The Diet Regime: The Political History of Dieting

I’ve always loved that the French equivalent to the English word “diet” is “régime.”

In English we go on diets. As if a diet were a mode of transportation that we hop on and off of, that will take us from Fatsville to Thintopia if we just keep pedaling hard enough. The French “faire un régime;” they do a diet.

Régime is so much more honest. A diet doesn’t have to imply restriction. There have been times in history when women went on diets to become “plumper.” Our current appellation is really a shortening of the old-fashioned term “reducing diet.” And over the course of the past century that’s what the term has come to mean – restricting food consumption. Same with régime. But a diet is something an individual does to herself. It’s a choice she makes, an act of self-will.

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Workout routine? Or girl storage closet?

Régime, on the other hand, implies a system. It is a larger power structure that confers privileges and rewards, or metes out punishment, in accordance with compliance. You don’t go on a regime. You exist within one. If you’re a Foucault fan, you might say that a régime reveals what diets, in fact are: a disciplinary technology designed to reproduce docile bodies.

Put more simply, a diet is imagined as personal whereas a régime is by definition political.

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Did you notice the “fat shadow” is darker?…coincidence?

You’ve heard of “the beauty myth,” right? Of course you have. It’s Naomi Wolf’s flawed but important idea that the ever increasing pressure on women to manage their bodies and appearances is Patriarchy distracting us from focusing on the political gains we kept insisting on making throughout the 20th century. There’s an interesting article by Katharina Vester called “Regime Change: Gender, Class and the invention of dieting in post-bellum America” that challenges Wolf’s assertions by putting them in a longer historical context. Vester shows how, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women adopted what had been a bourgeois masculine trend of going on reducing diets in order to prove that they were equally capable of self-control (and also, I suppose to look more masculine) as part of the fight for women’s suffrage. She goes on to argue that there were distinctly classist, racist elements to these practices as middle-class white women sought to distinguish themselves from poor women, immigrants and women of color (whose fleshier bodies were contrasted to connote less self-control, and so, perhaps diminished ability to manage the full privileges of citizenship). It’s a great article that shows how, for some women, dieting was an act of rebellion and demand for access to power. While I’m not sure it does more than re-frame Wolf’s basic argument, I think it’s an important piece of research.

We need more reminders that demonstrating our capacity for self-control through exercise and caloric restriction, through conformity to a body ideal that most people can’t have even if they are willing to work for it is engaging in politics (Of course, some people get it without putting in any extra work, and that’s great. And, yes, some poor people or people of color achieve it without great expense. But, come on – our ideal is northern European and generally very expensive). We’re asking to be incorporated into a system that runs on inequality. Of course, if you’re already marginalized in a variety of other ways, adding fat to the mix can be even more exhausting than dieting, so maybe you do it. I get that. Fighting hegemony is exhausting and potentially dangerous. And yes there are some health concerns that, for some people, can be alleviated by losing some fat – though far fewer than we’re generally led to believe. My aim here is not to judge individuals who pursue fat loss, whatever their motivations.

But if you decide to “go off” the diet? That’s not lazy. It’s absolutely political too. And make no mistake, there will be reprisals. You could earn less moneyget worse health carebe forced to wear leopard print caftans with flutter sleeves…. But there might also be the satisfaction of knowing that you aren’t just making a personal decision about how to appear in the world, you are undoing the régime.

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I don’t know what these gals are holding, but I like to think it’s martinis.

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