LIFE Magazine's Vintage Fat Shaming

Cristen Conger

In 1954, LIFE magazine assumed weight gain was the result of "gluttony" and "greed."
In 1954, LIFE magazine assumed weight gain was the result of "gluttony" and "greed."

In the 1950s, the term "fat shaming" had yet to be coined, but the demeaning practice was certainly alive and well. Even though the average waistline was slimmer then than now, LIFE magazine published a multi-page spread in its March 1954 edition on "The Plague of the Overweight," which led with the declaration that "The most serious health problem in the U.S. today is obesity."

According to statistics compiled by insurance companies at the time, around 3 percent of post-World War II Americans were considered obese, and "[were] drastically prone to diabetes, gallstones, hernia, kidney and bladder impairments and complications during surgery and pregnancy." Considering how that percentage has increased to 35.7 percent of the adult U.S. population, the magazine was correct in recognizing a health trend.

That said, pretty much everything else in the article is flat-out wrong, starting with its reasoning for why overweight and obese people gain weight in the first place.

Gluttony! Greed! It's surprising the author didn't toss in a few more seven deadly sins for good measure to make sure that the people in question are sufficiently demeaned. That said, the size of one's belly has long been (wrongly) framed in moralistic terms, but even by today's body snarking standards, LIFE's outright demonizing is alarming:

"The uncompromising truth is that obesity is caused by gluttony. The average overweight American stuffs himself with far more nourishment than he needs for his relatively sedentary life. He thus upsets his body's energy balance, taking in more calories than he can expend and storing the excess as fat. The physical and mental reasons behind this greed are only now being discovered, but the results are all too clear. As the waistline expands, overeating becomes a habit. Nothing will slim the figure except curbing the habit through diets, which, though they vary according to the individual, all aim at decreasing the intake of high calorie foods."

Then my initial shock/revulsion faded to sadness once I got to the magazine's story and accompanying photo spread of Dorothy Bradley, a young woman who struggled with weight loss and its socially ostracizing effects. Photos show Dorothy at the beach in a swimsuit, working out in a sweatsuit, in a store trying on a figure-hugging dress, and staring sadly at a slimmer woman's milkshake. Again, the magazine implies there's something fundamentally wrong with Dorothy, who "weighed 205 pounds and fit snugly into a matronly size 44 graduation dress" when she matriculated from high school. Perhaps, LIFE opined, she suffered from an "unconscious emotional turmoil."

Courtesy: LIFE

Small wonder if Dorothy did in fact endure conscious emotional turmoil since she was made so keenly aware of her size. In one of the photo captions, for instance, she tells LIFE that "No boy I'd have would marry me at this size." And after yo-yoing between losing and then gaining back and then losing again 60 pounds, LIFE declares her "an attractive Dorothy."

Why did I react so glumly to seeing this story we've seen rehashed so many times that it's spawned an entire television franchise? The very fact that the profile of a woman (or whomever else) struggling with weight as well as the attendant self-scrutiny, shame and assumptions about her mental fitness isn't a vintage bygone alongside the snake oil dieting pills featured in the piece as well, but a snapshot of a past version of a present problem is disheartening. Although fat shaming can be gender-blind, women and girls tend to be more cognizant of this type of body scrutiny, and this article is an example of just how deeply engrained that connection between weight and female worth is. As if to drive home the reality of fat shaming, the current LIFE editor Ben Cosgrove writing about the photo spread for the magazine's website lauds the article's prescience and correct use of "plague," as he asks "how much more will all of us pay for insurance every year because of this epidemic?"

"The LIFE article, meanwhile, focused at least in part on one woman, Dorothy Bradley, whose struggles with overeating and body-image issues were familiar (and remain familiar) to countless American men and women," Cosgrove continues.

As familiar, I'd bet, as old school fat shaming.