The perception of the ideal body type changes almost as often as the style of the clothes in which we choose to dress. Take the media today, for instance, which bombards society with images of tall, skinny models with chiseled features. But this hasn’t always been the case. It may be hard to believe, but there was once a time when the latest fad diets promised to help you gain weight. That’s right: women living in the early 1900s wanted curves – and they were willing to make strange lifestyle changes in order to achieve them.
That may seem pretty strange given our 21st-century beauty ideals. And to see the kind of body shape that’s currently in vogue, you only need to consider the models that stare up at us from the newsstands today. According to The Diversity Report as published on The Fashion Spot in December 2019, only 2.01 percent of women on magazine covers in that year were considered plus-size.
Despite this rather shocking statistic, the scientific definition of the ideal female form differs quite a lot from the type of physique that usually advertises the latest fashion trend or fitness fad. And this standard is not as unattainable as some people may assume. You see, researchers have seemingly established that attractiveness has as much to do with the function of a woman’s body as what it looks like.
The ideal woman is said to be a modest 5’5” tall, measuring up at a curvaceous 39 inches at the bust, 25 at the waist and 36 around the hips. According to experts at the University of Texas, having a general aura of health as well as the ability to reproduce is also deemed important.
But perceptions of the “ideal body” have changed drastically over time – even if women’s longing to attain it hasn’t. Yes, while girls in the past weren’t too fussed about being toned and skinny, there were other features that society deemed as being desirable. And the methods that were recommended in order to achieve them were somewhat strange. So, let’s take a look at the body type that would have been displayed on the pages of fashion magazines in the early 20th century.
Well, the main look that women in this era wanted to copy was that of the Gibson Girl. Instead of being based on a real human being, though, the Gibson Girl was the design of an artist called Charles Gibson who was highly influential in the fashion world at the start of the 1900s. And when the popular style magazines such as Harper’s, LIFE and Collier’s published the images of his ideal woman, their readers soon began to aspire to look the same.
The image was arresting, you see. Gibson’s creation had a curvy hourglass figure, cinched in at the waist by a fantastically tight corset. Feminist author Linda M. Scott described the look in her book Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism, writing, “The Gibson Girl was not dainty… she was dark, regal in bearing [and] quite tall.” But there was more to this ideal than initially met the eye.
Contrary to what you may think, women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were becoming increasingly active and non-conformist. When schools and colleges finally started opening their doors to the female sex, many seemingly couldn’t wait to attend. And with this, the new woman – cultured, sophisticated and with a worldly view – was born. It was these mothers, daughters and sisters who gave rise to the suffragette movement.
Interestingly, the Gibson Girl wasn’t a visual representation of these women but instead an attempt to recondition them to more traditional values. Even so, it looks as though some compromises were made to bridge the gap between these two norms. Sometimes, a Gibson Girl was spotted enjoying a round of golf, for instance, or dabbling in the occult with an ouija board. Yet there would usually be an air of seduction about her, and she would never be seen to be engaging in activism.
A Belgian singer named Camille Clifford became an early emblem of the Gibson Girl, as she had been awarded first prize in a magazine competition to find the person who most resembled the drawing. And in 1907 the chanteuse sang about what it meant to echo this idealistic image. She belted out, “Wear a blank expression/and a monumental curl/And walk with a bend in your back/Then they will call you a Gibson Girl.”
Fashion evolved to support changing trends in body shape, too. Clifford pioneered the fad known as the “S-curve” – a voluptuous physique achieved by the use of foundation garments that extended down the thighs. This is what gave her the 18-inch waist that people admired. And she apparently had a very distinctive walk – one that seemed to garner her more fame than any of her artistic talents.
If you wanted to model yourself on the Gibson Girl, then, you would need curves. And this caused some women to pile on the pounds. Yes, right up until the 1960s there were diets that were advertised with mottos such as “Skinny girls are not glamour girls” and “Gain weight! Stop being skinny and tired!”
And some women would do all it took to achieve the look du jour. Take 1918’s egg yolk diet, for instance, which recommended the consumption of anything from ten to 40 yolks each day. Apparently, adding these to cups of milk or coffee or combining them with soup or porridge was a simple way to up your calorie intake.
Professional bodybuilder Bernarr Macfadden had an even more bizarre approach to nutrition. The American believed that milk contained all the nutrients necessary for a healthy diet, and so in 1923 he recommended drinking around five quarts of the stuff every day. Nothing else was on the menu, either, as other foods were thought to “interfere with the regimen.” Drinking milk and working out were the only activities permitted.
If it was a slimmer figure you were after, though, there was an altogether more shocking approach that you could take. The cigarette company Lucky Strike started encouraging people to repress hunger by taking a drag. “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” was one of the firm’s mottos, and it even advertised the smokes as being “a delightful alternative to the things that make you fat.”
Elsewhere, some suggested that all it took to lose weight was breathing in fresh air. As the author of My Secrets Of Beauty, Lina Cavalieri, described in 1914, “Fresh air is a destructive agent of fat. Oxygen burns carbon.” She then described the burning of fat to use the same method as air fanning the flames of a dying fire.
And the mind-boggling weight-loss tips didn’t stop there. Today, we know that drinking plenty of water is an essential part of any diet. It helps flush out toxins and keeps the body in good working order. In the past, though, the myth that water made people put weight on led to it being viewed with considerable suspicion.
Anonymous writer Countess C__ addressed water consumption in her 1901 handbook Beauty’s Aids: Or, How To Be Beautiful. There, she wrote, “First and most important, drink very little, as little as possible, and only red or white wine, preferably Burgundy, or tea or coffee slightly alcoholized.” The reverse would be recommended today, of course.
And the countess also had a rather harsh assessment of women she deemed as being either overweight or too skinny. She opined, “A very thin woman is not beautiful, but she can be graceful even to a remarkable degree; but what shall we say of an old woman, overflowing with fat, no longer possessing a human form, much less the form of a woman, always gasping, sweating and breaking out into redness at the slightest movement.”
So, what exactly was considered fat back in the day? Well, Australian professional swimmer and actress Annette Kellerman came up with a few ways in which someone could determine whether or not they were overweight. She was considered the sex symbol of the era, you see, with The New York Times labeling her “the Perfectly Formed Woman” in 1912. And although the icon was apparently uncomfortable with the honor, she was, it seems, secure enough in her skin to shed her clothes on film.
Yes, so forward-thinking was Kellerman that she is recognized as the first Hollywood actress to appear naked in a movie. But there’s much more to her legacy than her acting career. When she was a little girl, the future star contracted rickets and had to walk with leg braces. Using swimming as rehabilitation, she went on to excel in the pool and eventually won championships – much to her doctors’ surprise. Her passion for health later in life went on to inspire many women, too.
Kellerman was dedicated to becoming fit and strong – and she fearlessly took on all of the stunts in her films. Once, for instance, she even carried out a Houdini-style dive into the ocean with her feet and hands tied together. And her success in the swimming pool was somewhat legendary.
The Australian not only set a world record in the 100-yard dash, but she also attempted to swim the English Channel on three separate occasions. Her endeavor in 1905 got her 75 percent of the way to her destination in less time than anyone had managed before. And to top it all off, the accomplished swimmer could hold her breath underwater for around three and a half minutes.
The Australian government’s website summarises Kellerman’s success rather succinctly, saying, “[The swimmer] often competed against men and often won.” But it seems that the champion had other talents in the water, as she could also be found performing ballet-style dance routines beneath the surface. And Kellerman showed off her adventurous nature yet again when she dived from a height into crocodile-infested waters.
This daring side to Kellerman’s personality wasn’t the only reason why she would’ve been viewed as a rebel. She was the originator of the modern one-piece bathing suit, you see. And while the swimming garment was far more modest than some of today’s designs, it still got her into trouble with the cops. At the time, its knee-length shorts were considered racy, and complaints about the ensemble led Kellerman to be arrested for indecency in 1907.
Despite this, many women of the era found Kellerman to be entirely relatable. While she didn’t possess the curves of the Gibson Girl, neither was she a skinny waif; rather, the swimmer was somewhere in between the two. And the diet advice that she shared in her 1918 book Physical Beauty, How To Keep It was aimed at women who also wanted to achieve her body shape. This is what made it different from the other guidance available at the time, which usually focused on significant weight gain or loss.
As previously mentioned, Kellerman’s estimation of beauty relied on a system that she had created herself. According to the swimmer’s book, then, weight was of little consequence. Instead, she recommended that people take a closer look at their overall body shape and their health in general. And she maintained that “the fundamental basis for feminine beauty is the body as a whole.”
Kellerman was a trailblazer – and there was no else quite like her. It is for this reason that she measured herself against ancient Greek statues rather than other female celebrities at the time. The swimmer’s book suggests that she preferred her physique to that of Venus de Medici, for instance, while she even went as far as calling Venus de Milo “rather fat and loosely built.”
If you’re wondering what Kellerman viewed as being the ideal female form, then snippets from her guide should give you a better idea. According to the swimmer, a healthy weight didn’t necessarily mean that you’d have the perfect proportions. And in her book, she went on, “While I do not claim [my own measurements] to be perfect, I do claim that they show what may be accomplished by full bodily development.”
So, while it seems that Kellerman didn’t pride herself on her modesty, the swimmer’s brazen attitude nevertheless resonated with women of that era. Apparently, 40,000 people took part in her at-home diet and fitness plan. And the Australian wrote of her regime, “Bodily form, or the perfect figure, is to be won by proper muscular development and proper control of weight by a rational diet. There is no other way.”
By the time Physical Beauty, How To Keep It was released, WWI had just come to an end, and trends in body image were evolving. And while the reign of the impossibly curvy Gibson Girl was over, the emergence of skinny, stick-figured flappers was still some time away.
Kellerman’s philosophy occupied the middle ground between these two very distinctive looks, and this is something she acknowledges this in her book. There, Kellerman wrote, “We have hundreds of young and middle-aged women fat, shapeless, loose, engaged in a continuous struggle with their buttons. Or scrawny umbrellas of women, with every curve a hollow, and every bone trying to make itself felt and seen.”
So, in order to help women determine where they sat on this spectrum, Kellerman advised that they strip off their clothes. She instructed, “In the first place, stand before your mirror nude and look yourself over… Now bend over in various attitudes. Are there unsightly wrinkles and rolls of loose flesh?” The first indicator of obesity, then, was the obvious visual clue.
Taking measurements of the body was another key step, and the complicated number crunching that followed supposedly helped ladies find their “ratio of femininity.” A woman’s height would be looked at in correlation to how the hips, bust and thighs measured up against the waist, neck, wrists and ankles. This would produce a number that determined a given individual’s curviness. And this score would indicate whether weight should be added to the former group of body parts or reduced from the latter.
As we’ve established, though, Kellerman maintained that proportion was, in fact, more important than weight. And the fact that the ratio of femininity was calculated in part by a woman’s height meant that everyone had a different goal weight to achieve. If a person fell short of this number, then, they needn’t worry, as the Australian had devised a hearty meal plan to help when it came to putting on the pounds.
A typical day on this regime would consist of drinking eggnog or milk before a breakfast of bran gem muffins with honey and butter. For lunch, anyone following the plan would be encouraged to have either cottage cheese with olives, washed down with a cup of custard, or lamb chops and potatoes with cornbread and a glass of buttermilk. And dinner would be comprised of meat, potatoes and a fish salad followed by cake or pie and, of course, another glass of milk before bed.
But Kellerman’s book didn’t just offer advice on diet. According to her, you see, a woman’s breasts tended to serve as an indicator of excess weight. The swimmer explained, “The woman who is too fat will frequently, though not always, have loose busts.” And so to avoid any sagging, the swimmer recommended chest flys to strengthen muscles. “For the underdeveloped person,” she wrote, “exercise increases the muscular growth and fills out the deficient tissues.”
Given the importance of the wrist and neck measurements to calculating a woman’s ratio of femininity, it’s probably no surprise that Kellerman advised working these out, too. To strengthen the neck, the swimmer recommended performing around a dozen exaggerated chewing motions. This would ideally be followed by a gentle massage utilizing either the fingers or a light roller. And to finish, it was suggested that an ice massage and cold water bath would further tighten the neck muscles.
But for Kellerman, yet another body part was deemed to be the epitome of the female allure. Specifically, the sex symbol thought that a woman’s hands were “the union of beauty with efficiency” that have “made the art and machinery of our civilization.” And it appears she believed that if a person didn’t look after their hands, then there probably wasn’t much point in working so hard on the other areas of the body. Dry hands, she said, “offend the beholder and overwhelm the owner with self-consciousness and mortification.”
Yet Kellerman’s appreciation didn’t end there. Her book offers a whole six pages of hand care advice, where she suggests giving them daily exercise, a massage every evening and a weekly manicure that lasts for a whole 60 minutes. And while the hands may not exactly be loaded with fat, a little pampering never hurt anyone, right?
By today’s standards, then, Kellerman’s approach to self-care is a little unorthodox. Contemporary experts are also highly unlikely to recommend the swimmer’s diet plan. But despite this, the Australian’s many sporting accomplishments and her obvious willingness to push against society’s archaic restraints for women make it clear to see why she was something of an inspiration to many.