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From Robust Appetites to Calorie Counting: The Emergence of Dieting among Smith College Students in the 1920s Margaret A. Lowe On October 29,1924 the Smith College Weekly published a letter to the editor entitled, "To Diet or Not to Die Yet?" Three students warned the campus community: "If preventive measures against strenuous dieting are not taken soon, Smith College will become notorious, not for the sylph-like forms but for the haggard faces and dull, listless eyes of her students."1 In striking contrast to previous generations of Smith students, dieting to lose weight, or "reducing" as it was more commonly called, had infiltrated women's daily lives.2 Although the prevalence of dieting among Smith students is difficult to determine in the post-World War I college environment, it clearly emerged as a tool utilized by Smith women to shape their appearance. Few historians have directly analyzed questions of diet, and body image, and none have specifically addressed dieting among college women, but historians have produced significant research on the history of women in higher education, the history of fashion, beauty, and health ideals, and the history of nutrition. Further, historians have recently turned their attention to the history of the body and new scholarship does examine the history of dieting practices. Historians of women's education have thoroughly documented women's entry into higher education and the challenges they posed to traditional notions of femininity. While some education historians have investigated the ways in which this challenge was filtered through debates about the female body, they have not analyzed the effect of those debates on college women's attitudes toward their bodies.3 Scholars have chronicled idealized images of female beauty and costume historians have documented fashion trends, but their work has relied primarily on prescriptive literature.4 They have documented idealized images of female beauty rather than the daily social and bodily practices that women employed to create their appearance. Historians of the body, on the other hand, have challenged scholars to understand the body as a social construct which changes over time, but they too have relied primarily on discourse analysis.5 My detailed study of Smith College students' dieting practices furthers the analysis: it delineates the relationship between cul- © 1995 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 7 No. 4 (Winter) 38 Journal of Women's History Winter rural discourses about the female body and women's attitudes towards their bodies, and traces the "historical moment" when dieting became integral to college women's conceptions of their bodies and a tool for changing them. Most historians who have explored the history of dieting date its onset to the mid- or late nineteenth century. Keith Waiden and T. J. Jackson Lears have both suggested that its roots lay in nineteenth-century industrialization and modernization rather than gender or class differentiation.6 As the United States became more urban, fast-paced, and homogeneous, they argued, men and women found that one way to stem anxiety amidst disorder was to exert control over their bodies. Hillel Schwartz, in his wide-ranging cultural history of dieting, determined that while "each epoch has had different tolerances for weight and for fatness, since the 1880s, those tolerances have grown especially narrow."7 Schwartz supported Waiden and Lears' theses that industrialization augmented the emergence of dieting. He concluded that "slimming... [was] the modern expression of an industrial society confused by its own desires and therefore never satisfied."8 Historians Roberta Seid and Joan Brumberg have most thoroughly documented dieting for aesthetic purposes as a twentieth-century phenomenon . Unlike scholars who have dated the proliferation of dieting to the mid- or late nineteenth century, Roberta Seid located the "first significant thinness craze as between 1919 and 1935"—the same years that dieting emerged among Smith students.9 Joan Brumberg dated the onset of modem dieting a bit earlier. She determined that "within the first two decades of the twentieth century, . . . the voice of American women revealed that the female struggle with weight was already underway."10 While Brumberg demonstrated that dieting information permeated popular literature prior to World War I, she also suggested that "in the 1920s, the imperative to diet intensified."11...

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