Segment from Beach Bodies

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Peter talks with Katherina Vester about the rise of dieting in the 19th century and about how it was preferable for men to be slim and women to have a few extra pounds of padding on their bones.

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This transcript comes from an early version of the show. There may be small differences between the audio and transcript.

BRIAN: This is BackStory, with the American Backstory hosts. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century Guy.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, 19th Century Guy.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf, 18th Century Guy.

ED: We’re talking today about the history of American’s efforts to achieve a more perfect body. Before the break, we looked at nasology, the idea that a person’s nose might be a key to his or her character. It was an idea that struck a chord in the middle of the 19th century, when American culture was full of questions about the connection between inner and outer beauty, between the ideal body and the ideal character.

PETER: And it wasn’t simply a matter of vanity. There was also a civic dimension to this new obsession with body image. This was a time when almost everything was in flux, and the question of who would or wouldn’t have a political voice was very much a live one. We’re going to hear now about another way in which people’s physical bodies were drawn into this debate.

ED: It all began with a little pamphlet called “A Letter on Corpulence,” written in 1863 by a British undertaker named William Banting. Now Banting was overweight, and it had become a real problem for him.

KATHARINA VESTER: He describes himself, in his pamphlet, and he says that he was no longer able to climb stairs. He had to climb stairs backwards to make it up there. And he could no longer tie his shoes.

PETER: This is Katharina Vester, an historian at American University. She told me that the “Letter on Corpulence” documented Banting’s own attempts to lose weight. It promised that if others followed the same program, they too could shed the pounds. The pamphlet was wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic. So much so, that by the late 1860s, dieting was being referred to in American newspapers simply as Banting. And what did this Banting regime look like? Katharina Vester told me all about it.

KATHARINA VESTER: It is quite meat heavy. And it also suggests that people who want to lose weight should row a lot, or smoke a lot, or drink a lot of alcohol. So it’s not too exactly how we–

PETER: No, no, slow down. Slow down. This is a diet that recommends smoking and drinking?

KATHARINA VESTER: Right. It suggests alcohol for every meal.

PETER: So obviously this is pitched toward men.

KATHARINA VESTER: Exactly. And we can see that diet advice is also placed mostly in publications for men, like Do-It-Yourself magazines, such as Manufacturer and Builder, between advertisements for scroll saws, or articles on floor matting. They now start to have diet recommendations, too, for their readers.

PETER: Now, why would American men get all excited about what a British undertaker has to tell them about being fat?

KATHARINA VESTER: Well, It fit into earlier American thought, in many ways. So we have already writings by Emerson, who suggests that masculinity is closely connected to self-control, which also fits into Puritan ideas of bodily control. So this is all basically there already.

And then, when it hits the United States in the 1860s, we have a rising middle class that strives to participate in political power. And basically, they get the tool, because they are kept out of many ways to decide the nation’s fate by being told that they’re vulgar, non-educated, not sophisticated enough. And dieting is one way in which they can demonstrate that they can control their urges and that they’re ready to rule.

PETER: So they’re demonstrating that they have the kind of self-control that elites traditionally exercise. Is that the point?

KATHARINA VESTER: Exactly. And it’s interesting that in the middle of the 19th century and it’s early on Europe, that overweight is now associated with greed and corruption. And we see that there’s an increased fear that American society, and especially American men ruling American society, become too weak, too soft, too feminine.

And this has a number of different causes. So one of the most prominent ones is that men start to work sedentary jobs, desk jobs, where they no longer work out, and don’t do the traditional professions that men engaged in before, like trades. So there is the fear that this is not only infecting American masculinity, but American society, in general. That American society will lose power because it’s men are no longer as masculine as they used to be.

PETER: I want to stop the tape here for a second, because, as you may have noticed, the story, so far, is a little one-sided. What, you may be wondering, did dieting advice for women look like around this time? Well, basically the advice was this. Don’t do it. Listen to how Harper’s Bazaar described the effects of weight loss by women in 1896.

FEMALE SPEAKER: The body and the face lose their roundness. The eyes becomes sunken, the cheeks fall in, the lips are drawn. The skin acquires the hue and hardness of parchment, while at the same time lines and wrinkles multiply. The chest becomes hollow, and the waste angular.

KATHARINA VESTER: It’s interesting to see that men start dieting and women start to become plumper and plumper. There are actually beauty manuals that are called things like, “How to Be Plump.”

PETER: OK. And why is that so desirable, or attractive? Why does plumpness have a vogue in this period?

KATHARINA VESTER: Well, so it’s the maternal body as considered being very attractive. The soft body, the body that presents the most difference to the male body, seems to be sexually more desirable. So we have, at the end of the century, we have sex goddesses like Lillian Russell, who weight, presumably, is something like 200 pounds. So it’s really the very plump woman is the ideal of the time.

PETER: So you can see in this context, that women are supposed to look fertile. They suggest sexuality, motherhood, maternal body, and so forth. In this context, it’s not surprising that some women might take exception.

KATHARINA VESTER: Exactly. So the first diet advise for women, that we can find, is actually written by Women’s Rights activists, and by female doctors. So we have writers like Anna Kingsford, who is a doctor in Great Britain, and a Woman’s Rights activist, who, in 1886, writes the first diet for women.

These early advice activists associated the slender, healthy female body with equality, strength, and liberty. So they argued that if women were able to show that they could control their bodies in the same way that white middle class men were able to control their bodies, that they could demonstrate that they’re rational beings fit to determine the fate of the nation. So there is the idea that this would help their cause to claim suffrage.

So often, we hear that women has diet as a form of oppression, as a way to divert them from their political interests. But my research showed that, actually, women started dieting as a means of liberation, to embody a new type of woman who can participate in American policies.

PETER: In the context of Women’s Rights, this is empowering to mimic, or follow, the example of men and gain control over your body. What is its implication for race and class?

KATHARINA VESTER: Yeah, that’s problematic, because white, middle class women who made the claims that they would be able to also control their bodies, often made, at the same time, the claim that immigrant women, women of color, working class women, are not able to control their bodies. So basically, it’s not that they now ask for an inclusion of everybody into civic power, but actually, they suggest that they should be included, but others should be excluded.

So we can see, for instance, in cooking manuals or household manuals of the time, written by bestselling authors like Marian Holland, that she suggests that her white middle class readers should exercise regularly. But at the same time, she says, that Bridgets and Gretchens, which are the code words for Irish and German maids and cooks, that they are too lazy to exercise. And that they are overweight because of that. And there is, implicitly, the argument that because they are not able to control their bodies, they are also not able to be American citizens yet.

PETER: Katharina Vester is an Assistant Professor of History at American University.