NYPL Exhibitions

Dieting and Salads

Early in the 19th century the most widely published images of the American female form began to change from statuesque to slender. The Gibson Girl, lithe and athletic, exemplified the new perspective on femininity, and by the 1920s the sleek fashions of the flapper era made a narrow silhouette imperative. American women began dieting, a fad that originated in the white middle class but quickly became a mainstay of popular culture and an enduring feature of daily life for millions of people.

Dieting was a specter that particularly haunted lunch at home, a meal that had been associated with women ever since men began spending their workdays too far away to return at noon. Consumption of cottage cheese soared from the 1930s until the 1970s, when yogurt began to edge it aside. But the diet lunch that ruled the 20th century was salad. Beginning in the early 1900s, genteel New York women came to see salad—light and refined fare that was far too insubstantial for a working man—as being entirely appropriate for ladies who lunched. When the age of feminine dieting began, no other meal choice had such a perfect pedigree for the time. Whether or not a woman was following a formal diet plan, if weight loss was on her mind at lunchtime, a salad was probably on her plate.