It’s seems that for as long as people have had bodies there has been somebody ready to pronounce on what should be done with them. Too fat, too thin, too pale, not pale enough– the fashions change but the impulse to recreate ourselves doesn’t, and there is always someone at the ready to make a bit of money at our expense. Whether it was selling a book or a pill, here are some of the wackiest ideas that have been sold in the name of beauty.
One of the craziest slimming regimes I’ve heard is also the easiest follow– no diets or exercise involved. Thomas Short, an eighteenth century fellow, felt he stumbled upon a great truth when he noticed that fat people quite often lived near swamps. In 1727 he published his treatise The Causes and Effects of Corpulence, in which he outlined his solution to corpulence– pretty obviously it was… don’t live near swamps.
Romantic poet and full-time dork Lord Byron didn’t live near a swamp, but this didn’t stop him worrying about his figure. To keep himself slim and intriguing he came up with his own diet plan which consisted mainly of drinking vast amounts of vinegar. Sometimes to relieve the tedium he’d have a bit of tea and honey, or some spuds soaked in vinegar.
Side effects included vomiting and diarrhoea, and unsurprisingly he also lost a colossal amount of weight. His diet was so remarked upon that it become another reason parents across Europe worried about his influence on their children, concerned that along with moping around reading poetry and looking at mountains they might also start drinking too much vinegar, which could only add to a household’s gloom.
In Victorian times the diet industry really stepped up its game. In a perfect storm of peak newspaper readership and zero regulation of quack medicines the peddlers of dodgy pharmaceuticals could make a bomb. Arsenic was already everywhere– in wallpaper, clothing, face creams and make up, so why not take some internally as well? Although there was only a small amount in the diet pills sold to Victorians no amount of arsenic is good for you, and the temptation to up the dose in order to lose weight faster resulted in a at least a few deaths.
Other diet pills may have contained arsenic but there was really no way of knowing as the ingredients were unlisted. Many contained a thyroid extract that would increase the rate at which energy was burnt but also damaged (sometimes fatally) the heart. Another popular ingredient was the industrial chemical dinitrophenol, a herbicide that does induce weight loss, but also blindness and death.
If you wanted to know what you were putting in your body you might go for the more ‘natural’ alternative of parasites. Tapeworms were sold in pill form– the pills containing tapeworm eggs. The promise was that you could then eat whatever you liked and continue to lose weight while your ‘little friend’ in your intestine did his job. Eventually you could take an anti-parasitic and hope that it did its job, especially as tapeworms can cause neurological damage and cysts on other organs, as well as the extremely unpleasant side effects that come along with an infestation. Bleurgh.
At the beginning of the twentieth century a new slimming craze took off– rubber. Although to our eyes it looks an awful lot like rather niche fetish wear, Dr Walter’s rubber garments promised spot reduction through perspiration. Unfortunately wearing these clammy items resulted in little fat reduction but did leave you with sensitive, ulcerated skin and the corresponding infections. In one of the few up-sides to the first world war the manufacturing of medicated rubber garments was severely curtailed when rubber was required for the war effort, although Dr Walter’s continued to advertise her wares into the 1920s.
Capitalists not only preyed on the fear of being too fat– most liked to hedge their bets and make sure people worried about being to thin as well! After the second world war when many countries were still experiencing rationing and food was still scarce the fear mongers played up the worry of being too skinny. Foods like ‘ironised yeast’ were sold as guaranteed to build men and women up to satisfactory levels of sexiness.
Cashing in on the idea of losing weight while doing nothing Sauna pants are phenomena that has cropped up over a number of decades. This early eighties version is a particularly beautiful example of the ‘reduction through perspiration’ fad.
It is easy to look back and wonder how people could be fooled by such blatant nonsense and harmful practises, but history is a great lens through which to observe the practises of today, the ridiculousness of which can be obscured by the fact that they are so enmeshed in our current culture. No doubt future generations will look at the flogging of laxative teas and smoothies by celebrities, or the ‘beach body’ focus of magazines in the same way we now view the voluntary consumption of tapeworms and arsenic!