Diet & the 1920s Reducing Craze

The Rise of "Reduceosanity"

Rejecting the Craze
"Wholesale Murder & Suicide"
Explore Rejections to the Craze

As early as 1925 the American Medical Association (AMA) began to investigate the companies who advertised reducing aids and began to push for reducing techniques and diets that relied on safer methods. The head of the AMA, Wendell C. Phillips, argued that women were negatively influenced by the fashion of the period and the body ideal of the Flapper. In 1926, the first “Adult Weight Conference” was held and medical professionals gathered to discuss the methods used to reduce. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported, "A few weeks ago there was gathered in New York a body of scientists to discuss how woman can keep her boyish figure without endangering health. The conference was called by officials of the American Medical Association at the request of a popular woman’s magazine deluged with requests on how to reduce weight."[1] The conference exposed the methods through which women were reducing, including “diet, drugs, pills, and a rolling and steaming process” and the dangerous medical and mental implications of these methods such as “nervous breakdowns, lung infections and numerous other complaints.”[2] The advertisements for the pills, creams and contraptions of the reducing craze were connected with scams and quacks that put women’s health at risk. One article declared:

Madame Stylish Stout, the jig is up. You and your Friend Husband, who have been under the fond delusion that you could wash, cat, or rub away those irritating extra pounds of avoirdupois, have been, in the phraseology of Dr. Arthur J. Cramp, director of the Bureau of Investigation of the American Medical Association, kidded by experts. You have been dancing while an army of quacks fiddled.[3]

The article continued by asserting that Dr. Cramp’s investigation of unethical medical practice revealed that women were giving in to fashion and taking extraordinary measures to mold their bodies to fit the Flapper standard. The article explained, "The string bean, hipless, boyish figure Dame Fashion has demanded of her devotees these latter season, be declared, has been a wonderful stimulus to this brand of quackery. And invariably it is the under-exercised and overfed heavyweight who thinks that somewhere there must be a panacea which, without effort on her part, will permit her to achieve such a figure.[4]

The string bean, hipless, boyish figure Dame Fashion has demanded of her devotees these latter season, be declared, has been a wonderful stimulus to this brand of quackery.

Discussion over these issues continued in the press and a new method of reducing through diet and exercise was stressed. Furthermore, doctors continually associated the development of these techniques with the image of the flapper and women’s quest for beauty and style. A doctor at the Adult Weight conference was quoted as explaining that he did not completely blame women for they “were trying to realize an ideal; because they have a laudable desire for beauty and because they show a willingness to curb their natural appetites for the fattening things.”[5] However, all of the doctors at the conference agreed that the radical techniques had serious health consequences for women in both the short and long term. A doctor from Columbia University criticized women and claimed “by absurd reducing methods, women make themselves incapable of motherhood, or, of healthy offspring.”[6] Reducing, according to this article undermined traditional gender roles in the sense that it threatened motherhood. This new discourse and the condemnation of the excessive reducing techniques that originated from the AMA continued to spread via the press. This discourse marked the beginning of the end for the reducing craze.

Soon after the AMA began to publicly and proactively denounce these reducing scams, products, quacks, and techniques, popular periodicals began to get on board with the message. The AMA’s Bureau of Investigation had begun conducting inquiries into companies that sold fake or dangerous products. They also began to look into the magazines that sold these companies advertisement space. At the threat of investigation many magazines began to cooperate with the AMA. In 1925 the Bureau of Investigation began looking at Photoplay and as a result of this pressure the magazine began to change its policy toward these advertisements.[7]

Catherine Brody, a famous newspaper and
magazine writer, was commissioned by James
Quirk, the editor of Photoplay Magazine,
to investigate "the perils of reducing now
confronting America".

In July 1926, Photoplay published the first of a three-part series entitled “Wholesale Murder and Suicide.” The editor, James R. Quirk, announced that Photoplay had launched a national investigation led by Catherine Brody, a popular New York journalist, into the “menaces of Reduceomania.”[8] In the first article she asserted:

In these days of the boyish figure, however, reducing has come to be more than an idea. It is even more than a fad, doctors say. It is a mania. The word, reduceomania has been coined by Photoplay to describe it. Reducing methods, by medicine and otherwise, do more than exist. They increase and multiply day to day and year to year.[9]

Brody explains to readers that following several deaths Photoplay commissioned her to conduct an investigation into how women were reducing and the dangers associated with the techniques. The death of one of the most popular silent era actresses is mentioned at the forefront. Barbara La Marr, the article claims, had taken a thyroid treatment to try to lose weight. Brody states that she became ill while taking the treatment and contracted tuberculosis, which caused her death. Whether or not La Marr’s thyroid treatments contributed to her death was never proved. Yet the article vows to investigate and offer answers as to “how women were reducing, what dangers their methods held, especially when they used internal medicines, how they should reduce, if at all, and what healthy standards existed for them to follow.”[10] The article represented a turning point in the discussion of the body in fan magazines. “Wholesale Murder and Suicide” was the first explicit condemnation of these techniques in Photoplay and the first to directly connect reducing to women’s desires to achieve beauty like the film stars.The article warned women “the quick road to slimness is the quick road to neurasthenia, hypothyroidism, Bright’s disease, hysteria, heart palpitations, tuberculosis, colitis, and possible death.”[11] The article sought to make it clear that the ingredients in any internal reducing treatment were dangerous, even deadly, and could lead to a host of medical issues.

Brody consulted several doctors and reported their advice on what they regarded as “sane” reducing methods. When asked if there was a reasonable and safe way to reduce, Dr. Sadler reported, “Work, exercise and sane diet are the best reducers, but in absolutely every case diet should be an individual thing, laid out for each patient, for everyone is a law unto himself.”[12] Furthermore the article took a new stance on reducing by blaming the individual for excessive weight, arguing that being “fat” was due to a lack of effort and in most cases not something that could be fixed overnight. Another doctor was quoted as saying “it is the overfed, under-exercised individual who thinks that somewhere there must be a process that, without effort or self-denial, will transform stylish stouts into boyish form.”[13] The “stylish” body, according to Brody, was the “boyish figure,” clearly a reference to the Flapper. The article moved beyond just criticizing reducing techniques by condemning women’s quest to achieve the lifestyle and look associated with the flapper. The article explained:

Just how reduceomania has come to be is a hopeless question. Did the popularity of the straight up and down, one-piece frock in America make the boyish figure an ideal for women of all ages? Was it envy and the desire to emulate the corsetless, pliant, bob-haired flapper? Many people blame the movies for this and as for other sins . . . No matter what the cause, the big parade of women who want to be fashionably thin and do not stop to reason why or even how has been increasing.[14]

“Wholesale Murder and Suicide” was the start of a shift in ideas about reducing and a new focus on dieting through hard work and exercise.

The truth is, there is no ideal figure. There are only stylish figures, the human body attempting every few years to follow new fashion. Thus the tragedy of reduceomania that is sweeping this country.

~Catherine Brody

The second installment of “Wholesale Murder and Suicide” was published in August 1926. Photoplay asserted boldly on the first page, “To back up its fight to protect the health of the womanhood of the nation, Photoplay refuses to admit to its advertising columns any internal reducing preparations or questionable methods of removing fat.”[15] This claim was made probably to satisfy the AMA and its investigators. Photoplay did ban all internal reducing products, but also continued to run ads for gimmicks and products such as reducing stockings, pamphlets that promised to send the reader the “secret” to weight loss, and contraptions that claimed to increase circulation. Nevertheless, advertisements for these sorts of products steadily decreased in the following years.[16]

Reducing advertisements and their health claims were not the focus of the second installment. Instead, the focus was a discussion of the ideal figure for women. Brody explained to readers, “the truth is there is no ideal figure. There are only stylish figures, the human body attempting every few years to follow new fashion. Thus the tragedy of reduceomania that is sweeping this country.”[17] The article urges women to adopt “Reduceosanity” and the “honest methods by which the too fat women may cure obesity.”[18] The article reassured readers that there was no ideal figure and they should strive to achieve a well-proportioned body instead of trying to be fashionable. Photoplay’s assertion that there was no ideal figure was far from the dominant cultural message of the period and it signaled an important change in the discussion of the female body.

The final article in the series included images
of various reducing exercises.

The last article in the series was entitled “The Happy Ending of Wholesale Murder and Suicide.” For the first time in Photoplay, women were given specific reducing exercises. Brody tells readers “As this is the final article in the series, I am going to give it a happy ending by showing you the correct way of reducing is infinitely pleasanter and more satisfactory than the dangerous ‘get slim quick’ methods.”[19] The article aims to show how exercise along with a healthy diet can reduce in a safer and more effective manner. The focus of this article is, in essence, what Ullback was practicing at the time and what she would argue when she later started writing. From 1926 until 1932, fan magazines would slowly begin to shift away from the radical reducing methods.[20] However, Photoplay did not continue to consistently publish the kind of argument seen in Brody’s articles. Columns featuring stars and their exercise routines and diets had occasionally appeared in the magazine, but it was not until Ullback began writing that the physical culture editorial began to appear regularly. Although Ullback never specifically mentioned these articles, they were significant in the sense that they signaled a shift in the popular perception of reducing techniques.

The final article in the series included images
of various reducing exercises.

Between 1926 and 1931 the number of dieting advertisements dropped significantly. Heather Addison argues “the reducing craze was curtailed by two factors: reducing ‘sanity’ and the great depression.”[21] Addison shows that in 1925 Photoplay published more than 135 advertisements for physical culture products. The number of advertisements fell significantly in the following year with only seventy-four advertisements in 1926 and thirty-nine in 1927. In the 1930s the number of advertisements in magazines dropped to less than one hundred and ranged between forty and eighty per issue. Addison argues that physical culture did not completely disappear in the thirties, but it was no longer a fad.[22] She contends that some advertisements continued to appear, but often these were ads on how to gain weight rather than how to lose it.


1.Antoinette Donnelly, “When Reducing Becomes a Mania: Disaster Is Usually the Result, and Science Is Called Upon for a Remedy,” Chicago Daily Tribune, April 11, 1926.
2.Ibid., C8.
3.“Warns You’ll Be Fat Forever, If You Trust Cures: Diet Doctor Brands Them Quackery,” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 14, 1925.
4.Ibid., 5.
5.Donnelly, “When Reducing Becomes a Mania: Disaster Is Usually the Result, and Science Is Called Upon for a Remedy.”
7.American Medical Association, Dept. of Investigation, “Records. Photoplay Magazine-Phylacogen (inclusive), 1903-1939,” n.d., American Medical Association, James S. Todd Memorial Library,
8.Catherine Brody, “Wholesale Murder and Suicide: Do You Know the Menace of Reduceomania?,” Photoplay, July 1926, 30.
9.Ibid., 31.
11.Ibid., 32.
12.Ibid., 31.
13.Ibid., 32. “Fat the Enemy That Is Shortening Your Life Banished! By Neutroids--Dr. Graham’s Famous Prescription,” 99.
14.Ibid., 33.
15.Catherine Brody, “Wholesale Murder and Suicide: Reduceomania Seeks the Ideal Figure at the Expense of Health and Even Life Itself,” Photoplay, August 1926, 36.
16.Addison, Hollywood and the Rise of Physical Culture, 151.
17.Brody, “Wholesale Murder and Suicide: Reduceomania Seeks the Ideal Figure at the Expense of Health and Even Life Itself,” 36–7.
18.Ibid., 37.
19.Catherine Brody, “The Happy Ending of Wholesale Murder and Suicide,” Photoplay, September 1926, 30.
20.Addison, Hollywood and the Rise of Physical Culture, 10.
21.Ibid., 151.