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"Your Stomach Must Be Disciplined": Lulu Hunt Peters and the Beginnings of Calorie-Counting in Corporeal Self-Regulation, 1918-1924

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Abstract:

Some historians have noted that the modern, mainstream aversion to fat had become increasingly salient by the 1880s. The beginnings of America’s obsession with combating corpulence--whether for health or aesthetic purposes--certainly owed in part to the machinations of advertisers, the fashion industry, life insurance companies, pharmaceutical interests, and food manufacturers. But an account of how Americans went from aspiring to leanness rather than corpulence is incomplete without an examination into the function of nutrition advocates—physicians, chemists, and un-credentialed, but self-styled experts--in the creation of norms about food consumption and body size.

This paper traces the development and popularization of the calorie from the advent of technological innovations that measured the calorie value of foodstuffs and people’s caloric needs to the ways in which knowledge about the nexus between calories, fat, and weight gain percolated from scientific and medical authorities to the general public. I argue that the calorie facilitated a new way of disciplining the body and became the center of a corporeal regulation in which characterizations of the calorie as a fail-proof product of modern science reinforced the notion that one’s body size was determined by individual behavior rather than ascribable to other considerations beyond one’s control. Moreover, the calorie, a hitherto invisible dimension of food, resulted in a reconstitution of food as calories and body fat and contributed to dieters’ changing perceptions of their entitlement to food, especially to calorie-dense aliments.

Lulu Hunt Peters (1873-1930), a syndicated medical advice newspaper columnist and the author of the nation’s first best-selling diet book, Diet and Health, with Key to the Calories (1918), was indispensable to the dissemination of popular knowledge about the calorie. To Peters and her devotees, a knowledge of calories combined with the practice of calorie-counting seemed to offer the most precise, effective means of vanquishing corporeal bulge in a putatively modern and scientific early-twentieth century America. Dieters who previously felt powerless to change their bodies because they were uncertain of the relationship between food consumption and body size were imbued with a newfound sense of control over their corporeal selves. But recording every calorie consumed also meant that if calorie-counters failed to achieve desired weight loss, they could only fault themselves for lacking the willpower to abide by their calorie restriction programs.
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Name: The American Studies Association
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MLA Citation:

Jou, Chin. ""Your Stomach Must Be Disciplined": Lulu Hunt Peters and the Beginnings of Calorie-Counting in Corporeal Self-Regulation, 1918-1924" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA, Oct 11, 2007 <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p185594_index.html>

APA Citation:

Jou, C. , 2007-10-11 ""Your Stomach Must Be Disciplined": Lulu Hunt Peters and the Beginnings of Calorie-Counting in Corporeal Self-Regulation, 1918-1924" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p185594_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: Some historians have noted that the modern, mainstream aversion to fat had become increasingly salient by the 1880s. The beginnings of America’s obsession with combating corpulence--whether for health or aesthetic purposes--certainly owed in part to the machinations of advertisers, the fashion industry, life insurance companies, pharmaceutical interests, and food manufacturers. But an account of how Americans went from aspiring to leanness rather than corpulence is incomplete without an examination into the function of nutrition advocates—physicians, chemists, and un-credentialed, but self-styled experts--in the creation of norms about food consumption and body size.

This paper traces the development and popularization of the calorie from the advent of technological innovations that measured the calorie value of foodstuffs and people’s caloric needs to the ways in which knowledge about the nexus between calories, fat, and weight gain percolated from scientific and medical authorities to the general public. I argue that the calorie facilitated a new way of disciplining the body and became the center of a corporeal regulation in which characterizations of the calorie as a fail-proof product of modern science reinforced the notion that one’s body size was determined by individual behavior rather than ascribable to other considerations beyond one’s control. Moreover, the calorie, a hitherto invisible dimension of food, resulted in a reconstitution of food as calories and body fat and contributed to dieters’ changing perceptions of their entitlement to food, especially to calorie-dense aliments.

Lulu Hunt Peters (1873-1930), a syndicated medical advice newspaper columnist and the author of the nation’s first best-selling diet book, Diet and Health, with Key to the Calories (1918), was indispensable to the dissemination of popular knowledge about the calorie. To Peters and her devotees, a knowledge of calories combined with the practice of calorie-counting seemed to offer the most precise, effective means of vanquishing corporeal bulge in a putatively modern and scientific early-twentieth century America. Dieters who previously felt powerless to change their bodies because they were uncertain of the relationship between food consumption and body size were imbued with a newfound sense of control over their corporeal selves. But recording every calorie consumed also meant that if calorie-counters failed to achieve desired weight loss, they could only fault themselves for lacking the willpower to abide by their calorie restriction programs.

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