrobiotics and contemporary anxieties about food and nutrition.

On the extreme end of this scale of suspicion of food, are proponents of restricted-calorie diets who argue – with very little evidence – that those who eat less, will live significantly longer. Earlier this year, a Swiss woman starved herself to death after attempting to live only on sunshine. (Perhaps she thought she would photosynthesise?)

But on the other, more reasonable side, are the legions of women’s magazines which advise their readers what not to eat, rather than what they should be eating. These, and other publications, have variously branded sugar, saturated fat, and carbohydrates as the enemies of healthy diets, and, like Zen macrobiotics, advocate increasingly restricted diets. This advice is subject to change, though. For instance, a group of experts at the American Dietetic Association’s most recent Food and Nutrition Conference noted that there is no evidence to suggest that low-fat diets have any health benefits.

Where does this idea – that food is the source of ill-health, rather than the fuel which helps to keep sickness at bay – originate? There is a millennia-old tradition in Western and other cultures of associating deprivation with moral or spiritual superiority and purity.

But, more specifically, I think that this suspicion of food can be located during the eighteenth century. Indeed, contemporary mainstream macrobiotic diets are based on the writing of an Enlightenment German physician Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (1762-1836), who is credited with coining the term ‘macrobiotics’. In The Art of Prolonging Human Life (1797), Hufeland argued that each person possesses a ‘life force’ which needs to be nurtured and protected through rest, exercise, and a carefully-calibrated diet.

Hufeland’s writing was part of a wider, Enlightenment questioning of what constituted a morally and physically healthy person. In his influential text The English Malady (1733), the Scottish physician George Cheyne (1671-1743) argued that corpulence and over-eating undermined both the health of the body as well as the mind. Roy Porter explains:

Cheyne’s books were extremely popular and many later medical thinkers echoed his calls to temperance, with added intensity. Moderation would overcome that classic Georgian disorder, the gout, proclaimed Dr William Cadogan. If the turn towards regulating the flesh was decidedly health-oriented, however, it also became part and parcel of a wider movement, expressive of preferred cultural ideals and personal identities.

The emergence of an ethical vegetarianism – vegetarianism by choice, rather than necessity – during this period was one of the best examples of this attempt to regulate excessive behaviour through moderate eating:

Joseph Ritson, for example, held that because dead meat itself was corrupt, it would stir violent passions, whereas greens, milk, seeds and water would temper the appetite and produce a better disciplined individual.

I think that there’s a continuum between this association of a restricted diet with being a better person, and contemporary notions of healthy eating. The Zen macrobiotic craze in the 1960s was an extreme example of this desire only to eat that which is ‘pure’ in order to be good – as is the relatively recent phenomenon of orthorexia:

Orthorexics commonly have rigid rules around eating. Refusing to touch sugar, salt, caffeine, alcohol, wheat, gluten, yeast, soya, corn and dairy foods is just the start of their diet restrictions. Any foods that have come into contact with pesticides, herbicides or contain artificial additives are also out.

To be clear, orthorexia does not refer to those people who are genuinely allergic to some kinds of food. Rather, it describes an obsession with eating healthily. Although this obsessiveness can be socially limiting, it’s also admired to some extent. Sticking rigidly to a needlessly restrictive, ‘free-from’ diet is seen, frequently, as a sign of self-control, and an even greater willingness to take full responsibility for maintaining one’s own health.

The emergence of orthorexia and even the growing popularity of free-from foods, are indicative of a wider belief that we should care more about what we don’t eat, rather than what we do – and that there’s a connection between eating ‘healthily’ (whatever we may mean by that), and being a good and virtuous person. In a time when it is ever-easier to eat cheap junk food, and when rates of obesity are soaring all over the world, surely, it makes better sense to emphasise the pleasures of good food – and not to suggest that the unhealthy or overweight are morally suspect?

Further Reading

Robert Christgau, ‘Beth Ann and Macrobioticism,’ in The New Journalism, ed. Tom Wolfe and EW Johnson (London: Picador, 1975), pp. 363-372.

Karlyn Crowley, ‘Gender on a Plate: The Calibration of Identity in American Macrobiotics,’ Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, vol. 2, no. 3 (Summer 2002), pp. 37- 48.

Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason: How the Enlightenment Transformed the Way We See Our Bodies and Souls (London: Penguin, 2003).

Victoria Rezash, ‘Can a Macrobiotic Diet Cure Cancer?’ Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, vol. 12, no. 5 (Oct. 2008), pp. 807-808.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

A Sporting Chance

My expectations of the London Olympics’ opening ceremony were so low that, I suppose, I would have been impressed if it had featured Boris as Boudicca, driving a chariot over the prostate figures of the Locog committee. (Actually, now that I think about it, that would have been fairly entertaining.)

Appalled by the organising committee’s slavishly sycophantic attitude towards its sponsors and their ‘rights’ – which caused them to ban home knitted cushions from being distributed to the Olympic athletes, and to require shops and restaurants to remove Olympic-themed decorations and products – as well the rule that online articles and blog posts may not link to the official 2012 site if they’re critical of the games, the decision to make the official entrance of the Olympic site a shopping mall, and the creation of special lanes for VIP traffic, I wasn’t terribly impressed by the London Olympics.

But watching the opening ceremony last night, I was reduced to a pile of NHS-adoring, Tim Berners-Lee worshipping, British children’s literature-loving goo. Although a reference to the British Empire – other than the arrival of the Windrush – would have been nice, I think that Danny Boyle’s narrative of British history which emphasised the nation’s industrial heritage, its protest and trade union movements, and its pop culture, was fantastic.

As some commentators have noted, this was the opposite of the kind of kings-and-queens-and-great-men history curriculum which Michael Gove wishes schools would teach. Oh and the parachuting Queen and Daniel Craig were pretty damn amazing too.

There was even a fleeting, joking reference to the dire quality of British food during the third part of the ceremony. There was something both apt, but also deeply ironic about this. On the one hand, there has been extensive coverage of Locog’s ludicrous decision to allow manufacturers of junk food – Coke, Cadbury’s, McDonald’s – not only to be official sponsors of a sporting event, but to provide much of the catering. (McDonald’s even tried to ban other suppliers from selling chips on the Olympic site.)

But, on the other, Britain’s food scene has never been in better shape. It has excellent restaurants – and not only at the top end of the scale – and thriving and wonderful farmers’ markets and street food.

It’s this which makes the decision not to open up the catering of the event to London’s food trucks, restaurants, and caterers so tragic. It is true that meals for the athletes and officials staying in the Village have been locally sourced and made from ethically-produced ingredients, and this is really great. But why the rules and regulations which actually make it more difficult for fans and spectators to buy – or bring their own – healthy food?

Of course, the athletes themselves will all be eating carefully calibrated, optimally nutritious food. There’s been a lot of coverage of the difficulties of catering for so many people who eat such a variety of different things. The idea that athletes’ performance is enhanced by what they consume – supplements, food, and drugs (unfortunately) – has become commonplace.

Even my local gym’s café – an outpost of the Kauai health food chain – serves meals which are, apparently, suited for physically active people. I’ve never tried them, partly because the thought of me as an athlete is so utterly nuts. (I’m an enthusiastic, yet deeply appalling, swimmer.)

The notion that food and performance are linked in some way, has a long pedigree. In Ancient Greece, where diets were largely vegetarian, but supplemented occasionally with (usually goat) meat, evidence suggests that athletes at the early Olympics consumed more meat than usual to improve their performance. Ann C. Grandjean explains:

Perhaps the best accounts of athletic diet to survive from antiquity, however, relate to Milo of Croton, a wrestler whose feats of strength became legendary. He was an outstanding figure in the history of Greek athletics and won the wrestling event at five successive Olympics from 532 to 516 B.C. According to Athenaeus and Pausanius, his diet was 9 kg (20 pounds) of meat, 9 kg (20 pounds) of bread and 8.5 L (18 pints) of wine a day. The validity of these reports from antiquity, however, must be suspect. Although Milo was clearly a powerful, large man who possessed a prodigious appetite, basic estimations reveal that if he trained on such a volume of food, Milo would have consumed approximately 57,000 kcal (238,500 kJ) per day.

Eating more protein – although perhaps not quite as much as reported by Milo of Croton’s fans – helps to build muscle, and would have given athletes an advantage over other, leaner competitors.

Another ancient dietary supplement seems to have been alcohol. Trainers provided their athletes with alcoholic drinks before and after training – in much the same way that contemporary athletes may consume sports drinks. But some, more recent sportsmen seem to have gone a little overboard, as Grandjean notes:

as recently as the 1908 Olympics, marathon runners drank cognac to enhance performance, and at least one German 100-km walker reportedly consumed 22 glasses of beer and half a bottle of wine during competition.

Drunken, German walker: I salute you and your ability to walk in a straight line after that much beer.

The London Olympic Village is, though, dry. Even its pub only serves soft drinks. With the coming of the modern games – which coincided with the development of sport and exercise science in the early twentieth century – diets became the subject of scientific enquiry. The professionalization of sport – with athletes more reliant on doing well in order to make a living – only served to increase the significance of this research.

One of the first studies on the link between nutrition and the performance of Olympic athletes was conducted at the 1952 games in Helsinki. The scientist E. Jokl (about whom I know nothing – any help gratefully received) demonstrated that those athletes who consumed fewer carbohydrates tended to do worse than those who ate more. Grandjean comments:

His findings may have been the genesis of the oft-repeated statement that the only nutritional difference between athletes and nonathletes is the need for increased energy intake. Current knowledge of sports nutrition, however, would indicate a more complex relationship.

As research into athletes’ diets has progressed, so fashions for particular supplements and foods have emerged over the course of the twentieth century. Increasing consumption of protein and carbohydrates has become a common way of improving performance. Whereas during the 1950s and 1960s, athletes simply ate more meat, milk, bread, and pasta, since the 1970s, a growing selection of supplements has allowed sportsmen and –women to add more carefully calibrated and targeted forms of protein and carbohydrates to their diets.

Similarly, vitamin supplements have been part of athletes’ diets since the 1930s. Evidence from athletes competing at the 1972 games in Munich demonstrated widespread use of multivitamins, although now, participants tend to choose more carefully those vitamins which produce specific outcomes.

But this history of shifting ideas around athletes’ diets cannot be understood separately from the altogether more shadowy history of doping – of using illicit means of improving one’s performance. Even the ancient Greeks and Romans used stimulants – ranging from dried figs to animal testes – to suppress fatigue and boost performance.

More recently, some of the first examples of doping during the nineteenth century come from cycling (nice to see that some things don’t change), and, more specifically, from long-distance, week-long bicycle races which depended on cyclists’ reserves of strength and stamina. Richard IG Holt, Ioulietta Erotokritou-Mulligan, and Peter H. Sönksen explain:

A variety of performance enhancing mixtures were tried; there are reports of the French using mixtures with caffeine bases, the Belgians using sugar cubes dripped in ether, and others using alcohol-containing cordials, while the sprinters specialised in the use of nitroglycerine. As the race progressed, the athletes increased the amounts of strychnine and cocaine added to their caffeine mixtures. It is perhaps unsurprising that the first doping fatality occurred during such an event, when Arthur Linton, an English cyclist who is alleged to have overdosed on ‘tri-methyl’ (thought to be a compound containing either caffeine or ether), died in 1886 during a 600 km race between Bordeaux and Paris.

Before the introduction of doping regulations, the use of performance enhancing drugs was rife at the modern Olympics:

In 1904, Thomas Hicks, winner of the marathon, took strychnine and brandy several times during the race. At the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1932, Japanese swimmers were said to be ‘pumped full of oxygen’. Anabolic steroids were referred to by the then editor of Track and Field News in 1969 as the ‘breakfast of champions’.

But regulation – the first anti-drugs tests were undertaken at the 1968 Mexico games – didn’t stop athletes from doping – the practice simply went underground. The USSR and East Germany allowed their representatives to take performance enhancing drugs, and an investigation undertaken after Ben Johnson was disqualified for doping at the Seoul games revealed that at least half of the athletes who competed at the 1988 Olympics had taken anabolic steroids. In 1996, some athletes called the summer Olympics in Atlanta the ‘Growth Hormone Games’ and the 2000 Olympics were dubbed the ‘Dirty Games’ after the disqualification of Marion Jones for doping.

At the heart of the issue of doping and the use of supplements, is distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate means of enhancing performance. The idea that taking drugs to make athletes run, swim, or cycle faster, or jump further and higher, is unfair, is a relatively recent one. It’s worth noting that the World Anti-Doping Agency, which is responsible for establishing and maintaining standards for anti-doping work, was formed only in 1999.

What makes anabolic steroids different from consuming high doses of protein, amino acids, or vitamins? Why, indeed, was Caster Semenya deemed to have an unfair advantage at the 2009 IAAF World Championships, but the blade-running Oscar Pistorius is not?

I’m really pleased that both Semenya and Pistorius are participating in the 2012 games – I’m immensely proud that Semenya carried South Africa’s flag into the Olympic stadium – but their experiences, as well as the closely intertwined histories of food supplements and doping in sport, demonstrate that the idea of an ‘unfair advantage’ is a fairly nebulous one.

Further Reading

Elizabeth A. Applegate and Louis E. Grivetti, ‘Search for the Competitive Edge: A History of Dietary Fads and Supplements,’ The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 127, no. 5 (2007), pp. 869S-873S.

Ann C. Grandjean, ‘Diets of Elite Athletes: Has the Discipline of Sports Nutrition Made an Impact?’ The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 127, no. 5 (2007), pp. 874S-877S.

Richard IG Holt, Ioulietta Erotokritou-Mulligan, and Peter H. Sönksen, ‘The History of Doping and Growth Hormone Abuse in Sport,’ Growth Hormone & IGF Research, vol. 19 (2009), pp. 320-326.

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Feed the Children

There has been some fuss recently around the publication of Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray, who co-authored The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life in 1994, has a reputation for annoying left-leaning academics and public policy makers. His description of the Bell Curve was accused of being blind to cultural and social influences on learning and childhood development, and his most recent polemic has been criticised for its rose-tinted view of the American white working class during the mid-twentieth century.

One of the best criticisms of the book which I’ve come across is Nell Irvin Painter’s article for the New York Times, ‘When Poverty was White.’ Painter, whose History of White People (2010) I urge you to read, makes the point that America has a well-hidden and very recent history of white poverty. She accuses Murray of ‘historical blindness’ caused by his

narrow focus on the cultural and policy changes of the 1960s as the root of white America’s decline. The story of white poverty…is much longer and more complex than he and his admirers realise or want to admit.

Her point is that to understand the nature of poverty – why some families seem incapable of escaping it, why certain members of society seem to be particularly susceptible to it – we need to historicise it.

There is a similar argument to be made about white poverty in South Africa. One of the reasons why photographs of poor whites in South Africa draw such attention is because South Africans tend to think of poverty as being black. Poor whites are a strange anomaly in the economic and racial politics of post-1994 South Africa.

But ‘poor whiteism’ as a social and political phenomenon only disappeared during the economic boom of the early 1960s. Since at least the 1920s, South African governments were preoccupied by the ‘poor white problem’ – by the existence of a substantial group of people who, as the popular author Sarah Gertrude Millin wrote in 1926, could not support themselves ‘according to a European standard of civilisation’ and who could not ‘keep clear the line of demarcation between black and white.’

South Africa’s earliest soup kitchens were not for black, but, rather, for white children. The first child welfare organisations aimed their work not at black families, but, rather, at white families who were poor. South Africa’s attempts to introduce compulsory elementary education in the 1910s and 1920s pertained only to white, not to black, children. This isn’t to suggest that black poverty was somehow less acute or widespread than white poverty. Far from it. State concern about poor whiteism was borne out of a eugenicist belief that, as Millin suggested, white poverty signalled a decline in white power.

The first attempts to eradicate white poverty were directed at families and children. Although we tend to associate the poor white problem with the 1920s and 1930s, there had been a large group of impoverished white farmers in the country’s rural interior since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. By the 1880s and 1890s, colonial politicians, and particularly those in the Cape, were increasingly anxious about this class of whites. This was partly because the numbers of impoverished whites – both in rural and urban areas – had increased during the region’s industrialisation after the discovery of diamonds and gold, but it was also the result of decades of poor education which had produced at least two generations of unemployable whites.

Both in South Africa and in the rest of the world, poverty was racialised during the 1880s and 1890s. The existence of unemployed and unemployable poor whites challenged the association of ‘natural’ supremacy and the exercise of power with whiteness. The term ‘poor white’ no longer simply referred to white people who lived in poverty, but, rather, invoked a set of fears around racial mixing and white superiority.

Impoverished white adults were believed to be beyond saving, as one Cape industrialist argued in 1895: ‘the adults are irreclaimable. You must let them die off, and teach the young ones to work.’ The Cape government poured money into schools for poor white children. In 1905, education became compulsory for all white children in the Cape between the ages of seven and fourteen. Politicians also passed legislation to allow these children to be removed from parents deemed to be unable to care for them appropriately. After the declaration of the Union of South Africa in 1910, government spending on education grew from 14 per cent of the national budget to 28 per cent in 1930.

But the problem did not go away. Industrialisation and economic expansion, as well as the effects of the Great War, two depressions, and urbanisation in the 1920s and 1930s increased the numbers of impoverished whites. By the end of the 1920s, it was estimated that out of a total of 1,800,000 whites, 300,000 were ‘very poor’, and nearly all of these were Afrikaans. The Carnegie Commission of Investigation on the Poor White Question (1929-1932) concluded that an inability to adapt to a changing economic climate, outdated farming methods, and poor education were to blame for the existence of such a large population of impoverished whites.

In 1929, the South African government devoted 13 per cent of its budget to the eradication of white poverty. Much of this went to education, social welfare, and housing. The introduction of more stringent segregationist legislation progressively disenfranchised blacks, and reserved skilled work for whites.

There was also a shift in emphasis in how child welfare societies – the numbers of which had mushroomed during the 1920s – dealt with poor white children. No longer did they only work to ensure that white children were sent to school and adequately cared for by their parents, but they began to focus on how these children were fed.

I’m still trying to account for this new concern about the effects of malnutrition on white children. I think that it was due largely to an international scientific debate about the significance of nutrition in raising both physically and intellectually strong children. Louis Leipoldt – Medical Inspector for Schools in the Transvaal, food writer, Buddhist, poet, and Afrikaner culture broker – was particularly aware of this new thinking about childhood development and nutrition, and wrote about it extensively in publications on child health and welfare in South Africa.

In a report of a survey of the health of children in the Cape published in 1922, the province’s Medical Inspector of Schools, Elsie Chubb, argued that malnutrition was widespread in the Cape’s schools for white children. In most schools, around 10% of the pupils were malnourished. In one school in the rural Karoo, 79% of children were found to be severely malnourished.

Chubb recognised that malnutrition was not purely the result of an inadequate supply of food – although it was certainly the case that many poor parents simply couldn’t afford to buy enough food to feed their children – but of poor diet. Some child welfare volunteers wrote of children sent to school on coffee and biltong, and who returned home at the end of the day for a basic supper of maize meal and cheap meat. Chubb wrote that far too many children were fed on a diet heavy in carbohydrates and animal protein. Children did not eat enough fresh fruit and vegetables, and milk. She recommended that feeding schemes be established to supplement children’s diets with these foodstuffs.

Helen Murray, the headmistress of a girls’ school in Graaff Reinet and active member of the town’s child welfare society explained the contemporary understanding of the link between malnutrition and poor whiteism particularly well in 1925:

In the winter of 1918 our schools had regular medical inspection for the first time. The doctor who inspected told some of us that he had found some fifty children in our poor school suffering from malnutrition and spoke strongly of the results of such a condition. The children were not in danger of dying of starvation, they had dry bread and black coffee enough to prevent that, but they were in danger of growing up to be ‘poor whites’ of the most hopeless type. The body insufficiently nourished during the years of growth would develop physically weak, and the brain as a result would be unfit for real mental effort. The child suffering from years of wrong feeding could not be expected to grow into the strong, healthy, clearheaded man or woman our country needs today, and will need ten and twenty years hence. To see that the underfed child is well fed is not a matter of charity, but must be undertaken in self-defence.

As a result of the inspection, the child welfare society found a room in the town where between fifty and ninety children could be provided with ‘a good, hot meal’ on every school day:

We had been told that these children could be saved from growing up weaklings if they could have one good meal of fat meat, vegetables or fruit, on every school day of the year….

We have the satisfaction of knowing that there has been a marked improvement in the health of the children and of hearing from a Medical Inspector that she has found the condition of the children here better than in many other schools of the same class.

Murray’s experience in Graaff Reinet was not unique. As child welfare societies were established in the towns and villages of South Africa’s vast interior, their first work was usually to establish soup kitchens, either in schools or in a central locations where schoolchildren could be sent before the school day – for porridge and milk – and at lunchtime, for soup or a more substantial meal, depending on the resources of the local society.

In Pietersburg (now Polokwane), to eliminate the stigma of free meals for poor children, all white children were provided with a mug of soup at lunchtime. Better-off parents paid for the soup, thus subsidising those children whose parents could not contribute. In Reitz, local farmers, butchers, and grocers donated meat and vegetables to the soup kitchen, and in Oudtshoorn children were encouraged to bring a contribution – onions, carrots, or cabbage – to their daily meal.

The National Council for Child Welfare, the umbrella body established in 1924 which oversaw the activities of local child welfare societies, liked to emphasise the fact that it was concerned for the welfare of all children, regardless of class or race. Some welfare societies, and particularly those in areas which had large ‘locations’ for black residents, did establish clinics and crèches for black children. But most of the NCCW’s work was aimed at white children in the 1920s and 1930s, and the same was true of the South African state. By the 1920s, most municipalities in towns and cities made free milk available to poor white mothers with babies and very young children.

Increasing state involvement in child welfare, alongside the work of independent societies, had a significant impact on the health of white children in South Africa during the early twentieth century. But it was only because of the growing prosperity and better education of the majority of white South Africans after World War II that white poverty and malnutrition were gradually eradicated in the 1950s and 1960s.

By historicising poverty – by understanding that white prosperity in South Africa is a relatively recent phenomenon – we can understand it as a phenomenon which is not only eradicable, but which is also the product of a range of social, economic, and political forces. As South African governments and welfare organisations were able to reduce white poverty and malnutrition dramatically during the early twentieth century, so it is possible for contemporary governments to do the same.

But charity and soup kitchens were not the sole cause of the disappearance of white poverty and malnutrition. Jobs, education, and better living conditions were as – if not more – significant in ensuring that white children no longer went hungry.

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

SE Duff, ‘“Education for Every Son and Daughter of South Africa”: Race, Class, and the Compulsory Education Debate in the Cape Colony,’ in Citizenship, Modernisation, and Nationhood: The Cultural Role of Mass Education, 1870-1930, eds. Lawrence Brockliss and Nicola Sheldon (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

E.G. Malherbe, Education in South Africa, vol. I (Cape Town: Juta, 1925).

E.G. Malherbe, Education in South Africa, vol. II (Cape Town: Juta, 1977).

E.G. Malherbe, Report of the Carnegie Commission of Investigation on the Poor White Question in South Africa, vol. III (Stellenbosch: Pro Ecclesia-Drukkery, 1932).

Sarah Gertrude Millin, The South Africans (London: Constable, 1926).

Jennifer Muirhead, ‘“The children of today make the nation of tomorrow”: A Social History of Child Welfare in Twentieth Century South Africa’ (MA thesis, Stellenbosch University, 2012).

Other sources:

Vivian Bickford-Smith, Ethnic Pride and Racial Prejudice in Victorian Cape Town (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 1995).

Colin Bundy, ‘Vagabond Hollanders and Runaway Englishmen: White Poverty in the Cape Before Poor Whitesim,’ in Putting a Plough to the Ground: Accumulation and Dispossession in Rural South Africa 1880-1930, eds. William Beinart, Peter Delius, and Stanley Trapido (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1986).

J.M. Coetzee, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).

Saul Dubow, A Commonwealth of Knowledge: Science, Sensibility and White South Africa 1820-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Marijke du Toit, ‘Women, Welfare and the Nurturing of Afrikaner Nationalism: A Social History of the Afrikaanse Christelike Vroue Vereniging, c.1870-1939’ (D.Phil. thesis, University of Cape Town, 1996).

Hermann Giliomee, The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2003).

Isabel Hofmeyr, ‘Building a Nation from Words: Afrikaans Language, Literature and Ethnic Identity, 1902-1924,’ in The Politics of Race, Class and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century South Africa, eds. Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido (London: Longman, 1987).

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No Items Found

On 10 March 1914, Mary Richardson, a militant member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, attacked the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery. She slashed it with an axe in protest of the British establishment’s hypocrisy for prosecuting – or ‘destroying’, in her words – Emmeline Pankhurst and other suffragettes for demanding the right to vote, while admiring nudes and other idealised women in art galleries.

Although not my favourite feminist heroine, given her future role as the head of the women’s division of the British Union of Fascists, Richardson was the first of a long line of feminists to destroy or vandalise symbols of discrimination against women. The famous (non)burning of bras, curlers, and tights by the New York Radical Women at their anti-Miss America protest in 1968 signalled their refusal to buy into the stultifying middle-class feminine ideal – the ‘feminine mystique’ identified five years previously by Betty Friedan.

So what would women burn or chop today?

In a pleasing coincidence, I began teaching second wave feminism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s on International Women’s Day on Thursday. What struck – and depressed – me as I wrote these lectures is the extent to which the contemporary feminist movement is still fighting for the same things – equal pay, maternity leave, childcare – as women were during the 1960s and 1970s.

Even if sexism and gender inequality are now widely accepted as measures of injustice, the fact that the collection of nitwits running for the Republican candidateship feel that free access to contraception is an issue even worth debating, demonstrates that feminism still has some pretty basic battles to fight.

So when I suggest that many women would probably choose to burn women’s magazines, I do realise that women all over the world have to contend with considerably worse threats to their freedom. When Friedan and Helen Gurley Brown accused women’s magazines of the 1950s and 1960s of promoting an old-fashioned, limiting definition of femininity – one which confined women to the domestic space and which judged those women who chose alternative ways of living, as sluttish and improper – they did so in the belief that publications like Ladies Home Journal and Reader’s Digest contributed to the maintenance of patriarchy.

They bought into the view – told to Friedan by an advertising executive – that ‘properly manipulated…American housewives can be given that sense of identity, purpose, creativity, the self-realisation, even the sexual joy they lack – by the buying of things.’

I gave up reading women’s magazines when I moved to the UK for my PhD. I had to think more carefully about how to spend my money and decided on Waitrose Food Illustrated and Private Eye (I like to think of myself as well-rounded). I felt all the better for not having my various ‘imperfections’ pointed out to me monthly by the eternally chipper editorial staff of Marie Claire.

And that’s the invidious thing about women’s magazines: for all their guff about being aimed at ‘spirited‘ and ‘fearless’ women, these magazines peddle a deeply conservative vision of femininity: in their articles about balancing relationships with work, embracing physical ‘imperfections’ and ‘flaws’, eating ‘healthily’ (or not at all), and conforming to whatever’s fashionable that season, their implication is that the majority of their readers are not actually succeeding as women – that having a well-paying job is abnormal, that being fat (or even just not stick thin) is wrong, that women shouldn’t really enjoy sex, and not wearing or owning what’s fashionable is reprehensible. This is why women need to read Elle, Glamour, and, Lord help us, Cosmopolitan in order to become ‘normal’.

Doing research for this post this morning – thank you Melissa’s in Kloof Street for having such an excellent selection of magazines – I choked on my muesli as I read an article in Glamour advising its readers how to be ‘good at sex’, complete with a ‘confession’ from a reader who was, apparently, ‘bad’ as sex. How? How is it possible to be ‘bad’ at sex? Did the wrong bit end up in the wrong hole? Or what?

But what gets to me the most about these magazines is the nonsense they write about food and nutrition under the guise of promoting ‘healthy’ lifestyles. As the writer Hillary Rosner recounts of her experiences of writing for women’s magazines in the US, factual accuracy seems to be the last thing which interests magazine editors:

I was told multiple times by editors at another women’s mag to feed a source a quote—as in, ‘Can you call this source back and see if they’ll make this specific point in these exact words?’ These were stories about health, in a magazine women turn to for actual, truthful, information. (I refused.)

The Glamour website for South Africa lists a range of tips for healthy eating, most of which are not based on any firm, scientific evidence. For instance, a section on ‘detox’ perpetuates the myth that it’s necessary – and possible – to ‘detoxify’ one’s body after a particularly bad bout of unhealthy eating and drinking. This is not true. There is no evidence whatsoever to prove that going on ‘detox’ diets do our bodies any good. We don’t carry around in us ‘toxins’ and ‘impurities’ which need, somehow, to be flushed out of our systems.

So what do they suggest for detox – particularly when hung over? They begin with water and fruit juice, which are fine. But their suggestions of tuna, brown rice, and quinoa, while good to eat, won’t end a hangover. And, no, peppermint tea isn’t ‘known to speed up the detoxification process’, nor will eating gherkins. They suggest that there’s something wrong about eating carbohydrates (there isn’t) and that drinking milk will in some way ‘prevent alcoholic damage’ to your body (it won’t).

An even more preposterous post lists the ‘junk foods’ which are supposed to make readers lose weight. They suggest, wrongly, that the calcium in ice cream, milkshakes, and cheese will curb appetites and help to ‘break down fat’. And since when were popcorn and potatoes ‘junk food’? The long list of foods which, apparently, fight cellulite – from apples and celery to oats and popcorn (wait, wasn’t that supposed to be junk food?) – are all part of a healthy diet, but won’t specifically reduce one’s cellulite. There is no miracle cure for cellulite.

For a magazine which seeks, apparently, to promote healthy body images, it has a strange obsession with weight loss – and with foods which, apparently, limit one’s appetite. In a single post about ‘Post-Holiday Body Blues’ (no, me neither), yogurt, eggs, and beef are all credited for making one feel ‘fuller for longer’ and for combating ‘food cravings’.

Aren’t women supposed to eat? Or, if they are, they are not supposed to show any enjoyment of it. A post on puddings begins:

If we weren’t afraid of looking greedy, we’d admit that we don’t care much for mains, that starters are quite dull and that what makes restaurant trips so toe-tinglingly exciting is the prospect of gooey chocolate and burnt sugar.

There is nothing greedy, sinful, indulgent, or decadent – all favourite women’s mag terms for sweet things – about eating pudding. It is greedy to accept a bonus of a couple of million pounds; sinful to murder someone; indulgent to spoil a child; and decadent to play stringed instruments while Rome burns. These adjectives do not apply to the eating of cake.

We know stunningly little about the science of nutrition. The most common result on the databases I was using to research the relative benefits of gherkins, ice cream, and popcorn as proposed by Glamour, was ‘no items found’. For all that women’s magazines insist that ‘science’ or ‘scientists’ (never defined and never properly referenced) have proven the claims on which their advice is based, we only know that a healthy diet is high in fruit and vegetables, and relatively low in sugar and saturated fat. Everything else is pure speculation.

And this is a boon to women’s magazines. Their agenda is to discourage women from eating at all, and if they can marshal ‘science’ and facts pulled from the air – or, more likely, dodgy nutrition websites – to support this view, then so much the better.

Given the wide readership of these magazines, this is extraordinarily irresponsible journalism. But it also demonstrates the extent to which women’s magazines are complicit in the promotion of a femininity predicated on body shape: being ultra-thin is, in the eyes of these magazines, a signifier of success and, most importantly, of being in control.

I think that this is best exemplified by the conclusion of an article about dieting in this month’s Cosmopolitan:

And if you have friends who eat healthily and exercise regularly, don’t tempt them to have the dressing or the cheesecake they resolutely resist, or to skip gym or a run…. Be supportive or mind your own business – ‘many lie about their true diet simply because others are judgemental, and you may presume them into deception.’

If this is the only control allowed to women, then feminism still has a long way to go.

Further reading

Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Norton, 1963).

Helen Gurley Brown, Sex and the Single Girl (New York: B. Geis Associated, 1962).

Mark H. Lytle, America’s Uncivil Wars: The Sixties Era, from Elvis to the Fall of Richard Nixon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Nora L. Magid, ‘The Heart, the Mind, the Pickled Okra: Women’s Magazines in the Sixties,’ The North American Review, vol. 255, no. 4 (Winter, 1970), pp. 20-29.

Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue: The Anti-Diet Guide to Permanent Weight Loss (New York and London: Paddington Press, 1978).

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