Thinking Seriously about the Tapeworm Diet

Image: Tapeworm diet advertisement  https://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/18543/is-this-tapeworm-diet-ad-real

The idea behind the tapeworm diet is simple; you eat a tapeworm as it is or swallow a pill containing its egg. The grown parasite will feast on whatever food the host eats, so the host can binge-eat without gaining weight. When I first heard about such practice, I imagined it as a disastrous experiment some pseudoscientist came up with, which was doomed to die out quickly after a momentary popularity (if at all). However, not only did it stick around for awhile, it still seems to be practiced today in some parts of the world.

The origin of tapeworm diet is unclear, but is said to be sometime around early 1900s. Not surprisingly, this coincides with the Victorian era (around 1830~1900). These Victorians held rather unrealistic (and mostly unattainable) beauty ideals, which were characterized by features such as “pale skin”, “dilated eyes,” and “16-inch waist.” They also resorted to extreme measures to attain such beauty: “swallowing ammonia, bathing in arsenic (rat poison)-which they knew to be dangerous”, and wearing corsets at the risk of disfiguring their internal organs. [1]

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Image: What Victorian doctors thought were the consequence of tight-fitting corsets http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-horrifying-legacy-of-the-victorian-tapeworm-diet

Given this context, it’s not so surprising that fad diets caught on among them, and tapeworm diet was just one such example. However, the fact that it’s not that surprising doesn’t mean I wasn’t horrified; my initial reaction towards tapeworm diet was actually quite similar to the negative feelings (ridicule, mild disgust, incomprehension, and etc. ) around cosmetic surgery that I had had before learning about the complex discourses surrounding it. In the rest of this blog, I will analyze my initial reaction to the tapeworm diet, using the discourses surrounding cosmetic surgery.

My initial reaction can be categorized into three types.[2]

  1. Either  people must be so vain or they must be suffering from the warped perception of beauty.…. These people must be taught that being skinny does not equal beautiful.  (vanity, lack of education)
  2. Having a tapeworm in your body is just sickening. What if it laid eggs in you- you’d  be infested with tapeworms! How can people ignore such health risks!!! Such ignorance…(health risks, lack of education)
  3. This is so blatant.(my personal aversion to such a blatant desire to lose weight)

Firstly, 1 and 2 can be read in the light of public health discourse which Margaret Hunter explains in “Buying Racial Capital.” It’s easy (for someone like me) to think that those Victorian women must have been either extremely vain, suffering from lack of confidence, deluded into believing that skinniness was crucial for absolute beauty, or ignorant of the health risks [3]. However, in an era in which “it [was] a woman’s business to be beautiful”, [4] it is possible that fitting into societal beauty norms was a necessary step to secure a husband and to be accepted as a member of a community. Even if it wasn’t completely necessary, being conventionally beautiful must have had advantages. Margaret Hunter, in “Buying Racial Capital,” points out that these facts must be acknowledged. Borrowing her words in the context of the tapeworm diet, it is problematic to define women’s adoption of the tapeworm diet “as an individual problem that can be solved with education(ex. If people were taught about the health risks lurking in the tapeworm diet, they’d quit) and a new attitude (ex. If these women had more self-confidence, they would be okay with deviating from the societal beauty norms).” This because such way of thinking “[maintains] silence around the structural benefits of [being thin] and [pathologizes]  women for taking unnecessary risks with their health (if they had known about the health risks, but swallowed the tapeworms anyway, they must be crazy!)[5] My initial reaction types 1 and 2 lay blame on the individuals, shifting attention away from the society that is making those Victorian women resort to the tapeworm method.

Next, my initial reaction type 3 is probably more personal; I won’t be comfortable with admitting that I am trying to be skinny (which I’m not, but hypothetically) because it sounds like I’m not accepting my body when I should be. Looking at my classmates’ blog posts, it seems like I’m not the only one; there seem to be female bloggers who use veganism (“I’m just trying to be healthy!”) or exercise(“ I love running!” or “exercising makes me feel good!”) as covers to lose weight or amateur athletes who claim that low-fat bodies are necessary for better performance, but in fact are very much affected by the societal beauty standards-namely, the pressure to be skinny. However, when it comes to the tapeworm diet; there is no way of getting around the fact that you are doing it for weight-loss because there is no other apparent benefit. You can’t make any excuses.

Although it might be a bit of a stretch, hiding the real reason behind your action is something that also comes up in the discussion on cosmetic surgery. Some of those who request cosmetic surgery use medical reasons as justifications so as to avoid being criticized for being vain or erasing their ethnicity, which are considered as unacceptable. Medical practitioners also tend “to view [these] requests as purely medical challenges” so that they do not have to deal with ethical concerns. [6] Trying to be skinny or trying be conventionally beautiful (which tends to be white-centric) is often considered socially ( and even morally) unacceptable from a feminist perspective. Indeed, if you identify as a feminist, trying to be unnecessarily skinny or conforming to societal beauty norms might be seen as hypocritical.  

I’d like to end with a bit of thought-experiment. If the tapeworm diet and cosmetic surgery are stigmatized in similar ways, why has cosmetic surgery been normalized in some parts of the country, while the tapeworm diet hasn’t? Of course, I must recognize the fact that there are other safer/healthier ways to lose weight than the tapeworm diet, and thankfully, body acceptance movement is gaining momentum. But if -a big if, admittedly- tapeworm diet was the only drastic, effective, albeit risky (just like cosmetic surgery modifies the body in the best case scenario) means to get rid of body fat in a society that puts overweight women (and men) at a disadvantage -would it be as widespread as cosmetic surgery?  

Maybe.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Mariana Zapata, “The Horrifying Legacy of the Victorian Tapeworm Diet.” Atlas Obscura. Oct. 26 2016.                                                            http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-horrifying-legacy-of-the-victorian-tapeworm-diet  (accessed June 3, 2017)

[2] In fact, there is another type of reaction- what kind of method is this?! These people are too lazy to exercise and weak-willed to control what they eat. Shedding body fat without making any effort? – that’s almost like cheating. However, this probably falls under effort justification theory which is not relevant to my focus in this blog, so I will not expand on it.

[3] Health risks includes, headaches, eye problems, dementia, and etc, besides the fact that a tapeworm can grow up to 30 ft. (Zapata)

[4] Mariana Zapata, “The Horrifying Legacy of the Victorian Tapeworm Diet.” Atlas Obscura. Oct. 26 2016.                                                http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-horrifying-legacy-of-the-victorian-tapeworm-diet (accessed June 3, 2017)

[5] Margaret L. Hunter ,“Buying Racial Capital:Skin-Bleaching and Cosmetic Surgery in a Globalized World” (June 2011) 153

[6] Elizabeth Haiken, Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery 193

 

Bibliography:

Davis, Kathy. “Remaking the She-Devil: A Critical Look at Feminist Approaches to Beauty” Introduction.  Hypatia vol 6. No.2. Summer 1991

Haiken, Elizabeth. Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery c.5

Hunter, Margaret L. “Buying Racial Capital: Skin-Bleaching and Cosmetic Surgery in a Globalized World” The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 4, no. 4, June 2011

Winterman, Denise. “History’s weirdest fad diets”. BBC News Magazine. Jan. 2 2013  http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20695743 (accessed June 3, 2017)

Zapata, Mariana.“The Horrifying Legacy of the Victorian Tapeworm Diet.” Atlas Obscura. Oct. 26 2016. http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-horrifying-legacy-of-the-victorian-tapeworm-diet (accessed June 3, 2017)

 

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