Under the Skin of New Year's New Body

by Kristen Cochrane

“Lose ten pounds. No more pizza, pasta or Prosecco. Start running. Fit into old dress.” Every January, I hear Renée Zellweger’s interpretation of an English accent in the voice of the tragicomic Bridget Jones. For most of us, this is the start of an antagonizing annual cycle that begins with earnest calorie restriction and a gym membership. Then we give up.

I call this the New Year, New Body trope, a mysterious and torturous actualization that demands self-starvation and encourages eating disorders. In thinkpiece culture, articles recently materialized on Orthorexia Nervosa, “the eating disorder you’ve never heard of.” And take a moment to ponder the introduction to “The Diet Plan for a Skinny New You” on health.com:

“After January 1, calorie amnesia comes to an end – and you’re officially out of excuses for nibbling on tree-shaped cookies for breakfast and lunching on gift buckets of cheese popcorn.”

The author’s description of “calorie amnesia” is at once troubling and fitting. Are we now medicalizing how we forget to govern our bodies with a precise calculation of energy units? In French, a diet is called a régime – particularly apt, given that it also refers to a (usually authoritarian) governmental system.

This irony would not have been lost on the late French philosopher Michel Foucault. Although his corpus of works is vast, some of his most enduring ideas are those on power, and how power shapes what we constitute as normal. Right now, a lot of people don’t see fat bodies as normal. (I use the word “fat” as semantic reclamation, where a word used to harm others is cut out from its hateful intention.) In Foucault’s most gory book, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, he outlines how Western society has moved from public discipline, such as public executions, to covert disciplinary practices, such as imprisonment and maintaining control by observation and rules. As constant dieters and pupils in our own disciplinary practices, are we being held in bondage to diets and exercise regimens?

Researcher Cressida J. Hayes spent ten months in a Weight Watchers Program, which she then chronicled with a theoretical analysis that drew upon Foucault’s work. In her book Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics and Normalized Bodies, she recalls speaking with a friend of her mother named Bea, who would recount her “experience in some detail, often mentioning ludicrous moments or absurd rules.” But the absurdity of the weight-loss cult itself paled in comparison to Hayes’ bewilderment at Bea, whom she could not believe would pursue such a program:

“What fascinated me the most about it was the very idea of a grown woman, of such obvious professional competence (she was a much admired teacher in a very ‘difficult’ school), allowing herself to be made abject in this way. The public weigh-ins, the confessions of backsliding, the censorious gaze of the group leader or other members, all seemed ghastly to me. I thought she was both brave and foolish.”

The cognitive dissonance of bravery and foolishness when following a diet is perhaps not a new phenomenon. The word diet comes from the Greek word diaita, writes Louise Foxcroft in her book Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting Over Two Thousand Years. According to Foxcroft, “the whole foundation of Western medical science relied on diatetica, the fundamental healing therapy of a regimen of certain foods. Being too fat, or too thin, was therefore seen as a sure sign of an unhealthy body, an imbalance of its essential ‘humours’ (of which there were four: black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm).” But is medical science the only reason we are afraid of fat people, and afraid of being fat? Do we truly care that someone just “doesn’t look healthy” when their body is marked as overweight or obese?

Sociologist Bryan Turner claims that there is a relationship between diet and how we distinguish ourselves from whatever political and social framework we would see as non-civilized: “A parallel has been drawn between the development of diet as a secular science of consumption and of table manners as a process of civilization.” The problem, however, is this: how can science be secular when it is rooted in its own processes of ideology? Are the ways we eat used to distinguish ourselves from our hominid ancestors?

So, can we extrapolate this to the New Year, New Body trope? Is this how we show one another that we are civilized? Can this account for the rampant fat shaming that has gripped the consciousness of, well, everyone?

To get a better understanding of a recent history of this season-based dieting, I went through the American Vogue archive that dates back to 1892, when it was a weekly society magazine. The findings were unintentionally hilarious, with articles on the Hamburger Diet in August of 1949, whereby “you can stay on the diet for a week, and lose about 5 pounds (effective pre-party or pre-holiday resolve)”, or the banana diet, whose headline in January of 1958 boasted “Quick New Year Diet: The Banana Change”. While many articles in the Vogue archive addressed dieting, there was a recurring theme over time – that we consume in excess over the holidays and then restrict our calories to compensate for our gluttony. Vogue even had their own nutritional doctrine called “Diet X,” which sounds like a book the characters on Lost would uncover under some branches and pebbles. The Diet X tenets were first published in July of 1949, and followed in 1950 by an article demarcating Diet X’s Winter Version (for the New Year and New Body) and the Spring Version (for your summer body). The article states: “It is still a ten-day diet; still 750 calories per day, but it has been simplified to the point where a last-minute shopping lunch or a late, impromptu dinner won’t leave you with the unhappy alternative of starving or cheating!” As someone who has suffered through caloric restriction, I am aware of what 750 calories a day feels like, and it is effectively starvation.

Despite the calls for fasting in the name of an aesthetically pleasing body, Vogue began publishing critiques of the diet and fitness culture that became an obsession in the 1980s (with Jane Fonda workout videos, bodybuilding, etc.) Yet Vogue carried on commissioning diet advice, and its writers frequently acknowledged the New Year, New Body trope. “The holiday season, Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, is traditionally associated with fine food and good cheer… and January is traditionally the month we diet,” frequent contributor Judith S. Stern wrote in 1985. “After December’s holidays, all of us seem to try to get in better shape for the sake of health and pride,” Barbara Kafka wrote in 1987. A decade later, with a header at the top of the page that said “New Year’s Resolutions” Vicki Woods wrote:

“It’s curious how the urge to confess our excess and promise to do better becomes universal at the end of December. New year, new diary, new leaf, new resolution, and hopefully a new you. Nearly 350 years ago Samuel Pepys wrote in his great Diary at the Navy Office in London (on December 30, 1661) about the age-old (even then) problem of late nights and high living. “I have newly taken a solemne oath about abstaining from plays and wine, which I am resolved to keepe.”

Samuel Pepys was an English naval administrator and Member of Parliament in the late 17th century. His views are akin to the Christian comportment of restraint and self-discipline that replaced the Pagan, polytheistic worship of the pre-Christian Roman Empire. In the book Food and Faith and the Christian Empire, Ken Albala and Trudy Eden contend that contemporary diet cultures in the West are linked with the history of Christianity. Albala and Eden write that, “while individuals encounter countless opportunities and temptations to consume, they are expected to exercise restraint.” And despite the pervasive secularity of contemporary Western life, it seems that we do the same.

It’s obvious, then, that our notions of what constitutes a healthy diet are reliant on historical contingencies like religion, ideology, and aesthetics. I am not innocent of seeing other people’s bodies as pathological, or as “wrong” bodies. Since the late 1960s, fat acceptance has increased and fat power movements have arisen in tandem with similar identity-based liberation movements, according to sociologist Charlotte Cooper, who writes about fat histories and fat panic. There is even an interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed Fat Studies journal, in which academics meditate on the social phenomena that intersect with the fat body. Social platforms like Tumblr and Twitter offer users the chance to post photos of fat bodies and show stretch marks and body hair in a way that is sexy, confident, and legitimates the beauty, power, and magnificence of bodily pluralism and bodily anarchy.

My friend Adella Khan writes a column called “Thick Thoughts” for the feminist website Witchslapped. In an essay called “The f Word,” Adella writes, “I am fat and as it turns out, it’s fucking fine. It’s great actually.” Adella’s public reclamation of being fat, and whatever fat means, is a method of unsettling the gaze and attempts at “normalization” in which we are all complicit, from myself to Vogue, and to the celebrities who parrot what their nutritionists have devised for self-modification in the New Year. But the ongoing process of unsettling our views towards our own bodies and towards others’ bodies will not happen overnight. And so, in the depths of winter, we continue to acknowledge the parable of the New Year and our New Body. We can blame organized religion, or the neoliberal thrust of the 1980s and onwards, but perhaps it’s time for universal resistance. It’s time for an anarchic overhaul of our bodies, where governance does not apply to our flesh or our physicality.