Thirty years ago it was all right to be fat. Today, it is not. Although many lipophilics allow themselves to get fat today, the percentage was higher in the 1900’s. It took an aroused group of stout womenfolk to lead a large contingent of amazingly overfat Americans toward a saner and safer national average weight. For that, God bless the ladies. Some of the lean Uncle Sam’s of tradition had gradually waxed fatter and fatter until they looked more like the proverbial John Bull. Certain Mrs. Uncle Sam’s had fared no better. They had been placed on a pedestal and overfed.
Perhaps it was because we had conquered raw country, and hardy pioneers had become complacent merchants, lawyers, doctors, and bankers. Perhaps we remembered the English tradition that obesity spelled prosperity.
Those were the days of good eating. Diamond Jim Brady was a national hero, and “double portions of plenty” were the vogue. Here is an August day’s menu taken from a cook book printed in 1905:
peaches and cream
broiled mutton chop
fried potatoes biscuits
small assorted sandwiches
corned beef and cabbage
filet of halibut
breast of lamb
saute green corn in cream
What food for August! Imagine my father, with his almost newly painted shingle “H. Lindlahr, M.D.” hanging outside the door at 232 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago, setting forth to tell overstout “nice people” of that city to eat spinach, salads, and greens.
I remember a fat Caruso of that day singing romantic parts, a hefty Isadora Duncan doing esthetic dancing. It seems to me Teddy Roosevelt was no lightweight, and his cabinet-from William Howard Taft down-did justice to the national standard of well-being.
Significant of the times were the chorus girls. They were hefty to say the least, and Billy Watson’s Beef Trust was an aggregation of girls who averaged at least 200 pounds each, or was it more? Buxomness was the “it” of the day.
The vice of overweight was not limited to adults alone.
If you care to take the trouble of looking up the class picture of Vassar ’04, ‘O5, or ‘0 anything, you’ll get a rough idea of the situation. Even about-to-be-born babies were fat. The ladies in my mother’s, circle used to look with scorn upon any mother whose baby weighed less than ten pounds at birth. One obscure lady in our neighborhood produced a sixteen-pound baby, and she rose swiftly to be Madame President of the Tuesday Sewing Circle.
My mother was always rather slim. One year, perhaps it was 1906, she blossomed forth in a directoire gown, but the lifted eyebrows of her amply-cushioned friends soon discouraged her. As a rule, if I remember rightly, Mother was quite busy with bustles, mysterious furbelows, ruftles and puffed sleeves, ingeniously trying to look fatter than she was. Stylemakers tried, sporadically, to cast a pall of shame upon obesity, but were not too successful.
Then, all of a sudden, things began to happen. It would take a better historian than I to record, and assess the relative importance of, the steps that led to a tremendous change in the national attitude toward fat. Dozens of factors entered into it.
Fashion experts were raising their voices in earnest. Women began to bob their hair-they found short hair made them look much younger. They began to realize, too, that slimness lent the appearance of youth.
The World War of 1914 sent fat a-scurrying. After all, girls were replacing men in industry, were driving ambulances in France. Fat women couldn’t squeeze into the pert uniforms of the day or appear engaging (or efficient) in the office force or factory set-up.
Even greater forces were at work. Women were striving for equal recognition with men, not alone in the vote, but in the right to work and play at the side of the stronger sex. They were bound and determined to enjoy sports and other such privileges, including perhaps the double standard, that men had long held sacred to themselves. Perhaps throwing off the burden of immense wads of hair, and corresponding wads of fat, was a further expression of freedom and the New Deal for womankind.
Yes, in those fateful years, an impressive number of women were certainly coming out of the kitchen and the home. They were no longer content to sit in the parlor and grow fat.
Once a few of the sisterhood had grown slim, trim, and attractive from these measures, all enterprising women promptly followed suit, pell mell. Irene Castle, with her slimness and her saucily-bobbed hair, epitomized the trend. Even the new dances she introduced seemed to further the doom of portliness.
The stately waltz lost out to more agile dances such as the Castle Walk and the tango. Couples began to dance in restaurants, and women who wanted to indulge in that pleasure had to train and trim down their girth. And so, a host of factors led to an unceasing, grim, devouring urge to slimness which gathered momentum until it was grossly exaggerated. Yes, the tide went too far.
With a later generation of young women (the astonishing flappers) seeking to abolish natural contours and trying, desperately, to emulate the shape of a fence rail, the situation was bad. Perhaps Mae West helped to turn the psychological tide. At least her advent proved a longsought delight to the eyes of millions of men who had longed for the sight of a movie star with curves.
I am told on good authority that many men, a bit older than I, were muttering in their sleep in the 1920’s, “Lillian Russell, where art thou?”
Today we seem headed for a better, more sensible national feminine figure, one that is just about right.
But we were discussing the first wholesome reaction against Victorian obesity. Although it would be interesting to know exactly how it all came about, the guesses we have advanced are probably as good as any. The point is, a national urge to slimness finally came.
From the beginning, this splendid reform has been most unjustly attacked, and libelously termed “the craze” for reducing. How I despise that phrase! It’s debasing to a worthy endeavor, insulting to the laudatory aspirations of good, sensible people.
“Craze” is a nasty word. It smacks of irrationality, foolishness, imbecility and whatnot. The urge to reduce, which overtook a fat American citizenry some twenty years ago, was one of the healthiest changes that ever happened to our nation. Whatever brought it about-whether the factors were trivial and frivolous or deep-seated biological urges of self-preservation (as I’m inclined to believe they were)-whatever the factors were, they were for the best.
I shudder to think what would have happened to us modern lipophilics if we had been as complacent about fat as our parents of the mauve decade were. We probably would have averaged more than 200 pounds apiece on the hoof if what did happen to change our minds hadn’t happened.
For within the last thirty years, events, inventions and the general progress of civilization have conspired to help make the royal road to obesity almost impossible to escape for those with a tendency for fat. The butcher, the baker, the candy and ice cream maker tempt us as never before. Transportation, refrigeration, and the arts and wiles of merchandising, including that of advertising, almost catapult alluring-and fattening-tidbits into our mouths. Automobiles, machines, household gadgets are doing their best to abolish the need for physical activity, which would burn up some fat. Shorter hours of work, more granted or enforced leisure, do not help to keep us thin. Factors which lead to fatness have been on the increase; they are not apt to become fewer.
Today, Americans eat three times as much fatty food per person over a twelve-month period as they did fifty years ago. Today, Americans eat eight times as much sugar per person per year as they did 100 years ago. We are ripe for a movement to resist the trend.
So let’s drink a hearty toast to the “urge” for reducing. Let’s celebrate its birth and its continued existence, and wish it an everlasting life! Providence must have planned it….
Well, we’ve covered some important generalities. You must suspect by now that to fight fat intelligently it is necessary to consider the problem of obesity as a whole.
Defeating “Debble Fat” isn’t alone a matter of dieting. Social and environmental f actors also have to be considered. In fact, psychological problems are just about as important as the dietetic ones. The adage “Man’s worst enemy is himself” holds as true in the war against fat as in other avenues of life. Yes, the mind, the character, and the personal equation of the fat person just have to be reckoned with, and sometimes adjusted.
We are going to have to look very closely at some fat individuals to learn a few lessons. But first we can settle back for a comforting little interlude of looking at those lipophilics over there.
Let me tell you a little story. . . .