Popular actress Lillian Russell wearing a corset
Actress Lillian Russel wearing a corset

Popular culture produced, circulated, and challenged ideals of the female body in the 19th century as much as in the 21st century. Serials, novels published in installments, and short stories in fashionable literary magazines were as popular and religiously followed as Netflix original series today. As romance was one of the most important genres, what made women attractive was defined in these stories and nationally distributed as normative beauty and gender ideals. The fascination with female body weight at the end of the 19th century is a case in point: it reflected a broader shift in what constituted ideal femininity and how it was to be embodied. 

In 1863 a small pamphlet, A Letter on Corpulence, triggered the first dieting craze in the United States. In the text, the British undertaker William Banting claimed that his readers could lose weight by the sheer power of their wills alone – a spectacular claim for a culture that had traditionally thought body weight to be as God-given as body height. The layman Banting gave pseudo-scientific advice that promised to shape the body into manly muscularity. His advice, consisting mostly of consuming great quantities of meat and alcohol, explicitly and exclusively targeted white, upwardly mobile, middle-class men. As I discussed elsewhere, the targeted audience enthusiastically endorsed the new practice as it helped to legitimize their broader claim to social, political, and economic dominance in American society: demonstrating mastery over their own bodies served to manifest white middle-class men’s demand for mastery over other bodies, especially female bodies and bodies of color – a declaration of hegemony which so far had been reserved to the American elite. 

Mainstream culture of the 1870s and 1880s instructed white middle-class women, in contrast, to gain or retain weight. Self-help literature such as How to Be Plump (1878) and Scrap Book for Homely Women Only (1884) explicitly warned women of slenderness. If women felt the need to reduce their waist at all, they were referred to mechanisms of external control such as corsets, as they ideologically complied with ideas of femininity as passive, pliable, and moldable. Because plumpness was feminine and beautiful, the romantic heroines in Victorian serials were traditionally voluptuous. For instance, Henry James’s shallow but beautiful heroine Marian Everett in “The Story of a Masterpiece” (originally published in The Galaxy in 1868) is “[T]he most charming girl of her circle.” She is described as smaller than average and “marked by a great fullness and roundness of outline” and being of “comely ponderosity.” 

However, in the 1880s women’s rights activists started propagating dieting for women, implicitly making the claim that white middle-class women had the same mastery over their bodies as men had. Especially dress reformers endorsed dieting as a way for women to reach a desired slender waist without corseting themselves. In 1892, dress reformer Helen Ecob promised in The Well-Dressed Woman “that healthy muscle will take the place of the corset.” With the activists promoting slenderness as a sign for an educated, healthy, and active feminine lifestyle, especially young and college-educated women started embracing slimness as a bodily ideal, emancipating themselves from the stouter ideals that had shaped their mothers. In this context, slenderness was embodied resistance against ideas that a woman’s value consisted only in her reproductive abilities.  

In 1880’s popular culture, slenderness started appearing more positively connoted as the embodiment of a hip new femininity, but simultaneously de-politicized it. Initially, magazines in their fashion pages began narrating slenderness as a sign of youth and prerequisite of a “girlish figure,” but deemed mature “robust” bodies as equally beautiful as they were synonymous with motherhood, health, and resilience. A similar shift occurred in the fiction pages: In Margaret Sangster’s “Great Aunt Winifred,” a former lover describes the young Winifred as a “slender, beautiful girl” and “as graceful as a fawn.” When the lover meets Winifred again later in life, she is still unmarried and has become a great-aunt. She is now portrayed as “stout,” “self-possessed,” and an “efficient, capable and quiet unsentimental elderly lady.” It is telling that the lover, no longer youthful himself, falls in love with Winifred all over again. She is declared not less beautiful than her younger self, because of her “degree of embonpoint which was really most becoming.”

But robustness and slenderness have not always coexisted peacefully. The 1890s saw the emergence of another plotline in which the different body ideals were used to create narrative tension between the romantic heroine and her rival. The rival was conventionally beautiful and plump, the slender heroine was not, but overcame this disadvantage through her intellect, independence, superior values, faith, and so forth. In “His Careless Words,” a serial by John Peters published in 1892, it is the beautiful rival who is described as becomingly plump: “Lulu Hill…a stylish, handsome creature, full of vivacity, somewhat inclined to embonpoint, and very much liked by the opposite sex” (italics in original). Faith Whitney, the heroine of the story, is less soft and round, but has the “daintily cut features of an Athene,” a testimony to her intelligence. After some obstacles, mostly learning to overcome her pride, she is the one who wins the heart of the romantic love interest, not Lulu. While Lulu and Faith are of about the same age, Lulu stands for a more traditional femininity that is soft, passive, and allegedly slightly vain, while Faith represents independence and strength. Here slenderness stands in also for a new, more active, independent and intelligent femininity. 

The slender feminine ideal with everything it entails gained dominance at the turn of the 19th century. Only occasionally did magazine authors still propagate alternate body ideals, such as the anonymous author of “Solace for Mme. Embonpoint” (L.A. Times, 10 Nov. 1896), who claimed: “All Famous Beauties Were Slender, but Clever Women Were Fat.” But in general, in the early 1900s, Mme. Embonpoint had become a sad fixture in jokes at her expense and in romantic serials she served only as comic relief and a reminder of a no longer attractive femininity. Slenderness, originally the embodiment of resistance, had by then become the new normal for the next century.      

About the Author

Katharina Vester

Katharina Vester

vester@american.edu

Katharina Vester is Associate Professor of History at American University in Washington, D.C. Her book, A Taste of Power: Food and American Identities, published in November 2015 by the University of California Press, is an investigation of the crucial role played by food discourses and culinary practices in the formation of cultural identity and power relations in American history. Food writing, she argues, has helped to make normative claims about citizenship, gender behavior, class privilege, race, ethnicity, and sexual deviancy, while promising an increase in cultural capital and social mobility to those who comply with the prescribed norms. Her article “Regime Change: Gender, Class, and the Invention of Dieting in Post-Bellum America” in the Journal of Social History won the Belasco Prize for Scholarly Excellence. Vester is the editor, with Kornelia Freitag, of Another Language: Poetic Experiments in Britain and North America.

» More articles by Katharina Vester

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