“We have done it – This city has gone on a diet. Together we have reached our goal of losing 1,000,000 pounds! (…) Hopefully, we are a healthier, more vibrant, and progressive community. I would like to thank each and every person and organization who has contributed to the OKC Million program, and I encourage all to stay active, stay healthy, and stay involved. This is the beginning of a brighter future.”

The “OKC Million-pound-program,” which was initiated by Mayor Mick Cornett in Oklahoma City in 2007, was a massive campaign aimed at the city’s population and the weight of their bodies. Mayor Cornett boasted in 2013 that his successful effort to bring the state’s capital into shape through restraining and disciplining its citizens would promise a “brighter future.” Moreover, Cornett saw the dieting campaign as his contribution to shaping the town’s history. The story he told ran from the Oklahoma Land Rush in 1889, through the economic depression of the 1970s and 1980s to the year 2007 when the city was ranked among the fattest communities in the United States. Cornett’s predecessors were said to have improved Oklahoma City’s economy—a first step enabling the community to reach for higher goals. While magazines began rating the fitness of American cities according to the average body mass index of their population, Cornett adopted the idea of making his city “fit” as his mayoral project. Apparently, bodily fitness—a community in shape—had become the sine qua non in neoliberal times of competition, ratings, rankings, and choice. Citizens were called upon to subscribe to the campaign’s website and to participate in a concerted effort of improving their individual bodies and thereby the shape of their community from 2007 until 2012, when Oklahoma City finally made it onto the list of America’s fittest cities. The way it was presented, this success story resembled a born-again experience—one of the nation’s fattest cities had been born again slim.

 

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On the way to revelation, nutritional knowledge and practices to activate the self were employed in order to give (re)birth to a slim city. Alongside working out and exercising, a key element of the campaign was briefing people on what to eat and how to cook. The program provided extensive nutritional advice, and it taught the public about fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. As early as the late 19th century, social reformers had tried to quantify the total nutritional need of workers’ bodies in order to make them fit for productive labor without wasting energy. Coming to terms with the scarcity in life seemed to be the major issue in the past. A major complaint was that working-class women did not succeed in feeding their men correctly according to the terms of a balanced energy household. In progressive thought, the undernourished body was closely tied to a class-based inability to choose wisely. Thus, improving the ability to choose right is considered pivotal when it comes to self-control and body shape. The OKC Million program also aimed at the working poor in particular. Then and now, they were asked to choose the right fuel and an adequate measure of foods for their bodies. Then and now, women were targeted by this invocation. In Oklahoma City’s anti-obesity campaign choosing right meant subscribing to a website, staying tuned, and getting in shape. The major task was to keep from overeating and to keep the family away from sweet and fatty foodstuffs. Apparently, these were the requirements to get a whole city fit—a community imagined as a collective body. While techniques of self-monitoring and ranking added a substantial drive to the body politic, an intense media campaign provided the born-again experience when a million pounds were “lost.”

Individual efforts to get in shape were perceived as contributions to a common good whereas fatness was presented as the sign of individual failure harming the community and its ambitions. Fitness became a spiritually coded cultural currency by which inclusions and exclusions could be determined. Stories of successful dieters on television and the internet platform displayed single mothers, for instance, having met their goals in losing weight—an experience that was said to have completely changed their lives. Mayor Cornett, who was presented as having been “obese” himself in the past, was obviously on a mission, preaching to the population, particularly to Oklahoma City’s lower classes and underprivileged who were perceived as having overeaten and who appeared unable to handle the abundance of consumer culture. Fatness signified permanent failure and fitness became the currency by which the community of Oklahoma City would buy its way out of the list of the fattest cities of the United States.

Obviously, fatness does not stand for wealth and success any longer, but has become a marker of poverty, failure, irresponsibility, and laziness. Therefore, the OKC Million project comes across like a moral call to action, directed particularly at the poor and resonating with the Protestant idea of working hard on one’s self for the sake of (one’s) salvation. Improving one’s body meant, first and foremost, improving one’s self, tying this effort to some sort of a common good and turning Oklahoma City into the proverbial Puritan “city upon a hill.”

About the Author

Felix Krämer

Felix Krämer

felix.kraemer@uni-erfurt.de

Website

Felix Krämer works in the joint research project The Eating Self: A History of the Political in the United States from the 19th to the 21st Century and teaches at Erfurt University. He studied History, Political Science, and Gender Studies in Hamburg and received a doctoral degree from the University of Münster. His book Moral Leaders came out with transcript in 2015. He is interested in the history of poverty, debts and difference.

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