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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

17 September 2008

Too Rich or Too Thin? A Slim History of Dieting

Henry VIII

It’s rare to meet someone who has a healthy relationship with food. And some of the most famous people in history, particularly royals, were passionate about maintaining a slim and trim physique, even during, well, lean times when getting enough food—not eating less of it—was on their subjects’ minds. Nowadays it seems that every week, there’s a new fad diet—its credibility bolstered by a bestselling book on the subject written by someone you never heard of until last week and who may have received their credentials from the equivalent of a Cracker Jack box.

Uh-oh—Cracker Jacks. Must. Not. Be. Distracted.

The granddaddy of them all, however, happens to be the world's oldest surviving medical document, the Ebers Papyrus from 1550 B.C. Egypt, which contains a recipe for an anti-diabetic diet of wheat germ and okra. Moving on, various early Greek and later European sages commented on the moral benefits of relative moderation and temperance, and also noticed some of the apparent health benefits. But until about 200 years ago, most guidelines on diet had mainly to do with custom and culture, particularly issues of religious observance.

Royals were notorious for their rich diets. Too often while the peasants starved their sovereigns ate so well that they had to figure out how to keep the weight off. William the Conqueror (1027-1087) was allegedly spurred by his failing riding abilities to attempt to lose weight, so he tried drinking extra wine as a substitute for food.

Henry II of England (1133-1189) had a tendency to stockiness, and rode horseback for hours on end in order to keep trim. Henry VIII (1491-1547) practiced the same regimen, as well as jousting until he was injured in a fall from his horse. His rich diet, vast appetite, and inability to take nearly as much exercise due to the recurring pain from that injury (and subsequent ones) turned him into an outsize blimp of a man. In 1540, his waist measured 54 inches and his chest, a whopping 57”.


In the late 1700s, social commentators began to notice a rising level of obesity in Europe and the U.S., this being the time of new wealth creation and the fast rise of new middle classes keen to acquire and flaunt their money. Until then obesity was a rarity, a curiosity, or generally a sign of affluence, reserved for the mighty of status and mighty in bulk of the state, church, or commerce. Think about the High Gothic renderings and Flemish paintings of women who look pregnant. With so many people dying of disease, plumpness—accompanied or not by fecundity—was considered the sine qua non of beauty.

Jan Van Eyck: the Arnolfini Portrait (1434)


In 1829, Connecticut-born preacher and vegetarian Rev. Sylvester Graham dispensed wholegrain advice and promulgated restraint in gourmandizing. Graham Crackers, anyone? Yup, he invented them. However, Graham's advice was heavily framed in Presbyterian moralism about lustings of the flesh.

Uh-oh—Graham crackers. Must. Not. Get. Distracted.

Rev. Sylvester Grham (1794-1851)

However, the man who is considered the Father of Modern Dieting is William Banting, a London undertaker who in late middle-age despaired of being able ever again to bend to tie his shoe laces or even walk down a flight of stairs. He then adopted a high-protein and high-fat diet, supplemented with some vegetables, as recommended to him by his doctor. By abstaining from “starch and saccharine matter,” he lost dozens of pounds over a period of a year or so and managed to keep it off. Galvanized by his own experience, Banting published the world's first dieting blockbuster, his Letter on Corpulence.



Banting was not so much concerned about any perceived major health risks of his obesity, more the sheer discomfort of immobility and the many minor associated ailments. Thus was born the first of the so-called diet gurus and the first to advocate a low-carb diet.

William Banting (1797-1878)

German doctor Felix Niemeyer very soon subtly altered Banting's system by adding in a low-fat prescription, thus sending the two strands of protein-and-fat-in-the-diet and restricted-fat-in-the-diet on their divergent paths.

By the late 19th century, dawning health concerns over excessive overweight were being matched by high-Victorian moral prudishness. It was no longer fashionable to flaunt your wealth with an enormous pot belly. It is no coincidence that the first recorded characterizations of Anorexia were drawn at this time amongst the daughters of the rich.

The sylph-like 5’6” Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837-1898), known to the world as Sisi, was obsessed with her weight, stepping on a scale three times a day. She rarely ate solid foods, let alone a full meal. And if she weighed more than 50 kilos (approximately 110 lbs), she would refuse to ingest anything but orange juice and milk, or raw veal juice and milk, presaging all the popular (and dangerous) liquid diets that remain a staple for many Hollywood stars seeking a quick diet fix. Sisi, who would likely be diagnosed as an anorexic today, was also as paranoid about getting (or looking) old as she was about her weight. Raw veal figured again—this time in facial masks. Personally I would have opted for her other rejuvenating mask, comprised of mashed strawberries. Sisi was also an exercise buff. Her regimen included long horseback rides, fencing, and gymnastics (she had the gymnastics equipment installed in one of her sitting rooms at the Hofburg).

Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) of Austria

“You can never be too rich or too thin” was one of the credos of Wallis Warfield Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor (1895 or 96-1986), the Fascist fashionista with a passion for both Mussolini and Mainbocher. Her husband, the former Edward VIII (1894-1972) who abdicated the throne so that he could marry Wallis, was a fitness enthusiast with a trim boyish physique (Wallis’s figure was nearly identical). During his brief reign in 1936 the Buckingham Palace cooks went nuts when Edward and Wallis insisted on the simplest of light meals, low in carbs and fats.

The Windsors on their wedding day, June 3, 1937

Just as Sisi’s unhappiness (which may also have been due to a chemical imbalance; many of her Wittelsbach relations were nuts, including “Mad King Ludwig”), an unfulfilling marriage contributed to the eating disorder (bulimia) of Diana, Princess of Wales (1961-1997). Some historians consider Diana to be Sisi’s spiritual descendant (okay, they were both tall, royal, and female); but there are vast differences between the women, their individual situations, and the way that their mania for dieting manifested itself. Sisi, an anorexic, starved herself. Diana, who by all accounts adored to eat, was a bulimic who binged then purged. Sisi’s husband adored her; Diana’s ignored her. Sisi wanted as little to do with her children as possible; Diana was an exceptional hands-on mother.

Diana, Princess of Wales

Have you ever written a character who has a mania for diet and/or exercise? Can you recall any literary characters—or any other real-life personages—who could never be too rich or too thin?

24 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire was bulimic, according to Amanda Foreman's biography. She would gorge herself eating and drinking and then purge to stay slim. She was also addicted to opiates as well. And Barbara Hutton at the end of her life was just subsisting on Coca-Cola to stay thin.

5:24 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Then I guess Keira Knightley is actually the right body type to play Georgiana, though I question whether she's got the acting chops.

I wonder whether G's unhappy marriage (at the age of 17) had anything to do with her bulimia, or did it start before then? I read the Foreman book a while ago, so I don't remember when she began to act bulimic. Georgiana also had an addictive/compulsive personality; I'm thinking of her gambling and the massive debts she accumulated.

I didn't know about Barbara Hutton's eating issues. Thanks!

5:44 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

The bulimia started after her marriage from the pressures of being a Duchess, trying to have a child, running with a fast crowd. Georgiana was one of those women who spent more time trying to please other people, than she did herself. The addiction to gambling and the opiates came out of her unhappy marriage to a man who was unable to express his emotions except to his mistress.

Sound familiar?

Oh and this debutante Brenda Frazier in the late 1930's was also anorexic and bulimic.

6:01 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

The more I read about relationships, especially marriages, among the royals or titled nobility, the more the stories keep repeating themselves over the decades and even over the centuries. And where many of the royals were concerned, all that inbreeding produced nutso kids (hence nutso monarchs); yet the congenital mental instability doesn't seem to have much to do with the food issues, many of which seemed to have come from external pressures -- the unhappiness in their family and marital relationships.

I'll have to look up the details on Brenda Frazier; I really only know who she is through a Stephen Sondheim lyric! Wasn't she the one who disappeared?

6:07 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

She moved to Cape Cod in the 60's and lived in obscurity until she died of bone cancer. Diane Arbus took a famous photo of her for Life.

8:03 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

This is a subject close to my heart, Amanda -- because (can't help sharing this) after making my last deadline, I marched myself to Weight Watchers and lost the 20 pounds I'd put on during the course of writing the last two novels.

Lord Byron had been a chubby child, and later became a famous dieter, sometimes subsisting for days at a time on hard biscuits and soda water.

And when we meet Marina Wyatt, heroine of my forthcoming The Edge of Impropriety, she's constantly depriving herself of food, in the face of her advancing age (36! 72 in romance years!) and in order to fit into the tighter-waisted fashions of 1829.

8:50 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I'd forgotten about Lord Byron. I remember Gabriel Bryne played him in Gothic as more on the fat side. Didn't Prinny try to diet before giving up and just wearing corsets?

9:05 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Emma Hamilton, on the other hand, never saw a glass or champagne or a plate of pasta she didn't like, once she went to Italy. At 5'9" she was a big-boned girl, but eventually she became positively Rubenesque and the butt (pun intended) of many jokes.

Congratulations, Pam!!! A number of my friends have had fabulous success with WW. I've been on Jenny Craig since mid-July. Weight loss was very slow going at first but then I had a session with the registered dietician at my gym and she helped me reconfigure the program so that it was effective for me. I've lost 9 lbs or so since 4th of July weekend ... and still counting.

Now, if I can only manage to lay off the champagne and pasta on my birthday next week!

10:51 AM  
Anonymous Pam Rosenthal said...

Congrats to you as well, Amanda. And I agree about making any diet program your own. Also wishing you an early happy birthday.

As for the Duchess movie (they're giving out free passes for next week in SF and we've got 2 of 'em). I think what will make or break it isn't Keira Knightley (who's likely to be ok or even better), but Ralph Fiennes as the Duke. Walking the treadmill at my gym the other day (really! I was!) I read an interesting article in Vogue by Amanda Foreman, about her conversations with Fiennes about the interesting man she thinks the Duke of Devonshire was. The problem is reconstructing him, because he didn't leave any letters.

12:10 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I read that article too Pam. From the reviews I've read in the UK, he gives a wonderful performance as the Duke. I tried to get free passes through Time Out but it didn't happen. However, I will be plunking down my cash on Friday night to see it after my dance classes.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

A contemporary royal who's had eating disorder issues is Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden, who is roughly my age (31). When I visited Sweden nine years ago, I saw postcards of her looking healthy and robust, next to some that were more sylph-like. She's come out publicly as a recovering anorexic. I think in her case it's the pressure of being the future queen, probably especially since her position relative to the throne is due to a law enacted by the Swedish parliament, giving the oldest child (no longer the oldest son) the first-in-line rights. And her father reportedly fought it after she was born, and especially after her younger brother arrived on the scene. Imagine! Your own father trying to take the throne from you! (speaking of Henry VIII...)

All this to say, fantastic post, Amanda!!! There is really nothing new under the sun! Now, where did I put those cookies...

6:58 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thanks, Jessica, for your comment! I had no idea about the Swedish Crown Princess. Wow ...

It all makes you wonder, since the main eating disorders seem to be stress-related, that some of these royals who have huge and daunting responsibilities to uphold, now or in the future, aren't helped along that treacherous road with some good mental health counseling!

7:08 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Wow, fascinating post! I had no idea that dieting went back that far. I do know that opera singers from the earliest days of opera performance were thought to sing better in the frame of a larger body. They ate huge meals hours before a performance and often ate large meals afterwards as well. Not a bad assumption when one realizes that for the singer the body IS the instrument. However, whereas a big barrel chest (for men or women) was a big help in projection. Carrying one's weight around one's middle could hamper performance as the diaphragm could be compromised. There were also some strange concoctions that singers drank and ingested to improve the vocal chords. Some worked. Some did not. It is only recently and for the most part only in the States that singers are expected to be slim AND still be able to sing over a 200 plus piece orchestra. Thank God I sang in Europe where conductors, vocal coaches and costumers were constantly saying "Eat! You're too thin!" Even my German landlady got into the act baking fabulous loves of black bread and bringing them to me!

8:33 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Amanda! I don't think I've ever written a character with a diet or exercise mania, which is funny because with all the angst you'd think someone would have eating issues :-). I love Venetia's Aunt Hendred in Heyer's "Venetia" who has heard that Byron swears by vinegar (I think for the complexion) and so is drinking it (rather than putting it on her skin). That detail really brings her character to life.

Happy early birthday, Amanda!!!!

12:01 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Louisa, since I come from the world of the theatre, rather than opera (although my great-great-uncle was a very famous voice teacher; several of the Metropolitan Opera's stars were among his pupils), I never could understand, from a casting standpoint, how you could have a 250 lb "Mimi" who is dying of consumption or a young hero/heroine who look like 2 blimps bouncing off each other. The ability to project over the orchestra of course is a must, as is resonance ... but still. It has to be much healthier for opera singers (or anyone) to be thinner.

But I've heard stories about famous opera singers who would throw up before every performance and I attributed it to nerves (that must really strafe the vocal cords), but now that you mention huge meals beforehand, maybe it's a bit of binging and purging.

Tracy, I have a wee confession ... (shh, don't tell anyone); I've never read any Heyer. Shock, horror, I know. Thanks for the pre-birthday wishes. To celebrate next Wed., (and especially since I weigh more this week than last -- how--oh how???-- we're going to a marvelous Chinese restaurant (instant calorie cutter since no drinks with dinner and no dessert, except for the obligatory fortune cookie)

5:35 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Tracy, Byron did eat vinegar. Benita Eisler's biography tells us that upon being invited to a dinner that would not be serving hard biscuits and soda-water, his host reported that the poet rather ostentatiously "dined upon potatoes bruised down on his plate and drenched with vinegar".

Whether the vinegar was for flavor or to get his stomach acids working, I don't know. Eisler also tells us that, according to his friend Hobhouse, Byron did his share of private binge eating.

And I seem to remember that in Illness as Metaphor Susan Sontag said that thinness became popular in the nineteenth century because it was considered romantic and poetical to look consumptive.

7:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a fascinating topic! Compelled me to come out of lurkdom and add my two cents. I don't have the source at hand, but I read it somewhere that during the Victorian age in the UK, obesity became associated with poverty. From what I remember the author argued that the poor would eat an unbalanced diet, rendering them obese. I don't know how true that is, but I can see how living on a diet of fish and chips dripping with grease might have that impact. *back to lurkdom to find my source again*

Cecille

PS.: Laura,

Your post about your German landlady made me smile. Visiting friends and family in Germany, I can relate. They all find it perfectly acceptable to comment on someone's weight in the way of greeting. "Hi, you look 'good together'! (German euphemism for 'on the chubby side')Suits you!" And yes, that's considered a compliment. :-)

7:10 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I do recall that during the Victorian age the pale, consumptive look was considered attractive. Like parchment-pale skin (as opposed to sun-browned), it was a mark that you were too high in the instep to work for a living. Didn't women also put belladonna drops in their eyes at the time, to give them that liquid, limpid, weepy invalid look? I'm certain that there was a cult of the invalid around the 1840s/50s, possibly extending later.

Pam, we still use vinegar as a diet staple to get our gastric juices going. Remember the Scarsdale Diet? It was full of vinaigrette dressing and grapefruit juice, which I expect has the same effect, dietarily, as the vinegar.

Anonymous, you made me laugh because my mother-in-law, of German ancestry, always comments on my weight whenever she sees me. But she always asks if I've lost weight. (This time the answer would be "yes," though for the past dozen years she's been asking me, it would be "no").

And, re: obesity being the purview of the poor rather than the rich, although there were plenty of gouty types among the rich during the 19th c., poorer people in e.g. central Europe (and Ireland until the mid-century famine), did have to make do with lots and lots of potatoes.

The same is very true nowadays as well. Starchy products and fast food, loaded with carbs and fats, are more affordable than many foods that are far healthier. That said, one can still eat cheaply and healthily, so what's missing is educating people about that; what to eat, how to prepare it, etc. Regulating trans-fats or insisting that fast food restaurants post calorie counts (enough to make me turn around and find something to eat elsewhere) is only one way to deal with America's growing obesity issue.

7:47 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I can't imagine writing a character with a weight obsession. The first time I attempted to read Bridget Jones’s Diary, I was so put off by the obsessive weight and cigarette counting at the beginning of each chapter that I had to put the book down.

7:49 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Donatella Versace's daughter was anorexic, probably from the pressures of being her Uncle's heir.

I just remembered the scene in GWTW, when Scarlett tells Mammy that Ashley likes a girl with healthy appetite after Mammy tells her that she has to eat like a bird at the barbecue, so she has to have something ahead of time.

Kalen, Bridget's obsessive calorie counting put me off too, to the point that I just ignored those bits.

8:31 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Ignoring those bits on the second go-round is how I finally got through the book (and I'm glad I did, cause I liked the story).

12:01 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Loved Fascist fashionista for the Duchess of Windsor, Amanda.

While as for the Duke, they had a suit of his formal evening wear displayed at the Anglomania exhibit at the Met -- a gorgeously tailored set of tails -- and he was tiny. Trim boyish physique doesn't begin to cover it.

7:57 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thanks, Pam! I incorporated my FF phrase into my entry on Windsor and Wally for notorious royal marriages. I saw the Met Museum exhibit that featured a lot of her garments, including the Mainbocher wedding suit. Even most size 2 or 0 women today couldn't fit into it. The only person I can think of who is skinny enough to wear it nowadays is Keira Knightley (speaking of...)

5:07 AM  
Blogger Eliza Knight said...

Wow! Great post! I never knew fad diets went back so far, nor did I realize eating disorders did as well. I always thought it was something of the 20th and 21st century with technology and people wanting to look like celebrities who appear to be dieting manics.

Your post was fascinating and the comments as well!! I've learned quite a lot.

I haven't yet had a character on a diet or with an eating disorder, but I've thought about it.

Thanks for sharing...I'm gonng go eat some graham crackers :)

7:24 AM  

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