The feminisation of dieting

Food and controlled eating 1890– 1930

Emma Hilborn


Weight-loss diets, or diets otherwise aimed at transforming the person into a better version of herself, by necessity question the status of different foods in every-day life. Yet studies about dieting often fail to pay any attention to food, only analysing beauty ideals and the quest for the slender body. However, food and body are both of vital importance in dieting, making it an ideal subject for studies of the contested relationship between the two. The feminisation of dieting provides a particularly fruitful opportunity to study how the cultural implications of foods were shaped in an era when a traditionally male practice, namely dieting, was introduced into a female cultural context and inextricably linked to modern womanhood. During this formative period, the meanings and functions of certain foods had to be re-interpreted and re-assigned: as the target audience changed, the foods and methods of dieting changed with them. In this paper, I will compare the relations established between women and different types of food in Scandinavian women’s magazines, with popular medical works and publications on nutrition.

One of the overriding ambitions is to bring together the tradition within gender studies to observe the impact of norms and ideals on people’s lives, and the attention given by food historians to the meaning of particular items of food and the practises surrounding them. Perhaps due to the predominant foucauldian theme of the docile body in studies of dieting regimes, the actual food is often rendered nearly invisible, leaving a huge gap in our understanding of how different types of food really came to be integrated in the modern relation to food, eating and dieting. Particularly in the case of the early years of modern feminine dieting, there is an evident discrepancy between the standard explanation of the ever-present media image of the slender body, and the dietary advice actually published, calling into question its usefulness in analysing the historical roots of feminine dieting. In reality, the overwhelming majority of source material dealing with food and diet do not focus so much on the beautiful body as on the relationship one should form with different types of food: what to avoid and what to indulge in, how to eat and how not to eat, thus endowing food with moral and social meanings that came into play within the emerging, and ultimately successful, feminine dieting culture.