January 20, 2012 4:37 PM   Subscribe

Ask for Amazing WATE-ON. Retronaut's collection of dietary supplement ads offers some historical perspective on the obesity epidemic.
It's amazing how many calories, vitamins, minerals, sources of energy and other body-building nutrients can be condensed all in one delicious food tablet!

For faster more sure weight gains, a complete WATE-ON body-building plan and high calorie diet suggestions are included ...
Short article, with the same tile, by Travis Saunders (via).
posted by nangar (17 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Surely there's money to be made in ways that are less evil than setting a cultural norm for body shape, diet, appearance, etc? Could advertising be just as profitable if they mandated silly hats instead of bulging biceps and skeleton like figures in order to fit in?

This is all a big cycle right, sell the idea of being curvy, people get there, stop spending money, sell the idea of being skinny, people get there, stop spending money. Etc. Let's just target something more innocuous, but equally as expensive (re - silly hats. I have a bit of an agenda).
posted by chainsawpudding at 4:58 PM on January 20, 2012

Now she'd make a first-class fountain pen if she only knew how to write
Her figure's just like a piece of string, she rolls up every night
Everybody thinks that I'm a nut to love this lovely worm
But there's one reason I like 'em slim instead of round and firm: 'cause

Closest to the bone, sweeter is the meat
Last slice of Virginia ham is the best that you can eat
Don't talk about my baby, she's slender but she's sweet
Closest to the bone, sweeter is the meat

She'd make a fine piccolo if she only stayed on key
She's shaped just like a rubber band and she loves to snap at me
Everybody thinks that I'm insane to overlook her faults
But here's the reason I like 'em skinny instead of full of schmaltz: 'cause...

Seriously, though; I love reading this stuff. Reminds me that just as all other fashions change the fashion for body types changes as well. Look at the fad for boyish, very slim figures to wear drop-waists in the twenties and how soon that changed to the 1950s Christian Dior va-va-voom dresses.
posted by fiercecupcake at 5:00 PM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Grove's Tasteless Chill Tonic Makes Children and Adults As Fat As Pigs.
posted by Daily Alice at 5:22 PM on January 20, 2012

My understanding was that "skinny" was a euphemism for "flat chested".
posted by bleep at 5:23 PM on January 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

Being flat chested is just a symptom of being skinny.
posted by oddman at 5:27 PM on January 20, 2012

Which is to say, that's what they thought.
posted by oddman at 5:27 PM on January 20, 2012

Yes but regarding telling girls that nobody would love them if they were skinny, they were using coded language to say that nobody would love them if they had small boobs.
posted by bleep at 5:28 PM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Of course the only way to get big boobs was to gain wait all over. This was to solve the problem of not wanting to squeeze our bodies into the required shape using corsets.
posted by bleep at 5:36 PM on January 20, 2012

Now, thanks to the miracle of medical science, you just squeeze the required shape into your bodies. Which means women can now be shamed and belittled for being too fat and too "skinny" at the same time.

On! On! The march of progress goes!
posted by howfar at 5:45 PM on January 20, 2012

Fashion always points towards the direction that is most difficult to achieve at any given time. Clothes are significantly cheaper now than ever before, even good-looking clothes, and food is easily come by, so having an expensively maintained body becomes the most conspicuous signifier of high status.
posted by chrisgregory at 5:58 PM on January 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

The ads here that specifically mention what's in their "special formula" mention "ironized yeast" (source of B vitamins and, presumably, iron) and kelp (for its iodine content). I've been looking at a lot of '30s movie fan magazines lately, and they are full of ads for yeast tablets; the ones I've seen are just as often about bad skin or "exhaustion" as they are about being too skinny.

I don't think this is just a cruelly arbitrary switch in beauty standards between the first 3/4 of the 20th century and the present day, or a testament to it being harder to be fat then (and harder to be skinny now).

Wikipedia isn't much of a source, I know, but they have a nice table - symptoms of B vitamin deficiencies of various kinds include weight loss & dermatitis and other skin grossness. Iodine deficiency and anemia are both associated with fatigue and weakness.

So considering the list of symptoms, these products/phenomena seems like they were as much about vitamin deficiencies in the age before modern nutritional science as they were about unhealthy body idealism. (And yes, they were also about making money by making people feel bad - that age-old marketing technique! But they were about other things, too).

Looking at these ads nails it in that back then people... felt crappy all the time, probably. And didn't live as long. And there wasn't much they could do about it, even if they knew that vitamins would help, because it was harder to have fresh veggies around in the winter, and food enrichment wasn't as routine as it is now, and if you wanted vitamin supplements, you ordered them from a magazine through an ad like one of these, because there wasn't a whole industry dedicated to selling vitamins yet.

These kinds of early 20th century nutritional preoccupations probably also had something to do with why people made their kids eat cod liver oil (for vitamin D and vitamin A) and black-strap molassas (vitamin B6 and a bunch of minerals), why malt Ovaltine is still marketed as vaguely healthy, and why Popeye loves spinach.

I don't know that I'm right about all of the nutrition history here, but I've been thinking about this and doing little bits of research ever since these ads first started making the rounds a few months ago, whereupon I started noticing them in the old movie magazines and wondering about the obsession with yeast and so on...
posted by bubukaba at 8:11 PM on January 20, 2012 [10 favorites]

I think it says less about body image and more about food availability. The women in those ads would be attractive today to anyone not looking for another Kate Moss (i.e. most of the population). They certainly would not be classified as obese or even overweight. It just happens that at the time women were more likely to be underweight compared to that ideal as opposed to overweight.
posted by schroedinger at 10:21 PM on January 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think most of the population would still consider their ideals "pretty", but I don't think we'd consider them ideal anymore, no. Which is certainly not to say anybody would call them "obese" or "overweight"--but also not to say that they wouldn't be getting a ton of signals that told them that they were doing something wrong and that they needed to drop a few pounds to be beautiful and not just acceptably pretty. Today's models wouldn't have necessarily been considered hideous then, either.
posted by gracedissolved at 2:35 AM on January 21, 2012

Brother Tony was notably bony
He would never eat his meals
And so they gave him medicinal compound
Now they move him round on wheels
posted by kcds at 6:28 AM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Looking at these ads nails it in that back then people... felt crappy all the time, probably.

bubukaba, I think you're spot on. Another thing to consider is the big changes in food habits that were going on around this time -- namely, the sudden uptick in refined foods, white bread especially, that that made lots of people really... well, backed up. I don't know if they showed up in movie magazines, but women's magazines are full of ads and articles proclaiming cures for constipation in the 1920s and '30s. Vitamin B was one proposed cure and so lots of ads, yeast tablet ads especially, stressed their high vitamin-B content. (Hopefully that link goes to a Good Housekeeping ad.) Just looking at ads would make you think it was a massive health crisis that destroyed marriages, threatened a family's economic security, and men especially were prone to it because they cared nothing for their own health and just ate whatever they wanted if left to their own devices. (Though many women also had trouble watching what they ate in cafeterias while on break from their new jobs.)

Though I doubt it was as serious as the ads claimed, scientists and public health experts were certainly worried about it. One article claimed half the population suffered from constipation, and there was a prolonged debate post-World War I about whether and how to encourage Americans to continue eating more wheat bread after the shortage of white flour ended. But once everything went back to normal, taste and ease of preparation became more important than any perceived health benefits. Middle-class women especially relied on pre-made foods that were generally highly refined because the use of household servants declined during the '20s and '30s and some young women found jobs outside the home, resulting in a large group of women with little time or knowledge needing to cook for their families for the first time.

As nutritional science gained a foothold, Americans gradually incorporated more foods that contained fiber and promised enough "roughage" in the diet. The '30s saw a big vitamin craze that coincided with the Depression to convince middle-class women to stretch their budgets as far as possible by buying for maximum food value. There were a bunch of articles that popped up that encouraged women to buy the most nutritious foods they could, and vitamins seemed the easiest way to make those calculations. Supplements like yeast tablets and cod liver oil promised women one way to be absolutely sure their families weren't accidentally starving their families (the "hidden hunger" problem of getting enough to eat but not getting enough nutrients).

My thesis is on development of nutritional science in this time period, and it was a little strange to keep seeing so many casual references to constipation pop up, a weird little undercurrent in everything else I was looking for. It was strange to realize how... awful these people must have felt all the time, not just because they were eating super-bland food (spaghetti was about as exotic as you got, and even then lots of people used ketchup instead of tomato sauce) but because they were probably mildly constipated at all times. A bunch of people probably just felt 'blah' and cranky all the time, which must have really sucked. The "Great American Malady" indeed.
posted by lilac girl at 2:59 PM on January 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

lilac girl, that was fascinating. Thank you!
posted by subbes at 5:32 PM on January 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks! It's fun to share the weird stuff I've been looking at lately. Plus Cornell's online archive of all this stuff is just too cool not to share.

Speaking of, I just found some better evidence to support bubukaba's hypothesis: the very last paragraph on this page of a vitamin manual from 1921 talks about the sudden rise in popularity of yeast cakes, attributing it to the perptual vitamin deficiencies people had in the '20s.
posted by lilac girl at 9:22 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

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