Bonnie Downing collects vintage beauty guides, and this is her new column.
Some people get so touchy when they hear the truth — they'd rather be getting nothing but blind support and relentless, sugar-coated praise. Plus sugar-coated other things, too. Because those people, the ones who can’t take brave and brutal honesty? Those people are fat.
"If you have been ten pounds overweight for the last ten years, you are officially obese. How do you like the word obese? Doesn't that rock you?"
—Dorothy Seiffert, Beauty for the Mature Woman (1977)
That’s right, you. Not the girl next to you. Well her too, but mainly you. You’re fat and the sooner you admit that, the sooner you’ll accept the things you’ll never be, like a glamorous wearer of slacks.
"THE OVERWEIGHT WOMAN SHOULD NEVER WEAR SLACKS. The unfortunate part of wearing slacks is that we ourselves are never aware of just what we look like in them. Somehow the mirror does not show us the back view in its real appearance and perspective... never for a moment should she imagine that she looks cute in them or that they are acceptable apparel, because they are not. From the standpoint of glamour, they are poison."
—Margery Wilson, You're As Young As You Act (1951)
Still not convinced you’re exactly the sort of gal America doesn’t want to see in slacks, much less on prime time television? God, just face it.
“There are the cheetahs of the world and the hippopotami. Much to my chagrin, I was built for the herd — one year of negligence and you would find me by the riverbank, shifting my bulk in a vast hippopotamus sprawl!”
—Luciana Avedon, The Beautiful People’s Diet Book (1973)
Even the herd thinks you’re fat. Here’s some raw honesty from a member of Luciana’s own herd:
"I'm a happier person when I'm thinner," says bright, pretty Jori Pepper... “I'm surer of myself. When you wake up heavy, all you want to do is roll over and go back to sleep."
But don’t do that. There’s no time! You must get up and get to work on yourself. Every single part of yourself. Including parts you can’t easily see.
“To make a perfect job of back beautifying, determine first whether you are ‘Blimpy,’ or ‘Bumpy.’
If you are ‘Blimpy,’ it means that disfiguring rolls of fat are obstructing the natural contour lines... bulging out from behind brassiere straps and over the top of your girdle. Your effort must be to reduce and bring back firm, solid flesh.
If you are ‘Bumpy,’ your protruding ribs will make your back look like a xylophone. In this case, exercise and figure molding will tend to level off the back lines with a proper padding of muscle tissue.”
—Joe Bonomo, Reduce and Beautify Your Figure (1954)
What, you like your back just the way it is? No, that's not all right. Are you even listening to me? I don’t know where people in this country get off just choosing their own body types, campaigning to make them acceptable, inventing newer, larger ones all the time. NO.
"One has to make her own body as nearly as possible like the classic models, by exercise, by diet, by every healthful process, or, as a last resort, to stimulate corresponding proportions by every harmless device of art in clothing."
—Francis Mary Steele and Elizabeth Livingston Steele Adams, Beauty of Form and Grace of Vesture (1892)
That right there is some timeless advice. And almost a hundred years later, it was still recognized as inarguable wisdom (Helen Gurley Brown didn’t build an empire by going in for any of the trendy acceptance bullshit):
"... You must at least create the illusion of beauty by acting beautiful.
You don't have to lie your head off and say I am, I am, I am when you know damn well you aren't — a stunner. But you must love yourself enough to employ every device... voice, words, clothes, figure, make-up... to become one.”
—Helen Gurley Brown, Sex and the Single Girl (1962)
You think our media culture’s standards of beauty are too narrow? That we should recognize the beauty of curves? What is wrong with you? I mean, besides your obvious weight problem. Again from HGB:
“You have only to look at one of the most beautiful women in the world — Elizabeth Taylor — when she is twenty pounds overweight (as she occasionally is) and compare her to the goddess she is when she is sleeked down to a size ten. Even her beauty can't survive runaway fat."
Gross, what’s so sleek about a size ten? And don’t you even start with that tired crap about not being able to lose weight for medical reasons.
"A great number of overweight women and men have really sold themselves the idea that they are persecuted by Nature in that everything they eat turns to fat. Their friends have given them sympathy over this sad plight.
But the fact in case is that such fat people during the war in countries where food was not available to satisfy their appetites, rapidly lost weight. Unless there is a definite glandular disturbance, which happens only in one out of a hundred thousand cases of overweight, the fat in the body is in ratio to the food intake and there is no other way around it.
THERE ARE NO OVERWEIGHT PEOPLE IN PRISON CAMPS."
—Margery Wilson, You're As Young As You Act: A Manual of Moods, Movements, and Mannerisms (1951)
Let me guess, large-framed, big-boned? I can clear up that fantasy for you right quick.
"Big or small bones don't make as much difference as we would like to think. Bones weigh roughly one-sixth of your weight. They can give you an alibi for about 7 pounds at the most."
—Bronwen Meredith, Vogue Body and Beauty Book (1977)
One more thing. I bet you thought hanging out with even fatter losers makes you look slim by comparison. You could not be any less right (or any less slim).
"LET’S STUDY OUR GENERAL AFFECT, AS YOU ARE NOW. Arrange to study yourself before a large mirror. Is your walk that of a fat woman or a thin one? The effect is unmistakable.
One of my clients was a very thin woman, thin to the point of scrawniness. During the lesson I had her walk up and down the room while I studied her. Her walk puzzled me. I couldn’t make it out. Finally it dawned on me that she walked as a fat woman walks. Slyly I said, “You have a fat friend, haven’t you?” She stopped and turned a shining face to me “Yes, did you see me with her?” She evidently loved and admired her friend very much. “No,” I answered. “I didn’t see you with her, but I see her with you right now. You have her walk, copied no doubt, unconsciously, because of your great affection for her. And so it goes for all of us.
WE HAVE ACQUIRED OUR MANNERISMS — WE MAY AS WELL ACQUIRE THE ONES WE WANT...”
—Margery Wilson, You’re As Young As You Act (1951)
So now you understand. Get thin. Dress even thinner. Think thin. Walk thin. And for God’s sake don’t allow yourself the indulgence of affection for fat friends. I hope you don’t believe you can make the required changes simply by ohhh walking a little more, eating little less? Evil cackle! You need a draconian regime that combines self-abuse with surprisingly hard-to-prove science. Those diet and exercise tips are to come, but here’s a good place to start:
"If you like liquor, have it straight. Mixed drinks add calories and fluid. A straight whiskey will get you where you want to be as quick as a Manhattan, and you'll be thinner when you get there."
—Polly Bergen, Polly's Principles (1974)
Sinister beauty expert Bonnie Downing collected tips like these in her first book, Peculiar Beauty: Three Centuries of Charmingly Absurd Advice. Now she's writing a book about animals and needs a new agent. You can find her at peculiarbeauty.com and in Brooklyn.