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Childhood Obesity in America: Biography of an Epidemic.

Childhood Obesity in America: Biography of an Epidemic. By Laura Dawes. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. Pp. vii, 305. $45.00.)

What does a biography of an epidemic look like? Although some might imagine such a project examining primarily medical processes and texts, a rich history of any epidemic necessarily involves unpacking the cultural meanings of the epidemic, which circulate far outside the institution of medicine. An epidemic such as childhood obesity, which is arguably a complex problem that likely has physiological, environmental, and cultural dimensions, demands attention to both medicine and culture from any scholar who aims to provide a deep understanding of how the disease at the heart of the epidemic has come to be defined and treated. Childhood Obesity in America does just that by treating ideas about childhood obesity and its cures as driven by medical discoveries and cultural dynamics.

Laura Dawes's ambitious examination of childhood obesity spans the late 1800s to the present day, but the bulk of her time is appropriately spent carefully examining moments in the United States when conversations about childhood obesity shifted due to new discoveries about the physiology of body weight and/or increased social and familial concerns about children's weights. For example, Dawes opens the book with three chapters that thoughtfully chart the trouble early medical practitioners had with even deciding what constituted an overweight child because there was no standard process for measuring the fatness of a child. In these early chapters, Dawes proves herself a gifted scholar and writer by using primary sources to illustrate for readers how earlier means of measuring childhood obesity eventually gave way to modern standards for measurement, such as the Body Mass Index (BMI).

Arguably, later chapters of the book will be of most interest to readers hoping to understand the modern-day epidemic of childhood obesity. The latter half of the book charts the shift from the idea of fatness as mostly a flaw of biology to a problem with culture, as energy imbalance became the way to explain the increase in childhood obesity and television advertising and fast food came to be seen as causes of the epidemic. Here, Dawes presents and analyzes regulations about television advertisements for sugary foods that are aimed at children and the juridical boundaries of fast food's responsibility for childhood obesity.

In sum, Dawes's research and writing are excellent, and she has produced a book that will interest history scholars but is also appropriate for teaching at the advanced undergraduate and graduate level. One significant criticism of the book, which "Fat Studies" scholars and those interested in the Health at Every Size movement will immediately recognize, is that Dawes assumes the childhood obesity epidemic is real and that fat children need to be cured. She, in fact, ends the book on this very note. Although she complicates many of the issues surrounding childhood obesity, Dawes leaves the idea of the childhood obesity epidemic itself and whether or not fatness needs to be "cured" largely unquestioned. In doing so, she seems to ignore or too readily dismiss the primary debates among those discussing childhood obesity.

April Michelle Herndon

Winona State University

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Author:Herndon, April Michelle
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2016
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