Tuesday, 5 March 2013

1920s Weight Loss & Fatty Liver

I have decided to lose weight this year – it was one of my new year resolutions, and part of my getting healthy plan. It's strange how it sort of creeps up on you - If I'd had a great vintage wardrobe it wouldn't have happened, I'm sure.   My last blood test showed my blood count is almost back to normal (I was severely anaemic), although my blood pressure is too high, and I am now on blood pressure medication.  I also have abnormal liver function, and now that hepatitis has been ruled out, I apparently have a ‘fatty liver.’  This is how I look now, more or less. I would never wear shorts that short though!

Over weight and at fat-camp in the 1930s

The cause of this, my doctor tells me, is a ‘typical western diet.’  My diet over the years has been anything but typical.  I grew up whole wheat everything and NO soft drink, was vegetarian for 8 years, vegan for two of those, did raw food for one year and for my last pregnancy in 2005, with twins, gave up sugar.  I have newer smoked or ‘done drugs’, or taken excessive amounts of medications or painkillers and I am a moderate drinker, who has abstained before during and after each pregnancy (all four of them). I don’t have a sweet tooth, drink only two cups of tea or coffee a day and drink lots of water.  There must be more to it than ‘typical western diet.’

According to fatty liver guru, Sandra Cabot, grains as well as sugar is a major cause of fatty liver. So those whole grains I have been eating over the years – brown rice, whole wheat, oats – may not have been as good for me as I was lead to believe. Bugger!  So now I am cutting out all grains and sugar for 8 weeks, to see if there is any improvement.

Not the safest way to weight loss, 1960s
At present, according to this BMI calculator, I am borderline obese (its about 29) and need to lose at lest 20 kg.  I have known that I’m overweight for some time, but I have been struggling to lose it, even before I became ill.  Apparently having a fatty liver prevents you from losing weight.  If I can get my liver healthy, I can apparently lose weight!

weight loss in 1929, when an economic depression is not enough

Apart from being overweight, especially around the abdomen, the other major signs of fatty liver are high blood pressure and bad skin.  Well, I have had both of those things for ever – why didn't someone mention this to me years ago?!

Miss Camilla Clifford (The Gibson girl) - American musical comedy star
One hundred years ago the female physical ideal was very different, the curvy Gibson Girl look was in, and my BMI, had it been a thought of concept, wouldn't have seemed so bad.  A series of articles in 1912 and early 1913 saw Brooklyn-born Cornell student Elsie Scheel, 24, hailed 'the most nearly perfect physical specimen of womanhood'. At 5ft 7in tall and 171 pounds (12 stone 3 pounds), with a pear-shaped chest-waist-hips ratio of 35-30-40 inches (close to the proportions of the Venus de Milo), her BMI would have been close to 27, which is also in the overweight category.   Elsie, however,  who was selected by university medical examiner Dr Esther Parker from a group of over 400 women, was described by the New York Times as 'a light-haired, blue-eyed girl whose very presence bespeaks perfect health.'


Elsie  said that 'She has never been ill and doesn't know what fear is' - indeed, she believes women would be happier if they 'got over the fear of things'.  Her tips for a healthy diet and lifestyle? She rarely ate breakfast, candy and avoided tea and coffee but loved beef steak, and thought walking better than staying up late dancing or studying.   She called herself an ardent suffragette and said that 'if she were a man, she would study mechanical engineering as she likes to work about an automobile.'   As a woman, however, an a  student of horticulture, her ambition as was grow vegetables on her father's farm.  Quite a healthy pursuit indeed – I would love to be a farmer. I wonder what her liver looked like.
I can imagine the taller, thinner and darker girls reading this article one hundred years ago and despairing, or at least feeling inadequate.  Maybe they would have resorted to something like this:

Yes, tapeworms!
By the 1920s the ideal was for a much slimmer body. Curves were out. Which was good really, because after WWI many people were extremely thin, due to food shortages and rationing, soldiering and working. One things settled down after the war the 20s lifestyle became one of excess for many, including the new middle class with their sedentary jobs, and it became easier to overeat. Weight loss again became a hot topic. especially as scientists had just discovered the connection between weight and diabetes. Every newspaper and magazine had articles about diet and losing weight, and weight loss products like pills, rubber clothing and reducing creams flooded the market.  Advertisers knew that fat was scary.

Cashing in on fear, 1920s Kelloggs ad

Many middle class women, many already quite slim, wanted to lose even more weight in order to look good in the slimline fashions of the 1920s that exposed ankles, calves and even upper arms and knees!. Many doctors considered this harmful, saying that extreme thinness and women’s “thin and scraggy” figures and “haggard, drawn expression” were the very opposite of beauty and a threat to women’s responsibility as mothers. Somehow I don't think all women were concerned about that.

Cigarette smoking was also becoming accepted for women, and advertisers homed in on their desire to keep slim, creating a strange link between smoking and beauty that is finally starting to disappear ninety years later. Obviously cigarettes don't give you diabetes!

Lucky Strike, 1927

I am not about to take up smoking, try tape worms or slimming vibrators, but I am aiming to lose weight.  Not for beauty, but for health. More importantly I want to lose fat, especially in my liver.  As my health improves with diet, I aim to excessive more - beginning with walking the dogs at least half an hour per day, a nice gentle exercise my doctors recommends. If only it would stop raining!
An English lady walking her Russian Borzois, 1930s

 I’ll keep you updated.

And if you know anything about fatty liver, let me know!

Deb xxx


  1. Im sorry you have not been well. I, too, suspect I have fatty liver. I haven't been diagnosed as of yet, but my liver enzymes are always slightly elevated when I have blood work. My father has cirrhosis and was not a drinker, they suspect it was from fatty liver, and now he has recently been diagnosed with bile duct cancer too. So I have to wonder if it might be hereditary.

    1. Let's hope its not! High blood pressure runs on my dad's side, so I had a heads up about that. At least if we know we can get ourselves checked out. Best wishes to your dad xx

  2. Hello,
    Can you tell me the source of the 1930s image of the English woman walking the Russian Borzois? I'm interested in it for an exhibition.
    Thanks, Kevin

    1. hi Kevin, sorry for the delay, and not sure what happened with my link, but it was on Etsy, you can find it here https://www.etsy.com/au/listing/116949307/walk-the-dog-english-lady-walking-her


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