Book review: Calories and Corsets, a history of dieting over 2000 years

Philosophical rants, Struggles

Author: Louise Foxcroft

In my previous life as a health professional, I’m used to seeing fat and gaining weight as indicative of health and life and a positive thing, and thinness and weight loss as a sign of sickness.  With any physiological pressure exerted on the body – surgery, pregnancy, disease – you’re always more likely to cope better if you have a covering of fat on you.  So I generally prefer a bit of flesh on a woman and tend to only gently diet if and when I’ve overeaten for a few weeks.

I was also raised by a family who enjoyed a hearty meal and a dad who supportively (and repeatedly) pointed out that ‘men like a woman with a bit of meat on her’, which was good for a normal sized teenager to hear.

As an adult into clothes and fashion, I do feel the pressure to have a lower BMI than I currently do, even from within the normal BMI range – particularly as many of the fashions seem to be designed to suit stick thin people with no curves.

But I’ve been training myself over a number of years to reject this extreme and harsh, unfeminine approach to my body and let my eye look at the softness of my body and enjoy it.  That curve of the thighs and butt?  Beautiful.  The slight squidge on my upper arms?  A sign of life and health.  Chunky calves?  I call them my sexyfatlegs.

Because as this awesome book illustrates, the taunting, skeletal figure of ‘ideal’ thinness has been haunting normal women for generations.  Literally hundreds of years.

Lord George Byron, a good looking 18th century English poet with a tendency to put on weight, was a well known extreme dieter who epitomized the fashionable cult of thinness in his time.  When invited to a friends house, he would insist on eating nothing but mashed potatoes with vinegar on, instead of heartily enjoying the meal offered him.  He had bouts of subsisting mostly on vegetables, and berated meat eaters as mindless brutes.  He inspired a generation of young girls to eat practically nothing in order to fit his, and fashionable societies’ ideal of a woman.  On the other hand, when one of his lovers, the wife of a nobleman, lost dramatic amounts of weight due to distress after their break-up, he publicly berated her as a ‘skeleton’.  Talk about impossible to please.  Just like the ideal image we’re meant to aspire to.

Described in this book are the many different ideal physiques women were told to have over the generations – sloping shoulders, square shoulder, thin waist, long neck, short neck, thin legs, thick legs, full bust, small bust…etc etc ad nauseatum.  See also this interesting article about size zero culture in Ancient Rome.

This book contains many more examples of fad diets and techniques for losing ‘corpulence’ that have prevailed over hundreds of years, and puts to death the notion that dieting, or overweightness for that matter, is a new problem.  Whenever ample food has been available (even if only to certain classes, like in Byron’s time) we humans have always tended to become overweight.  We’ve always sought to lose weight, and on top of that, it’s often been fashionable to attempt to look like an early adolescent with a fat-free frame, especially when society has valued the cult of youth.

On the opposite extreme, we’ve also apparently frequently fallen into medicalizing overweightness instead of accepting it is ‘the result of an inclination to which we give way, and we alone are to blame’ in the words of Professor Brillat-Savarin.  Scathing, hard words but probably accurate.  Writing about successfully dieting away his own large belly, he described it as the fruit of hard work, cutting out sugary food and carbohydrates, exercising self-control and moving around more.  No fad diets for this ancient professor.

I am still finishing off the book, but it excellently illustrates the fact that women have always been told to strive for something else, some physical characteristic they don’t yet have but could possibly be obtained if they could do X, Y or Z.  The emphasis has constantly been on creating dissatisfaction with their current state, even if the woman is perfectly healthy as she is.  And it is this enforced dissatisfaction that I’ve opted out of.

It’s a quietly liberating read.  I come away choosing to value my own system over societal pressures. A hearty, healthy enjoyment of life, a little softness to the body but not excessive weight, and no existing in starvation mode to achieve a death-like thin figure.  Learning to see life, health and beauty in the curves of a woman’s body.  Learning to love what makes her a woman, and not a man.

Here are some photos of women recently who make me realize that soft curves are just stunning, and make me want to enjoy my body and dress it beautifully to honour what it is.


The first blonde lady is a model from Pepperberry (she models their Bravissimo underwear ranges too) who I think looks amazing, and proves you can be in the normal range of body sizes and look perfect.  Go to the Pepperberry site to see better pics, as I could only show the thumbnails here.  And the last three photos are of the beautiful Margot Robbie, who occasionally looks stick thin but the rest of the time has a tiny bit of flesh on her, slight fullness in her upper arms and calves, and still looks, in my opinion, better than the Hollywood perfect bodies any day.  Sorry for the very white-skinned and blonde inspo people today, these are the first ones off my head as they have similar colourings to me and hence are relevant to me.  Next time when I have more time I’ll find some pics of beautiful women across the range of hair and skin colours.


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