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America’s Yo-Yo Diet: How Culture Rules Waistline

By Sarah Stankorb

reducing salon

Courtesy of Svadilfari

There are Atkins and South Beach. There are grapefruit, tapeworm, and cabbage soup diets. For generations, American women have tried just about anything — some even toying with sensible eating and exercise — to reduce calories and trim fat.

In this Web-exclusive Q&A, Katharina Vester, AU’s American Studies chair, describes how cultural pressures made diet an important part of what it means to be a woman in America.


Thinking back to the Great Depression, how important was weight loss? Did women of means diet?

Dieting is always class related, so when poor people were actually starving and were very slender, dieting was no longer interesting for middle class women.


When women went to work in the 1930s and 40s, were there also pressures to stay thin?

There were big fights in the 1930s. Public opinion said that women should quit their jobs and free them for unemployed men.

In direct contrast, during the 1940s women were needed for the war effort and were encouraged to work outside the home. So during the war years, in war propaganda women were shown as very slender, very young, wearing very simple clothes. It’s a kind of femininity that depicts women who do not spend too much time on their appearance, and put effort into the war industry.

Think, the original Rosie the Riveter from a Saturday Evening Post cover. She holds heavy tools. She’s built like a guy with broad shoulders.


Many 1950s ads show happy homemakers in heels and their nicest dresses, scrubbing floors and bathtubs. What was that about?

In the 1950s the culture wanted women to go back to their houses and clean them. The men were returning from war, and there was huge pressure on women, again, to give up their jobs and seek more traditional forms of femininity.

Did women fight the pressure to return to their homes?

No. The amazing thing is it worked very well. Advertising was very powerful at that time, and the idea of heading back to the home is all over the popular culture.

Postwar movies show a softer ideal woman who embraces the idea that she can spend time on being pretty.

But note that from Europe we get images of starving refugees, which I think also explains why the 50s is the most voluptuous decade of the twentieth century. Dieting is about class and privilege.

What is the difference between the 1950s voluptuous woman and the sculpted figures on today’s women’s magazines?

Proportion is very important. Until the 1970s, the key was not an ideal weight, but ideal proportion — a waistline. So a really big woman was okay as long as she had a defined waist, bustline, and was nicely rounded.

Also, when we look at weight charts of this time, they are far more liberal than ours today. There was for instance, the idea that older women can have more weight. I think rigidity with numbers is an invention of the 1970s.


What was the contribution of the 1960s sexual revolution to the ideal for feminine beauty?

The pill hit the market at this time, so it’s about controlling your body, and it launches the second diet climax of the twentieth century.

There’s also a direct connection to the 1890s. When women diet it’s closely connected to ideals of empowerment. My thesis is that the same thing goes on in the 1960s. When women are told that being a mother is no longer what fulfills them, they should get a job, experiment, have adventures — the ideal figure once again becomes less maternal, and more boyish. Empowered women slim down.


In the 1970s more than a few male musicians (e.g. David Bowie, Queen) were famously androgynous. But there’s also Super Woman, Lynda Carter. What messages were women responding to?

I have thought about the ’70s and ’80s a lot. In addition to the idea that women should diet, we have the idea that women should do sports and exercise to lose weight too. Aerobics emerges. In some ways it’s a liberation from dieting. If you exercise, you can indulge, and not constantly control your food intake. Jane Fonda writes in her book introductions that aerobics saved her from eating disorders, perhaps saved her life.

Women are moving into the labor market not just in supporting positions, but also in leadership positions.


So what sorts of diets were popular in the 1990s?

Low-protein, low-fat, high-carb diets, which meant lots of wheat and vegetables, not much dairy and meat, which in the end starts to alienate guys. Throughout the twentieth century, until the emergence of low-fat diets, men diet. Only when Atkins comes along do men rejoin the dieting movement.

The crash diet thing was invented in the 1920s, and since the 1920s we always have about 80 percent of all diets promising fast results, in a week, two weeks.

What we see in the 1990s are diets that provide long-term plans. It’s not the crash diet that’s new, but the notion that if you want to be thin, you must diet your entire life. You can never let go.

What follows is the emergence of the diet industry.

What in culture influenced these fads?

In the 1980s, the Reagan years, the male body-building culture reemerges, which may lead to the Atkins diet and men again taking up weight loss. But we have the heroin addict, the unhealthy waif. Real women become heavier and heavier, but the ideal becomes Kate Moss, thinner and thinner.

Looking at the late 1990s, it’s amazing to see the extremes that emerge.

The body is the last frontier. Tattoo culture emerges. Piercings. Cosmetic surgery booms. We can control our bodies entirely.

Twenty-first Century

I get a sense you think we’re becoming healthier today in how we understand dieting and body goals.

It’s true, but not because I think we have become a more enlightened society. I think it’s because we now have sixty percent of Americans who are overweight. That’s a huge market. So clothing and furniture companies have developed products that fit the sixty percent of people who are larger sized. I think there’s lots of pressure on people to lose weight, but a new ‘healthy at every weight’ notion has emerged that concludes — if you are overweight but work out and eat healthfully, you will not die young. Instead of constantly regulating people, [the attitude is] we should sell them products.