In Childhood Obesity in America: Biography of an Epidemic, medical historian Laura Dawes helps us to see the cultural dimensions of what’s more commonly considered as a matter of health. By drawing on archival sources, published scientific papers, government reports, court case records, cultural ephemera, and interview material, she presents the changing answers to critical questions about childhood obesity from late 19th century America to our time. When a recent study found a surprising drop in the childhood obesity rate over the past decade, we asked Dawes to situate this welcome development within the history of concern over the size of our children.
In 1963, doctors and nurses from the National Centre for Health Statistics set out around the country in specially fitted out Winnebagoes. They were going to take a tape measure to American children’s health. That study—the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey—is still going today. The survey shows that childhood obesity has steadily risen, more than tripling in the fifty years since those doctors in the 1960s first hit the road with rulers and scales. The increases were even bigger in African American and Hispanic children. But late last month researchers from the Centre and from the Public Health Service reported a new development: for the first time since the study began, rates of obesity had dropped in 2- to 5-year-olds. In young children, obesity is still more common than it was back in the 1960s, but is about 40% lower than its peak in the early 2000s. In older children, the inexorable rise over the past fifty years seems to have plateaued and hovers at around 17%. This is cause for cautious—very cautious—optimism.
It has been true for a long time that American kids are big, and have been getting bigger. In 1877, a Boston physician named Henry Bowditch carried out the first significant study of American children’s heights and weights. He had teachers in Boston schools measure their pupils’ heights and weights. With no calculators or computers in the nineteenth century, Bowditch got Beantown’s accountants to crunch the numbers. Even then, American children were larger—taller and especially heavier—than children in Europe. At a time when undernourishment was the major childhood nutritional problem, the fact that American children were big was something to be proud of. Bowditch didn’t consider that there could be “too big.” Tall and heavy, American children were strapping specimens compared with their spindly European peers. The American way of life with its opportunities, its egalitarianism, its freedoms, was being written onto children’s bodies.