Body Image, Fat Phobia, and Historical Dieting
Dear readers, this post turned into a bit of a rant. So a brief content warning: this post addresses obesity, mental health, and briefly mentions disordered eating. But food and dieting are inextricably linked, so some things had to be said. Take care of yourselves!
As the days grow longer and the weather warms, you may find yourself inundated with weight loss messaging. “Is Your Body Beach Ready?” “Bikini Season Is Here!” etc., etc. Dieting for weight loss is nothing new, although in many ways it IS really only a little over 100 years old.
Prior to the 1920s, most women changed their body shape through cinching and padding. Think Victorian corsets, which were also accompanied by hip, breast, and sometimes shoulder pads or clever dressing. Or 18th century stays, accompanied by first hip panniers, and later bum rolls, to give the illusion of a narrow waist and wide hips. Although “consumptive chic” was a thing in the Victorian period - think languid, pale young ladies slowly, chastely, and beautifully dying - the accompanying thinness was more a result of a sickroom diet of broth, gruel, and tea and a “delicate” appetite than on purpose. Corsets hid a plethora of ills (if not the actual illness).
By the turn of the 20th century, things were starting to change. While the Progressive Era brought the pigeon or S-silhouette, it also brought to popularity the Rational Dress movement. Corsets were loosened or discarded. The hobble skirts of the Gilded Age were exchanged for walking skirts and sensible shirtwaists. Young women were encouraged to be athletic, walking, hiking, playing tennis, and even swimming. But with the New Woman came a new look - gone was the “pleasingly plump” silhouette of the Gilded Age, where physical exertion was frowned upon for refined young ladies, and rich foods and sweets were in plentiful supply. The Progressive Era was in many ways a reaction to the excesses of the previous period - and food was no exception.
Helen Zoe Veit has written quite admirably on how Progressive ideas about food changed American society. Emphasis on self-control, willpower, and association of being overweight with laziness all became conventional wisdom during this time.
In perusing Pinterest for antique cookbooks (a favorite bedtime pastime), I ran across one called “Diet and Die.” What! So intriguing. So I opened it. Published in 1935 by Scandinavian American Carl Malmberg, a public health educator, writer, and translator, the book skewers the fad diets of the time, including counting calories, fasting, vegetarianism, low protein diets, “hay dieting,” the work of Gaylord Hauser, the Hollywood Diet, the “Banana and Skimmed Milk Diet,” and others. He also takes on quack remedies and at the end insists that because all people are entirely different and respond differently to different diets, everyone should consult their physician before changing their diets.
It’s a fascinating mix of sense and curmudgeonliness. I’ve transcribed a portion of the introduction for you here (all the bolding is mine):
“Better Be Fat Than Dead”
Of all the fashions that periodically crop up to influence life and manners none has taken hold with such tenacity as the craze for slimness. Since the World War one of the major concerns of the women of America - as well as some of the men - has been how to get thin and stay thin, and usually no sacrifice has been considered too great that would accomplish this end. Generally the pendulum of fashion swings from one extreme to another, and recently we have witnessed the efforts of those commercial interests which batten off the changes in style to start the pendulum, as regards slimness, swinging the other way. Couturiers, clothing manufacturers, bakers, and confectioners have gone to great expense in an attempt to popularize the curves that were once the outstanding characteristic of feminine beauty, but they have not been very successful in this attempt. Slimness is still the ideal, and the majority of women who feel that they must conform to the most recent styles in clothes are still unwilling to eat in a manner which would give them that “belle of the nineties” figure which the new modes are supposed to impart.
This desire for slimness has been universal enough to change the eating habits of the nation. Apple pie, hot bread and muffins, those former mainstays of the American diet, are now definitely in the discard. Bread eating has so completely gone out of fashion among those who can still choose what they will eat that some wheat experts claim that the problem of America’s wheat surplus would be solved overnight if the nation’s dietary habits reverted to what they once were. So prevalent has the fear of fat-forming sweets become that candy manufacturers have been forced to resort to advertising which claims that their products do not contain sugar or other fattening ingredients.
As might be expected, there have been many attempts to rationalize this very prevalent desire for slimness. Scientists and health authorities have set out to prove that it is healthy as well as fashionable to be thin, and there is a flood of diet books on the market all of which attempt to convince people that they should eat less. Some of these books contain information that is sound, but when this information is universally applied it is likely to be dangerous. There are many people who were never intended by nature to have the appearance of slimness - people who may not actually be carrying excess weight but who, because of their bone structure and general build, can never by any means hope to achieve the ideal of slimness dictated by current fashion. Many of these people nevertheless set out to achieve this ideal, and in doing so too often ruin their health in what is, for them, an impossible task.
No single subject, with the probable exception of religion, has had grown up around it a larger body of error, misinformation, and plain buncombe than has the subject of diet. Since the year 500 B.C. when, according to the legend, Pythagoras, pursued by his enemies, lay down at the edge of a bean field and allowed himself to be overtaken and killed rather than contaminate himself with the legume which he despised and which he proscribed for his followers, history furnishes with an amazing succession of dietary cranks. Some of them have been possessed with a fanatical sincerity; others have been motivated largely by the opportunity for pecuniary gain; but the one thing that has, as a rule, characterized fanatic and charlatan alike, has been the basic lunacy of their systems.
The introduction goes on - skewering “scientists,” Kellogg’s, Fleischmann Yeast Company, grape juice, citrus fruits, and other fad diets. It recounts several famous movie stars who “reduced” for various reasons on starvation, raw, and citrus diets, and later died of illness, collapse, etc. And eviscerates the “nostrums” and “mechanical devices” that promise weight loss, often harmlessly without result, but sometimes with great danger.
You can read the whole book here, if you’ve a mind to.
Malmberg references several famous diets in his book, but the Hollywood Diet (also known as the “18-Day Diet” and “Grapefruit Diet”) is probably the most well-known these days. Popularized by Hollywood actresses, the diet is a calorie-deficit, low-carbohydrate diet, which is why it worked in the short-term. But despite false claims that grapefruit contained a special fat-burning enzyme, the diet was criticized in the period for its calorie deficit and lack of complete vitamins and minerals.
Malmberg also critiques Gayelord Hauser, whose early work emphasized vitamins and minerals, including those in raw foods. Hauser became a popular diet guru among the rich and famous, and he was featured in a podcast I did on vitamins (way back in 2016, here’s the other half if you’re interested). Although much of Hauser’s claims focused on general “beauty," including clearer skin and stronger hair and nails, staying thin always ran under the surface of most of his work, sometimes coming to the fore.
I find Malmberg’s strident tone critiquing diet fads refreshing. Modern studies show that the vast majority of diets don’t work for people, especially not after the first year. And BMI? It’s racist bullshit. Invented to assess the average condition of entire populations in 19th century, it was never meant to be used as an individual health measure, especially not for women, children, or people of color.
His book is not perfect, however, it is a product of its time. Despite a rather rigorous adherence to the scientific method, he mentions “acidosis” and “ketones” - although mostly in reference to starvation diets and the treatment of epilepsy (the modern keto diet has its roots in this pseudo science of the 1930s - diet does not generally change the ph of the body and if it does, you eat some baking soda, not orange juice, to cure it). He also claims that women need fewer calories than men - quite a claim from someone who critiques those who insist on a one-size-fits-all diet plan.
Although Malmberg’s conclusion chapter indicates he thinks “reducing” is possible, and even a good thing, for many people, his emphasis on individual needs and understanding that there is no one-size-fits-all “cure” for anyone, are still worthy of contemplation today. Indeed, despite the best efforts of nutrition scientists, the nutrition field is particularly susceptible to the replication crisis that is plaguing the scientific field in general. In science, hypotheses become theories only when the results are replicable. The best scientific discoveries happen when many scientists all over the world are able to get the same results from replicating the original study with the discovery. If it’s replicable, that means the science is backed by data and the hypothesis can become a thesis. Replicable data is an essential part of the scientific method. But in nutrition science, the vast majorities of studies rely on small sample sizes, are limited in length, or even are limited to studying rats and mice instead of humans (people expect to get paid). When studies do include humans, they are often focused on young white men. What’s worse, is that almost none of them are replicated, in large part because the results are often impossible to replicate, due to the variation in the human condition, or worse, the data is manipulated.
So the science isn’t great. But in many ways, the media reporting about it is worse. Eggs are good for you, then bad for you, now good for you again? Coffee, chocolate, and wine all help with cancer and heart disease? Carbs are bad, whole grains are good? Grilling will give you cancer, but also grill vegetables? It can be super hard to know what to eat. Conventional wisdom says eat like grandma, but at this point many of our grandmas were adults in the 1950s, so not sure that’s the best advice either. One thing that does improve your health? Scratch cooking at home. But even that isn’t a panacea, and lots of people don’t have the privilege (time, skill, resources) to cook from scratch all the time. Michael Pollan probably comes closest with his “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” - but even the “not too much” can be tough to figure out, especially for people already anxious about weight and with little understanding of nutrition and caloric needs.
While there’s plenty of evidence that people these days are fatter, overall, than just 50 years ago, I’m less convinced that the past was some paragon of svelte, beautiful people. In fact, since the invention of photography, people have been editing photos to make them appear to have clearer skin, thicker hair, or be thinner.
Certainly before the 1980s portions were smaller, people ate out less, they walked more (hello sidewalks and walkable neighborhoods), and they had less access to highly processed foods. But many of the changes that contribute to weight gain are societal, not individual. We spend way more time in our cars and at desks. Our communities are not walkable. Our refrigerators are bigger. We eat out more and cook less, because we have less time. Our sleep is worse, and more interrupted. More and more of our leisure time is screen-based. Really, the only plus is that we smoke a lot less and our gasoline doesn’t have lead in it anymore.
But while changing diet and activity level have often been blamed for the “obesity epidemic” of the modern era, there’s new evidence that plastics may be contributing significantly to obesity. Some studies even indicate that exposure to DDT may have generational consequences, and that in particular grandmothers who were exposed were far more likely to have overweight or obese granddaughters. And sometimes genetics just predispose people to carrying more fat than necessary in the modern era. An evolutionary advantage, but one that exposes people to more harm today.
I’ve seen this tweet shared often on the interwebs and it always makes me laugh - in part because it’s true! But in our modern obsession with weight and weight loss, it can be easy to forget that for the vast majority of human history, people were fighting AGAINST a calorie deficit.
A friend shared this meme the other day and it really hit home. She pulled the phrase “Do not malign potato” for her commentary on the post. It’s true that potatoes are a superior and eminently versatile type of food. But they’re much-maligned today, and even in Malmberg’s book he uses potato avoidance as evidence of a diet too low in calories to be healthy.
While much of our modern, first-world life is an impediment to health (not just the calorie surplus and sedentary behavior but also lack of access to nature, stress, overwork, poor sleep due to light pollution, etc.), it is also the wildest dream of many of our ancestors. To have an endless supply of mostly-affordable food available day or night, as rich or as acetic as we would like, would astonish them. And while people love to romanticize food in the past, the truth is that the vast majority of people in locations with winters underwent several months of monotonous, nutrient-deficient eating, followed by forced fasting before earthly abundance allowed them to eat again. It’s also true that many historical people, especially in agrarian societies, were malnourished through over-reliance on starchy crops and lack of diversity of plant foods in their diets.
For me, the issue at hand, the thing that really messes up peoples’ relationship with food and their bodies, is the fact that we’re still hanging onto Progressive-Era ideas about self-control, willpower, and self-worth. Diets don’t work, but people who try them blame themselves when they regain weight, when the weight doesn’t come off as promised (no matter how much exercising is happening), or when “healthy” eating results in only a pound or two lost for so much effort, expense, and unhappiness.
Studies have shown that due to the insidious prevalence of anti-fat stigma in our society, people who are defined as “obese” are far more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Is it any wonder why? Most people deemed “obese” by society cannot even exist without commentary on their bodies, constant judgement, and having to deal with a world that is not built for them. Even people who are “trying” by joining the gym, controlling their eating, or doing outdoor activities are routinely mocked by strangers.
It’s time to give up the judgement. Being fat is not inherently bad. And while yes, heavier people do put more stress on their joints and muscles (including their hearts), sedentary thin people are also stressing their bodies, as are extreme athletes. But no one ever offers them unasked for health advice, do they? The weight stigma in this country and elsewhere around the world is far more damaging to human health than the obesity it claims to want to “cure.” Eating disorders, mental health issues, self-harm, and even suicide are all reactions to the self-hatred and guilt brought on by weight stigma.
Everyone deserves to exist, as they are, without guilt or shame. No one’s body is your business but your own. And no, false concerns about “health” are not gonna be tolerated in the comments. If anyone asks for your opinion, expertise, or help, by all means do your best. But otherwise? Keep your thoughts to yourself.
Like Carl said, better to be fat than dead. Give up the guilt and exist. Take care of yourself as best you can - drink water, get good sleep, go outside, do things with friends, give and receive hugs, and let go of the shame and the judgement.
It’s hot. It’s (climate change) summer. Put on the shorts and tank top. Eat strawberries and ice cream and grill meat and vegetables alike. Wear the swimsuit and go swimming. Life’s too short.
Until next time, my friends.
Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat by Harvey Levenstein (2012)
Calories and Corsets: A history of dieting over two thousand years by Louise Foxcroft (2012)
The Hundred Year Diet: America's Voracious Appetite for Losing Weight by Susan Yaeger (2010)
Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat by Hilell Schwartz (1986)
and for some bedtime fun/horror - just Google “historical weight loss methods.” There are some doozies out there.