I had to cut this bit out of my dissertation for length and focus (it’s a literal cut and paste), but I still think it’s an important piece of history that a lot of people might not know about. Enjoy!
A Brief History of Weight Loss Success Stories in the United States
In the United States prior to the late 19th century, obesity co-existed with countless maladies, illnesses, and bodily conditions accepted as inexplicable aberrations in the collective human condition that sometimes, but not always, result from insufficient morality.With medical science in its infancy, definite causes for pathology could not be established, so large body size was most often considered a side effect of gluttony that could cause illness but was not generally considered a cause for concern on its own (Schwartz 99). William Banting, author of the first widely distributed autobiographical diet book, Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public claims that his reduction in body size through a change in diet gave him more energy and eased his dyspepsia, resulting in a greater feeling of vitality. The popularity of Banting’s testimonial—that a change in diet resulting in weight loss would improve men’s lives as it had his—generated the “if I can do it, you can do it” trope of weight loss memoir. The pamphlet and its message became so popular that the phrase “Are you Banting?” became America’s first national preoccupation with weight loss practices (Schwartz 101). Similar pamphlets followed from other authors, but none came close to reaching the same level of popularity as Banting’s work. As literacy increased and books were made more readily available to a population hungry for the newest developments in scientific medicine, the demand for diet testimonials grew (135).
By the early 1920s, print media had expanded into markets previously untapped due to increased literacy. Newspapers continued to be a popular medium, and magazines specifically created for an audience of female consumers dominated women’s leisure time (Yager 10). The introduction of motion pictures into the national entertainment landscape also contributed to the popularity of beauty products, including “reducing” products that emphasized a new, slender ideal body shape. Early magazine advertisements for weight loss products often featured a call to action followed by product information. “REDUCE YOUR FLESH” or “FAT PEOPLE” feature prominently as headlines in the 1920s (“Medicine and Madison Avenue”). New developments in medical science that made it possible to identify, diagnose, and treat an increasingly long list of ailments also boosted the reputation of doctors as reliable sources of information, so product advertisements began to include testimonials or recommendations from medical professionals. “Dr. Walter’s Medicated Rubber Gloves and Garments” promise not only to help the wearer “safely and speedily reduce excess flesh,” but the pamphlets also claimed to cure rheumatism (“Medicine and Madison Avenue”). Overall, the marketing strategies for health and wellness products stayed the same until the 1950s. Exposure to messages that promote an ideal body type, especially for white, heterosexual, able-bodied women, could hardly be ignored during this time. In addition to advertisements, newspapers and magazines continually ran stories on health and fitness devoted to anxieties about weight alongside reports about medical advancements in the study of weight-related fields like exercise science and nutrition (Yager 150).
The attack against fatness as an aesthetic issue took a pointed turn in the post-WWII era. Print advertisements generally targeted unmarried women and preyed on anxieties that abnormal body shape would deter potential husbands by using paternalistic techniques such as a doctor’s recommendation or a cautionary tale. Bonkorets Slimming Tablets warn that “excess fat means loneliness and embarrassment; stops you wearing fashionable frocks” (“Medicine and Madison Avenue”). Advertisements for Ayds, a weight loss candy product, began appearing in women’s magazines in 1947 and featured two models: “Mrs. C.D. Wells, who weighed 170 pounds, lost 52 and looks years younger” alongside “Mrs. L. Hawkins” who “now weighs only 119” in bathing suits (“Ayds”). This ad represents a departure from previous marketing strategies by including biographical testimonials told in third person voice. Ayds further developed the personal testimonial in a series of ads that ran in the early 1950s by introducing the autobiographical “I” that remains the hallmark of weight loss product advertising today. Single sentences expanded to full, autobiographical stories “as told to Ruth L. McCarthy,” and begin with provocative headlines like “I carried my bridegroom over the threshold. Then I lost 129 pounds” and “I barely fit into my bathtub, until I lost 74 pounds” (“Ayds”). These short stories also featured the first uses of the Before/After photo, now considered a common convention of weight loss memoir. The move from magazine advertisement to mass-market paperback is not much of a stretch considering how weight loss memoir continues to function as advertisement.
Paperback memoir titles began to appear in the same places as major mass-market fiction texts—westerns, romance novels, and science fiction, primarily—in department stores, grocery stores, drugstores, bus stations, and through mail-order services. Eventually, with the addition of mall chain bookstores and independent bookstores that stocked mass-market paperbacks, “working-class and middle-class Americans became book buyers” (Rak 38). In grocery stores and drug stores, paperback memoir appeared alongside advertising pamphlets for food and drug products that double as weight loss aids. An example of a print ad that previously pitched an imperative call for action that changed with the autobiographical advertising turn came from Knox Gelatin. The 1954 tagline “Keep Your Trim Waistline with the popular Knox weight-watcher’s drink!” appeared in newspapers, and changed to “Do You Really Want to Lose Weight?” when the 1962 paperback Knox Eat and Reduce Plan appeared in grocery store checkout displays (“Archive.org”). In addition to these advertisements, early, mid-century weight loss memoir titles such as The Fat Boys’ Book and Help Lord, The Devil Wants Me Fat held space on store shelves with Monarch’s Mad Mad Diet, Better Homes and Gardens Diet Book, The Sexy Pineapple Diet, and the early celebrity diet book Abundant Health and Vitality after 40 by Jack LaLanne. Combining advertisements for products with advertisements for body types and autobiographical accounts of weight loss shows a literal lack of separation between consuming products and consuming lives.
For further reading:
If you have any interest in health marketing history, you have to check out the “Medicine and Madison Avenue” archive: https://repository.duke.edu/dc/mma
Engs, Ruth. Clean Living Movements: American Cycles of Health Reform. (2000).
Rak, Julie. Boom! Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market. (2013).
Yager, Susan. The Hundred Year Diet. (2010).
Yagoda, Ben. Memoir: An Introduction. (2010).