Tag Archives: diet

Shall Women Eat Food?

14 Aug

Women’s appetite was remarked upon in the mid nineteen-hundreds by The Lady’s Newspaper which stated that gluttony was not altogether a male sin:

[h]ow often have we beheld it in the Park carriages rolling by, containing enormous women, bursting with plethora, in whose rubicund countenances the awful signs of habitual hot luncheons appeared![2]

Yet, while it was possible for women to eat as much as men, appetite was gendered and in a woman, ought to be suppressed. Female corpulence was perceived to be disgusting and debilitating, as portrayed by The Lady’s Newspaper’s description of ‘the once slim and elegant Laura Matilda’ who now ‘sits in mute obesity, her perceptions dulled with satiety, and a sullen scorn upon her heavy lip’.[3] Women who ate large amounts were not only perceived to be mute, dull and sullen, they were also regarded as masculine, as illustrated in The Beth Book. Beth’s music-mistress is a ‘“great fat old thing”’ who ‘“likes eating”’. Her greediness is apparent to the pupils since meal times are a public display in which she ‘“gloats over things, and she’s quite put out if she doesn’t get exactly what she wants.”’ The mistress’ appetite is described in animalistic terms, as Rosa calls her a ‘“greedy old cat!”’, while her eating habits make her ‘“just like a man”’, earning her the nickname of ‘“Old Tom.”’[4]

While eating large quantities was considered a masculine trait, an 1889 publication of Fun took the issue even further in an article entitled ‘“Shall Women Eat Food?”’ where it is questioned whether women should consume at all. In this debate, consumption is deemed ‘strange and abnormal’ for the ‘fair, delicate, refined woman’. Eating is associated with robustness and coarseness, characteristics which the Victorian woman should not display. It was so much the norm to follow this etiquette, however, that the author of this piece does not fear that women will display signs of hunger since there is:

a pure sweet instinct born in the feminine breast which shuns with horror and loathing the coarse and the repulsive, and we may trust to that instinct to teach woman that to eat is not her province.[5]

Since it is ‘not her province’ to eat food, there is a prescribed amount that women must eat and a way in which meals should be eaten. The author assures the reader that ‘we need not look forward to a calamitous day when our mothers, sisters and wives will tear, rend and devour sustenance voluntarily descending to the level of the wolf and hyena.’ The animalistic language of this article portrays the appetitive female as a carnivorous beast, something that readers would certainly wish to avoid. It is also made clear that a woman who eats more than she should will not only risk ‘degrading [her] own sweet nature’, but also ‘lose the affection and respect of her husband’ and alienate herself from ‘the trust, affection and respect of men.’[6] The undignified aspect of the female appetite is repeated in a conduct manual written in 1838 by a mother to her daughter, wherein she writes ‘[n]othing can be more degrading to a rational being, than to be the slave of an appetite’.[7] Once more, appetite is associated with an irrational, animalistic state. Self-control over bodily desire is thus designated as a rational quality that will gain the respect of the social order.

Continuing the view that a display of appetite is an act of degradation, eating often necessitates conduct that may be considered unsuitable for public sight. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, Mary Smith speaks of the ‘curious proceeding’ involved in eating oranges. Cutting the orange is not an option for the women of Cranford since the juice runs out ‘nobody knew where’.[8] This uncontrollable juice represents the insatiable female appetite that might be betrayed at any moment, should there be a failure of dining etiquette. Consuming an orange proves difficult since it is impolite to suck, the maternal and sexual image that it provokes being inappropriate for public view: ‘sucking…was in fact the only way of enjoying oranges; but then there was the unpleasant association with a ceremony frequently gone through by little babies.’[9]  The only option left for the Cranford ladies is to ‘withdraw to the privacy of their own rooms, to indulge in sucking oranges’,[10] suggesting an almost masturbatory pleasure, a secret guilty process to eating.

Consumption was also problematic because it called attention to unpleasant bodily functions such as digestion and defecation. The vulgarity of appetite is portrayed in Wives and Daughters wherein the hour at which people are invited to dinner is of utmost important:

How ask people to tea at six, who dined at that hour? How, when they refused cake and sandwiches at half-past eight, how induce other people who were really hungry to commit a vulgarity before those calm and scornful eyes?[11]

In order to avoid the scornful eyes of fellow diners, women eat prior to a public meal, thus creating the appearance that they are not hungry. Women thus trained their appetites so that they did not exhibit signs of hunger, especially in public. In The Ladies’ Treasury (1869), one gentleman writes that women ‘wish to appear in the eyes of their male admirers as light, ethereal, angelic creatures, who are scarcely subject to the vulgar necessities of hunger.’[12] In ‘A Story, by Mrs. C.L. Balfour’ in The Lady’s Newspaper (1861), one character remarks that ‘“I am like some delicate ladies, who make a good dinner at luncheon, and then have an opportunity of etherealizing at the dinner-table”’[13] If a woman does not eat at all at the dinner table, however, it raises suspicion of secret binges prior to the meal:

[w]e do not like to see a young lady ignore our food, or turn from the proffered wing of chicken, albeit with an air of the prettiest disgust. That always, to us at least, engenders suspicion of previous banquets, of surreptitious luncheons, of forenoon indulgences in cakes and hot jelly, it may be with a flavour of maraschino. We see at once that there is a falsity in our sweet neighbour’s performance, that she is acting a part deliberately studied.[14]

Such a ‘false performance’ is given by Mrs Gibson in Wives and Daughters:

Then there was lunch, when everyone was merry and hungry, excepting the hostess, who was trying to train her middayappetite into the genteelest of all ways.[15]

Mrs Gibson wishes to avoid the ‘scornful eyes’ of her fellow diners, yet wants her guests to notice her small appetite and praise her feminine delicacy. Mrs Gibson thought that Dr Nicholls ‘would give her the proper civil amount of commiseration for her ailments, which every guest ought to bestow upon a hostess who complains of her delicacy of health.’[16] Yet, she is comically undone by the very man who she had hoped would call attention to her fragile health and refined appetite as the doctor sees through her façade, instead ‘recommending her to try the coarsest viands on the table; and, at last, he told her if she could not fancy the cold beef to try a little with pickled onions.[17]

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

[1] ‘Food and Feeding’, Hearth and Home: An Illustrated Weekly Journal for Gentlewomen (London, England), issue 174, 13th Sept, 1894

[2] ‘The Fair Sex and their Diet’, The Lady’s Newspaper (London, England), 3rd Jan, 1857, iss 523

[3] ‘The Fair Sex and their Diet’, The Lady’s Newspaper (London, England), 3rd Jan, 1857, iss 523

[4] S. Grand, The Beth Book (London: Virago, 1980), p.288

[5] ‘Women, Tobacco, Food, Perpendicularity, and Other Matters’ Fun (London,England)23 Oct 1889 issue 1276

[6] ‘Women, Tobacco, Food, Perpendicularity, and Other Matters’ Fun (London,England)23 Oct 1889 issue 1276

[7] from ‘Female Excellence, or Hints to Daughters, by a mother for their use from the Time of Leaving School till their Settlement in Life’ (London, 1838) Bodleian Library, p.134 http://www.gender.amdigital.co.uk/contents/document-detail.aspx?sectionid=62 [accessed 6th March, 2009] (53)

[8] Cranford, p.26

[9] Cranford, p.26

[10] Cranford, p.26

[11] Gaskell, Wives and Daughters, p.462

[12] ‘The Wasp Waist’, The Ladies’ Treasury (London, England) 1st Nov, 1869, p.71

[13] ‘Tangle, A Story of Life’s Perplexities’ The Lady’s Newspaper London England 28th September 1861, p. 198, issue 770

[14] ‘The Fair Sex and their Diet’, The Lady’s Newspaper (London, England), 3rd Jan, 1857, iss 523

[15] Gaskell, Wives and Daughters, pp.340-1

[16] Gaskell, Wives and Daughters, pp.340-1

[17] Gaskell, Wives and Daughters, pp.340-1

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Banting – The Victorian Atkins Diet

9 Aug

The figure that was most sought after in the nineteenth century is described in Beauty and Hygiene as ‘[a] slender, well-proportioned figure’…and, indeed, as one writer has recently said, “most of the modern fashions are adapted for slim women rather than stout.”’[1] Since fashion catered mainly for slender women, to avoid ‘superfluous stoutness’, women not only laced themselves into close-fitting corsets, but also cut out food, took laxatives and drank vinegar in order to remain in vogue. Contemporary magazines referred to renowned medical practitioners who recommended cures for ‘the personal disfigurement, the inconvenience, and…the dangers’ of obesity’.[2] One such dietician, Dr Yorke-Davis wrote a ‘very clever and interesting little book on “Foods for the Fat”’,[3] whose system ‘rapidly reduces obesity, to the great comfort, and improvement in personal appearance, of his patients’.[4] Mr F.C. Russell of Bedford Square, London also promoted a popular treatment for corpulence, which, like Dr Yorke-Davis, he considered to be a dangerous disease. Additionally, as in the case of the dietician, Russell ‘strongly disapproves of the system of attempting to remove superfluous fat by a course of emaciating drugs’.[5] Popular magazines also warned against using drugs to treat obesity, The Girl’s Own Paper writing that ‘“Obesity pills and powders,” and other quack medicines for the sure of superfluous fat are not to be recommended. No drug will cure this condition.’[6]

This issue of the paper also warns:

[t]he severe methods of getting rid of fat such as Bant’s treatment do more harm than good, or at least, that has been our experience. They reduce the fat, but they reduce the health in a corresponding ratio, and we have seen a fatal termination to “Banting.”[7]

Named after its creator, William Banting, this low carbohydrate diet bears similarities to the modern Atkins diet. Banting’s Letter on Corpulence became extremely popular in the nineteenth century and was published worldwide, selling 63,000 copies in Britain alone. Contrary to the warnings of The Girl’s Own Paper, Banting writes that ‘I have not met with any case where harm has ensued from its practice under medical authority and supervision.[8] This diet offered those who were ‘sickly or unwieldy’[9] and unable to exercise a method of removing ‘the evils of corpulence’.[10] The language of Banting’s letter strongly suggests that obesity is a condition that afflicts the patient, rather than something that has been self-inflicted through over consumption: ‘[of] all the parasites that affect humanity I do not know of, nor can I imagine, any more distressing than that of Obesity’.[11] The capitalisation of this ‘lamentable disease’ personifies corpulence, transforming it into an evil burden that must be cured. In order to reduce body fat, Banting advises that:

[b]read, butter, milk, sugar, beer, and potatoes…contain starch and saccharine matter, tending to create fat, and should be avoided altogether.[12]

His diet plan consisted of four regular small meals to be taken at certain times of the day, in addition to exact measurements of foods to be consumed in solid and liquid form. For breakfast, he advises ‘six ounces solid, nine liquid’; at 2pm‘ten to twelve ounces solid, and ten liquid’; at 6pm ‘two to four ounces solid, nine liquid’ and at 9pm‘four ounces solid and seven liquid’.[13] The plan omitted sugar and most carbohydrates, and included beef, kidneys, fish, bacon, unsweetened tea or coffee, vegetables (‘except potato, parsnip, beetroot, turnip, or carrot’), poultry and unsweetened fruit.’[14]

Like Banting, in 1893 Beauty and Hygiene for Women and Girls identified that obesity was caused by over consumption of carbohydrates. It also named fat as a cause of weight gain, informing its readers that:

[o]besity is produced by a too abundant accumulation of fat in the cellular tissues of the body, and arises when not hereditary, from numerous causes, such as over-indulgence in sweets and “fatty” foods.[15]

Thus, one of the most common methods for reducing weight was a regulated diet, devoid of fat and sugar. The magazine stated that in order to cure stoutness, ‘a strict regiment is necessary which must be carried out conscientiously’.[16] This regime was so exacting that it was advised that ‘[a]ll sugary, starchy, or fatty foods are bad…pastry, beer, liquids and cocoa should not be touched’[17] and, even more extreme, ‘[a]lmost all liquids are fattening, even water’.[18] Yet, The Girl’s Own Paper (1900) takes a less severe perspective upon the fat content of water since it claimed that ‘[c]hocolate as a drink can scarcely be said to be fattening because it contains so little of anything except water.’[19] Yet it does state that ‘[m]ilk must be taken in moderation’ and, unlike Banting whose diet included ‘two or three glasses of good claret, sherry, or Madeira’,[20] recommended that ‘[a]lcohol must be avoided in any form.’[21] The readers of publications such as Beauty and Hygiene and The Girl’s Own Paper were concerned about their diet, evidenced in correspondence which questions the fat content of certain foods. The magazines conclude that not only is ‘chocolate in every form…fattening, chiefly because of the sugar it contains’[22] but, like Banting, told its readers to omit potatoes, ‘[c]arrots, turnips, maize, parsnips and artichokes.’[23] These starchy foods must be avoided if the Victorian woman was to achieve a slender figure, which also meant cutting out ‘brown bread, puddings [and] pastry.’[24]

Nineteenth century women not only moderated their intake of food, they also employed purging methods in order to rid themselves of any unwanted substances that they had consumed. Purges ‘consisted of “cleansing” through vomiting, laxatives, and enemas.’[25] Laxatives included Sulphur and ‘the administration of a calomel, a mercury salt.’[26] Yet, calomel was poisonous and ‘[l]ong term use caused the gums, the teeth and eventually the tongue and entire jaw to erode and fall off.’[27] This demonstrates the extreme lengths to which women went in order to remain fashionably slender. In addition to laxatives, women often drank ‘a daily glass of vinegar, which was thought to both whiten the skin and reduce corpulence’.[28] It was not only the middle-class wives and daughters who adhered to slimming regimes, as with the fashion for corsets, women of the working classes adopted the methods of the upper-classes when it came to dieting, one magazine in 1895 informing:

[e]ven Mary Jane in the kitchen will eat sparingly of the food allowed her, while she will seek to reduce her fat by copious draughts from the vinegar cruet, and succeeds only in injuring the coats of her stomach―the forerunner of dyspeptic troubles which will be difficult to overcome.[29]

In addition to dieting and purging, women were also advised to sleep in a hard bed, rise early, take a walk before breakfast and restrict fluid intake. Patriarchal conceptions of the ideal female form that was represented in magazines affected women’s behaviour, to the point that they engaged in dangerous practices such as extreme dieting and tight-lacing in their quest to accord with the wasp-waisted model.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] Beauty and Hygiene for Women and Girls (London, 1893) Bodleian Library <http://www.gender.amdigital.co.uk/contents/document-detail.aspx?sectionid=193> accessed 6th March, 2009], p.31

[2] ‘Foods for the Fat’, Le Follet: Journal du Grand Monde, Fashion, Polite Literature, Beaux Arts &c. &c. (London, England) 1st March 1892, issue 547

[3] ‘Foods for the Fat’, Le Follet: Journal du Grand Monde, Fashion, Polite Literature, Beaux Arts &c. &c. (London, England) 1st March 1892, issue 547

[4] ‘Foods for the Fat’, Le Follet: Journal du Grand Monde, Fashion, Polite Literature, Beaux Arts &c. &c. (London, England) 1st March 1892, issue 547

[5] ‘To the Corpulent’ Myra’s Journal of Dress and Fashion (London, England) 1st May, 1886, issue 5

[6] ‘Answers to Correspondents’ The Girl’s Own Paper (London, England) issue 968, 16th July, 1898

[7] ‘Answers to Correspondents’ The Girl’s Own Paper (London, England) issue 968, 16th July, 1898

[8] William Banting, Letter on Corpulence, 4th edn. (New York: Cosimo, 2005), originally published (Pall Mall, London: Harrison, 1869)

[9] William Banting, Letter on Corpulence, 4th edn. (New York: Cosimo, 2005), originally published (Pall Mall, London: Harrison, 1869)

[10] William Banting, Letter on Corpulence, 4th edn. (New York: Cosimo, 2005), originally published (Pall Mall, London: Harrison, 1869)

[11] William Banting, Letter on Corpulence, 4th edn. (New York: Cosimo, 2005), originally published (Pall Mall, London: Harrison, 1869)

[12] William Banting, Letter on Corpulence, 4th edn. (New York: Cosimo, 2005), originally published (Pall Mall, London: Harrison, 1869)

[13] William Banting, Letter on Corpulence, 4th edn. (New York: Cosimo, 2005), originally published (Pall Mall, London: Harrison, 1869)

[14] William Banting, Letter on Corpulence, 4th edn. (New York: Cosimo, 2005), originally published (Pall Mall, London: Harrison, 1869)

[15] Beauty and Hygiene for Women and Girls (London, 1893) Bodleian Library http://www.gender.amdigital.co.uk/contents/document-detail.aspx?sectionid=193%5Baccessed 6th March, 2009], p.32

[16] Beauty and Hygiene for Women and Girls (London, 1893) Bodleian Library http://www.gender.amdigital.co.uk/contents/document-detail.aspx?sectionid=193%5Baccessed 6th March, 2009], p.32

[17] Beauty and Hygiene for Women and Girls (London, 1893) Bodleian Library http://www.gender.amdigital.co.uk/contents/document-detail.aspx?sectionid=193%5Baccessed 6th March, 2009], p.31

[18] Beauty and Hygiene for Women and Girls (London, 1893) Bodleian Library http://www.gender.amdigital.co.uk/contents/document-detail.aspx?sectionid=193%5Baccessed 6th March, 2009], p.33

[19] ‘Answers to Correspondents’ The Girl’s Own Paper (London, England) 11th August 1900, p.720, issue 1076

[20] William Banting, Letter on Corpulence, 4th edn. (New York: Cosimo, 2005), originally published (Pall Mall, London: Harrison, 1869)

[21] ‘Answers to Correspondents’ The Girl’s Own Paper (London, England) issue 959, 14th May 1898, p.528 – treatment of corpulence at the bottom of the page – saved as treatment of corpulence

[22] ‘Answers to Correspondents’ The Girl’s Own Paper (London, England) 11th August 1900, p.720, issue 1076

[23] ‘Answers to Correspondents’ The Girl’s Own Paper (London, England) issue 968, 16th July, 1898

[24] ‘Answers to Correspondents’ The Girl’s Own Paper (London, England) issue 959, 14th May 1898, p.528 – treatment of corpulence at the bottom of the page – saved as treatment of corpulence

[25] B. Ehrenreich and D. English, For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women (New York: Doubleday, 1989), p.46

[26] Ehrenreich and English, For Her Own Good, p.47

[27] Ehrenreich and English, For Her Own Good, p.47

[28] L. Summers, Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset (Oxford: Berg, 2001), p.126, footnotes L. Banner, American Beauty (New York: Knopf, 1983), p.41

[29] ‘Should Stout Persons Starve themselves?’ pick-me-up (London, England), 8th June, 1895 issue 349