The figure that was most sought after in the nineteenth century is described in Beauty and Hygiene as ‘[a] slender, well-proportioned figure’…and, indeed, as one writer has recently said, “most of the modern fashions are adapted for slim women rather than stout.”’ Since fashion catered mainly for slender women, to avoid ‘superfluous stoutness’, women not only laced themselves into close-fitting corsets, but also cut out food, took laxatives and drank vinegar in order to remain in vogue.
Contemporary magazines referred to renowned medical practitioners who recommended cures for ‘the personal disfigurement, the inconvenience, and…the dangers’ of obesity’.One such dietician, Dr Yorke-Davis wrote a ‘very clever and interesting little book on “Foods for the Fat”’, whose system ‘rapidly reduces obesity, to the great comfort, and improvement in personal appearance, of his patients’.Mr F.C. Russell of Bedford Square, London also promoted a popular treatment for corpulence, which, like Dr Yorke-Davis, he considered to be a dangerous disease. Additionally, as in the case of the dietician, Russell ‘strongly disapproves of the system of attempting to remove superfluous fat by a course of emaciating drugs’.
Popular magazines also warned against using drugs to treat obesity, The Girl’s Own Paper writing that ‘“Obesity pills and powders,” and other quack medicines for the sure of superfluous fat are not to be recommended. No drug will cure this condition.’
This issue of the paper also warns:
[t]he severe methods of getting rid of fat such as Bant’s treatment do more harm than good, or at least, that has been our experience. They reduce the fat, but they reduce the health in a corresponding ratio, and we have seen a fatal termination to “Banting.”
Named after its creator, William Banting, this low carbohydrate diet bears similarities to the modern Atkins and Keto diets. Banting’s Letter on Corpulence became extremely popular in the nineteenth century and was published worldwide, selling 63,000 copies in Britain alone.
Contrary to the warnings of The Girl’s Own Paper, Banting writes that ‘I have not met with any case where harm has ensued from its practice under medical authority and supervision.’ This diet offered those who were ‘sickly or unwieldy’ and unable to exercise a method of removing ‘the evils of corpulence’.The language of Banting’s letter strongly suggests that obesity is a condition that afflicts the patient, rather than something that has been self-inflicted through over consumption: ‘[of] all the parasites that affect humanity I do not know of, nor can I imagine, any more distressing than that of Obesity’. The capitalisation of this ‘lamentable disease’ personifies corpulence, transforming it into an evil burden that must be cured. In order to reduce body fat, Banting advises that:
[b]read, butter, milk, sugar, beer, and potatoes…contain starch and saccharine matter, tending to create fat, and should be avoided altogether.
His diet plan consisted of four regular small meals to be taken at certain times of the day, in addition to exact measurements of foods to be consumed in solid and liquid form. For breakfast, he advises ‘six ounces solid, nine liquid’; at 2pm‘ten to twelve ounces solid, and ten liquid’; at 6pm ‘two to four ounces solid, nine liquid’ and at 9pm‘four ounces solid and seven liquid’. The plan omitted sugar and most carbohydrates, and included beef, kidneys, fish, bacon, unsweetened tea or coffee, vegetables (‘except potato, parsnip, beetroot, turnip, or carrot’), poultry and unsweetened fruit.’
Like Banting, in 1893 Beauty and Hygiene for Women and Girls identified that obesity was caused by over consumption of carbohydrates. It also named fat as a cause of weight gain, informing its readers that:
[o]besity is produced by a too abundant accumulation of fat in the cellular tissues of the body, and arises when not hereditary, from numerous causes, such as over-indulgence in sweets and “fatty” foods.
Thus, one of the most common methods for reducing weight was a regulated diet, devoid of fat and sugar. The magazine stated that in order to cure stoutness, ‘a strict regiment is necessary which must be carried out conscientiously’. This regime was so exacting that it was advised that ‘[a]ll sugary, starchy, or fatty foods are bad…pastry, beer, liquids and cocoa should not be touched’ and, even more extreme, ‘[a]lmost all liquids are fattening, even water’.Yet, The Girl’s Own Paper (1900) takes a less severe perspective upon the fat content of water since it claimed that ‘[c]hocolate as a drink can scarcely be said to be fattening because it contains so little of anything except water.’ Yet it does state that ‘[m]ilk must be taken in moderation’ and, unlike Banting whose diet included ‘two or three glasses of good claret, sherry, or Madeira’, recommended that ‘[a]lcohol must be avoided in any form.’
The readers of publications such as Beauty and Hygiene and The Girl’s Own Paper were concerned about their diet, evidenced in correspondence which questions the fat content of certain foods. The magazines conclude that not only is ‘chocolate in every form…fattening, chiefly because of the sugar it contains’ but, like Banting, told its readers to omit potatoes, ‘[c]arrots, turnips, maize, parsnips and artichokes.’ These starchy foods must be avoided if the Victorian woman was to achieve a slender figure, which also meant cutting out ‘brown bread, puddings [and] pastry.’
Nineteenth century women not only moderated their intake of food, they also employed purging methods in order to rid themselves of any unwanted substances that they had consumed. Purges ‘consisted of “cleansing” through vomiting, laxatives, and enemas.’ Laxatives included Sulphur and ‘the administration of a calomel, a mercury salt.’ Yet, calomel was poisonous and ‘[l]ong term use caused the gums, the teeth and eventually the tongue and entire jaw to erode and fall off.’ This demonstrates the extreme lengths to which women went in order to remain fashionably slender. In addition to laxatives, women often drank ‘a daily glass of vinegar, which was thought to both whiten the skin and reduce corpulence’.
In addition to dieting and purging, women were also advised to sleep in a hard bed, rise early, take a walk before breakfast and restrict fluid intake. Patriarchal conceptions of the ideal female form that was represented in magazines affected women’s behaviour, to the point that they engaged in dangerous practices such as extreme dieting and tight-lacing in their quest to accord with the wasp-waisted model!