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Dieting at Smith, 1880s-1920s

Society’s view of weight and health has changed dramatically from the late 1800s to today. Women’s relationship to food has changed as a result. During the 1800s weight was synonymous with health and prosperity. Today an ultra slim figure is the goal and weight loss is the all-consuming passion for millions of women. Several scholars have traced the beginnings of dieting in the United States to the 1920s when it was known as “slimming” or “reducing.” The emergence of dieting is clearly seen among students at Smith College. When Smith College was founded in 1875 the administration set out to prove that mental strains of college would not adversely effect women’s health, in particular their reproductive capabilities. One indication of good health was weight gain and so Smith students were encouraged to eat. During the next several decades Smith students did just that by regularly celebrating with a “spread” in their dorm rooms. All types of delicious goodies were consumed. They wrote home frequently to thank parents for packages of candies, fruits, sweets and cakes and described the resulting feasts enthusiastically and at length. Charlotte Wilkinson stated in a letter to her mother on February 16, 1892 “It is my ambition to weigh 150 pounds.” By June of that year she is well on her way to that goal. She reassures her mother in a letter dated June 11: “I have never had so much going on in my life as this last month. But don’t be afraid that I shall get tired out for I am bouncingly well. I weighed 137 pounds the other day.” By contrast, in the 1923 handbook the “Hints to Freshmen” section advised: “Don’t consider it necessary to diet before your first vacation. Your family will be just as glad to see you if you look familiar.” The flapper style of the 1920s had arrived with its emphasis on a sleek, boyish appearance. Letters home during this period do not describe feasts, instead they express anxiety over food and weight gain. “Reducing” was so prevalent that it prompted three alarmed students to write a letter to the editor which was given the title “To Diet, or Not to Die Yet?” for the October 29, 1924 issue of the Smith College Weekly. The authors wondered: “Considering the number of cases in which the self-inflicted martyrs have been forced sooner or later to obtain medical assistance to remedy the injuries done to their systems, is it worth it?” The shift in the social significance of body size can also be seen in student clothing. Both photographs above were taken on Ivy Day, the perfect moment to wear the latest fashion. The proud seniors in 1897 strive to appear as ample as possible with multiple folds and flounces while the 1928 graduates seek to showcase how minimal their bodies are with minimalist clothing. Smith students have continued to reflect society’s changing attitudes toward food, health and image. For more information on this topic contact the Smith College Archives and see Margaret A. Lowe’s article “From Robust Appetites to Calorie Counting: The Emergence of Dieting among Smith College Students in the 1920s” published in the Winter 1995 issue of the Journal of Women’s History.

– Karen Eberhart, Smith College Archives, October 2002

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