Governing Bodies: American Politics and the Shaping of the Modern Physique by Rachel Louise Moran
Rachel Moran introduces the term “advisory state” in her intriguing history of federal policies designed to shape the bodies and the health of U.S. citizens. A healthy workforce and stable families are vital, yet government in most instances cannot to force people to alter their behaviors. Instead of requiring actions, the advisory state recommended gendered and raced programs that promoted an ideal of white male masculinity, and used quantification to judge accomplishments. Governing bodies traces the development of twentieth-century advisory and mandatory plans.
In the 1910s and 1920s, the Children’s Bureau designed classes, pamphlets, health conferences, and educational devices such as “Baby Week” and “Children’s Year” to teach mothers about raising healthy American children. The Bureau popularized height and weight charts, which “offered an aura of scientific legitimacy” (p. 26) and enabled even untrained mothers and teachers to judge the health of children. During World War I, patriotic campaigns promoting wheatless meals and meatless meals brought government advice into American homes. All these efforts were based on volunteer labor and voluntary adherence.
Under emergencies, the federal government went beyond advice. A most cogent example is the Civilian Conservation Corps. During the Great Depression, it hired 200,000 low-income young men who volunteered each year to work on public works projects. The supervision of enrollees—their work, their diets, their exercise and sleep—were intended to create strong, productive workers to be role models of the white “heteronormative” male breadwinner (p. 39). Few of the enrollees were women or African-American men. Again policymakers pointed to measurements such as weight gain as evidence of the success. Initiation of the draft in 1940 and troop mobilization after the attack on Pearl Harbor heightened the employment of quantitative instruments. In order to evaluate nearly 20 million men, the government issued standardized health, weight, and blood pressure tables. Men were required to undergo rigorous testing judged by what were considered scientifically based standards.
In the postwar period, with Cold War fears of communism, policymakers turned from aggressive intervention back to the advisory state. The mandatory programs [End Page 134] of World War II, it was feared, undermined the central tenets of white masculinity—autonomy and independence. But the nation needed a strong work force and military. Also, growing numbers of white women were entering the labor market. To ensure a fit citizenry, schools expanded their physical education programs. Outside of schools, there were public-private partnerships involving scouting, religious organizations, community centers, and the like, with the Advertising Council playing a pivotal role. Fitness was yet again related to measurable attributes like height, weight, strength, and flexibility. These programs included more women and girls, but continued to focus the postwar male breadwinner.
In later chapters, Moran shifts to other variants of the advisory state. Previous tactics had assumed a rational subject; with the 1960s growing awareness of hunger among the poor, particularly women and children of color, policymakers considered that the plight of irrational citizens demonstrated the need for more control over consumption and physical fitness. Highlighting the politics of food stamps and agricultural surpluses, Moran details how the President, the Department of Agriculture, and Congress debated the role of education and personal responsibility. The 1970s Women, Infants, and Children Supplementary Food (Nutrition) Program (WIC) made clear that policymakers considered low-income women, exemplified by the overweight black mother who was “irrational and irresponsible,” as “unfit citizens” (p. 133). They needed more than education to protect the well-being of fetuses and young children and to learn to make better food choices. By 1978, the educational component of WIC was mandatory, along with the supplemental food recipients needed.
In Governing Bodies, the advisory state is a valuable tool for studying the development of government policy. Moran’s sensitive examination of the focus on white male bodies is particularly useful for the first decades of the century. Later the policy moves to women’s bodies, especially the bodies of mothers. Further discussion of how the idealized male body evolved in the second half of the century would have been helpful. However, this is a minor limitation in a book that can be profitably read by historians studying medicine, the body, gender, motherhood, and nutrition.