Eating the last of the butter and goose fat-rich leftovers of the holiday season last night, I realized that indulgence time was over: time to dust off the old P90X DVDs and get myself back into some semblance of shape. But if I hadn’t already been thinking about my clichéd New Year’s weight-loss plan, the internet was all too happy to help out this morning; both my inbox and RSS readers were bursting with fatuous articles from celebrities and “experts” about how to get fit in 2012. But amid all the pressure to thin, one piece served as a welcome reminder that our culture’s obsession with the unreasonable body maintenance regimes of the rich and famous is as old as it is unhealthy.
Historian Louise Foxcroft writes in the BBC News Magazine that Lord Byron, the archetypical 19th-century Romantic poet, may have been the first celebrity whose dieting tricks were widely discussed and mimicked. According to records from the period, Byron was known for his "morbid propensity to fatten,” and therefore kept to absurdly strict dietary programs.
At the infamous Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, in 1816, Byron was living on just a thin slice of bread and a cup of tea for breakfast and a light vegetable dinner with a bottle or two of seltzer water tinged with Vin de Grave. In the evening he stretched to a cup of green tea, but certainly took no milk or sugar.
This ascetic schedule purportedly helped Byron maintain the pale, gaunt look that was popular among the day’s literary elite, inspiring many young people (especially women) to follow suit. Indeed, Byron’s criteria for feminine beauty when it came to food were particularly exacting; according to Foxcroft, Byron wrote that “a woman should never be seen eating or drinking, unless it be lobster salad and champagne, the only truly feminine and becoming viands.”
The piece goes on to trace the development of the celebrity diet fixation up to the present day, noting that many of the specific diets (low-carb, high-protein, etc.) we think of as modern actually have their roots in previous centuries. While one might find this revelation depressing—haven’t we learned our lesson by now?—I actually think it’s useful to be reminded of our tendency to forget that celebrity bodies are special cases, ones that require a great investment of money and time to create. That our current celebrity-fetish moment is not so different from 1816 should give us pause, and some perspective. Sure, many people could stand to be healthier, but we mere mortals need not abstain from a little sugar with our tea.