From Average to Ideal

This article examines the historical origins of the notion of “ideal” body weight by tracing the evolution of the gender-specific height and weight table in the United States from 1836 to 1943.

Fewer than 200 years ago, weight was not regarded as an important health issue. At the turn of the twentieth century, low body weight, not overweight, was the leading concern of medical practitioners. With the rise of actuarial science, weight became a criterion insurance companies used to assess risk.

2.coverUsed originally as a tool to facilitate the standardization of the medical selection process throughout the life insurance industry, these tables later operationalized the notion of ideal weight and became recommended guidelines for body weights. The height and weight table was transformed from a “tool of the trade” into a means of practicing social regulation.

in Social Science History


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