Or, History has Heft: On Public History and Debates about Weight Loss
Trying to lose weight isn’t a new phenomenon. Consumers have long searched for a safe and effective approach to lose weight. At the same time, a strong debate persists about the genetic component of obesity, new scholarly sub-fields (see Fat Studies) are emerging questioning the stigmatization of overweight individuals, and our body images are being shaped by these forces. Historians have a crucial role to play in the way in which individuals, communities, and health authorities conceptualize bodies and think about weight.
In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by Frank L. Baum, all of the characters are searching for something. Dorothy is looking for a way home. The Scarecrow wants a brain, whereas the Tin Man wants a heart and the Lion desires courage.The only way to attain their goals is to visit the Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City. Only with his magic will their wishes be granted. As it turns out, the wizard is a total fraud. He’s just an ordinary man trying to protect his position and his empire. He’s a charlatan looking out for himself.
It is the same with TV’s Dr. Oz. As Americans (and Canadians) seek out their own desires, be it weight loss or low blood pressure, it’s best to be wary of false wizards.
In 2014, Dr. Oz was called before a Senate committee on consumer protection and given a public lashing for his promotion of fraudulent weight-loss products. He admitted he was a bit of a cheerleader, using flowery language, although he suggested that it was important to advertise multiple views on the show. He also admitted that some of the products he’s suggested his viewers use don’t necessarily have “the scientific muster to present as fact.” For many, Oz came across as a quack and a huckster.
John Oliver, of Last Week Tonight, came down hard on Oz. He taunted and belittled the TV doctor. He used all the bells and whistles he could, including a tap-dancing Steve Buscemi, to continue the public lashing. Likewise, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni described Oz as “a carnival barker” and “a one-man morality play about the temptations of mammon and the seduction of applause….” Then, a group of high-profile doctors called for the removal of Oz in a public letter. They suggested he was pushing “miracle” weight-loss supplements with no scientific proof that they work. He displayed an “egregious lack of integrity,” said the letter, and Oz had shown “disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine.”
In 2015, I decided that I had something to offer about this matter. I felt that, having written about the history of the pharmaceutical industry and diet pills, I could contribute to the understanding of Oz. His influence on people. The role of spurious products in the marketplace. More specifically, I thought I could move beyond the walls of the so-called Ivory Tower and link my academic research with the public and maybe even policy-makers, as Kathleen O’Grady and Noralou Roos have advocated for.
As they put it, “An average paper in a peer-reviewed academic journal is read by no more than 10 people, according to Singapore-based academic Asit Biswas and Oxford researcher Julian Kirchherr, in their controversial commentary “Prof, No One Is Reading You,” which went viral last year….as many as 1.5 million peer-reviewed articles are published annually, with as many as 82 percent never cited once, not even by other academics. In other words, most academic writing rarely influences thinking beyond the privileged circles in which it is constructed – and the vast majority of it is far from influencing public policy and debate on critical issues.”
So, why not try a short piece aimed at the public? Oz was topical, after all.
It was not the first op-ed/web-based article that I had written for public consumption, nor will it be the last. However, the result was stunning. I criticized Oz rather severely (using some of the same language above) and certain readers pushed back hard. Because Oz was a supporter of organic and natural foods, and because he often positioned himself as anti-GMO, I was, by default a supporter of big business, of Monsanto, and a product of the right-wing establishment. It was startling that my piece on Oz would generate such animosity.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised.
This is where the Canadian Bulletin for Medical History/Bulletin canadien d’histoire de la médecine comes into the story of The Weight of History/The History of Weight. Because any historian wanting to engage with weight loss, dieting, and public health in Canada (as well as beyond) must – absolutely must – engage with CBMH/BCHM.
Obesity is not the exclusive focus of all CBMH/BCHM articles addressing health, food, and dieting, although such works as 1987’s “Juan Luis Vives: A humanistic medical educator,” 1993’s “Medieval Women’s Guides to Food During Pregnancy: Origins, Texts, and Traditions,” and 1995’s “Promoting Good Health in the Age of Reform: The Medical Publications of Henry H. Porter of Philadelphia, 1829-32,” showcase the evolving knowledge of nutrition and proper eating in general sense.
More specifically, Lori Loeb explores Upper Canadian quacks and spurious diet drugs in “George Fulford and Victorian Patent Medicine Men: Quack Mercenaries or Smilesian Entrepreneurs?” Fulford, a Canadian senator and philanthropist, made his fortune from a product called Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills and he serves as a window into the patent medicine industry, which included various obesity “cures.” For Loeb, “Popular obesity cures…were mostly citric acid in water. The dangers of a minority of medicines, especially soothing syrups, which contained laudanum and chlorodynes should not be minimized, but many medicines were not only benign, but even appropriate for common ailments. Indigestion remedies were largely bicarbonate of soda. Rhubarb pills were good laxatives.” (130) The article is useful for a variety of reasons, but one of the more crucial has to be the discussion of professionalization, evolving safety standards, and developing medical knowledge surrounding the patent medicine industry. Essentially, Loeb is placing Fulford – an influential operator in the medical marketplace – under a microscope.
Then, there’s the journal’s approach to alternative medicine. Through such works as Ziadat’s “Western Medicine in Palestine, 1860-1940: The Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society and Its Hospital,” Heap’s “Physiotherapy’s Quest for Professional Status in Ontario, 1950-80,” Jasen’s “Maternalism and the Homeopathic Mission in Late-Victorian Montreal,” and Furth’s Paterson lecture on “Becoming Alternative? Modern Transformations of Chinese Medicine in China and in the United States,” readers have been exposed to conflicts within professional and scientific medicine over alternative medical knowledges, as well as upstart organizations.
What becomes clear in these articles, in addition to Barbara Clow’s excellent work on “Mahlon William Locke: ‘Toe-Twister’“, is that unusual therapies and counter-knowledges in medicine generate tremendous heat. The topic may be “toe-twisting” for arthritis or anti-vaccination narratives or diet pills or organic food/anti-GMO foods – these issues are all of the hot-button variety. And the CBMH/BCHM clearly underlines this. Hence, I should not have been surprised by the response to my Oz article.
In 2011, Roberta J. Park wrote about weight loss and public health with “Historical Reflections on Diet, Exercise, and Obesity: The Recurring Need to“Put Words into Action.” She cited how the American Centers for Disease Control estimated that more than one third of all adults and nearly one fifth of children were obese. And she argued, as the title of her paper suggested, more had to be done! It was time to put “words into action.”
Thereafter, in an incredibly ambitious article, Park tackled the historiography and history of diet, exercise, and obesity in (a) the Classical World; (b) the 1700s and 1800; and (c) the 1900s. She concluded with a clarion call – that it was time “sports medical personnel, including physical educators, should embrace lessons from…past successes in promoting exercise and sport among children and adolescents, and rekindle practices once popular and effective but now abandoned.” (397)
Of all CBMH/BCHM articles on weight loss, Park’s is the work most grounded in public policy – and the one most strident in its call for change. For historians and other academics to push for change!
The debate over diet drugs and body image continue. We still gobble up quick-fixes peddled by celebrities and we still search for drugs that will make losing weight painless. As Americans and Canadians continue to struggle with obesity, the history of diet pill regulation may continue to display familiar patterns. At the same time, the CBMH/BCHM can act as a tool in fostering new pathways in the months and years ahead.