Currently Reading: Hollywood Diet and Fitness

If you are looking for new diet ideas, this is not the book for you.  But if you are interested in the pressures put on actresses from the 1920s through the 1960s, this book, Hollywood Diet and Fitness, gives a good but disturbing look at the lengths the studios went to in order to ensure their stars remained slim.

The 1920s silhouette was slim and boyish, and few women, including actresses, typified the ideal.  In order to appear as thin as possible, diets were concocted, including the popular lamb chop and pineapple diet.  A day’s diet would be three grilled chops, five slices of canned pineapple, three cups of coffee and one cup of tea.

Besides extreme dieting, actresses in the 1920s and 1930s turned to fitness “experts” like Sylvia Ullback, who was a masseuse who claimed she could squeeze and beat the pounds off the body.  According to articles in magazines like Photoplay, Madame Sylvia worked miracles with stars such as Carole Lombard.

There were some actresses of the 1920s and 1930s who were naturally athletic, and so the struggle was a bit easier for them.  Women like Greta Garbo followed the dictates of early personal trainers like Gayelord Hauser.  Some of the advice was surprisingly accurate.  Doctor Henry Bieler taught that eating the wrong foods could lead to disease, like allergies, heart disease, and obesity.

Unfortunately, there was plenty of incorrect and dangerous advice and there were even procedures like an early form of liposuction.  Because of weight clauses in contracts where an actress had to keep her weight below a certain level or face dismissal, some women were ready to try almost anything to keep the weight off.  Some actresses turned to pills and to smoking to curb the appetite.

By the 1940s curves were once again fashionable, but that did not mean plump curves.  Women stars were expected to fill out a bathing suit in all the right places, but in none of the wrong ones.   Actresses turned to calisthenics to help tone the body and control weight.  Only the dancers who were getting plenty of exercise just from their work seemed not to have to be constantly worrying about their weight.

The 1950s brought a new idea, that of counting calories.  Magazines published the diets of the stars, and advocated exercise like that of TV fitness leader, Jack LaLanne.

Even a naturally thin woman like Audrey Hepburn watched what she ate.  However, her approach seems to be a bit different.  Audrey grew up in the Netherlands during World War II, and as a teen often did not get enough to eat.  This left her with a more healthy respect for food, and with a small appetite.

There is a lot written today about how celebrities have such a huge influence when it comes to fashion, diet, and appearance.  Author Laura Slater gets the point across that this is nothing new.  Through the medium of magazines it was easy for the average woman to know how the stars dressed and dieted.

Hollywood Diet and Fitness is a fun and quick read, but there is an extensive bibliography and the book is well researched.  I appreciated the inclusion of period magazine articles, even though I did have to get out the magnifying glass in order to read them.  I also loved that I had never seen many of the photos before.  So many times we see the same old famous celebrity photographs over and over.  Slater did a great job in locating pictures that are not so often seen.

My thanks to the publisher, Plexus Books, for providing me with a review copy.

Correction:  An earlier version of this post incorrectly placed Audrey in Belgium during WWII.  She was actually in the Netherlands for most of the war years.


Filed under Currently Reading

12 responses to “Currently Reading: Hollywood Diet and Fitness

  1. Christina

    Does the book address eating disorders? The pressures to conform to the demands of the industry – how an actor looks in front of the camera was very prevalent as you imply.


  2. Thanks for the exercise article, Lizzie, my friend…..It gave me a “guilt trip”… I stopped reading the rest of the blog….went right to my living room floor, where I was suppose to do my today’s exercises (for which I had earilier made an excuse, NOT to do ! )

    Actually, THANKS,

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Fascinating stuff Lizzie. I’m sure Hollywood hasn’t changed much with regards to attaining the ‘body beautiful’.


  4. This is really interesting; I hope I can pick up this book soon! I think for some reason we get the idea that women back then were shaped how they were more effortlessly than us today. Although some things were probably easier (their quality of food was probably better), they still had to work and even do some risky things to get those rare figures!


  5. A second book in this series is coming out in a few months as well that focuses more on makeup and beauty. Your review was great, now I think I’ll have to grab both!



  6. Your statement regarding early 20th century dancers not worrying as much about their weight is spot-on.
    My husband’s grandmother was born in 1910. In her later years (she died at 92), when asked by the doctor if she had a good appetite, she would reply, “Doctor, I eat like a chorus girl!” Always got a smile out of the doc and the nurse. 🙂
    I just found your blog via Google. Really enjoy the mix of art/illustration, history, culture and fashion!


  7. Renée Rotthier

    I had seen this book but didn’t expect it to be that interesting. Added to my reading list! A small correction by the way, Audrey spend WW2 in the Netherlands, in Arnhem to be precise, not Belgium 🙂


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