Reading this fine piece of social history on dieting, my response alternated between reassurance and dismay. It turns out the human battle against obesity is nothing new; in fact, obesity was probably already a fact for Paleolithic man. It became increasingly commonplace as agricultural settlements began to replace hunter-gatherer tribes. Calories & Corsets, written by the award-winning scholar Louise Foxcroft, charts our relationship with our bodies over 2,000 years and examines the lengths we’ve gone to in order to stay slim.
The playful title is somewhat misleading, hinting at Cosmo-like fare rather than serious research. While this lighter tone occasionally surfaces from austere academic rigour, Foxcroft is exhaustive in her pursuit of the various approaches cultures and individuals have employed to lose weight. Some methods are sound—balancing nourishment and exertion, for example. Others verge on the outrageous and obviously useless: frequent vomiting; drinking large quantities of vinegar; ingesting soap; consuming diet pills that magically melt fat.
Successful diets, whether devised by the Greeks, the Victorians, or contemporary science, all involve a plan first to lose the weight and then to maintain the loss. Careful food choices, keeping active, and moderation play important roles. None of this is news; however, Foxcroft’s investigation provides a well-needed perspective.
While Calories & Corsets won’t make you thin, understanding the historical context of dieting helps to divest weight loss of the magical thinking that so often surrounds it. We laugh aloud at the old-fashioned ‘cures’ Foxcroft documents, obvious scams with names like Elegant Pills, Slenderine, and Corpulency Cure. In the process, the quick-fix diets of today appear equally ridiculous.
Calories & Corsets:
A history of dieting over 2,000 years
Allen & Unwin
Review first published by The Courier-Mail in February 2012.