“All defects are in the nature of ugliness, but certain ones are more degrading than others; and of these obesity, which is a deformity, is signally ignoble.”
The Woman Beautiful, 1899.
During the early and mid-Victorian era, a great many health and beauty books echoed the popular 19th century sentiment that plumpness equaled good health. It was leanness, not heaviness, to which beauty experts directed the majority of their criticism. For example, in his 1870 book Personal Beauty: How to Cultivate and Preserve it in Accordance with the Laws of Health, author Daniel Brinton states that a “scrawny bony figure” is “intolerable to gods and men.” According to Brinton, the only occasion on which excessive leanness had ever been beneficial to a lady was in an encounter with a cannibal. As he explains:
“The only lady who we ever heard derived advantage from such an appearance was Madame Ida Pfeiffer. She relates that somewhere in her African travels the natives had a mind to kill and eat her, but she looked so unpalatably lean and tough that the temptation was not strong enough, and thus her life was saved.”
The 1840s ushered in an era of luridly illustrated gothic tales which were marketed to a working-class Victorian audience. These stories, told in installments and printed on inexpensive pulp paper, were originally only eight pages long and sold for just a penny – giving rise to the term “penny bloods” or “penny dreadfuls.” With titles such as Varney the Vampire and Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, these types of publications were wildly popular, especially with young male readers, and it was not long before the Victorian public began to make a connection between various juvenile crimes and misdemeanors and the consumption of this (allegedly) depraved material.[…]Continue Reading