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Beauty is not always better: perfect babies and the tyranny of paediatric norms

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During the early twentieth century, better baby contests were all the rage at agricultural fairs across the United States. Inaugurated at the Iowa State Fair in 1911, when progressive female reformers decided that the time had come to apply the techniques of breeding superior cattle, horses and hogs to infants, better baby contests stood at the crux of several overlapping trends of modern medicine and culture. One facet of a burgeoning eugenics movement, the contests were based on emergent notions of race betterment that increasingly focused on reproduction, sexuality and children. They also reflected and helped to promote the solidification of paediatrics as a medical profession dedicated to the unique physiological organism of the child. Stern examines the dynamic better baby campaign launched during the 1920s in Indiana, and argues that the norms utilized to test, measure and assess the young contestants were representative of a new optics of perfectibility. No longer judged by their apparent beauty and fulsomeness, babies began to be gauged by indicators, such as height-weight ratios and mental tests, that generated invisible statistical abstractions. The contests were critical to the severing of the Victorian association between beauty and physical perfection, ushering in a new way of visualizing the health and vigour of children. Furthermore, they were vehicles of racialization, as physicians and nurses determined deviation and difference according to scales and charts for which white, urban middle-class children had served as the objective base-line subjects. Stern raises questions about the complicated optics of race, medicine and heredity, and suggests that eugenic projects in the early twentieth century have left an intractable and often insidious mark on paediatric norms of child development.

Keywords: better baby contests; child health; eugenics; normalization; optics; paediatrics

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of History, University of California at Santa Cruz, USA

Publication date: 2002-01-01

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