In the second decade of the 20th Century, American society was steeped in the opulence and hedonism of the ‘Roaring 20s’. The Great War was over and economic progress had returned big time to the United States. The zeitgeist was the closest Americans came to the French joie de vivre.
According to some sociologists, the generation during that time (the Crisis stage) was the artist group. The 1920s gave birth to bohemians and flappers, so it would indeed appear that the authors were right.
The flapper, described as a young girl on the verge of womanhood, were idealized as a very thin, small breasted, narrow hipped female who wore tight fitting clothing and exuded constant joy and amazement and who loved to party. The lifestyle was best captured in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tragic novel ‘The Great Gatsby’.
The term Flapper first surfaced in Britain after World War I and, according to a dictionary definition, it became associated with the young girls similarity to the “fledgling [bird], yet in the nest, and vainly attempting to fly while its wings have only pinfeathers”.
Atlas Obscura reports that the required body image of the Flapper, a look now seen as “lean and androgynous”, necessitated a diet that became the first ‘fad’.
The Flapper eagerly threw off the fashion of the prior generation, whose clothing was designed for a plump-corseted female figure hidden beneath flowing attire.
Instead, the Flapper would don often skin-tight skirts and blouses that could only be fit into with the help of a draconian dietary regime.
“Suddenly, raw vegetables were in vogue…consumption of potatoes had diminished, while students were eating more celery, tomatoes, and lettuce. [P]eople followed the Hollywood 18-Day Diet—a prototype of modern fads. Inspired by the burgeoning film industry, they ate only oranges, grapefruit, toast, and eggs.”
The movies, which made their debut in the 20s, depicted actresses of petite frame freewheeling about with rich men, cigarette and/or cocktail in hand. The media image had women rushing to emulate the silver screen goddesses.
Cigarette advertisements often included young, thin girls encouraging women to take up smoking. Obscura notes one such ad from Lucky Strike brandishing the slogan, “To keep a slender figure no one can deny. Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” One of the defining traits of the Flapper women from their predecessors was their nearly constant smoking.
Another dietary shortcut used by women were drugs like cocaine. In fact, the Roaring 20s were largely fueled by coke, cigarettes and alcohol. When combined with radical dieting, the results were often tragic.
“Barbara La Marr, who epitomized flapperdom’s wild side,” writes Obscura, “died at age 29 from a combination of drug addiction and extreme dieting.”
Critical voices of the fad diet did arise, but thanks to a best-selling book called ‘Diet & Health: With Key to the Calories’ authored by Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters, those voices were largely expunged.
Peters encouraged women to continue dieting and was the first widely-read author to posit the supposed dangers of a calorie-rich diet.
Peters noted in her book, “Any food eaten beyond what your system requires for its energy, growth, and repair, is fattening, or is an irritant, or both.”
As quickly as she arrived on the scene, the Flapper quickly departed. The Roaring 20s preceded the devastating shock of the Great Depression and then the decimating conflagration of the Second World War.
One could argue that her like would not be seen again until the ‘Flower Child’ of the 1960s, a time ironically in sync with the preceding Crisis stage in American history.
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