Radboud University: From anti-obesity campaigns to body positivity: the cacophony of lifestyle advice

Dutch people still eat too much and exercise too little, despite national prevention programmes. Why is health experts’ advice not followed? Historian Jon Verriet saw that traditional health experts were increasingly overruled by armchair ‘experts’ throughout the twentieth century. Verriet will receive his PhD from Radboud University on 22 June.

Last year, the RIVM announced(verwijst naar een andere website) that the National Prevention Agreement was falling short. Dutch people still eat too much and exercise too little even though a war on obesity has been raging since the 1950s, according to historian Jon Verriet of Radboud University. Verriet will receive a PhD for his research on healthcare advice between 1940 and 2020.

“Experts and government bodies have been telling Dutch citizens that they should eat less and exercise more for decades,” explains Verriet. “But we don’t really seem to listen to traditional health experts.” There has been resistance to health advice and the fit middle class since the 1970s. Critics began to describe the need for fitness as ‘collective madness’.

Body positivity
Instead, we seem to prefer listening to advice from a different class of expert: people who say they know how to live in a healthy way from experience. In the 1970s and 1980s, a movement emerged that we would now refer to as ‘body positivity’. For example, in 1981, the feminist activist group Vet Vrij was founded, which organised a variety of things, including the popular Dikke Vrouwendag (Fat Women’s Day), aimed at body acceptance.

“The interesting thing about the group was that they used their own experience to base their health claims on,” says Verriet. “In doing so, they started competing with traditional experts, such as scientists. Meanwhile, these traditional experts also started to increasingly present themselves as experts by experience: a sporty outfit or well-muscled body was used to underline their expertise.”

In recent decades, there has been a cacophony of often contradictory lifestyle recommendations. Who are the real health experts now? As far as Verriet is concerned, these different kinds of experts can co-exist just fine, but their large number does say something about our society. “From the 1980s on, you can see how increased individualisation has carried over into health advice. Advice is increasingly linked to personal lifestyle: if you are not fit, you need to do some self-reflection. Whereas health is mainly determined by circumstances, like income and education level.”