On his first visit to New Zealand, in 1769–70, British explorer James Cook described Māori as ‘a Strong, rawboned, well made, Active People, rather above than under the common size, especially the Men’.1 Joseph Banks, the naturalist and botanist who travelled with Cook on this expedition, noted that the ‘men are of the size of the larger Europaeans, Stout, Clean Limnd and active, fleshy but never fat as the lazy inhabitants of the South Sea Isles are, vigorous, nimble and at the same time Clever in all their excersizes’. Banks reported that Māori women were ‘rather smaller than Europaean women’.2 At the time, a fully grown male in England or Ireland could expect to reach 167–168 centimetres, while the average woman was 154–155 centimetres tall.
Few statistics are available on the size and shape of 19th-century New Zealanders. However, it is known that an improved diet made people taller and larger. In a country renowned for the abundance of its produce, those born in the 1880s were a little taller than those born in the 1860s and 1870s. The economic depression of the late 19th century, though, had a marked effect on the health and body shape of both Māori and Pākehā. New Zealanders born in the 1890s were shorter than their 1880s counterparts.
The 1913 survey of schoolchildren showed that half of the children in Wellington schools were suffering from malnutrition. Even so, it was claimed that the average New Zealand child was ‘superior to the English child’.3
In the early 20th century, New Zealand followed Germany’s lead and introduced systematic inspection of schoolchildren. In 1913 newly appointed school medical officers carried out the first of several major surveys. Children’s heights and weights were recorded and their general medical condition noted. In the initial survey the average height of a 10-year-old boy or girl was 132.5 centimetres, with the boy weighing 28.9 kilograms and the girl 28.6 kilograms.
Subsequent surveys in 1925, 1934, 1954 and 1969 showed increases in children’s weight and height, particularly between 1934 and 1954. By 1969, 10-year-old boys weighed 33.9 kilograms and girls 34.6 kilograms. The girls, at 140.2 centimetres, were slightly taller than the boys, who stood at 140 centimetres. Māori children, especially girls, were consistently heavier than their non-Māori counterparts. When the overall New Zealand figures were compared with other national surveys it was found that New Zealand girls were heavier than their British and Canadian counterparts, but American children weighed more than the New Zealanders.
In 1909 Christchurch physical culture instructor Fred Hornibrook compared the measurements he had collected from 1,200–1,500 men with similar international data. He found that the New Zealanders were taller but lighter than men in the US and England, and called upon the government to introduce national physical and military training.
There was no comparable system to the School Medical Service for adults, so national figures for adults are harder to determine. By the early 20th century, however, doctors were measuring and weighing hundreds of individuals, determining what was ‘average’ and advocating eating and exercise routines to improve the health of the nation.
A study of the men of the Maori (Pioneer) Battalion who returned from the First World War revealed that on average they were 170.9 centimetres tall and weighed 74.3 kilograms. Soldiers from Ngāti Kahungunu tipped the scales at 76.2 kilograms.
In the mid-20th century policemen were required to be at least 175 centimetres tall, compulsory military trainees averaged 173.7 centimetres and weighed 64.6 kilograms, and the typical Royal New Zealand Air Force man stood at 174.2 centimetres and weighed 69.6 kilograms.
In 1970, when the metric system was being introduced, the ‘commonplace’ measurements given as examples included a man’s height of 172 centimetres (5 feet 8 inches), his weight of 74.8 kilograms (11 stone 11 pounds) and a woman’s weight of 57 kilograms (9 stone).
By 2009 the average man weighed 84.7 kilograms and was 175.5 centimetres tall, while the average woman weighed 72.1 kilograms and stood at 162.5 centimetres.
By the 1860s hundreds of thousands of British migrants were beginning to settle in New Zealand. The young and fit were encouraged to sail to the new land, but body shape was not yet a major concern. For most people ‘dieting’ was a synonym for eating.
That soon changed. In 1863 a British man called William Banting published Letter on corpulence, one of the first low-carbohydrate, low-sugar diets. Within a few months New Zealanders were talking about ‘banting’ (dieting), although it is not known how many went without bread, potatoes, beer, butter and sugar.
For some people fasting was a vaudeville entertainment. Felix Tanner asked patrons to pay sixpence to watch him fast. In 1904 he lost almost 10 kilograms during a 21-day public fast in Whanganui.
In 1907 ‘food faddists’ were described as ‘an absolute nuisance’ by one newspaper.3 The annoyance was in part due to the popularity of fasting. All around the country men and women were forsaking food. American doctor Edward Hooker Dewey was held responsible for this fad. In 1900 he published The no-breakfast plan and the fasting-cure, which contained accounts of those who had gone without food for up to 50 days and were said to have been cured of melancholia, dropsy (oedema) and obesity. The Wanganui Herald devoted an editorial to Dewey’s theories and the Whanganui region was soon the centre of fasting in New Zealand.
Many turned to fasting to reduce weight and improve their health. Lloyd Jones of Whanganui was a Dewey devotee, and often fasted for two, three, five, seven or 10 days. S. B. Clark went without food for 26 days and Mr Mowatt of Hunterville managed 24, while Henry Dobson lasted 47 days. Fasting also appealed to some women: a Whanganui woman fasted for 40 days and lost almost 10 kilograms.
Not surprisingly, at a time when people were getting heavier, dieting took on a new importance. Many of the dieting messages from the turn of the 20th century still sound familiar: limit the amount of food eaten, especially sugars and starches; take regular exercise; aim to lose weight gradually. Women were also advised to weigh themselves each week, something still advocated by weight-loss support organisation Weight Watchers.
Women who were not prepared to follow the advice in Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s 1893 book, The most artful dressmaker cannot make a thin woman of a fat one – exercise and dieting for the reduction of flesh, could buy Phytolacca tablets and juice at their local chemist. Made from Phytolacca berries, the remedy promised to make ‘stout people thin; no special dieting required’.4 Before the First World War there were products such as Marmola, a ‘find for fat folks’ that promised to reduce weight without the need for dietary change or exercise,5 and fads like paraffin. People took three tablespoons a day in the hope that it would reduce weight.
During the interwar years obesity was declared a ‘disease’, but people, especially women, were warned not to take dieting to extremes. Some adopted a low-sugar, low-carbohydrate diet, ate lean meat and plenty of fruit and vegetables and drank several glasses of water a day. When the All Blacks toured Britain in 1935 many of the players went without beer, pastry, potatoes and ‘sweets’ (cakes and puddings) in an attempt to reduce their weight. Other people ate only raw food that was grated, lived on boiled fish or milk, or restricted themselves to bread and butter. Those fads continued after the war.
During the 20th century the desire of many to lose fat was coupled with the quest for an ideally proportioned body. For some New Zealanders, this was initiated by the 1902–3 tour of Prussian bodybuilder Eugen Sandow, who in his stage performances advocated a system of exercises to reshape the body. Soon, mail-order muscle development programmes and gyms were signing up both men and women, who entered local competitions where they flexed and posed.
Pressure on women to shape up was particularly strong as clothes became more revealing, beach culture developed, and exacting standards of female beauty were promoted vigorously through Hollywood movies, beauty contests and fashion magazines. The notion of perfection changed over time, with the ideal woman becoming taller and thinner. In the 1920s the Greek statue of the Venus de Milo was regarded as having the best possible figure; she was said to measure 33–26–38 inches (84–66–97 centimetres) and stand 163 centimetres tall. The winner of the 2011 cycle of the television contest New Zealand’s next top model, Brigitte Thomas, was 178 centimetres tall and measured 32–25–35 (81–65–89 centimetres).
Foundation garments such as corsets, and by the 1920s brassieres, were widely used by women to either flatten or draw attention to breasts and control the stomach, hips and thighs. The fashionable silhouette changed during the course of the 20th century, from a dramatically curvy Edwardian shape, to a flat-chested straight look in the 1920s. A renewed emphasis on the bosom in the 1950s was followed by a very thin silhouette in the 1960s.
Once corsets went out of fashion in the 1960s, many women believed that strictly reducing food intake was the surest way to reshape a flabby or overweight body. Often they aimed to be very slim but buxom – an unrealistic goal. Commercial ‘dieting clubs’ offered support: New Zealanders began weighing in at Weight Watchers meetings in 1972, and similar programmes followed. From this time, a welter of radical diets began to be advocated in magazines and books, with notable examples including the Israeli army diet, the Atkins diet, the liver cleansing diet, the lemon detox diet, the hip and thigh diet and the Paleolithic diet. Many of these were later discredited as nutritionally unbalanced and likely to lead to rebound weight gain. Some women took ‘diet pills’ which contained amphetamines to try and lose weight.
The rise in anorexia (life-threatening restriction of food intake), bulimia (bingeing and then purging) and other eating disorders, mostly among girls and young women, accompanied the craze for dieting. Although these serious mental illnesses had complex causes, including genetic factors, low self-esteem and a desire for control, they almost always began with a diet. The value that society placed on appearance, especially for females, was undoubtedly influential.
Feminist commentaries showed how the dieting industry helped to perpetuate the idea of women as ‘sex objects’, but soon men, too, were starting to feel insecure about their appearance.
In the 2000s, some women (and men), recognising the futility of trying to change a genetically determined body shape, turned to fashion consultants who offered to show how clothes could disguise ‘figure faults’. One Wellington consultancy summed this up in the phrase ‘know how to dress for your shape’.1
From the 1970s gym exercise regimes targeted both men and women who wanted the perfect body. Aerobics classes and workouts with various types of exercise equipment promised tighter stomachs and buttocks, broader chests and more defined muscles in the shoulders, arms and legs.
When these measures did not work, some people – women, but increasingly men too – resorted to cosmetic surgery. In the early 2000s New Zealand psychological medicine researchers suggested that TV reality shows about dramatic weight loss and appearance change were behind a significant increase in surgical procedures. In 2013 the main body-shaping procedures available were female breast augmentation or reduction, male breast reduction, tummy tuck and liposculpture (the removal of excess fat, mainly from the abdomen, thighs and upper arms).
Some people became obsessed with dieting, exercise and appearance; others rejected or ignored these concerns. However, being inactive, eating the wrong foods and not moderating food intake could lead to weight gain. The connection between obesity and serious health problems began to be made more strongly in the 1970s.
The typical New Zealand diet, which included plenty of red meat, home baking and full-fat dairy products, was shown to lead to high cholesterol levels and excessive weight. Obesity, in particular, was proven to be a risk factor for diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, some cancers, osteoarthritis, sleep apnoea and reproductive abnormalities.
Obesity in babies was once considered desirable. When baby contests were first held, in the 1860s, prizes often went to the chubbiest child on display. By the early 1900s doctors and nurses associated with the Plunket Society were increasingly called upon to judge the contests, and awarded prizes to babies who were breast-fed and conformed to Plunket’s ideal age and weight scale. Plunket even ran its own baby contests to make sure that the right type of bodies were rewarded.
By 1980 reports on children’s heights and weights noted that children were not getting taller, but they were getting heavier. Childhood obesity was becoming a worry. The 2002 National Children’s Nutrition Survey confirmed the fear: 21.3% of children were overweight and another 9.8% were obese. The 2011/12 New Zealand Health Survey delivered the same news, noting that obesity rates among children were continuing to rise. The obesity rate for Māori children was twice that of non-Māori children; the rate for Pacific children was three times the rate of non-Pacific children.
By 2011–12, according to a Health Department survey, 35% of the population were overweight and another 28% were obese. Obesity rates for Māori and Pacific New Zealanders were even higher: 44% for Māori and 62% for Pacific people.
BMI or Body Mass Index is used internationally to assess people’s weight in relation to their height. It is calculated by dividing weight in kilograms by height in metres squared. People with a BMI score of 25.00 to 29.99 are overweight; those over 30.00 are obese. However, the BMI has been criticised as being simplistic and not an accurate measure of actual health.
An alarming trend was the rapid increase in obesity – the rate for males jumped from 17% to 28% between 1997 and 2011–12, and from 20.6% to 29% for females. While some people are genetically more susceptible to weight gain, the increase could not be attributed to genetic factors. Experts believed that the problem was an ‘obesogenic’ environment, in which people were encouraged to overeat calorific foods and had limited opportunities for physical exercise. In 2013 the health-care cost to New Zealand of obesity and overweight was said to be $722 million a year.
A complicating factor in attempts to combat obesity, especially among low-income people, was the ready availability of cheap fast and snack foods containing high levels of fat and sugar. In homes where meals such as breakfast and lunch were not provided, family members would often fill up on ‘junk food’.
In the 2000s bariatric surgery (sometimes called gastric bypass or stomach stapling) was increasingly advocated as the only certain way of dramatically reducing weight in very obese people. However, at over $20,000 per operation it was an expensive solution. In 2010 extra government funding was provided for bariatric surgery.
Facing disapproval from the health profession, and stigmatised by a society fixated on body image, some large people began asserting their right to be treated with dignity and respect. By 2013 the academic field of fat studies had emerged, challenging negative assumptions about fat people’s health and fitness, and promoting ‘fat pride’.
Coney, Sandra. Standing in the sunshine: a history of New Zealand women since they won the vote. Auckland: Viking, 1993.
Daley, Caroline. Leisure and pleasure: reshaping & revealing the New Zealand body 1900–1960. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003.
The New Zealand Health Survey includes information about New Zealanders’ weight, obesity rate and healthy eating.
Information on obesity from the Ministry of Health.