How 1918 Style Weight Control will make you Slim and Happy

Annette Kellerman 1919
Annette Kellerman exiting "Yellow Cab" taxi-cab, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1919

A weight controlled Annette Kellerman exiting “Yellow Cab” taxi-cab, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1919 By C.J. Hibbard of Minneapolis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As you know, I am writing a book which I am calling Build Your Signature Wardrobe. It draws against advice and purchasing statistics from the early twentieth century, a time when buying clothes took place within a medium to long term outlook. Suggestions from the period are in the three to five-year time frame depending on who you are (and what you do). So with that in mind, it makes sense that you need to think about weight control and how to maintain your body shape so that your clothes will fit you for the duration as well.

For that I’ taking you back to 1918, to a book written by Annette Kellerman; champion swimmer and diver, the first woman to attempt to swim the English Channel, vaudeville actress, silent movie star and health food store proprietor. For our purposes, she wrote a book called Physical Beauty: How to keep it, and the above picture was taken the year after the book was released – she is 33 years old here and I think she looks in excellent shape! 

As an aside, I was very excited to touch the book; it is preserved FOREVER in the national archives because as it was written by an Australian (and this is the main reason I was able to access this 97-year-old book). When it is published, mine will be compulsorily preserved too (though of course, I have to give it to them first). It was nice to imagine that in another hundred years someone will be reading it, laughing at what I wrote, as I did at what she wrote.

But back to the story. Her book, as all books are, is based on certain assumptions. At the time, women still wore corsets as a matter of course though the rigid boned Victorian style had relaxed a little so women could carry out their war work. Kellerman made the point that women did not need corsets to support their body weight, it was only that their muscles were underdeveloped. She also disputed the accepted “fact” that women naturally took shallower breaths than men, claiming that your corset prevented you from breathing deeply. And that its tight fit distorted your body, compressed your organs and prevented them from doing their jobs properly.

She talks a lot about constipation, and I guess if you were too tightly corseted to move around much (without fainting) you absolutely would have problems in that department. She also discusses how well-developed musculature supports good posture, and this prevents the physical pain and ugliness that poor posture causes. While we don’t wear corsets anymore, we do generally sit around too much so I wouldn’t be very surprised if many people had problems with constipation and back pain today.

Her principal argument is that your beauty comes from good health; not just your fit body, but your personal care and educated mind as well. She argues that it is not only your right to be beautiful but your duty too. And if you need some convincing about why it’s important to be healthy (and beautiful), you will:

  • have a more feminine shape
  • have strong muscles that hold up your spine and keep all your organs working efficiently in their right places
  • retain the love of your husband and the admiration of the world
  • be free of constant struggles with the fit of your clothing
  • have the capacity to make the most of your physical self (by which I think she might mean good sex)
  • set a good example for your children

In line with the prevailing thought of the time (and my book) Kellerman believed that your beauty incorporated your body, posture, poise, facial expression, complexion and dress, and all of these things rely on your good health. She felt excess weight prevented you from gaining the strength and mastery you require to keep your body and mind in good shape – it robs you of your muscle tone and consequently your poise and demeanour. And because the excess is unhealthy, it detracts from your complexion and that prevents your true expression of your authentic self. And if that’s not enough, carrying all that extra weight is tiring and makes you droopy.

If you aren’t sure whether you need to lose weight, she advises that rolls of loose flesh, a loose fleshy abdomen, loose bust, excessive hips, puffy knees and ankles are all indicators that you absolutely do need to lose weight. The way she recommends for managing this is diet and exercise. And bathing and getting fresh air, but we generally do the last two as a matter of course in modern times so I won’t mention that here.


She argues that you need good quality food for good health, though you need to control the quantity for weight control. She says don’t eat if you are not hungry! A grumbly tummy does not always indicate hunger – sometimes it is just the expectation of food and other times some other disorder of the digestion, e.g. constipation (or the crampy feeling you get when your clothes are too tight).

Her recommendation is to eat simple fresh food like fruit, vegetables with a little meat and simple desserts rather than pastries and greasy foods. Additionally, don’t eat a lot of sugary foods and candies. Eat slowly, chew your food thoroughly and leave the table with room for more. Baking is a better method of cooking than boiling, and frying should be avoided.  Drink water between meals.

While she doesn’t recommend ruling any particular foods out, she does recommend taking a balanced approach. She prescribes a restricted one-week menu plan to kick-start the weight loss process after which you just focus on eating less because increasing your exercise will make you hungrier.


Kellerman reminds us that inactive bodies have sluggish blood flow which leads to impure blood.  Standing rather than lying uses 40% more energy, walking 100% more than standing, running three times more and swimming four times more. Expending energy combines oxygen from the air with nutrients from food, and this helps to make pure blood.

She recommends a few minutes of stretching and strengthening exercises two or three times a day to keep the whole body stimulated. (Your internal activity continues after the external finishes). Additionally, daily outdoor exercise in loose clothing that permits deep breaths of clean fresh air from the diaphragm. Her favourites are walking (or golf), swimming and dancing.

Her suggested morning routine is to get up at 5am and do your exercises (in the nude) by an open window. Then take a cold bath and dress before taking a LONG walk, getting home around 7am to make your family breakfast. I doubt I could do that today, but I suppose in 1918 I wouldn’t have been sitting up until 11pm watching television and would have gone to bed earlier.

I always love it when I read something old that turns out to be surprisingly modern. Kellerman doesn’t offer any nutbag solutions, just move more and eat less. It’s the same sort of recommendations that are made today. She was born in 1886 and died in 1975 at 89 years of age so she was clearly onto something.

She suggests loose and unrestricted clothing. I think today we need something with a firmer construction that doesn’t stretch to accommodate our expanding bodies. Clothes that make us a little uncomfortable and remind us to skip dessert today and park a little further away tomorrow. Not corsets, just something with a bit less lycra (aka spandex and elastane).

What do you think? Do you move enough? Is your posture good? Are your clothes a little too stretchy?

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14th August 2015

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