What Diets And Deodorants Have In Common (It’s Probably Not What You Think)

Last week, I came across this gem of a post over at Jezebel.

You see, as recently as the early 1900s, Americans weren’t too worried about sweaty or smelly underarms. In this time before air conditioning, when people often wore a lot more clothing than we do, even in the summer, sweaty and smelly underarms weren’t really a concern. In fact, the word “underarm” wasn’t really a word until advertisers needed a nicer sounding euphemism for armpit.

1930's/1940's anti-perspirant deodorant ad
Men will gossip about your underarms!!! (Image courtesy of

So why did things change? Why did so many Americans start buying antiperspirant/deodorant, so that it’s now an $18-billion-a-year industry?

It’s very simple. Advertisers made up a problem. They convinced women that their odoriferous underarms were the reason they weren’t getting dates. They convinced men that their smelly pits were unmanly and the reason why they weren’t climbing the corporate ladder.

And the big capper – they convinced people that using this stuff was healthy. They made antiperspirant/deodorant so normal that it became a normal part of the ritual of puberty.

Sound familiar?

The history of dieting is a fairly similar tale. It may have started earlier and had different players, but there are certain tropes in this story that bear a similar stink.

Those Who Do Not Know Dieting’s Past
Are Condemned To Repeatedly Diet

There was actually a time, even here in America, when fatness wasn’t considered a problem. Until the early 20th century, doctors were mostly concerned with their patients weight when they were noticeably losing weight. Sudden weight loss could indicate a dangerous wasting disease, like tuberculosis.

Two of the earliest dieting advocates, William Banting and Helen Densmore, also had to convince people that fatness was a really bad thing, bad enough that you should buy their pamphlets, follow their meal plans, and take their “morning cordial” (Banting) or weight loss tea (Densmore), both of which contained laxatives.

lucky strike weight loss adBoth of these diet marketers conflated fat with ugliness and with immorality. Their diets were proscriptive and plainly dangerous, with Densmore actually telling people to fast for as long as 30 days if her diet didn’t work.

The genius of obesity epidemic rhetoric is that it takes this normal thing – bodily diversity – and pathologizes it. Just like antiperspirant marketers had to convince people that underarm sweat and smell is disgusting and will keep you from getting dates and jobs, diet marketers had to convince people that fat was disgusting and would keep you from getting dates and jobs. They keyed in to people’s deepest fears of social ostracism and inability to support themselves and made scads of money in the process.

Fast forward through about 100 years of diets, from Horace Fletcher’s chewing diet to the tapeworm diet (I wish I was kidding) to the Master Cleanse (yes, that’s a diet, let’s get real here) to the Nicotine Diet to the Cabbage Diet to the HCG diet (it’s from the 60s and it’s still a bad idea, by the way) to all the “lifestyle plans” (Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, etc.) and what do you have – a society convinced that fat is bad and that dieting is the answer. Not only do they “know” that fat is bad and dieting is good, they are convinced that the fact that dieting only worked in the short term is their fault.

This Time, I’m Doing It For My Health!

Promoters of antiperspirants also had to spend a lot of time and money convincing people that their product was healthy. Quite naturally, people were dubious of a product that blocked the natural cooling and excretion process of sweating.

Nowadays, very few people worry about this problem (except for folks like me who use stuff like this), just like very few people seem concerned about the negative effects of diets, diet products, and weight loss surgery.

In the early 1990s, more researchers were getting hip to the reality that the vast majority of human beings were incapable of sustained weight loss, and that these attempts to lose weight were causing more problems than they were solving.

As you can imagine, the multi-billion-dollar diet industry was not cool with this reality. So they made sure to fund their own weight loss “research” that would lead to the conclusions that they needed to keep marketing weight loss. And it worked. These conclusions get repeated so often that they are now believed to be “common sense” – fat is unhealthy and weight loss is healthy. Any attempts to lose weight, be they diet pills, fake fats, fake sugars, weight loss surgery, or good ol’ dieting are healthier than OMG just being fat.

If you think about it, the problem of “obesity” is a marketer’s dream. Despite the rhetoric, it doesn’t actually kill anybody, so the diet industry has a lifelong customer. There’s no cure for it, and the supposed cure (dieting or weight loss surgery) causes a variety of problems, including weight gain, which just keeps the customer hooked in. Plus, lots of folks are convinced that they’re fat or going to become fat, and so they diet, thus buying more of the product and creating a guaranteed customer for life.

Don’t Believe The Hype +
Further Reading On The History Of Diets

I hope I’ve demonstrated here that our collective beliefs about fat and weight loss are utterly fabricated and meant only to sell products. It’s time to investigate these beliefs and give our bodies (including our underarms) a break!

If you find the history of dieting as horrific and fascinating as I do, check out these wonderful books!

Golda is a certified holistic health counselor and founder of Body Love Wellness, a program designed for plus-sized women who are fed up with dieting and want support to stop obsessing about food and weight. To learn more about Golda and how she can help, click here.

15 replies on “What Diets And Deodorants Have In Common (It’s Probably Not What You Think)”

It’s an interesting comparison, but I don’t think the normalisation of deodarant can be seen, in isolation, as an invention of the advertising industry. It very probably ties in to other cultural changes, like more focus on cleanliness and hygiene in general (more frequent baths), changing fashion which exposed more skin, etc. Advertising can amplify cultural anxieties but I’m not sure about asserting that they deliberately create them.

There are some aspects of this I agree with, but on the whole, I don’t. The diet industry has created a lot of issues, but – as with many things – I don’t believe this is a black and white issue. Neither is it helpful to see it as pure absolutes. The parallels with deodorants is an interesting one, but it isn’t an entirely “fabricated” issue, just as weight and the need to control weight, aren’t entirely “fabricated”. There are situations where sweating and body odour can be an issue to the extent that it is a medical problem. The same goes for weight; there are points where it is a medical issue, and it’s detrimental – I feel – to paint weight problems as simply being the creation of the diet industry. It seems a little like saying many mental illnesses are the creation of pharmaceutical companies. Sure, those companies have a lot to answer for, but that doesn’t negate actual medical needs.

This is a great piece.  I am obsessed with the history of trends and how ideas and ideals evolve

Our modern society is much different than the 1900s.  The fast-food industry alone has done a good job at blowing up the average American weight.  Food is accessible every where we look, as opposed to having to forage and farm for our meals.

I agree that the industry promotes dieting to an extreme.  But where do we draw the line between obesity and healthy?  Surely you don’t believe that obesity is good for you?

” … keep everyone afraid, and they’ll consume.” (Marilyn Manson, Bowling For Columbine)

Yes, so much this. I’d like to think we can eventually root these ideas out of the American consciousness, but it is such a huge money-maker that the ones who perpetuate the fear to line their pockets will not go gently into that good night.

Herban cowboy makes vegan deos that are organic and smell soooo good. They have a woman’s one that I would walk on glass for. I never had much luck with the more widely sold alternative deodorants but this stuff make me happy inside. I order them online from who ever is having the best deal at the moment. It’s one of the few things I’ll put a little extra money in because it’s a good product and I need it for work.

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