Not too rich, or too thin
Helen Gurley Brown, diet fan
So I’m trying to cut back a bit, what with the whole pandemic, like many people my weight has bounced around.
A diet advocated in Popular Science in 1923 suggested these ideal weights (in an article titled Are You Too Fat?):
Clearly aimed at a male reader (despite listing both sexes in the chart), the illustrations and advice given are assuming a man. (Anything aimed at women doesn’t think they might be “too fat” and somehow unaware of it!). I’m not fat (thanks, Popular Science!)
I’ve never been “overweight” in medical terms, but heavier than I’d prefer. Like many women I know, I live in a constant state of wanting to lose 10lbs. I think of Erika Jong in Fear of Flying, just 15lbs too heavy for fashion.
Diet culture offers lots of ways to (potentially) lose weight, some more reliable than others. It’s also a reliable market for various hucksters, with new weight loss books, supplements and gizmos coming out all the time. Every January there are lots of tv spots for meal subscription plans, aimed at those who made a new year’s resolution to lose weight.
Being thin being a focus was something that emerged out of the rising middle class in industrial prosperity in the West. You'll still notice eighteenth and nineteenth century literature describe women as “attractively plump”. Plump of course, is somewhat subjective, but it meant well-fed and healthy looking. In a time when being malnourished meant being poor.
That’s not to say being fat was good. People who talk about “fat shaming” today tend to be oblivious to the long, long history of it: 2 of the deadly sins are gluttony and sloth, fatness is regarded as emblematic of both. Today it’s shamed on class lines, but the moralising is really just the same.
Carolyn Day writes in Consumptive Chic about the romantic era trend of “delicacy” that made the symptoms of consumption (weakness, thinness, pallor) seem essentially feminine and fashionable. But this fad didn’t last forever.
Consider Little Women, in many ways the quintessential young adult novel of the nineteenth century. The girls agonize about their hair, their noses, other aspects of their appearance. But not their weight. It's hard to imagine a similar book written today, without some character having body issues one way or the other.
Health approaches were changing, with clean-living movements - often attached to temperance and religious revival. Sylvester Graham invented the Graham Cracker in the 1830s. A generation later, John Harvey Kellogg took over a sanitarium, where he would develop the idea for cornflakes. Kellogg was a Seventh-Day Adventist, and their adherence to vegetarianism made this group influential in dietary reform, and producers of health food.
But dieting to be thin and look good really kicked off in the twentieth century. Dodgy slimming pills were advertised a century ago, much as today. (Although I haven’t seen anyone recently advocating for tapeworms, something that was discussed - but probably an urban legend - in the 1920s). Today’s scams are more high tech, such as Apetamin - promoted by instagram influencers - as enabling users to gain weight specifically in their backside, for the Kardashian look.
In the 1930s came the Hay diet, which my grandmother and great aunt swore by. This was an early food-combining system (a version of dieting that recurs, in various repackaged forms).
After the seventies, you move into the realm of the branded diets: the Scarsdale Diet (1978), later the South Beach Diet (2003), the Beverly Hills Diet (1981), Pritikin (1979), the F-Plan (1983). These tended to be found in best selling books, which you can now find at flea markets and garage sales anywhere near you where you live.
Cynics will argue, these all boil down to the same thing: eat fewer calories and you will lose weight. But they also targeted different markets in different ways. The original Atkins diet initially appealed more to men than women, precisely because most women don't want to be chowing down on meat all the time. Women tend to prefer the greens & fruits diets. Today's keto diet (which is Atkins repackaged) is more unisex, partly because there are many many more products available, recipes offering ways to go low-carb without ripping into a 14-ounce Porterhouse.
Another change in recent years, is that in earlier years magazine diets focused on quick fixes. Like the notorious egg and wine diet, or the cabbage soup diet, which were “do this for 3 days to fit into that dress for the weekend.” Today’s diets tend push the message of this is not a diet. This is a lifestyle.
Obviously they’re responding to the criticism that dieting is unhealthy, or that diets don’t work. But the unspoken change may be most of today’s dieters don’t have 5 pounds to lose, but over 50. That’s not happening in 3 days, even with chablis and eggs.
The egg and wine diet, popularised in “Sex and the Single Girl” by Helen Gurley Brown, 1962.
Some time ago I tried the Dukan diet, which was effective, and certainly more sustainable than some. I had yogurt for breakfast, eggs with cheese or cold cuts for lunch, and fish and salad for dinner. Not actually so bad, and certainly not as nutritionally deficient as many of the others on the market, but still pretty boring. But this is not a long term life plan. Except for someone who is, I'm going to say, more obsessive and rigid than I can possibly be.
Gretchen Rubin in her personality analysis talks of people who are either abstainers or moderators. The idea is that some people can successfully cut down on things, but for others just having one M&M means they'll eat the whole bag. For some people it’s easier to have none than a little bit of something they like.
I'm still not sure where I fit on that spectrum. For Lent, I give up alcohol and sweet things. And while I have no problem doing that, I think it is the fact that there is a fixed period makes it easier. If you told me this was the last piece of chocolate I was going to eat ever, I think I would become dizzy with infatuation for all the chocolate I wasn't going to get.
Annoyingly it seems like it was easier for people to stay slender years ago (apparently someone of the same age/sex, eating the same calories and doing the same exercise, would have weighed less in the 80s than now). It’s additives, it’s our microbiome, it’s stress, it’s screens. Some blame the obesity epidemic on corn syrup, lack of activity in our daily lives or even smoking.
Whatever it is, I’m not thrilled about it. Not sure I can face Chablis and boiled eggs for three days though.