Health and Girlhood in Britain, 1874–1920

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Health and girlhood in britain, (palgrave studies in the hi…

Email alerts New issue alert. Advance article alerts. Article activity alert. Receive exclusive offers and updates from Oxford Academic. Related articles in Google Scholar. The growth in the number of such publications and their frequent re-publication in large print runs testifies to the strong market for such guides, as part of a wider expansion of advice literature targeted at families.

Advocates of new healing approaches, including the nineteenth-century systems of hydropathy, homoeopathy, medical botany and vegetarianism, meanwhile, infused their attempts to empower families with knowledge and technical skills with a missionary zeal, encouraging them to actively treat a variety of medical disorders and to initiate interventions to improve their general health and well-being. To reduce fat, Gardner recommended active exercise, lowered starch consumption, avoidance of sugar and wine and the substitution of bread with thin, browned toast and hard biscuits.

Health guides produced by advocates of new medical systems were equally unambiguous about the responsibility borne by individuals and householders in managing health, and concluded that gluttony produced poor health and illustrated moral weakness. Such texts offered guidance on eating as moral education, whereby the stomach was to be ruled by the head and regimes of moderation and regularity encouraged.

Healthy living meant living naturally. For the Olsens—and many other writers on health—bodily size was to be restrained largely through the regulation of behaviour and emotion in response to environmental and cultural cues, rather than those supplied by the actual measurement of girth and weight. By the late nineteenth century, health advice was becoming ever more specialised. Guides catered for discrete audiences and no more so than for women and girls, many of whom were interested in regulating body weight for reasons of beauty and fashion as much as health.

Health advice handbooks, health periodicals and magazines for women and girls elaborated increasingly on the ways and means of controlling weight, improving the figure and developing correct proportions. Instead, she was urged to become an early riser, to take brisk walks and exercise and to consume uncooked fruits, vegetables, white fish, lemon tea and rusks while avoiding farinaceous dishes, milk, sweets, pastry, cocoa and alcohol.

In other words it stands ready to destroy both health and beauty. The widely-perceived need for weight control remained only one part of a wider agenda of domestic management of the self. Close self-scrutiny and attentive self-surveillance were essential to both sides of this equation for health maintenance. In general, nineteenth-century health guides intended for the household reader did not yet emphasise surveillance by numbers.

Health and Girlhood in Britain, 1874-1920

Not until the end of the century would they include straightforward tables relating ideal weight to gender, height, physical development, occupation and exercise, and cite hospital dietaries or diet tables drawn up by physicians as useful guides to what individuals should eat. They introduced householders to a wide array of measuring paraphernalia—from graduated wine glasses, funnels and measures to scales and weights—for manufacturing and dispensing remedies, encouraging the adoption of practices of exact measurement.

New technologies of exact measurement played an essential—if controversial—role in this endeavour. Moreover, sensory data, if captured only in words could not be minutely compared between practitioners or cases. In contrast, the new measuring instruments could provide exactly the definitive information required in the form of a numerical reading, readily comparable to similar readings taken for other patients. But numbers alone, no matter what they measured, were useless. The rise of quantification in clinical practice required both the organised and systematic collection of the individual measurements of numerous individuals, and the correlation of those numbers with other quanta of embodiment: height, age, occupation, appearance—and especially weight.

Companies would later publish much of this work in health promotion materials for their own clients, thus spreading the medical model of precise measurement into the domestic sphere. Overweight is a burden, not a reserve fund. Simultaneously, the new maternal and child health clinics which sprang up in France, Britain and the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century swiftly established similar procedures for assessing the health of infants and young children.

Thus, by the end of the nineteenth century, the ideal of a quantified norm of healthy weight—at least for infants and children—was well established, both in professional circles and in many middle-class homes. However, its move into general medical practice and out of the domestic nursery would be more gradual and less comprehensive. Indeed some doctors expressed specific resistance to standardised classificationism of adults, which they claimed bore little relevance to individuals, including overweight individuals.

Although no very great size or weight, still I could not stoop to tie my shoe, so to speak, nor attend to the little offices humanity requires without considerable pain and difficulty, which only the corpulent can understand; I have been compelled to go down stairs slowly backwards, to save the jar of increased weight upon the ancle [ sic ] and knee joint, and been obliged to puff and blow with every slight exertion. Although his work was not unprecedented, in terms of visibility and impact, Banting was widely regarded as a trailblazer. He detached dietary interventions from medical therapy and placed them firmly in the realm of self-help and self-monitoring.

Importantly, whether advocating or deprecating medical guidance, most texts implicitly assumed or explicitly asserted that weight management would take place at home, where most meals were prepared and consumed, and most advocated weighing. Fat, or, Embonpoint, in Excess. The plan of treatment is simple, and in its explanation devoid of all medical mystification. Diet books stepped up their emphasis on science and nutrition towards the end of the century, and Yorke-Davies referred to the task of the dietician and chemist in shaping knowledge about rational food intake.

While claiming to draw on scientific knowledge and approaches to fix the problem, and emphasising careful regulation by the physician, his diet plan relied largely on the straightforward correction of the diet and additional exercise. Yorke-Davies provided his readers with recipes and advice on food intake based on hospital dietaries and in relation to expenditure of effort in work and physical activity.

Food was to be carefully weighed, and reports of successful weight loss indicated that his dieters, too, were regularly weighed recording their week-by-week weight reduction. His most famous diet patient was American President William Howard Taft — , who hired York-Davies to supervise his weight loss programme.

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The two corresponded regularly for over 20 years and Taft kept a daily record of his weight, alongside details of his food intake and physical activity. The inconsistency with which self-weighing was both advised to householders and practised by them reflects more than medical or domestic ambivalence about the technique. In fact, the acquisition of accurate and comprehensive measurements of height and weight for healthy adults proved a greater challenge than was the case for infants. Initially demanding complex systems of weights and the specific positioning of individuals under surveillance, early instruments for quantifying adult body weight made them unlikely domestic—or indeed clinical—technologies.

Moreover, as the editors of the Lancet indicated in , personal weighing scales had been too large and too expensive even for use in medical consulting rooms, much less domestic spaces, though new designs promised cheaper and more compact solutions. Users required training expertise and often a second pair of hands to produce accurate measurements.

They would likewise be taught to measure themselves and their children against standardised height and weight curves. Even so, the convinced and the curious alike had long found ways and means to weigh. In his diet book, A. One of the chief institutions of Carlsbad is the weighing machine; nowhere do you see so many weighing machines.