Study concerning the initiation of the American preoccupation with diet and body image

Janet Bordelon

Document Type Dissertation/Thesis


Standards of physical beauty have always been heterogeneous and imprecise; they have evolved slowly and unevenly. Well into Edwardian times some of the most admired men and women were of substantial girth. Nevertheless, the change in body ideals that eventually transpired at the turn of the twentieth century seemed staggering to some observers. "Within living memory," reflected one English editorialist on the eve of the Great War, "it was no disgrace to depress the scales to the extent of twenty stone or more."Now, he lamented,fat was regarded as an,"indiscretion,and almost a crime. Only the strong-minded dare to be fat at all, and there are very few indeed who glory in corpulence.'" What was startling though, was not just the pathologically obese were effected. Many people who a few years earlier would not have been considered over-weight were judged by themselves and others to be too heavy. A dramatic transformation occurred in notions of what constituted an ideal body. Many observers were struck by the dramatic degree of change as well as by the rapidity with which many women made a seemingly impossible adjustment to the new fashion . Saturday Night in 1902. for example, commented on the impact of Mrs. Patrick Campbell's current American Theatrical tour. Audiences, it explained were amazed by her "extreme slimness, her sylph-like form. As "lithe as a willow wand," she resembled "nothing so much as an umbrella in its case," and yet far from being bony or grotesque, her body and features, were altogether, "thrilling and harmonious." The era of the "long lean woman" had dawned, and Saturday Night considered it miraculous that so many of the gentle sex now embodied the new ideal.