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Reviewed by:
  • Contours of the Nation: Making Obesity and Imagining Canada 1945–1970 by Deborah McPhail
  • Elaine Power (bio)
Deborah McPhail. Contours of the Nation: Making Obesity and Imagining Canada 1945–1970. University of Toronto Press. ix, 242. $29.95

One of the things that surprised me most about Deborah McPhail's account of the construction of obesity crises in post-war Canada is how much of the current obsession with body size was prefigured in the era between 1945 and 1970. Contemporary obesity discourse constructs "the obesity epidemic" of the twenty-first century as something unprecedented, dramatically and worryingly new. However, McPhail's thoughtful interpretation of the historical record shows that there were similar concerns about obesity throughout the post-war period.

McPhail's concern is not whether the Canadian population was "actually" getting fatter, though she does expose the flimsiness of the evidence that was [End Page 141] used to construct the idea of an obesity "crisis." Her well-developed thesis is that underneath the rhetoric of a national health crisis were deeper anxieties about the white, middle-class, nuclear family norm, the economy, the Cold War, and the expansion of settler colonialism. The four substantive chapters each examine a distinctive aspect of how the discourse of obesity crisis was used to reinforce racist, patriarchal, colonial, classist, and heteronormative ideas of what it meant to be a "proper" Canadian.

Examining medical research, diet drug advertisements, and dieting programs in the 1950s and 1960s, chapter one shows how fatness came to be pathologized as a mental disorder associated with "unhappy" white, middle-class housewives. At a time when women were starting to demand "equal rights," obesity discourse helped reinforce the idea of women's distinctive embodiment that was "naturally" more emotionally unstable and more suited to (unpaid and unrecognized) work in the private sphere.

Chapter two further explores how obesity discourse positioned women in the private sphere and blamed women for "spreading" obesity in their families through their flawed reproductive labour. This chapter opens with a description of a series of articles in the Globe and Mail in the early 1950s about "tubby hubbies" – white, middle-class heterosexual men made fat by their "neurotic" wives. McPhail argues that obesity discourse fortified the boundaries between private and public spheres of labour, patching over the cracks that were developing in the white, middle-class nuclear family norm.

Ideas about gender, race, class, and heteronormativity are given another analytical twist in chapter three, as McPhail investigates fears that, as middle-class men took up white collar work, they were becoming less fit, growing "soft" and feminized. In the context of the Cold War, this failure of normative masculinity was seen as a serious national problem that could have devastating consequences. In this chapter, McPhail introduces us to ideas of fatness as a symptom of modernity and apparent "progress," a theme she picks up again in chapter four, and shows how obesity discourse is mutable and sometimes contradictory.

McPhail's examination in chapter four of how obesity discourse was used in a colonial project to "repress, oppress, and contain" the bodies of Indigenous people in northern Canada is her most original contribution to fat studies and also a distinctive contribution to Indigenous studies and Canadian studies. McPhail shows how obesity was used as a discursive tool in the drive to assimilate northern Indigenous people. McPhail explains that during this time period in Canada, excess fatness was shifting from being characterized as "a racialized body characteristic" to being seen as a "racialized disease," providing evidence for her contention that the meaning of obesity discourse is specific to time and place.

McPhail offers a valuable new way to understand how we have become who we are as Canadians through the lens of a health discourse about obesity. Her examination of obesity discourse in the post-war era also encourages a [End Page 142] more critical stance towards contemporary obesity discourse. Her book is an important addition to the growing scholarship in fat studies and makes contributions to health studies, Canadian studies, gender studies, and Indigenous studies. I wish that obesity scientists would read it too.

Elaine Power

Elaine Power
School of Kinesiology and...


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pp. 141-143
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