Tuesday 23 September 2014

FAT IS A HISTORICAL ISSUE by Leslie Wilson (with a footnote about attacks on artistic freedom)

Writing in the Guardian about the increase in obesity recently, Rosie Boycott, food advisor to the Mayor of London, said (in the middle of some very sensible talk about school dinners) 'Go back fifty years, and virtually no-one was(obese). For women, size 10 and 12 was the norm, rather than 14 and 16 today - and we ate three meals a day, with tea thrown in for special occasions. Most of us didn't eat unless we were sat at a table at a regular time of day.'
I am totally in favour of healthy eating initiatives, nor would I query that there are far more obese people about than there used to be - what I do decry is the rosy glow that is currently bathing the food culture of the '50s - which was, in my memory, dreadful. Granted, I did not eat British food at home, so my memories of it are mainly derived from school dinners. But those school dinners are now also seen in the same glow of nostalgia.
My mother with her pupils, probably about 1960
 I remember fatty stewed meat (which made me retch - I was told it was 'white meat' and wondered who the teacher thought he was fooling), limp salads consisting of one lettuce leaf, one slice of beetroot, a slice of hard-boiled egg (placed next to the beetroot so that the colour could run into it), a quarter tomato, a piece of dried-out cucumber, and a splash of salad cream, which I loathed; at home, we had mayonnaise, plenty of tomato, no ghastly beetroot, and cut-up apple and nuts with the lettuce). And a boiled potato. The vegetables tasted only of steam, having been cooked for hours to beat the resistance out of them. Fish came in a thick stiff jacket of batter; I wanted to leave the batter and only eat the fish, but was forced to 'eat up everything on your plate'. And every day there was pudding; sometimes this was nice, sometimes as penitential as first course (tapioca 'frogspawn' anyone?).
Now, since then I have had traditional British food which was good - my aunt Mollie, who I first went to stay with as a teenager, served up the most wonderful roast dinners, with Yorkshire puddings that floated away, instead of the slabs of moist stodge I had at school. But my impression from my schoolmates was that the first course was to be endured in case the pudding was nice. And often, it was - syrup sponge, for example.
My friends came to school always furnished with one or two bags of sweets, which they mainlined at playtime (so much for only eating when sat down at table). I wasn't allowed sweets except as an occasional treat, which did my popularity no good, as I had nothing to exchange. On the other hand, when the school dentist arrived with his van, they disappeared inside it and emerged, lurching from the effects of gas, and blood running out of their mouths from the extraction.
School nativity play, Holme County Primary School, probably about
1959. I am playing Mary.

Sweet rationing ended in 1953, with what the BBC described as a 'sugar frenzy'. Toffee apples, sticks of nougat, and liquorice strips were the biggest sellers, but men in the City queued up in their lunch breaks to buy boiled sweets and boxes of chocolates to take home. 'One firm in Clapham Common gave 800 children 150lbs of lollipops during their midday break from school.' BBC 'On this Day'. Sugar remained on ration, but after that, people laid into sweet stuff in order to make up for what they felt were the privations of the war years.
I can believe that people might have been trim in the early '50s, when rationing had forced them to eat fairly healthily - but in the later '50s, I can remember plenty of plump ladies who must have been between sizes 16 and 18; indeed, my memory of comfortably-off middle-class ladies was that they were mainly that size, but usually corseted, which gave them the appearance of upholstery. There were less hugely fat people, it is true; they were normally said to have 'glands' (the rest of us being strangely lacking in these anatomical features). There were also fat kids at school with me. 'Puppy-fat' it was called.
Edwardian Northern Irish relatives, showing
the effects of plenty of good farm fare

Go back much further, and you will find plenty of stout people. In an 1890 Girls Own Annual, 'Medicus' handed out advice to girls anxious to lose 'adipose tissue' (a high-protein, low-carb diet with more than a taste of Atkins). Flora Thompson writes in 'Over to Candleford', 'Food had to be of the best quality and not only sufficient, but 'a-plenty' as they expressed their abundance.. Many of the great eaters grew very stout in later life; but this caused them no uneasiness; they regarded their expanding girth as proper to middle age. Thin people were not admired. However cheerful and energetic they might appear, they were suspected of 'fretting away their fat' and warned that they were fast becoming 'walking miseries.' And the nudes of great art were largely - well, what would be considered nowadays to be large.
My Baker grandparents between the wars (centre); I think
it is Auntie Nellie on their right, who is definitely
about size 16.

Fashion models of the past look big, compared to today's hungry-looking striders down the catwalk. And it is odd that, in an era when the admired look is pathologically thin, we have more obese people than ever before.Given the recent study that demonstrated the negative effect of 'fat-shaming' (those who were abused found it much harder to lose weight than people whose own efforts were encouraged and supported) perhaps our culture of 'fat-shaming' is one factor in what we are seeing. Clearly, sugar added to ready meals, and advertising of unhealthy food and drink are also major contributors. Also, we should not forget that for some people, size is not down uncontrolled appetites but to illness. But when unhealthy thinness is paraded as an ideal, and magazines attack celebrities for being slim rather than stick-thin - women in particular are being told that their body is not 'good enough', and that induces despair and hitting the doughnuts.

On quite a different topic - Hilary Mantel is attacked for writing a story about a fantasy attempt on Margaret Thatcher's life. Various Tory politicians want the police sicked onto her (not sure if that is the right spelling, but it seems appropriate.) This is incredible, and smacks of the Thought Police. Thatcher is dead, for God's sake, she never did get assassinated, anyway. So need we beware of what we write now, for fear of the police, even when we are writing about history?


Kate Lord Brown said...

Do remember thinking when I was researching the ATA how tiny the uniforms were, and how much bigger (taller as well) our generations are. Just reading all of Elizabeth David's books and it's mentioned again and again what a technicolor burst of colour her food writing was into cooking in the 50s. And Rubenesque - indeed, just think of his painting of his fur-draped young bride, revelling in every inch of well upholstered flesh!

Leslie Wilson said...

I think that is partly what confuses, though - size 12 is bigger if you are shorter. But people's sizes under rationing represent the sizes of people who, perforce, have stuck to their reducing diet!

Sue Purkiss said...

Why is Rosie Boycott a food adviser? I thought she used to be a journalist?

Our junior school dinners were really good. But once someone put salt in a jam roly poly by mistake instead of sugar, and the nasty teacher on our table made us eat it all anyway. Never could face it after that.

I don't know if people were thinner then, but sizings have certainly changed. A 12 used to be 34" 24" 36" - a 12 now is certainly bigger than that, particularly on the waist!

Susan Price said...

Completely agree with all you say, Leslie. So much nonsense is talked about food, nutrition (not always the same thing) and weight.

If everyone was so slim before the present day, why was 'Banting' all the rage in the 1860s? Banting was an obese man who devised the first ever 'low-carb' diet and wrote a book about it, which was a huge best-seller.

My mother's side of the family were all quite slim - mostly, I think, because in their chaotic household, they hardly ate and lived on sugary tea. When my mother married, and started eating regular meals with my father, she soon put on weight.

My father's side of the family were all very large - both tall and wide. Some were certainly obese.

So, as you say, this myth that's being pushed, 'that everyone ate well and was slim' in the past is just that - a myth.

Leslie Wilson said...

I used to have a 25 inch waist till I had my first daughter in 1977, and was a size 12, and often the waists were a bit big on me. When are you thinking of, Sue, that size 12 meant a 24 inch waist? It is curious, though, that waists have definitely got bigger. Both of my daughters are slim (except in the months after childbirth)- and yet they exclaim at my one-time 25 inch waist. However, one must remember that women in the '40s and '50s routinely wore corsets, which meant they could squeeze into smaller sizes, maybe. It was the '60s generation that ditched them, though they have made a come-back in the guise of figure-controlling garments..However, it was also in the '60s that Twiggy came along and made extreme thinness desirable. Oh, I did resent that!

Unknown said...

Size 12 was a 24 inch waist and that was quite normal for young women in the Sixties. I'm still a size 12 fifty years later but my waist is a good 6 inches thicker, so that's how much sizing has changed. We were thinner, not because we eat less but because we walked more and quite often lived in very cold houses which shivered off the calories!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I believe Marilyn Monroe was size 16. Nuff said. :-)

Those school dinners sound disgusting. We never had anything like that here, by the way. Kids brought their own lunches or bought them from the school canteen. I remember the differences in lunches depending on what your cultural background was. We did get milk in primary school, before the program was cut back by a government that didn't want to spend the money any more.

Leslie Wilson said...

You are younger than me, I think. I had to drink unrefrigerated school milk till I was in the 6th form. It was yucky!

Ann Turnbull said...

The size 12 with the 24" waist was back in the 1950s and 60s, Leslie. And it had no lee-way - I was nearer 25" and found nearly all waistbands too tight! I seem to remember that in many clothes there were just three sizes: was it W ("Women's" - old size 12), M, and OS? OS was the offensively-named "Outsize" - i.e. anything bigger than about 38" bust!

But the thing about waists is: where have they gone? I always thought your waist was the narrowest bit in the middle - quite easy to find. But nowadays catalogues have to tell you how to find your waist; the latest one I read said you should measure yourself around the level of the navel - now that will add inches!

But Leslie, I don't think ANY of the people in your photographs are fat!

Leslie Wilson said...

My waist was definitely smaller than 24 inches in the 50s, for I was less than ten! Maybe it was 23 and a half in the later 60s, then, and my mother's was 22. She was very slim..
Stout, I think, is the right word for Great-grandma Curran. But none of the 'girls' my husband's great aunts, has a tiny waist.
Measuring round the navel? Strewth, no wonder the measurements for sizes have got bigger. What an odd notion of anatomy!!