Documenting Durham’s diet culture with Wilson Library’s Special Collections

August 1, 2022
Annie Elledge pictured in front of a book in the Special Collections Reading Room at Wilson Library

Annie Elledge, graduate student in geography, in the Special Collections Reading Room at Wilson Library (photo by Alyssa LaFaro)

In 2006, 4,000 people traveled to Durham to lose weight at one of three major diet centers, according to an article from ABC News. Durham is still home to the centers referenced in the article — the Rice Diet Program, the Duke Diet and Fitness Center (now called the Duke Lifestyle and Weight Management Center) and the Structure House — and has been known as the “Diet Capital of the World” since the 1980s. 

Annie Elledge, a graduate student in the geography department, has been interested in fat studies — an interdisciplinary field that unpacks how fatness is portrayed from social, cultural, historical and political perspectives — for a long time. While working with her advisor, Betsy Olson, to find a thesis topic, she stumbled upon an article that mentioned the Durham nickname and was immediately curious. To learn more about the city’s diet industry, she spent the summer of 2021 working with librarians Sarah Carrier, Renée Bosman, Taylor (de Klerk) Butler and Sarah Morris at Wilson Special Collections Library to uncover its origins. 

“They were instrumental in helping me figure out what a project like this could look like because I was so new to archival work and didn’t know where to start,” Elledge says. “They make these Google docs that literally have so many links. Oh, here’s a book, here’s a special collection thing. Just all these resources — more than you could ever imagine. And they talk you through your project.” 

One of those resources was decades of Durham city directories, these giant brown tomes filled with names and addresses of local businesses. Elledge dug through multiple editions, looking for terms like “reducing salons,” “health spas” and “health organizations” — what weight-loss facilities used to be called. She compiled that information into a list and used online archives, like the North Carolina Digital Collections and NewsBank, to learn how locals felt about the weight-loss industry at that time. 

Today, Elledge has a well-established master’s thesis: the history of Durham’s diet and weight-loss industry from the 1930s to 1980s. She strives to understand how the city and the fat body get produced through anti-fatness and where that happens in the city, from weight loss facilities to diet clinics to restaurants. 

“The librarians really go out of their way to help people find information,” Elledge says. “And if they can’t find you the exact answer, they’ll find you as much context as possible to help you figure out your project. They provide this safe space to help you feel comfortable and give you everything you need to do that work.” 

Story by Alyssa LaFaro. This story originally appeared as part of the Endeavors article “Powered by Libraries,” examining the ways that Carolina’s libraries drive research..  

  • Annie Elledge is a graduate student completing both master’s and PhD degrees in the Department of Geography within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences. 
  • Sarah Carrier is the NC research and instructional librarian for Wilson Library Special Collections within University Libraries.  
  • Renée Bosman is the government information librarian within University Libraries. 
  • Sarah Morris is the humanities research and digital instruction librarian within University Libraries. 
  • Taylor de Klerk is the research room manager for Wilson Library’s Special Collections within University Libraries.