Before the 20th century, few people cared whether a person put on a few pounds. An ample middle was seen as a sign of prosperity and good health. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of “The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls,” says Americans were “uncomfortable with extreme thinness, because it signaled wasting diseases” such as tuberculosis and cancer. Then several things changed that view.
One was that insurance companies, which had been compiling actuarial tables that looked at the risk factors connected to occupation, age, gender, height and weight, started to become more sophisticated. The “average” weight for men and women changed to “ideal” height and weight in the early 20th century, says Susan Speaker, a National Library of Medicine historian, because insurance companies saw a correlation between excess weight and early mortality. Those charts started appearing on the walls of doctors’ offices.
Fashion also played a role. In the 1920s, as the flapper look took off, women began wearing slimmer, figure-hugging dresses that often ended just below the knees and bared the arms. Being plump didn’t seems as pleasing in such attire. The advertising world, powered by new businesses, was ready to jump in with solutions. The result? Here are seven of the strangest – and often unhealthy – strategies for getting thin.