Calories and Corsets: a history of dieting

05/01/2012 by Louise Foxcroft

After the overindulgence of the festive season and an upsurge of 'new year, new waistline' mantras, we look at a history of dieting fads - from the Ancient Greeks to the Duchess of Cambridge

Dieting goes back at least as far as the Corpus Hippocraticum and the 3rd century BC. Followers of the Greek physician Hippocrates recommended a diet of light and emollient foods, slow running, hard work, wrestling, sea-water enemas, walking about naked and vomiting at lunchtimes.

Being fat was morally and physically bad for you, the result of luxury and corruption, so food and living should be plain with nothing to unduly stir the passions or arouse the appetites. This was diatia, a sensible, moderate and dutiful way of living.
 
Best-selling diet books with their quick-fix, faddish anti-fat plans, as we know them now, really took off with the arrival of the printing press in the fifteenth century. 
 
 
Diet or die
 
1) One of the first and most popular was The Art of Living Long (1558) by a Venetian merchant, Luigi Cornaro. Cornaro had spent his first forty years in dissipated, gluttonous overindulgence and became so fat that the best physicians gave up on him. It was diet or die for Cornaro, so he worked out a personal regimen, saved his own life, and published an account of it for the benefit of other fat people. His first rule was to regain self-control. Gluttony, he believed, was not merely a personal sin but also a killer. 
 
Citing Hippocrates, he insisted that moderation was the key and that all passions were merely fatal delusions. Drugs were just a substitute for the actual weight-loss necessities of frugal meals, exercise and temperance. He recommended a diet consisting of twelve ounces a day in bread, soup, yolks of new-laid eggs, fish, meat, and fourteen ounces of wine. Cornaro cut down on even this meagre intake as he aged, sometimes having just an egg yolk for his one daily meal, occasionally making it do for two. 
 
 
'A dinner without cheese is like a pretty woman with only one eye'
 
2) Cornaro’s book was still the dieting guide by the nineteenth century, though the growing numbers of diet ‘gurus’ were having to spin themselves a unique selling-point. Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy (1825) was one of the first low-carb, high-protein diets which we are familiar with today. There was just one infallible rule, he wrote, 'that a more or less strict abstinence from all farinaceous food will tend to diminish corpulence'.
 
Brillat-Savarin was a French lawyer, politician, lay physician and gourmet who had fought the Reign of Terror in 1793, escaping to New York before returning home to concentrate on the two great absorbing questions that faced the nation: Corpulency and Leanness. This was eating as politics. His diet had no starches, sugars or farinaceous (flour-based) foods but did have plenty of protein and misogyny - 'A dinner without cheese is like a pretty woman with only one eye'.
 
Dieters should eat vegetables, fruit and light meats, and drink water, coffee, tea, white wines and just occasionally spirits. Exercise, in the form of walking and horse-riding, was vital as the alternative was, he said, to 'become ugly, and thick, and asthmatic, and finally die in your own melted grease: I shall be there to watch it’.  
 
 
Extraordinary self-denial
 
3) Dr Watson Bradshaw published On Corpulence (1864) to give the overweight a scientific and strategic programme to follow. He devised one of those all-too-familiar questionnaires to ascertain whether you really were fat, and whether you needed to do anything about it. His questions ran:
 
Are you well?
Do you sleep well?
Do you feel drowsy after dinner?
Can you walk fast with comfort?
Does your heart beat rapidly and forcibly when you ascend stairs?
Does a little exertion tire you?
Do you snore at night?
Can you stoop comfortably to put on your boots?
Can you walk at the rate of four miles an hour for twenty minutes, with comfort?
Can you perform all that is desirable for a person of your years?
 
Answer these questions correctly, wrote Bradshaw, and you avoid the many miseries of ‘extraordinary self-denial’. 
 
 
Eat differently, not less
 
4) The fantastically popular Banting System, a sensible, low-carbohydrate diet was published in 1863 as a Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public, by William Banting, London undertaker to the wealthy and fashionable.
 
Banting’s own bulk had put him in hospital 20 times in as many years, and the regimes which he had tried included swimming, walking, riding, taking the sea air and spa waters, and having Turkish baths at a rate of up to three a week for a year. He had drunk ‘gallons of physic and liquor potasse’ and tried low-calorie, starvation diets, but had managed to lose only six pounds in all that time.
 
In 1862, when he was 65, Banting wrote, ‘I could not stoop to tie my shoes, so to speak, nor attend to the little offices humanity requires without considerable pain and difficulty which only the corpulent can understand’. He came up with a long term, protein-rich, high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet plan. He advised people to eat differently, not to eat less and, particularly, not to starve themselves. They should scrupulously avoid milk, sugar, starches, beer and butter, and leave off champagne, salmon, herrings, eels, pork, veal, potatoes, parsnips, beetroot, turnips, carrots, puddings, pastries and port.    
 
 
Make obesity illegal
 
5) The anonymous author of Advice To Stout People. Showing How I Reduced From 20 Stone To 13 Stone With Full Particulars As To Diet, Treatment, Etc. (1883), might have wanted to protect his identity but had reason other than embarrassment about his size for doing so.
 
He, D— S— , had also published Where to Dine and Where Not To Borrow. From Practical Experience, and Prison Life. Eighteen Months’ Imprisonment (with a remission). For 38 years he had been a ‘martyr to obesity’ and his advice was based on prison rations, limited to no more than two pounds of solid food and three pints of fluid per day, two of which should be black coffee. He also recommended smoking as it made up ‘for the larger amount of food one had previously been in the habit of consuming’. He himself smoked from morning to night.
 
A familiarity with the prison system gave D— S— a unique take on what to do about obesity. He would, he said, make it illegal, and have ‘special legislation, whereby the police would be justified in arresting the oleaginous pedestrians, slapping them into the scales at the nearest police station, and if they exceed a certain number of feet in circumference or weight, at once procure their summary imprisonment, without the option of a fine. The streets would thus be cleared of the fleshy obstructions; besides which, if the Law recognises attempted suicide as a crime in one way, why not in another?’. 
 
 
Corsets are a crime
 
6) 'Do not swallow down your food like the boa constrictor’, wrote George Craston in Pretty Faces And How They Are Made … How Everybody Can Be Pretty (1896). This was a particularly unpleasant diet and beauty book aimed at women.
 
A slim and beautiful body could not compete with the ‘love of muck and the sweet-tooth of many who clog themselves with toffee, jam, cake, ice-cream, nauseous chip-potatoes, fried fish, &c., nuts, and other indigestible matter’. So far so sensible. But women who could not cook properly were ‘hateful and ought to be drowned. …it would be better for the world and their families if they had a safe journey to heaven and no return ticket!!!’.
 
Their corsets were a crime too, dividing their bodies peninsula-fashion giving them the appearance of a giant insect. All the slimming drugs and quack anti-fat medicines wouldn’t do them any good either, they should chew their food carefully, wear flannel next to the skin, get eight hours sleep, give up tea, coffee and fat and, instead, eat home-made wholemeal bread and plenty of vegetables and fruit.
 
 
A seasonal diet
 
7) Dr Cecil Webb-Johnson, a man with a private London practice, treated his predominantly female patients with a patronizing humiliation and smoothly administered it in his optimistically titled book, Why Be Fat? (1923).
 
He promised them that they could lose several stones in weight and look 20 years younger. His clientele were obviously wealthy and he had his eye on their luxurious, sedentary lifestyles as well as their purses. He instructed them not to get into a handy passing bus if they only had to go from Piccadilly Circus to Burlington House, they should jolly well walk the short distance.
 
Greed was a craving beyond the satisfaction of need, according to Webb-Johnson, who had become interested in diets whilst serving as  a Medical Officer in Calcutta in The Great War  (he was also well-known as a composer of waltz tunes and other light musical pieces). His directions for dealing with what he politely and scientifically (there’s nothing like a scientific turn of phrase to instill confidence and deference) termed ‘over-adiposity’, were to cut back on fluids and to eat natural, seasonal foods. So, for a summer dinner Webb-Johnson recommended broiled smelts (a ‘good-looking small fish’), or veal and cabbage, whilst in autumn you could dine on oysters, boiled beef and cabbage, stewed apples, and mushrooms on toast.      
 
He issued a resounding NO to cereals, pasta, pastry, cakes, puddings and pies. Neither should one let potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips, peas or beans pass one’s lips, nor figs, dates, raisins, currants, or mulberries - all full of sugars. Milk, sugar, butter, cheese, jam, honey, and marmalade were forbidden, as were all beers and sweet wines, and any liqueurs or sweetened mineral waters such as ginger-beer, ginger-ale, and lemonade. This was a low-carbohydrate, low sugar diet, but it was low in fats and proteins too, and meats such as pork were considered very bad on this score, as well as ham, bacon, goose, duck, and fat meat of any kind, and salmon, mackerel, eels, pilchards, sardines, kippers, bloaters, crab, and lobster were also forbidden.
 
It must have been very hard to find anything to eat that Webb-Johnson really approved of.
 
 
Defeminising
 
8) Dr Morris Fishbein’s Your Weight And How To Control It (1929) was a scientific diet guide by medical specialists and dieticians.
 
Fishbein was an influential man, an editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association and, with the arrogance of a medical professional in a deferential society, he bemoaned the increased public knowledge of calories and vitamins, exercise, massage, electrical apparatus and thyroid extracts.
 
But he had a point: the problem rested, he wrote, with the burgeoning diet industry and its indoctrination of the nation’s women. What of the electric vibrating devices especially for women (dual-purpose), and chewing gums containing dangerous drugs distributed on the streets! Phonographic records of systematic exercises were followed without regard to the physical condition of the person concerned! Even the radio spouted calisthenics to which women rolled or somersaulted on the floor in an attempt to rid themselves of superfluous poundage.
 
Fishbein was concerned that, by leaving off their corsets, women were trying to control their fat by other potentially dangerous means. The fad for dieting was robbing women of their femininity and was nothing less than ‘the result of the rise of feminism’, what with breast-binding, hair-bobbing, and reducing the figure to masculine slenderness. They might even become lesbians! 
 
 
Fined per inch
 
9) Dr Lulu Hunt Peters brought calorie-counting to the great American public. Well-known and well-loved for her popular syndicated newspaper columns throughout the 1920s, she published a run-away best-seller, Dieting and Health, which had sold two million copies by 1939.
 
Weighing in at around 220lbs at her heaviest, she claimed to have lost 70lb following her own advice. ‘How anyone can want to be anything but thin is beyond my intelligence’, she told her readers. As a child she recalled being offered consolation with the idea that she would grow out of her puppy fat and have a nice shapely body when she became a woman but, she wrote, she was a delicate slip of one hundred and sixty-five pounds when she married.
 
Dieting was a moral virtue and being fat was a sinful state, so slimming down was an indicator of strength of mind and body - it demanded self-control, reeked of commitment, and displayed self-vigilance. In pre-war years she lobbied for ‘Watch Your Weight Anti-Kaiser Classes’ where members would be publicly weighed and fined if they hadn’t slimmed down, the proceeds going to the Red Cross. 
 
 
Screen sirens
 
10) Eat and Grow Beautiful (1939) was written by Bengamin Gayelord Hauser, a Hollywood diet guru with a great line in PR.
 
He was written about almost as much as the starlets he advised, and he claimed to be a famous Viennese doctor and expert on food science. He was actually a charismatic, handsome, ‘youngish man with a flashy smile’ who ‘wears his hair in a permanent wave’. His doctorate was not as permanent as his hair, however, and had to be dropped after an investigation by the American Medical Association. He wasn’t even Viennese, let alone any sort of expert, but he had plenty of elaborate diets and diet products selling under his own expensive brand-name. 
 
Hauser, one of Greta Garbo’s lovers, had set himself up in Hollywood because he understood the power of the movie industry, realising that ‘most of our high-priced movie stars … simply can’t afford to become fat and unattractive’. No beauty-aid was too expensive, ‘no regimen too drastic for these lovely ladies of the screen’ - and so, too, of course, for the masses of fans who wanted desperately to be like them.
 
Fat women, wrote Hauser, were living only half a life, their flesh was bloated, their spirits sagged, and sleep became a paradise - he was verging on suggesting that they would rather be dead than fat, or even rather dead than worried about being fat. Hauser’s duplicitous offer of salvation from the very distress he was causing is quite sickening to read. 
 
Exploitation, lies and insecurities are the bread and butter of much of today’s popular dieting and body-shape commentary and advice. What are we to make, for example, of the ecstatic coverage of the Duchess of Cambridge’s pre-wedding diet and her dramatic dress-size drop? Where is the sense in this when we have all been told time and time again that Princess Diana’s bulimia began in the lead up to her wedding? Is even a little fat so unacceptable?
 
Recent research has argued that a mother’s dieting history is her daughter’s dieting future and Kate Middleton’s mother, we are told, dropped two dress sizes on the best-selling Dukan diet. Pierre Dukan is one of the latest in a long line of best-selling diet authors that stretches from Cornaro to Banting, Hunt-Peters to Atkins, and on it will go with their strict phases and shiny celebrity endorsements.
 
Diet books are everywhere, rehashing and repackaging the same old ideas, written with a sense of urgency that mimics the anticipation of satisfaction.They hype up the urge for gratification by providing an unattainable goal and inevitably provoke a vicious cycle of self-loathing, constipation and bad breath. But still we buy into them, all it requires is a spankingly good line in self-delusion. 

 

Louise Foxcroft is the author of Calories and Corsets, out tomorrow, published by Profile.

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