Myriam Wilks-Heeg is a Lecturer of Twentieth Century History at the University of Liverpool.
After researching slimming advice published in two women’s magazines over the past few decades, Myriam appeared on the University of Liverpool Podcast to discuss the history of slimming, and why it became a particular obsession for women in the UK.
6 tasty morsels about the history of slimming since World War II
- Even during rationing, slimming advice was common
The proliferation of slimming advice is not new. Even in the immediate post-World War II era, when food availability was restricted across the UK due to rationing, women’s magazines were offering advice on dieting.
During her study of Woman’s Own, Myriam found a 1953 issue featuring an article entitled ‘Be Slim This Summer’. “It was very much about preparing your body for the beach,” she recalls.
But the advice wasn’t just about aesthetic considerations. Myriam believes a combination of moral values – of women sacrificing their rations for their children and husbands – and social pressure, when being overweight was judged negatively in times of need, also acted as significant drivers.
- Advice increased when rationing was abandoned
With newfound shopping freedoms, Myriam believes much of the population began to eat to excess once rationing had finished. As a result, the frequency of dieting articles in Woman’s Own increased noticeably.
“Everything under the sun was given as a reason for losing weight,” she says. “In that shift from austerity to prosperity, you could almost trace (it)… in Woman’s Own… advice.”
- The only consistency was the inconsistency
In one seven-year period, Myriam found Woman’s Own articles about 400 different diets. However, little to no care appears to have been given to checking whether the slimming advice offered made sense in context.
Diets with contradictory approaches were frequently published in the same issue. In 1969, an article about the ‘bottom-up diet’ (“it basically told you to drink six glasses of buttermilk a day, one glass every three hours”) ran alongside a piece on the ‘nibblers diet’, which advocated six meals a day.
- Pseudoscience and peer pressure took control in the 1960s
The safety of women appeared to be a low priority for the advocates of many diets in the 1960s. One recommended a three-week stint of eating just 550 calories per day.
Pseudoscience also began to appear, linking overeaters to being unhappy, nagging wives with low education and unfulfilling sex lives.
Myriam says: “I remember there was one feature calling overweight women ‘overstuffed nibblers’. So, there was a clear position between the beautiful and healthy, and the dumb and obese.”
- Opportunities to profit have rarely been missed
A significant rise in obesity levels in the mid 1980s helped lay the platform for ‘diet foods’, such as slimming biscuits and drinks, to become increasingly popular.
Given the option of consistent exercise or ‘quick fix’ diet foods, many consumers chose the latter.
Myriam observes: “That’s when the commercialisation of the foods, of the slimming foods industry, really took off.”
- There’s little new in slimming advice
Myriam is now convinced that the magazines she studied are selling an idea – “of a slim woman” – rather than long-term good health.
She states: “Most advice that was first published in the 1950s and the 1960s is still around today, just recycled, renamed, repackaged. It really isn’t about giving sensible advice to people in order for them to lose weight. It’s simply about selling magazines.”
Judging by the proliferation of magazines for both men and women that regularly include slimming advice, it is a tactic that is even more profitable today than it was 60 years ago.
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