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'Food, Body Weight, and Everyday Life in England, c. 1954–1990'



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Moseley, Katrina-Louise 


This thesis examines changing social attitudes to food and body weight in England in the period 1954 to 1990. It draws on ‘food-themed’ life history interviews with thirty men and women, together with Mass Observation directives and sociological surveys, to highlight the value of integrating subjectivities and lived experiences into the history of food in modern England. Existing histories of diet in this period fall into one of two main categories. They either distract from ‘small’ food settings through attention to ‘bigger’ historical themes (rising affluence, immigration, multiculturalism); or else, they provide a flavourless account of historical change, documenting long-term shifts in production, retailing, and nutritional knowledge, whilst omitting to consider the mundane practices of cooking, eating, and dieting. As I argue throughout this thesis, food history is about much more than an economic shift from ‘plain fare’ to food ‘fusion’. Situating food customs as crucial sites of meaning-making, I explore how food was experienced and shaped into practice by individuals within particular life historical contexts – and how society changed (and stayed the same) as a result. My main conclusions are as follows. First, I argue that women, rather than men, were primarily responsible for the social organisation of mealtimes in the mid-to-late twentieth century, despite increasing signs of male involvement in the kitchen in heterosexual settings. Consequently, women were centrally involved in orchestrating the rituals of ‘family’ life throughout this period. Second, I argue that the history of dieting is, in part, a history of female homosociality. Although the slimming industry is often linked to patriarchal oppression, women derived enjoyment and a sense of autonomy from the rise of group dieting practices in the late 1960s. I argue, thirdly, that ‘body consciousness’ pre-dated the 1960s, as seen in childhood memories of the 1950s. Fourth and finally, I argue that the late-twentieth-century discourse of ‘healthy eating’ was co-produced by consumers, state actors, and corporate actors. Though it is common to assert that the food and drink industry manipulated ‘ordinary people’ in this period, eaters were complicit in the shift towards ‘unhealthy’ modes of consumption. They worked processed food products and ‘healthy eating’ messages into their everyday lives in contradictory ways.





Delap, Lucy


Modern British History, History of the Body, History of Food, Weight Loss Cultures, Slimming, Social and Cultural History, Healthy Eating


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
AHRC (1795541)
This thesis was funded by a studentship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, award reference number AH/L503897/1.