Diet & the 1920s Reducing Craze

Origins of the Craze

In a general sense the term “reducing” in the twenties meant the physical reduction of the body and the attempt to create a smaller self. In other words, it meant dieting and losing weight to become thin. The “reducing craze” and the need to “reduce one’s shape” implied an attempt to create a standardized and thin figure that was in line with the fashion of the period. Between 1900 and 1920 an obsession over fat and physical culture in the United States developed as a result of a number of historical factors. This obsession, later deemed "Reduceomania" by Photoplay magazine, was paralleled by changes in the ideal standards of beauty for women, industrialism, the emergence of a consumer culture, and the rise of the Hollywood star system.

An advertisement for Dr. Grahams Neutroid pills. 1927.
Click to enlarge.

Between 1880 and 1920 industrialization and the rise of the modern age brought revolutionary change to America. Innovations such as modern transportation in the car and streetcar, entertainment for the masses in film, new household innovations such as indoor plumbing, heaters, and the telephone, all revolutionized life for Americans.[1] The abundance and prosperity the country enjoyed as by-products of industrialization also caused concern because of the potential dangers1. of inefficiency and overproduction.[2] The body and the dangers of fat were discussed in relation to these dangers brought on by industrialism and mechanization. The body was seen as an entity that, in the words of historian Roberta Pollack, needed to be “as efficient, as effective, as economical, and as beautiful as the sleek new machines, as the rationalized workplace.”[3]

The reducing craze marks the widespread acceptance and implementation of these new ideas in popular magazines, specifically the Hollywood fan magazine. These developments are fundamental to understanding the emergence in the 1920s of the reducing craze and the distinct shift in the discussion of the body in fan magazines, which takes place in the late 1920s.[4] The ideas associated with the reducing craze permeated society from the early to mid-1920s but began to fall out of favor in the late 1920s.

As Peter Stearns discusses in his work Fat History, the slender figure began to come into style around 1890 and the uncorsetted body became popular among women. The new fashion of the period, which stressed tighter clothing, encouraged a slender figure. As this style became popular, public discourse and comment on weight and the body became more common. The body, and fat specifically, was discussed widely in the media and many began to associate fat with poor health and poor morals. Obesity began to be seen as a health risk and Stearns argues that the growing number of physicians and faddists helped to create the “growing cult of hostility to fat.”[5] Stearns asserts that doctors “echoed some of the disgust that the new popular perceptions of fat had involved, anchored by a revulsion against lack of self-control. They mirrored and doubtless encouraged, the emotional or ethical side of the revulsion against overweight.”[6] Fat was associated with laziness and the absence of restraint, both symptoms of an alarming decline of traditional Victorian morals. A good body was “defined by self-restraint and was a vital sign of moral quality.”[7] The anxiety about fat that existed in the early 1900s led to the creation of a powerful culture that was focused on fat in 1920s.

Reducing, in the 1920s sense of the term, implied an attempt to create a smaller, standardized, thin figure. The figure was meant to be pleasing the male gaze, regardless of the emotional impact these attempts had on women.[8] Reducing used methods that sought to medicalize and internalize the attempt to create a figure that fit the model of the ideal woman in this period. The quest to reduce was focused on achieving an external beauty through artificial means rather than achieving an overall healthy body through exercise and good diet.

Changes in the New Woman

This period was also marked by changes in the ideal type of beauty and body type for women. The “Gibson Girl,” whose image was first drawn on the cover of Life magazine by Charles Dana Gibson in the late 1890s, first exemplified the “New Woman.” Although she still wore the corset, the Gibson Girl began to represent a new ideal for the female body. The “Gibson Girl” became the archetype of the “New Woman” from 1890 to sometime around 1913. Carolyn Kitch asserts in her work The Girl on the Magazine Cover, that the New Woman "conveyed new social, political, and economic possibilities for womanhood. At many historical moments she seemed merely to “mirror” what was happening in society. Yet she also served as a model for that society and as a cultural commentator through whom certain ideals came to seem ‘natural’ in real life."[9]

Gibson Girl 'pin-ups' at the beach.
Click to enlarge.

The Gibson Girl was symbolic of the wholesome and healthy American woman. In appearance, she was said to be “tall and commanding, with thick dark hair swept upward in the prevailing pompadour style. Her figure was thinner than that of the voluptuous woman, but she remained large of bosom and hips.”[10] She was very much the image of an elite woman. However, she reflected the values and aspirations that the feminist movement of the era sought for women. Scholars have argued that in the 1890s, the Gibson Girl “was identified with physical emancipation through sports, exercise, and dress.”[11] By 1900, however, she had become associated with a group of feminists who were “demanding more freedom in areas of personal behavior and sensual expression.”[12] Developments in the push for women’s emancipation and the realities of an evolving modern society were paralleled by changes in the New Woman. The Gibson Girl began to fall out of style around 1913 because the image no longer represented changing standards of behavior for young women. The period between 1913 and the early 1920s was a transition period between the Gibson Girl and the emerging “Flapper.” In American Beauty, Lois Banner asserts that by 1913 “the appearance of the flapper marked the fruition of a sensual revolution among American women that had begun in the 1890s and that the Gibson girl image could only partly accommodate.”[13] Elements of a proto-Flapper began to appear in 1913, but did not become popular or clearly defined until the 1920s.

The New Woman defined equality not as political rights or economic opportunities but as something more subtle and more threatening: freedom—the right to self-expression, self-determination, and personal satisfaction.

~Paula Fass

The flapper, who is described by historian Lois Banner as “a small flirtatious, sometimes boyish, sometimes voluptuous model of beauty,” became the dominant image of the New Woman in the 1920s and represented a younger generation of women with new and different expectations and definitions of women’s emancipation.[14] Paula Fass has argued that young and modern women in the 1920s did not embrace feminism as older women had defined it, but instead “defined equality not as political rights or economic opportunities but as something more subtle and more threatening: freedom—the right to self-expression, self-determination, and personal satisfaction.”[15] After women won the vote in 1920, organized political movements by feminists seemed to be unnecessary and outdated. The new ideals of equality that were embraced by young women were not based in legal or political change. Their ideal of change and freedom, through “expression” and “personal satisfaction,” dominated the culture of the 1920s and contributed to the outward appearance of a culture of excess. These values dominated the culture of the 1920s and were reflected in the image of the Flapper.[16]

When the New Woman’s image shifted from the Gibson Girl to the Flapper, ideas about the body also shifted. The voluptuous woman faded and a new boyish figure came into style. The changes in the “New Woman” and the ideal body type as defined by the Flapper were paralleled by the development of a public discourse on fat. These two historical developments helped to create and define the culture of reducing and the “reducing craze” in the early 1920s. Ullback began her business as the reducing craze reached its height and her methods stood in direct opposition to those of the craze.


1. Roberta Pollack Seid, Never Too Thin: Why Women Are at War with Their Bodies, 1st ed. (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1989), 82.
2. Ibid., 82–3.
3. Ibid., 83.
4. For more information on the causes see: Addison, Hollywood and the Rise of Physical Culture; Seid, Never Too Thin; Stearns, Fat History; Schwartz, Never Satisfied.
5. Stearns, Fat History, 47.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid., 53.
8. Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (Macmillan, 1989).
9. Carolyn L. Kitch, The Girl on the Magazine Cover: The Origins of Visual Stereotypes in American Mass Media, Kindle Edition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), Loc. 163.
10. Banner, American Beauty, 238.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid, 239.
14. Ibid.
15. Paula S. Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920’s, Kindle Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), Loc. 230, Kindle Edition.
16. Ibid., Loc. 230; Banner, American Beauty.