Obesity in 1950s America: Early Days of a National Plague
“The most serious health problem in the U.S. today is obesity.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? In fact, that very assertion is now so commonplace that one might be forgiven for assuming it’s the most recent pronouncement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the American Medical Association, or the Academy of Pediatrics or, perhaps, from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. What’s more, the declaration is unquestionably true, as the dire medical, financial and societal ramifications of America’s obesity epidemic grow ever clearer — and more frightening.
But that pronouncement about obesity’s primacy in the hierarchy of national health problems is not new. Rather, it’s the opening line to a remarkable article published 60 years ago in LIFE magazine. Here, as the national dialog around the obesity crisis in the U.S. grows even more heated, LIFE.com presents photographs — many of which never ran in the magazine — made by LIFE’s Martha Holmes to illustrate that March 1954 article, titled “The Plague of Overweight.”
“Some five million Americans,” LIFE wrote, “medically considered ‘obese,’ weigh at least 20% more than normal and, as a result, have a mortality rate one-and-a-half times higher than their neighbors…. Another 20 million Americans are classed by doctors and insurance men as overweight (10% above normal) and are drastically prone to diabetes, gallstones, hernia, kidney and bladder impairments and complications during surgery and pregnancy.”
Today the numbers cited by LIFE have ballooned to even more appalling proportions: according to the CDC, “more than a third of U.S. adults (35.7%) and approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2 – 19 years are obese.”
But perhaps the most astonishing and troubling statistic about obesity in the USA relates to the speed with which this affliction has taken hold: for example, in 2010 (again according to the CDC), “there were 12 states with an obesity prevalence of 30%. In 2000, no state had an obesity prevalence of 30% or more.” Feel free to read that again — and try to imagine the toll those millions upon millions of extra pounds will have on the health of those men, women and children, and on the nation’s economy. How much more will all of us pay for insurance every year because of this epidemic? How much economic productivity will be lost due to illness, injuries, emergency room visits, hospitalizations and other collateral damage from the immediate and long-term ravages of obesity?
Suddenly, LIFE’s use of the word “plague” to describe this catastrophe feels perfectly apt.
The LIFE article, meanwhile, focused at least in part on one woman, Dorothy Bradley, whose struggles with overeating and body-image issues were familiar (and remain familiar) to countless American men and women.
“When she finished high school in Tyner, Tenn., in 1940,” LIFE told its readers, “5-foot 5-inch Dorothy Bradley weighed 205 pounds and fit snugly into a matronly size 44 graduation dress. She had overeaten from the time she began to mature, possibly because of unconscious emotional turmoil.”
The article chronicled Dorothy’s efforts to lose weight; her desire to work in medicine; her successes (losing 60 pounds) and her backsliding (gaining it all back, and then some); and ultimately, something of a happy ending, as she lost and, as of the article’s publication, had kept off close to 70 pounds and earned a job as head nurse at a hospital in Kentucky.
At a time when the weight-loss business is a multibillion-dollar juggernaut and the modern plague of obesity in the U.S. shows no sign of abating, LIFE’s six-decade-old take on the subject feels at-once prescient and, alas, mordantly fitting for our present-day plight.
— Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com