Yesterday, Michelle Obama announced the “Let’s Move” initiative to end obesity in children. And, as I mentioned in my previous post, I just finished reading Kathleen Brown’s Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America (2009), which is a fascinating exploration of ideas about cleanliness as well as the technologies and somatic experiences of cleanliness (or its absence) and how they change over time from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. I haven’t had the time to do a lot of reading on “Let’s Move,” but I’m already struck by how rhetoric about obesity today tracks with the same concerns 200 years ago about civilizing American bodies through cleanliness, and children’s bodies in particular. It’s really uncanny.
Brown makes the point that nineteenth-century bourgeois reformers identified the clean body as a site of virtuous citizenship. But of course clean clothing and clean bodies, and the means and ability to achieve them, were above all a marker of one’s class status, since it was only the middle-class who could afford to do laundry weekly (and/or have a “hired girl” in to do it), and only the wealthy who had running water, bathtubs, and the means to travel to fashionable spas for soaking in and drinking up healing mineral waters. Brown also tracks the convergence in the later eighteenth century and early nineteenth century between discourses on spiritual or moral cleanliness, and bodily and household cleanliness. Early in the nineteenth century particular attention was paid first to children’s bodies as an index of their mother’s moral worth, and then later in the century as the bodies of poor and/or immigrant children came into contact on a regular basis with the bodies of middle-class and even elite children in public schools.
If we replace the words “unclean” with “fat,” and “cleanliness” with “thinness,” we’ll come very close to the rhetoric and language of the “Let’s Move” campaign. Here are a few selections from Brown’s book with the relevant substitutions from page 327:
The diverse cluster of meanings attached to the concept of cleanliness [thinness] by the 1840s [2010s] fitted it for multiple purposes and endowed it with moral force. Attention to cleanliness [thinness] signified not only refinement and health but empowerment and responsibility for oneself. The clean [thin] person who took care to live in a clean [thin] environment displayed agency, decency, and virtue, and could claim humanity in full. In contrast, filth [fat] connoted vice, disease, and degredation. . . Few considered that city squalor and southern rural poverty made such standards impossible for the nation’s poorest citizens. . . .
Those who made it their mission to transform the bodily habits and living conditions of the allegedly unclean [fat] engaged in a dynamic process that was at once an act of distinction, humanitarian intervention, cultural imperialism, and intimate intrusion into the lives of others. By making cleanliness [thinness] their mission, they announced their own bodily refinement and claimed the authority to set standards. Privacy was the privilege of the indisputably clean [thin] who peered at the bed linens [clothing], dinner tables, and scalps [bodies] of those they aimed to reform.
Melissa McEwan at Shakesville had some thought-provoking posts on “Let’s Move” yesterday. She regrets the campaign’s apparent mobilization of fat hatred–part I is here, and part II is here–and makes some excellent points about the structural and economic reasons for obesity in children. It was her posts yesterday that got me thinking about the related discourses on dirt and fat. Just read a little bit of the coverage, and you’ll see the intertwining of discourses on disease, morality, and self-sufficiency.
For example, ABC’s story talks about “the American plague of childhood obesity.” Obama herself uses the language of disease to describe obesity–she’s quoted in several media outlets saying, “This isn’t like a disease where we’re still waiting for the cure to be discovered. . . We know the cure for this.” Another connection across the centuries is the rhetoric of (in Brown’s words, above) “empowerment and responsibility for the self.” The Let’s Move website is full of “empowerment,”–for consumers, for parents, and for children themselves. Similarly, Obama says that this initiative is not about “having government tell people what to do. Instead, I’m looking at what we all can do.” Another interesting connection is that the South was thought by Northerners to be full of dirty (and therefore unvirtuous) people in the antebellum period, and today the South is identified as the region of the U.S. that has the fattest citizens.
Brown shows that the modern American body was born around the turn of the nineteenth century, but it appears that the variations on it are infinite. A virtuous body is not just a clean body–it’s a body that conforms to a prescribed shape and size now, too. Thin is (once again) not just “in,” but part of a new expression of virtuous citizenship.
(Images from Child-land: Picture Pages for the Little Ones,by Oscar Pletsch and M. Rictor, 1873)