Weight, Vitamins, and the First World War

Recently I’ve been reading non-fiction books about the daily lives of people in various eras previous to our own. It’s research for my novel. It is interesting in and of itself, but as much as I’m interested in earlier periods, I’m only covering the Victorian era to the present for the simple reason that that’s as early as I have to go to get details related to the story right.

Currently I’m reading a book called Daily Life in the United States 1920-1940: How Americans Lived Through the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression by David E. Kyvig.

It covers some topics that I hadn’t expected to think about. For example, I had been aware that in the Victorian era, the standard of beauty was different. Heaviness was a sign of health. The actress Lillian Russell tipped the scales at 200 pounds and was generally regarded to be beautiful.

I’d wondered how American beliefs about weight happened to change.

From reading Kyvig’s book, it seems to be two major things. First off, it represents a change in the understanding of what good nutrition was. During the Victorian era and before, it was hard enough to get enough food much less to worry about what exactly it would be. Thus, when people had the money to get the food they wanted, the typical American meal was starches and meats.

In the Victorian Era in particular, French food became popular. Later on though, people became more aware of vitamins and the fact that what you ate was as important as the fact that you got full. Thus, they started eating more fruit (more citrus…) and vegetables (particularly green vegetables) while eating less starches (like potatoes) and less red meat. As a result, US citizens grew in height while eating 5% less calories.

In addition to the positive pull of a better understanding of food one also had the negative push of World War I. During the first World War, the government had to ration food. It took advantage of people’s growing understanding of nutrition to encourage people to eat less, actively promoting the idea of being thinner while simultaneously being more healthy.

The reason they did this, of course, was to be able to send more food overseas.

Where once men had been encouraged to be plump as a demonstration of how well off they were, the doughboy became the ideal for men while the flapper became the ideal for women.

An interesting wrinkle in this is that even the clothes of the 20’s and 30’s changed to reflect the new ideals. Where the Victorian era’s clothes were multi-layered, the clothes of the 20’s and 30’s had less layers, creating a slimmer figure. Interestingly, this was also the period where cosmetics began to be commonly used.

So anyway, I could ramble on a bit longer, but I won’t. I do find it an interesting topic though. Expect further commentary on past eras as the mood strikes me.

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