How the “Advisory State” Shapes American Bodies and Politics: A Conversation with Rachel Louise Moran

In her new book Governing Bodies: American Politics and the Shaping of the Modern Physique, historian Rachel Louise Moran examines the U.S. government’s efforts to influence citizen bodies, not through legislation or overt force, but through what Moran calls “the advisory state.” This political control stemmed from a “subtle but powerful … repertoire of governing tools, such as quantification, advertising, and voluntary programming.”1 Published in May 2018 by the University of Pennsylvania Press, Governing Bodies tells this history from the Progressive Era to the 1970s, considering body projects like national baby weeks, World War II conscription, the wasted bodies of the 1960s War on Poverty, and how the bodies of WIC mothers figured into 1970s welfare debates. In each case, Moran, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Texas, asserts that “concern over unfit Americans was about politics, gender, and sexuality as much as it was about actual physique.”2 I recently had the opportunity to interview Moran and learn more about her work.

Emily: To start, how did you come to this project on bodies, politics, and the advisory state?

Rachel: I had been interested in these topics for a long time, but in a casual capacity, basically just as a woman growing up in the U.S. always obsessed with her own food and diet. I thought the history of food was fun and interesting, but I also thought that the historical questions I really wanted to put my energy into were questions of poverty, inequality, and politics. In an African American history course in undergrad I learned about the Black Panthers’ breakfast program, and I started to realize separating food politics from other politics was an arbitrary move.

Cover art for Governing Bodies. (UPenn)

More popular books on food politics, like Marion Nestle’s work, alongside books on fat politics like Marilyn Wann’s Fat! So?, also helped frame my early thinking. I became interested in food-based welfare programs and wrote on the history of food stamps for my MA. When I finally accepted there was not this stark difference between “serious” and “frivolous” histories, it was liberating and gave me the space to do something I thought could be both interesting and important.

Emily: I recently chatted with Adrienne Rose Bitar on her history of dieting. You position your research on body projects within the social histories of weight and dieting, but offer a valid critique that such scholarship “tends to obscure the role of the state in shaping those bodies, too.”3 What conversations would you like to see develop between these histories of bodies, dieting and weight, politics, and identity?

Rachel: My own interest is in the space where the intimate and the public intersect. I think understanding the centrality of power, especially institutional power, is important to understanding food and the body. So much of our contemporary discourse about body weight and fat is shaped by questions of individual choice and personal responsibility. We need to recognize that such a framing is itself historically contingent and political, and especially try to help non-historians recognize this.

Rachel Moran, Ph.D.

Emily: You write, “The story of twentieth-century advisory state body projects, perhaps surprisingly, is a story of primarily male bodies.”4 This point figures prominently in my favorite chapter — “Boys into Men: Depression-Era Physique in the Civilian Conservation Corps” — which is also the source of the book’s evocative cover. How and why is the advisory state a story of distinctly male physique?

Rachel: I imagined I would be writing a history of female bodies when I set out on this project. Those are the bodies we most associate with weight concerns and dieting, and the bodies we most associate with state regulation, in areas like birth control, abortion, sterilization, etc. And I have a dual-PhD in women’s studies, so I really did mean to study women!

But what I kept seeing in the archives was that when various state agencies in the first half of the 20th century cared about body weight and physique, they cared about men. This makes a lot of sense when you figure their concerns about bodies were related to the military and to industrial labor. While there were, of course, women involved with both pursuits, especially performing industrial labor, women were not usually valued for their physical strength. The anxieties driving state intervention into bodies tended to be anxieties about men who were underweight or frail, and thus not masculine enough to perform their breadwinning duties. Anxieties about women’s bodies were more commonly reproduction-centered.

Color artwork of a man holding a big ax.
Poster by Albert M. Bender, Illinois WPA Art Project Chicago (1935). (Bender/Wikimedia Commons)

This does not mean women are outside of the story in these years, though. Instead, especially in the 1910s and 1920s, they were asked to be voluntary arms of the state. This meant they were encouraged to become more involved in nutrition and dietary planning as a means of improving the health and physique of their husbands and children.

Emily: As you write, the government did consider female bodies, though often through the frame of motherhood, whether scientific motherhood and maternalist politics or more recent constructions of “welfare mothers.” Interestingly, it’s in the postwar context of the President’s Council on fitness (whose history you wrote about in a Nursing Clio post) that women’s bodies are actually brought into focus as “a result of their changing position in the productive economy.”5 Can you tell us more about this shift?

Rachel: In the 1960s, you see more attention to white, middle-class women’s bodies as those bodies enter the remunerated workforce in larger numbers. This does not mean you suddenly see a CCC for women or major Selective Service attention to women’s bodies, but that is because the larger political context is also changing; there is nothing quite like the CCC for men or women, and women remain exempt from the draft. What really did change, though, was concern about women doing a good and reliable job within corporate employment. Discussions of “absenteeism” for health reasons and bodies weakened by sedentary work applied to both men and women, though accusations of “stenographer’s spread,“ for instance, applied primarily to women! Once the discourse shifted from explanations of weight maintenance for strong labor and a strong military into ideas about employer costs and health care, the gender politics became more subtle.

A line of women sitting at a switchboard.
A Bell System switchboard where overseas calls were handled. (US National Archives/Flickr Commons)

Emily: In analyzing the advisory state, you consider the historical context in which its powers expand, albeit rarely, such as through the Selective Service during World War II. But you also address the social context in which its powers have been further extended, as in the case of Food Stamps and WIC, which you’ve written about before for Nursing Clio. What can we learn from these examples about how and why the advisory state exerts itself more aggressively?

Rachel: I’d characterize much of WIC’s approach to the body — like that of the Selective Service — as enabled by the advisory state but ultimately beyond the advisory state. Modern U.S. political culture has been heavily shaped by ideas about individual freedoms. In other words, Americans tend to be extremely wary of the idea that the state can tell them what to do, especially in the case of the intimate terrain of their own bodies. Americans recoil at the idea of legislation around diet and body weight, whether trans-fats bans, soda taxes, or calorie counts mandated on menus. These ideas about American dietary freedoms are never actually aimed at all Americans, though, as the chapters on Food Stamps and WIC detail. When it is low-income Americans, especially mothers of color, the gentle “nudges” of the advisory state are often replaced with more controlling programs and policies implemented in moralizing manners.

Emily: Lastly, in your later chapters you emphasize how earlier tools of the advisory state like quantification and the deployment of various media forms, worked to frame hunger, overweight, and obesity as issues of consumer choice rather than economic, and often racialized, realities. How does the history of the advisory state help us to think differently about today’s “obesity epidemic,” such as how to (re)define it and how to consider causes and solutions?

Rachel: Tensions between framing body weight as an individual or a societal problem appear throughout the book, and, as you point out, remain pretty central to contemporary debates over body weight and obesity. I think the history of the advisory (and sometimes not-so-advisory!) state asks us to think about what we consider public and what we consider private. When public interventions into bodies are suggested — like changes to federal fitness programs or school lunches or food stamps — it is always worth asking why, especially when simple languages of “for health” are employed. At the same time, when someone suggests such a change is government overreach or a “nanny state,” it’s worth it to remember that government involvement in a wide range of body projects is not new or necessarily radical.

Notes

  1. Rachel Louise Moran, Governing Bodies: American Politics and the Shaping of the Modern Physique (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), 2. Return to text.
  2. Ibid., 87. Return to text.
  3. Ibid., 5. Return to text.
  4. Ibid., 7. Return to text.
  5. Ibid., 107. Return to text.

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One Comment

rebeccaruhlen

Really interesting and thought-provoking interview — my thanks to both Prof. Moran and Prof. Contois.

As an advocacy anthropologist of breastfeeding and mothering, I’m particularly interested in reading US government breastfeeding information resources and advocacy programs through this lens of the advisory state.

The evidence basis for breastfeeding promotion as a public good is solid, despite incessant industry-sponsored efforts to undermine acceptance of that fact. By far most US mothers choose to breastfeed, and most end up weaning sooner than they had intended, usually because of lack of access to the individual assistance and structural supports they need to continue. Advocates know very well by now that individual choice is just a small piece of whether someone breastfeeds and for how long.

WIC has probably done more to increase breastfeeding rates in the US than any other single program in the last decade or so. Breastfeeding rates are climbing fastest among African-American women, a community disproportionally disadvantaged by both economic constraints and systemic racism and thus particularly impacted by WIC programs. So it’s vital that WIC — and the advisory state that helps to shape its policy environment — get this stuff right. It’s a mixed bag, largely because WIC is administered at the state level rather than federally.

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