Victorian Fat Shaming: Harsh Words on Weight from the 19th Century

“All defects are in the nature of ugliness, but certain ones are more degrading than others; and of these obesity, which is a deformity, is signally ignoble.”
The Woman Beautiful, 1899.

Unknown Painting by Ivan Makarov, 1870.

Unknown Painting by Ivan Makarov, 1870.

During the early and mid-Victorian era, a great many health and beauty books echoed the popular 19th century sentiment that plumpness equaled good health.  It was leanness, not heaviness, to which beauty experts directed the majority of their criticism.  For example, in his 1870 book Personal Beauty: How to Cultivate and Preserve it in Accordance with the Laws of Health, author Daniel Brinton states that a “scrawny bony figure” is “intolerable to gods and men.”  According to Brinton, the only occasion on which excessive leanness had ever been beneficial to a lady was in an encounter with a cannibal.  As he explains:

“The only lady who we ever heard derived advantage from such an appearance was Madame Ida Pfeiffer.  She relates that somewhere in her African travels the natives had a mind to kill and eat her, but she looked so unpalatably lean and tough that the temptation was not strong enough, and thus her life was saved.”

Lorings Advert, 1896.

Lorings Advert, 1896.

This did not mean that there were no diets or patent nostrums for reducing weight.  Quite the contrary.  For the morbidly obese, Brinton himself lays out an entire regime based on the popular 19th century belief that fat was “only water” and could be driven out of the system by perspiration.

But though Brinton and other health and beauty authors of the Victorian era generally took a sympathetic tone toward the very overweight, by the end of the century a new trend was on the rise.  No longer was roundness or plumpness seen as being wholly synonymous with health and beauty.  Instead, many Victorians began to view excess weight as a sign that a woman was inconsiderate, stupid, lazy, and—in some cases—even promiscuous or insane.

In his 1897 book, The Female Offender, author Cesare Lombroso makes the connection between obesity and prostitution.  Using extraordinarily detailed graphs and tables, he compares the weights and measurements of overweight prostitutes with those of slimmer, “moral” women.  He concludes that obesity is directly linked to promiscuity and uncivilized behavior, writing:

“This greater weight among prostitutes is confirmed by the notorious fact of the obesity of those who grow old in their vile trade, and who gradually become positive monsters of adipose tissue.”

Taking his research a step further, Lombroso looks at the weights and measurements of women who have been committed to insane asylums, writing:

“In conclusion, I would remark that in prisons and asylums for the insane, the female lunatics are far more often exaggeratedly fat than the men.”

Weight Chart, The Female Offender, 1897.

Weight Chart, The Female Offender, 1897.

This belief that obesity was linked to sexuality, promiscuity, and mental derangement was only one facet of what—for lack of a better word—I will call Victorian fat shaming.  More common still was the view that the overweight were selfish or inconsiderate in some way.  A particularly harsh example of this comes from the 1899 book The Woman Beautiful, in which author Adelia Fletcher excoriates overweight women for their selfishness, writing:

“Wherever the fat woman finds herself in a crowd—and where can she avoid it in the metropolis?—she is in effect an intruder.  For, she occupies twice the space to which she is entitled, and inflicts upon her companions, through every one of her excessive pounds, just so much additional fatigue and discomfort.  Too often, this so redundant flesh seems to serve as a. bullet-proof armor, repelling all consciousness of the rights of others.  The woman who makes a god of her stomach is incorrigible, and I fear no word of mine will avail to induce her to reform.  She is the innately selfish woman who makes her very existence an offense.”

Teresina, a young woman weighing 265 kg, 1881.(Image via Wellcome Library, CC by 4.0)

Woman weighing 265 kg, 1881.
(Wellcome Library, CC by 4.0)

At one point in her lengthy attack against overweight women, Fletcher acknowledges that “corpulency” is a disease.  However, this does not stop her from attributing excess weight to a woman’s “indolence of mind” and categorizing overeaters as a lower order of beast.

The Victorian idea that obesity was incompatible with intelligence and mental acuity was a common one.  As a 1900 edition of the Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette reports:

“Obesity always carries with it physical and often mental weakness…”

This stereotype was frequently enforced by overweight characters in popular plays and novels who were portrayed as dimwitted and lazy.  An 1893 edition of Charles Dickens’ weekly literary magazine All the Year Round addresses this, stating:

“People have rather an erroneous idea, probably gathered from Dickens’s Fat Boy in ‘Pickwick,’ that corpulent people have none of the finer feelings and are of a lethargic and dull comprehension.  This is altogether a mistake, as many a poor corpulent lady can tell you.  When she ascends a crowded omnibus on a hot summer’s day every one of the indignant glances levelled at her by her more fortunate sisters are as so many little dagger thrusts of mortification, though her ruddy complexion and defiant stentorian breathing may seem to belie the truth of these words.”

The Tree of Intemperance, 1872.(Wellcome Library, CC by 40)

The Tree of Intemperance, 1872.
(Wellcome Library, CC by 4.0)

The increased attacks against obesity in the late Victorian era were just one part of an overall “clean living movement.”  Temperance reformers levied similar charges against those who used alcohol and tobacco.  According to the 2012 book Alcohol, Tobacco, and Obesity, just as temperance reformers viewed alcohol as “the root of social, moral, and physical decay” and linked tobacco to “the corruption of innocence,” so too was obesity given a moral dimension.  As the book explains:

“Clearly, although the strength of these three reform movements and the personnel involved differed across issues, temporal periods, and locales, they were part of a larger Protestant-infused ‘clean living’ movement that ascribed moral value to self-restraint and self-regulation, and condemned ‘pathological’ excess.”

Perhaps it seems odd that there was so much anti-fat sentiment during an era when the queen herself was overweight.  Then again, throughout history, extreme weights on either end of the spectrum have always been a subject for criticism and ridicule.  This is nothing particularly new; however, using a woman’s weight as a barometer of her intelligence, her character, her sexuality, and even her sanity is something quintessentially Victorian.  I’d like to say that we know better now, but even with modern science and education, these negative stereotypes cast a very long shadow.

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Alcohol, Tobacco, and Obesity: Morality, Mortality and the New Public Health.  New York: Routledge, 2011.

Banting, William.  Letter on Corpulence: Addressed to the Public.  Volume 13.  London: Harrison, 1864.

Brinton, Daniel Garrison.  Personal Beauty: How to Cultivate and Preserve it in Accordance with the Laws of Health.  Springfield: W. J. Holland, 1870.

“Fashion and Stout Ladies.”  All the Year Round.  Vol. X.  London, 1893.

Fletcher, Ella Adelia.  The Woman Beautiful.  New York: W. M. Young & Co., 1899.

“The Great Danger in Pushing Muscle Power to an Extreme.”  The Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette. Vol. XVI.  New York, 1900.

Lombroso, Cesare.  The Female Offender.  New York: D. Appleton, 1897.

Silver, Anna Krugovoy.  Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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32 thoughts on “Victorian Fat Shaming: Harsh Words on Weight from the 19th Century

  1. crimeworm says:

    Fabulous post! Of course, in earlier days being heavier suggested you were richer. I need to lose weight, but it’s not easy, particularly as I have limited mobility! Interesting to know fat shaming isn’t a new phenomenon.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. crimeworm says:

    I adore your blog – it’s fantastic! I love history anyway, but you come up with some fascinating posts. And it looks lovely too (this is where I fall down, being a total Luddite! I’d rather be reading than figuring out WordPress, but I guess I’ll have to get round to it sometime…)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sarah Waldock says:

    being overweight owing to chronic illness, limited mobility and the meds I’m on, I have to say I can only laugh at the idea of being thought stupid and insane, and as for oversexed, chance would be a fine thing… a fascinating dissection of the newly discovered Victorian fad for health and beauty. Was this perhaps something that arose as one of the responses to the disaster in the Thames estuary where all the men and boys were saved and almost all the women and girls drowned owing to being too feeble to hold onto ropes literally to save their lives?

    Liked by 3 people

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      The conclusions about prostitution & insanity are a bit funny. But then, this was the era of phrenology (a few of the graphs compare cranial measurements) and trying to pin certain moral attributes on physical or racial characteristics. I think the beliefs about women’s weight arose from so many different directions. There was the health movement, but there was also the rise in women who wanted legal independence from men and to be treated equally. I firmly believe that body shaming was–and is–just another way of holding women back.

      Liked by 1 person

      • crimeworm says:

        Absolutely! Hear, hear. It’s along the same lines as the thinking that prompted Gilman to write The Yellow Wallpaper – women are fragile, stupid, their small brains can’t cope with political debate and “heavy” topics – give her some needlework and teach her the harp!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Kelly Searsmith says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post! I had no idea that obesity had been given such moral dimensions in women, although, of course, as a literary scholar I am familiar with the shade cast on Count Fosco in Collins’s _The Woman in White_.

    I have shared the link on my Tumblr, Fatscination, which bears witness to depictions of obesity in the arts. http://fatscination.tumblr.com/

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      You’re very welcome, Kelly 🙂 I love the idea of your Tumblr site! There are so many images of curvaceous women in the arts. I think it’s important for women–young women especially–to know that thin is only one of the many forms of beauty.

      Like

  5. authorangelabell says:

    Another well-researched article!

    I knew the Victorians, at one point, viewed “plumbness” as a sign of good health, which I always found somewhat ironic given that they also wore corsets to slim the waist. But I had never heard of this trend of “fat shaming” that arose later in the Victorian period. Quite interesting…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thanks Angela 🙂 The ideal figure at the time was incredibly unrealistic. Arms, bosom, and hips could still be rounded, but the waist was expected to be very tiny–hence the popularity of tight-lacing. It was an exaggerated and unnatural silhouette. And sometimes quite painful to achieve!

      Like

  6. Vickie says:

    Just another example of society trying to direct what happens to a woman’s body – As a woman of size I say that ‘fat shaming’ is a form of hate and hate is not a family value nor is it a helpful thing to be made to feel different – in any way. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and each of us is unique. Mimi – I do so love that you bring out the best and worst of the historical facts for all to see – thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thanks so much for your comment 🙂 I definitely believe that, in the context of the Victorian era, the theories about prostitution & insanity or hysteria had more to do with women in general than size itself.

      Like

  7. woostersauce2014 says:

    Fascinating article and interesting to learn that so-called “fat shaming” is nothing new but then again plumpness was equated not only with prosperity but also fertility.

    Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of quackery involving discussions on weight which persists to this day. Just look at for instance Gwyneth Paltrow’s barmy advice on her website – goop.com

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      It was a really interesting shift in how weight was viewed and seems to have had much less to do with health concerns than with the “immorality” of excess–just like with alcohol & tobacco. You’re so right about barmy advice and quackery. As long as there are people who want miracle cures and quick fixes, quack remedies will always have a market!

      Liked by 1 person

      • woostersauce2014 says:

        Agree. Nigella Lawson in one of her books wrote that the obsession with weight and seeing food as “evil” had a lot to do with Puritanism so its not surprising there’s a lot of finger wagging in the literature you have cited.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      You’re very welcome, Tabatha 🙂 And you’re so right about our gender being under a lot of scrutiny! Sorry about the link removal. I stopped allowing links in the comments section a few months ago and have to apply the rule to everyone.

      Like

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