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'Alas for the Fat One!': How the Victorians Thought Women Should Look

In her new book "Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners," Therese Oneill details all the ways it sucked to be a woman in the 19th century, from scary-looking birth control devices to impossible standards of body image.
October 26, 2016, 5:55pm
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

If you've ever felt like you should have been born in another time, the new book Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill will disabuse you of that sensibility, and it will do so charmingly. Focused on all the trappings of 19th-century womanhood—from wacky olde products ("perambulating umbrella cases," scary-looking birth controls methods) to what one could expect on her wedding night—the book transmits a wealth of historical research in a cheerfully tongue-in-cheek tone and an impressive collection of archival photos.


The excerpt below draws on the modern-day nostalgist's wishful thinking about the past in a discussion on "fatness" and body image in the 19th century. If you ever thought it was a more relaxed time in that arena, think again; here, Oneill demonstrates that the 19th-century understanding about how women's bodies should look was about as rigid as a corset—just in a slightly different way than what we'd expect today.

Read more: The History of Toplessness

Let us say that one of the many reasons you've sought this romantic century is because you are rather on the fleshy side. And you are tired of always being on the outs with modern fashion. You've found yourself in tears in dressing rooms; six pairs of jeans crumpled on the floor, each more hateful than the last. Your own mother once told you, "Patterned leggings are a privilege, not a right." You just know it's going to be different here.

Finally your day has come! A time when men worship a woman of curves and flesh! Where to be well fed and sedentary is a mark of health and wealth. Finally, fat is in fashion!

Yes, my little dumpling. Get all of that rejoicing out of your system. Deep breath, now, my girl. I'm so sorry. It's not true. Fat isn't fashionable in this century. In fact, since beauty adheres to such a narrow standard during this time, it's probably more deplored than in the twenty-first. It's plumpness, dear one. A very specific, healthy, youthful plumpness that is adored here.

Photos courtesy of Little, Brown

Alas! Look at the art of the day. The women, though often more rounded than those in our twenty-first-century magazines, are nonetheless perfect hourglasses. Their figures are similar to those of our plus-size fashion models. That is to say, opulent but lithe, perfectly proportioned in beauty and poise, long-legged and small-waisted. You know, genetic freaks.

Do not drink much water. A little lemon juice added to it will make it less fattening.

I'm so sorry. I wanted it to be true, too. But the fact is, even a firm stoutness is considered maternal and fusty. You must pursue nearly the same standard of beauty that plagued you in your own century. Diversity and deviation from the norm are not celebrated; they're not even tolerated. Your imperfect figure is just one more way you're disappointing yourself, your community, and your God.

Says Helen Jameson, who wrote 1899's The Woman Beautiful, "Alas for the fat one! She gets into clothes that are skintight, and she draws in her corset string until it snaps and gives at every breath and sneeze, and even then she does not look graceful and pretty, for the fat—like secrets—will out, and it rolls over and around like the little bumps and humps in a pudding bag." And there it is.

Ms. Jameson offers a regimen for reduction. To lose fat: Get out of bed, open the window, and breathe the cold air. Cold is a good soldier in the War of Waddle. Speaking of which, now take marching steps, hands on hips, across your bedroom. Then we must chafe and sting your flab, so as to make sure it knows it is not welcome here. "After airing your lungs close the window and run into the bath-room, where you should have a quick sponge bath, rubbing the body briskly with a heavy towel. A quick alcohol rub can follow."

Her diet requirements are sensible, mostly. No sugar or creams; fair enough. Also never eat bread. Only toast. Bup! They are different. Toast is dried out. Which is necessary to the girl trying to lighten up because water is a very heavy substance. It's simple logic. Jameson warns against overhydrating: "Do not drink much water. A little lemon juice added to it will make it less fattening."

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And if you are obese, for heaven's sake don't make a further spectacle of yourself by trying to imitate the Normals. Martha Louise Rayne, who wrote Gems of Deportment and Hints of Etiquette (1881), explains: "Ladies who are very stout make objects of themselves by tight lacing, which reddens the face and distorts the figure. If they would wear loose clothes, accustom themselves to breathe softly instead of panting, walk with dignity instead of rolling or waddling, and be unobtrusive in the colors they wear, half of the unpleasantness of too much fat would be avoided."

There is no need to wear fashionable colors or clothing for you, my chubby little cherub. Here, I think we have some old bedsheets—dye them black with the ashes of your self-respect and sew them together. Then cut a tidy head hole, and voilà, you've performed a common courtesy to all who might have been blighted by the sight of you.

Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese ONeill was published by Little, Brown this week.