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PETER: This is BackStory with us, the American Backstory hosts.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: Well, I got those kids in shape. Guess whose turn it is now. You’re going to have a lot of fun. Trust me.

BRIAN: That’s Arnold Schwarzenegger in a TV plug for the Presidential Fitness Test, back in 1992. You remember, sit-ups, pull-ups, the shuttle run. But fitness wasn’t always so valued. You go back 100 years, celebrity culture would have given women, at least, a very different message.

KATHARINA VESTER: At the end of the century, we have sex goddesses like Lillian Russell, who weight, presumably is something like 200 pounds.

BRIAN: And the belly wasn’t the only body part that was better when it was wider.

EDDY PORTNOY: The third category is the cogitative, or the wide-nostrilled nose. This indicates a cogitative mind given to serious thought and meditation.

PETER: Today on BackStory, the ideal of the perfect body through American history.


PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and an anonymous donor.

BRIAN: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory, with the American Backstory hosts. Hey there, welcome. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century Guy, and I’m here with Ed Ayers–

ED: The 19th Century Guy.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us.

PETER: 18th Century Guy.

ED: OK, so we decided a while back that we wanted to do a show about bodies, like the physical body. Now it’s summertime, and people are breaking out the swim suits and short sleeves and heading to the beach. And whether we’re flaunting our bodies, or worrying about them, you can bet we all have some idea of what a perfect body “should” look like. And that got us wondering, what did the perfect body look like in the past?

BRIAN: Yeah. To find out, we called Eddy Portnoy.

EDDY PORTNOY: Hi, I’m Eddy Portnoy. I teach Jewish Literature and Yiddish Language at Rutgers University.

BRIAN: And Eddy kind of backed into some research on body image. One of the first things we talked about was how, in the early 1800s, people started thinking that maybe the body wasn’t just a body. Maybe the way they were shaped said something about what kind of person they were.

EDDY PORTNOY: Phrenology is a pseudoscience that was created in the early 19th century, that holds that a person’s character can be determined by reading the bumps on their head.

PETER: Now some of you are probably familiar with phrenology, but just in case, here’s a quick overview. The first to phrenologist is actually a German doctor, Franz Josef Gall. In 1819, he divided the skull into 27 different sections.

EDDY PORTNOY: Kind of an architecture of the human head.

PETER: And by feeling the bumps on each one of these sections, you can learn something about a person’s character.

EDDY PORTNOY: So it could determine something like criminality, or future intelligence, things like that.

ED: And this is not just a fringe science. In 1846, Walt Whitman observed that phrenology had crossed over into the mainstream.

WALT WHITMAN: Breasting the waves of detraction as a ship dashes sea waves, phrenology, it must now be confessed by all men who have opened eyes, has at last gained a position, and a firm one among the sciences.

BRIAN: In the wake of phrenology’s rise as a prominent science, in 1848 a very interesting book is published in London.

EDDY PORTNOY: –by a man by the name of Eden Warwick, which is allegedly the pseudonym of George Jabet. And the book is titled Nasology.

PETER: Nasology?

BRIAN: Yeah, Peter, Nasology.

EDDY PORTNOY: Nasology is a 19th century pseudoscience, which holds that a person’s character can be read via the shape of their nose.

ED: And nasology really maps onto the way people are thinking about the body at the time. It really fits in with phrenology. But Warwick does write about one key difference. While phrenology claims it’s the skull, in other words, the body that determines the character–

EDDY PORTNOY: Nasology completely upends that idea by claiming that it’s in the mind that creates the shape of the nose. If you become more intelligent, your nose will actually change.

ED: So today on BackStory we’re going to talk about that connection between our bodies and our character. Because, throughout American history, we’ve had different ideas of what the perfect body looked like. And we’ve also had different ideas about how to get that perfect body.

PETER: From nose jobs to dieting, to getting a tan, we’re going to look at ourselves very closely this hour. And we’ll try to figure out why and how, over time, Americans have strived for certain physical ideals.

ED: Jumping back to Nasology, when Warwick wrote this book, he broke down on noses into six categories, six different types of noses.

EDDY PORTNOY: Number one is the Roman nose, which is aquiline and convex.

ED: So it’s hooked, like an eagle’s beak.

EDDY PORTNOY: It’s an indicator of great decision, considerable energy, firmness, absence of refinement, and disregard for the bienseance of life.

BRIAN: Wait, bien– bienseance, is that like a hip hop artist?

EDDY PORTNOY: This is a French term that’s thrown in there. It’s sort of the enjoyment of life.

BRIAN: Enjoyment of life, good.

EDDY PORTNOY: The second category is the Greek category. That’s a straight nose. It indicates refinement of character, a love for the Fine Arts, and Belles Lettres, astuteness, craft, and a preference for indirect action. If it’s not obvious, I’m quoting directly from the book. If the Greek nose is slightly distended at the end, it indicates the most useful and intellectual of characters as the highest and most beautiful form which the organ can assume.

BRIAN: What do you think, guys? Does my nose look just a little bit Greek to you?

PETER: Oh, oh, more than a little, Brian. It is Greek, you know.

ED: It’s so distended.

PETER: Your nose has always been Greek to me.

EDDY PORTNOY: The third category is the cogitative, or the wide-nostrilled nose. This indicates a cogitative mind, having strong powers of thought, and given to serious thought and meditation. The fourth category is the Jewish, or hawk nose.

BRIAN: Hey, guys, stop looking at my nose, like that.

PETER: No, It’s Greek, Brian. It’s Greek.

BRIAN: Thank you.

EDDY PORTNOY: And it is very convex. It indicates considerable shrewdness in worldly matter, a deep insight into character, and facility of turning that insight into profitable account. It’s also known as the commercial nose. While named for the Jews, it is not exclusive to them, nor is it confined to them. So it may be that you’re not Jewish, but you happen to have this type of nose.

BRIAN: Right.

EDDY PORTNOY: Which also indicates that you are good at business.

BRIAN: Right.

EDDY PORTNOY: Categories five and six, according to Warwick, are the snub nose, and the celestial nose. And these are indicative of natural weakness, mean, disagreeable dispositions with petty insolence, poverty of character. Celestial has a slightly greater length than the snub, which causes the bearer to have a least a share of fox-like common sense. A snub nose is considered to be proof of the degeneracy of the human race. That is Warwick’s taxonomy.

BRIAN: Let me just ask, this Eden Warwick, how did he intend this? Are you able to discern whether he intended this to be a joke, or intended it to be serious?

EDDY PORTNOY: You know, my feeling is that he intended it to be a kind of satire on phrenology. Sort of a send-up of it, which is somewhat strange, because it’s a 250 page joke, if you look at it that way.

EDEN WARWICK: It is with considerable distaste and reluctance that we approach the latter divisions of our classification. We wish we had never undertaken to write these noses. But after contemplating the powerful Roman nose, or the refined and elegant Greek nose, it must descend to the imbecile inanity of the snub.

BRIAN: Eddy says that when Nasology was first published in London, in 1848, nobody took it very seriously. But four years later, the book was republished again, in England, and it really took off. Because despite the differences, phrenologists adopted it as one of their sciences. The book, in various knockoff versions, made their way to the United States. And over the next 50 years nasology became a very big deal.

EDDY PORTNOY: You have articles in magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, in Harper’s Bizarre, in the New York Times, Washington Post– in almost any American newspaper– you’ll find some article, at some point during the late 19th century, on this topic.

BRIAN: And these were serious articles. These were not tongue-in-cheek. Nasology, somehow, had made it into the mainstream of, as a subset of phrenology?


BRIAN: Is that the right way to put it?

EDDY PORTNOY: Yeah, basically. For the most part, it’s taken seriously. And what’s interesting about it is, the way in which it influenced real medicine and real doctors. The first doctor known to have performed a rhinoplasty in the United States is a man by the name of John Roe.

And he wrote an article in, I believe, 1887, in a medical journal describing what he had done. And he had performed an operation on a pug nose, or a snub nose, that– according to Warwick– it’s the least desirable kind of nose. And Roe, in his article, cites a Warwick’s taxonomy of noses, all of these different classes, the Roman, the Greek, the Jewish.

BRIAN: What do you think was going on in the culture, or in the politics of the time, if you will, that helped turn a book that probably was intended as a satire of the pseudoscience of phrenology, into, well, kind of a growth industry?

EDDY PORTNOY: Well, I think there are other variety of factors here. In the popular press, racial caricatures were very common. So throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, in magazines and newspapers, you can find caricatures of all kinds of different racial and national types. And the nature of caricature is to distort reality. But nonetheless, retain a semblance of what the person realistically looks like.

So a caricature of a Jew, for example, would often have an absolutely enormous nose. A caricature of an Irish person would have this snub nose. And for people who had something that looked similar to these noses, it was, undoubtedly, irritating to have to see it. I mean, it’s not something that exists in our popular culture anymore.

BRIAN: Right.

EDDY PORTNOY: But, you know, 150, 100 years ago, it was something that was very common.

BRIAN: Eddy Portnoy is a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University.

ED: You know, what’s interesting, Brian, is that an idea that begins in the 1840s, that your nose will be shaped by your character, by the 1880s they have a different idea– that your nose will be shaped by surgery. And it’s very much a modern idea. Why wait for your character to shape your nose, when a doctor can do it for you?

PETER: And I think, too, it’s easy to laugh at all the stuff. And we have been laughing. It’s funny. But I think what seems like pseudoscience– Eddy called in pseudoscience, nasology and phrenology– it’s all, I think, an understandable effort to use, well, scientific method and a scientific language to try to delve the depths of what we call now, psychology. It’s important information to have. How are you going to figure out who’s up to what?

I mean, Ed, this is the great century of the confidence man, a real anxiety about getting beneath surface. And so one way to get beneath surface is to insist that surface actually tells you about something that’s below. It’s at least, a screening device, or you might it’s a form of profiling.

ED: And in many ways, we’re not so far from it today. In many ways, we’ve gone back to a fixation on the body as a marker of character with our fixation on fitness. So you’ll know what kind of person a person is by whether or not they’ve taken care of their bodies or not, what foods they put into it, how much they exercise.

So we kind of sneer at this kind of idea, but we also, now, take it for granted that the way you treat your body tells you about what kind of person’s inside.


ED: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we’ll talk about one of the most attractive diets in American history, red meat, tobacco, and booze.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

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.


BRIAN: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And we’ve been talking about the history of body image in America. So far, we’ve focused on how people have tried to alter their own bodies. But I want to bring us into the 20th century, because that’s when the federal government got into the game. And that story begins in the years after World War II.

In the war’s first year, 50% of all the men drafted actually were rejected for service. Some, for things like flat feet or bad eyesight. Others, because of illness, both mental and physical. But a few of those men who were rejected got slapped down because of the very shape of their bodies.

RACHEL MORAN: Rejection, specifically for weight, for example, actually made up only 60,000 to 70,000 rejected men, which is very few. It’s about 2% at the time.

BRIAN: This is Rachel Moran, an historian at Penn State and Miller Center National Fellow.

RACHEL MORAN: It’s a small reason for rejection, but it becomes huge in the national imagination.

BRIAN: So right after World War II, this very famous doctor–

RACHEL MORAN: Dr. Hans Kraus–

BRIAN: –puts together a study. He wants to know how fit American kids are compared to kids in other countries. So he takes a few thousand American kids and a few thousand European kids–

RACHEL MORAN: –and asked them all to do toe-touches, and things like that. And in the end, he determines that American children are incredibly unfit, compared to their European competitors. And that this fitness is what he calls a menace to our security.

BRIAN: So Dr. Kraus is a really big deal doctor at the time. People call him the “Father of Sports Medicine,” and word of his study gets back to President Eisenhower, who’s already plugged into the fitness world.

RACHEL MORAN: Eisenhower was actually a bit of a fitness nut. He would evangelize about low carb diets. And at one point, in the White House, he actually held this playful Biggest Loser contest with a couple of his friends, where they owed him money if they didn’t lose weight fast enough.

BRIAN: And after reading Kraus’ study in 1955, Eisenhower tries to hold a conference to figure out just how to get American kids more fit.

RACHEL MORAN: They actually have to put their conference off, because Eisenhower has his heart attack.

BRIAN: Minor setback, there. They reschedule, and hold the conference the next year. And it’s at this conference that they establish the President’s Council on Youth Fitness. It later became the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, and many other names followed. But this is the beginning of the Cold War. And so the idea of the government trying to shape people’s bodies, well, it feels a little problematic, a little like Communism.

RACHEL MORAN: Its images of Russian calisthenics being done by force, that makes it so important that American calisthenics are done by choice.

BRIAN: And, guys, who do you turn to when you want to persuade people to voluntarily choose things, themselves? Of course, you turn to Madison Avenue. The President’s Counsel teams up with the Advertising Council. These are the folks who brought you Smokey the Bear, McGruff the Crime Dog, et cetera, et cetera. And Madison Avenue delivers. They produce thousands of ads, print, TV, radio all to convince kids that physical fitness is cool.

RACHEL MORAN: There are some great ones that really connect American anxiety about the Cold War with, sort of, anxiety about fitness. So there’s a big focus on astronauts. For instance, astronauts being a great Cold War dream job for American boys. So if Captain Jim Lovell, of Apollo 13 fame, is standing in front of a rocket and says, any kid who wants my job will have to be in pretty good shape–

CAPTAIN JIM LOVELL: You know, we’re pretty well motivated to keep in shape. I’ll tell you where it gets tough, though, when you’re on the road. But when you know that staying in shape and keeping healthy can make the big difference to you in the program, you do it.

RACHEL MORAN: If you’re an American boy in Cold War culture, that’s going to be a pretty appealing message.

BRIAN: The Fitness Council also struck gold with a musical hit, the “Chicken Fat” song.

RACHEL MORAN: “Chicken Fat” is a song that was composed by Meredith Wilson, and actually song by Robert Preston, both of whom were Broadway stars at the time. And it’s prepared in 1962, specifically for Kennedy’s President’s Council on Physical Fitness. And the song is about 6 and 1/2 minutes long, and it’s a calisthenics song.

So essentially, it’s the kind of record that your school would put on the PA system, or perhaps your classroom teacher would play, and this song would admonish you to touch your toes, to do sit-ups, in a sort of 6 and 1/2 minute rhythmic style.


RACHEL MORAN: And in fact, this song managed to sell over 100,000 records its first year.

BRIAN: As we were finishing the interview, I had sort of a therapy moment, where I confessed to Rachel, talked to her about the traumatizing experience in elementary school when we were all tested for the number of pull-ups that we could do.


BRIAN: For me, the number was, yes, zero. Rachel, are Eisenhower and Kennedy’s physical fitness programs to blame for that? Or did I just have a sadistic gym teacher?

RACHEL MORAN: Oh, no, you definitely get to put your blame, actually, in this case on Lyndon Johnson–

BRIAN: Ooh, hoo, hoo. One of my favorite presidents, who knew?

RACHEL MORAN: Well, in 1966, very much as part of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, it’s his administration that’s going to issue the President’s Award for Physical Fitness. So, while schools were in no way forced to institute these programs, essentially, programming for the President’s Award is going to spread slowly, nationwide. And that includes running the mile, and the flexibility test, and, yes, the pull-ups.

BRIAN: Oh my god.

RACHEL MORAN: So I tell my students that the reason they have to run the mile in high schools is because we were afraid of communists. I think it’s good. I think it’s good to know.

BRIAN: Right, don’t look back, they might be gaining on you. What do you think the lasting effects of these programs that were started the late ’50s and the early ’60s are today?

RACHEL MORAN: I think that the interesting effects might be the handicap it’s placed on government programs that might actually address fitness issues. Because fitness was set up at this Cold War moment, with this extreme emphasis on limited government and individual freedoms, there’s a real sense that everything has to be done through advertising. Everything has to be done by asking schools to voluntarily take up government ideas.

And in the end, that means that the entire program comes off almost as a joke to some people, when I mentioned it. It doesn’t seem like even a real function of the government. What is this President’s Council?

And I think it’s made it very difficult for the Council to do anything meaningful, in the long run, because it’s already set up as a sort of shell of an agency. And I think that that also has effects for Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move. And that I think the expectations for what government fitness and nutrition programs might do is already set.

1987 FITNESS PSA: (SINGING) When you feel stressed, or feel uptight, that’s the time to exercise. Now you’re looking great.

BRIAN: Rachel Moran is an Historian at Penn State University, and a Miller Center National Fellow.

1987 FITNESS PSA: (SINGING) Take the time to exercise. Fitness is feeling great. Fitness is feeling great.

BRIAN: If you were subjected to the humiliating task of doing pull-ups in elementary school, we can’t heal those scars. But we can be your shoulder to cry on. Tell us your story at

PETER: It’s time for a short break. When we come back, what your tan says about you.

ED: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

PETER: Welcome back to BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf, 18th Century Guy.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, 19th Century Guy.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century Guy. Today, we’re talking about body image in American history. We’ve been looking at how Americans have thought about their noses, dieting, even physical fitness. And now, we’re going to take some listener questions.

PETER: Hey, guys, gather around. We’ve got a phone call from Virginia Beach. It’s Candace. Candace, welcome to BackStory.

CANDACE: Thanks for having me. How are you?

PETER: Good.

CANDACE: So I’m Chinese, and whenever I go over to China I get a lot of heat from my family because I’m usually a lot tanner than everyone else. And to them, because I’m so tan, it makes it seem like I’m just outside a lot. And to them, that means that I’m not inside studying, or working and being successful. And I’m just wondering, do you see that in American history. Where people who are tanner are seen a little differently, status-wise, like that?

PETER: Candace, you ask a great question. And that is, how do people read each other’s bodies according to where they’re exposed. And the simple answer to that, and I’ll throw this out for all centuries, is that people who are tanned are out there working.

BRIAN: Oh, Peter, you have such an 18th century view of the world. Because, here in the 20th century, and the 21st century, to have a tan in our consumption oriented, leisure oriented society, doesn’t mean you’re out there working hard. It means you’re at the beach. Or it means you’re skiing.


ED: Now, Candace, your friends would really feel at home in my century, the 19th century, where we were doing things right. And there, the greatest mark of status would have been just how pale you could get, especially if you were a woman. And the whole idea of the bonnets, and all the other coverings, was to, basically, cover as much of the body as possible at all times. And a large part of that was to protect yourself from when you were outdoors. Precisely because you did not want to be known as someone who ever had toil outside.

And of course, this is where you come up with one of the great pejoratives in American culture– red neck. That is a direct reflection of working outdoors in the sun with your head bowed, so that your neck became red from exposure to the sun. So what do you tell your friends and your family when you go over there? Do you say, oh, you just don’t understand? When your centrally developed capitalism actually catches up with ours you’ll understand that this is a mark of having succeeded so well that you have plenty of discretionary time in order to play outside.

CANDACE: I haven’t quite made that argument, yet.

ED: But that’s what it is. If your pale now, it suggests that your trapped in some job where you don’t control your own time, and you can get outside for your fair share of fresh air and sunshine. Whereas, if you’re a hedge fund manager, or a university president, say, you can just do whatever you want to do, whenever you want to do it. And that involves getting outside.


PETER: OK , Candace, you just stay outside and be proud. OK?


PETER: All right, Candace, thanks a lot for your call.

CANDACE: Thanks, so much.

BRIAN: Thanks, bye bye.

ED: Bye bye. So Brian, I’m going to have to admit, this must be something that happens in the 20th century. Certainly, when I hand the ball off to you at 1900, we’re all about parasols and covering. But sometime in the– well, you tell me– when does it happen that the tan becomes a sign of vitality and youth?

BRIAN: Well, you’re right, Ed, in that you can’t see a tan if you’re entirely covered up. And even when people go to the beach, at the beginning of the 20th century, they’re pretty covered up. I absolutely love the mechanism from your period, Ed, that provides a little hut that people get into. And they are then backed into, first by a horse, and then mechanically, they’re backed into the ocean, so that when they get out in the ocean, they’re totally immersed, so that they will not be seen, at all– just to underscore how dressed up people were.

You might be surprised to learn how late into my century it is that it’s still illegal for a guy to take his shirt off. It was the ’30s that they started even making swimsuits for guys where you can remove the shirt. And it wasn’t really until the 1940s that you could be pretty confident that taking your shirt off, if you were a guy, wasn’t going to get you arrested. Now I get arrested at even the thought of taking my shirt off.

ED: That’s an arresting thought, I would have to admit.

PETER: So Brian, when Marlon Brando screams, “Stella! Stella!” and he’s wearing that very suggestive undershirt, that’s a lot racier than we think now, right?

BRIAN: It is. And Peter, once again, you’ve got your finger on the pulse of the 20th century. Because, probably what started the trend of guys taking their shirts off in the ’30s was that iconic picture of Tarzan, the Ape Man, Johnny Weissmuller, star swimmer with his shirt off in the movies. And that’s really what changed this whole trend.

ED: Did he have a tan?

BRIAN: Um, it was black and white, so it was really hard for me to tell.



ED: If you’re just tuning in, this BackStory. And we’re talking about the history of American body image. We’re taking questions from our listeners.

PETER: We have a call from Tunisia, from Tunis. It’s Lenore. Lenore, welcome to the show.

LENORE: Thank you.

PETER: And today’s show is about body image.

LENORE: Yeah, well, the topic’s been really interesting to me. And it made me think about how a lot of times, part of the standard of beauty of era has been determined by how people have either adhered to gender norms, or maybe gone against them and broken them. And I’m just wondering why– for example, why, in the Victorian period did people expect women to grow their hair out, and wear these hourglass corsets that they really emphasized their feminine shape. Versus in the 1920s, when fashions were favoring the very slim, more, I guess, masculine figured women.

And then they cut off their hair. Or even in the 1970s, when men grew their hair out in counterculture. And that was sort of a political statement, as well. So, I guess the question is just, how have perceptions of beauty been influenced by how people adhere to, or break, gender norms, in whatever those gender norms might be in the era?

ED: Well, you know, we tend to think of the 19th century as a time that is sort of unified by what we might think of as Victorian ideals. But the 19th century saw as many changes as the 20th century has in the ideal of womanhood. And I think it’s fair to say that women’s styles, and fashioning, and self-fashioning, and projection, is much more changeable than men’s.

Because in the 19th century, you go from quite sheer sort of displays or the female form in the early 19th century, to something that’s more modest. And then to something that’s almost obscenely exaggerated with hoops, and corsets, and bustles. We, basically, started really exaggerating the female derriere.

And then in the second half of the 19th century, all that seems hopelessly outdated. And they begin moving to bloomers as a sign of liberation. Because bloomers would allow you not to worry about covering up your legs, so much, because they’re covered up closer to your body with those sort of pants.

So over those 100 years, you see real changes. It doesn’t move toward greater exposure. I mean, it doesn’t seem to be pointing, necessarily, toward the 20th century, because the cult of womanhood in the 1890s is the Gibson girl, who is still very fully draped and–

BRIAN: Robust.

ED: She’s robust, but she does start playing tennis. She does start playing golf. And the clothing, even though you have these very full skirts, are allowing you to ride bicycles, which was the great controversy. Could a lady ride a bicycle without compromising herself? So what you see across the 19th century is not just a static covering, but rather different kinds of projection of what the meaning of womanhood might be.

LENORE: You mentioned bloomers covering the body, but allowing more freedom of movement. I’ve actually seen a lot of pants, here in Tunisia, that are very full, but gathered at the cuff. And I am wondering now if that’s sort of an attempt at the modesty of the skirt, and the femininity of a skirt, but with more freedom of movement.

PETER: Yeah, that sounds right.

LENORE: Without covering revealing the ankles.

ED: Then what happens in the 20th century, Brian?

BRIAN: Well, the trend in the 20th century is that periods that we tend to associate with women asserting their rights as citizens, tend to veer towards what, in the ’70s, we called unisex. So certainly women were very active, politically, in asserting their right to vote during the 1920s. And that’s the era pf the flapper, where really, women’s body is still pretty covered, although hemlines go up, become somewhat formless. There’s a de-emphasis on the bosom. And of course, the 1970s, women stopped wearing bras. Again, the bosom was de-emphasized.

And really, the whole idea behind unisex clothing was that women and men wore, quite literally, the same clothing. I mean, that didn’t last very long, because that cut down on sales for lots of clothing manufacturers.

PETER: We’ve become very self-conscious about fashion in the modern period. We think of the statements that we’re making, maybe in a way that they didn’t, back in the 18th century, so you’re living in exciting times, Lenore, in an exciting place. Thanks, very much, for calling us.

BRIAN: Thank you, Lenore.

LENORE: Yeah, I was so happy to be able to hear your opinion about all this. Thank you.

ED: Bye, bye.


ED: We’re going to end our show today with a look at a slightly different part of the body, the missing part. Amputation had been around for a long time, but it was not until the American Civil War when chloroform was first used as an anesthetic, that the operation became commonplace.

40,000 Northerners, 20,000 Southerners, returned home as amputees. And with a loss of limbs, came a crisis of manliness. How could these men support their families without the use of their natural arms and legs? Would their women still love them? Were they still complete men, even if they had parts of their body missing?

In the years during the Civil War, there emerged a new genre of poems and songs, stories and pictures, all of which gave voice to this anxiety. Here’s an example from an 1862 poem. It’s written from the perspective of a soldier writing home to his fiancee, to report that he’s lost an arm in battle.

MALE SPEAKER: But I’ve something else, Dear Mary, to say. And I’d say it if it cost me life. I’ve thought of it well, there’s no other way. You’re released from your promise to be my wife. You’ll think me foolish, at first. Then you’ll think of the loose, armless coat sleeve at my side, and you’re proud and sensitive heart will shrink from the thought of being a cripples bride.

ED: This image of an empty sleeve figured centrally in many other works of art from the 1860s. Historian, Megan Kate Nelson writes about this theme in her book, called Ruined Nation; Destruction and the American Civil War. She told me what the empty sleeve represented.

MEGAN KATE NELSON: What it represented was the soldier’s bravery and his patriotism, and also his manliness. That he had that sort of emptiness of his sleeve, and most often, the sleeve was kind of pinned up, right? So it was a coat that was made for a man with an arm, but the arm was no longer there. And so you see what he had been, and then what he is now.

And that transition was enabled by all of these very positive virtues that the soldier had demonstrated on the field of battle. And so empty sleeve literature was really this positive narrative of wounding in the war. And also of amputation, that this man had acquitted himself so well on the battlefield and had given his limb for the country and had survived to tell the tale.

And another important component of this was that the soldier, then, would go on to marry his sweetheart, usually a sweetheart he had had and had been courting before the war, before his wounding, when he was a whole man. He would marry her, and have children, and be able to work, and sort of be fully reintegrated into American culture.

ED: So it’s ironic, you know, the one reason that we have so many images of amputees after the Civil War is that in earlier wars they might have died. And so, it’s a kind of strange good news, in a way, that they were able to go on with their lives. Albeit, in that disabled form.


ED: And you have a powerful picture in your book of a double amputee with his wife and his numerous children. And she’s holding the ball that apparently wounded him. Is that right?

MEGAN KATE NELSON: Yes. That photograph is amazing. I think it’s so amazing they brought the ordinance in as part of the family. But yes, and this idea– because there was a lot of concern and anxiety that amputees would not be able to procreate. They would not be able to fulfill the sort of gender role as a husband and a father.

And so there were many visual images of soldiers with young children communicating the point that they could still have children and contribute to the future of the nation, just as they could have contributed their limb to the cause.

ED: So were there differences in the way that black soldiers and white soldiers experienced these losses?

MEGAN KATE NELSON: The issue of black veterans and amputees is a really interesting one. Because, in many ways, the empty sleeve literature, and the conversation surrounding African American soldiers and their injuries, was very similar to the conversation about white soldiers.

And there’s a very famous series of paintings called A Bit of War History, by Thomas Waterman Wood. It’s three different images that track the movements of the fugitive slaves, to the black soldier, to the veteran. And in that final image of the veteran, the black soldier is an amputee. And there’s a very positive spin, I think, in that image that goes along with the empty sleeve literature themes.

But, this was really complicated. Because before the war, and during the war, as well, black bodies meant something very different in American culture than white bodies. And there are the visual rhetoric and also the written rhetoric about slavery, really focused on damage to black bodies in slavery, usually through the medium of the whip.

So their war story sort of continued their giving of their own bodies to this larger purpose. So the narrative as was more complicated with them, although it did share many of the same kinds of ideas and images as with the bodies of wounded white soldiers.

ED: Megan Kate Nelson is a Lecturer at Harvard University. Her new book is called Ruined Nation; Destruction and the American Civil War.


BRIAN: That’s going to do it for us, today. If you’ve been listening to BackStory while jogging six miles per hour on the treadmill you’ve burned about 750 calories this episode. Congratulations.

ED: For more on the history of American bodies, check out our website You can comment on this episode, or sign up to be a caller on a future episode. That’s

BRIAN: You’ll also find us on Facebook and Tumblr. We tweet at BackStoryRadio.

PETER: Thanks for listening, we’ll be back again next week. In the meantime, don’t be a stranger.

BRIAN: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Jess Engebretson, Eric Mennel, Allison Quantz, and Tony Field, with help from Mary [? Kapel. ?] Jamal Millner is our technical director. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

ED: Special thanks, today, to Shawn Michelle Smith. And to our voice over actors, Matthew Gibson and David Salisbury.

BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel, history made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA, and Senior Research Fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond.