I’ve just packed my bag for a trip to a resort in Mexico, bringing a sad reminder that I can show virtually no results from my New Year’s resolution to lose some weight. I could have vowed to give up drinking—or eating—for Lent, but I also subscribe, conveniently, I note, to the view that one should not turn a spiritual discipline into the moral equivalent of a Weight Watchers’ group.
Have women been worrying about this since time began?
I thought of the women, one born in 1892, the other in 1914, whose lives I had researched in recent years. I thought of the flappers, the subject of my college history thesis. The magazines and movies of their day promoted a feminine ideal that was thin and leggy, and the tobacco companies widened their market with ads that urged women to “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.”
Emily Hale, the subject of my new novel The Poet’s Girl, came of age a few years ahead of the flapper phenomenon. She was an attractive woman, but by no means super thin. By middle age, her photos suggest she had filled out the way most women do. As for Elly Peterson, the Republican feminist whose biography I wrote, she was a large woman, considered buxom during the World War II years. But she grew even larger and more imposing as she aged, and those pounds became more of a problem in her final years.
Had the two of them ever obsessed about their weight, I wondered? In lifetimes shaped by the rationing of two world wars and the deprivations of the Great Depression, was there such a thing as a diet?
My question led me to Diet and Health with Key to the Calories, published in 1918 by Lulu Hunt Peters. The book was reissued in 2010, and the scientific basis of its advice remains surprisingly relevant today.
Peters earned a medical degree from the University of California in 1909 and was the first woman to intern at Los Angeles County General Hospital. She had struggled with her weight since childhood but was always told she would eventually outgrow her obesity. But when she realized she had ballooned up to 220 pounds, she decided it was time to act. She rejected the fad diets of her day and preached a regimen of self-control and calorie-counting, a concept that was then revolutionary.
When the United States entered World War I, Peters was the author of a widely read syndicated column called “Diet and Health.” She positioned weight loss as a matter of patriotism, criticizing Americans who hoarded food “in their own anatomy.” In an early version of the strategy of Weight Watchers, she urged her readers to form “Watch Your Weight Anti-Kaiser Classes,” where members who failed to meet their weight-loss goals were required to pay a fine in the form of a donation to the Red Cross.
Her book provides an entertaining mix of advice, both friendly and medical. In one section, Peters wrote: “If there is anything comparable to the joy of taking in your clothes, I have not experienced it. And when you find your corset coming closer and closer together (I advise a front lace, so this can be watched), and then the day you realize that you will have to stitch in a tuck or get a new one!”
By the time she got home from serving with the Red Cross during World War I, Peters had become a best-selling author. She did, in fact, get her weight down to 150, and managed to keep it there for the rest of her life.
In the 1921 edition of her book, Peters acknowledged that the deprivations of the war had helped her lose weight. Nevertheless, she also found that when she stopped paying attention, she did, in fact, put on pounds—a fact she confirmed when she finally had access to a full-length mirror again. “And the bitter truth is borne in upon me—no matter how hard I work—no matter how much I exercise, no matter what I suffer, I will always have to watch my weight, I will always have to count my calories.”
Undergarments may have changed over the course of a century, but some things haven’t.
After writing my novel, The Poet’s Girl, about the relationship between Emily Hale and the poet T. S. Eliot, I began to delve into the 1,131 letters that Eliot wrote her over the course of their lifetimes after Princeton University Library opened them to the public on January 2. We don’t know what, if anything, Emily Hale thought about her weight, because Eliot arranged for her side of the correspondence to be destroyed and she did not keep a diary. But I was interested to read the concern Eliot expressed in 1934 that she had actually become too thin. I don’t think Hale was in danger of anorexia, and these comments likely reflect Eliot’s own hypochondria. But he went so far as to recommend that she take a spoonful of a malt extract-vitamin supplement product called VIROL after meals “for fattening.” Eliot said he had used it himself a few years before when he needed to put on weight. He contended it was harmless and a non-stimulant. An Internet search suggests it went off the market in the early 1980s.
Better that Eliot told Hale she needed to “fatten up” than telling her she needed to shed some poundage. As for me, I have a new man in my life, and we both know we would benefit from losing some pounds. But he undermines my New Year’s determination with the best thing a man can say to you:
“I like you just the way you are.”