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Terrible Fad Diets Throughout History

Tape worms, consumption, and other things to never, ever try at home.

ullstein bild/ Getty

Kicking off the New Year with a diet? First off: You look fine, you look great, don’t get pressured into that! Maybe you should choose to resolve to "travel more." Or just "read more books," that sounds fun. But I guess if you’re into eating more greens and exercising some more this year, that’s cool! That’s great! Exercises classes are fun, broccoli has the potential to be delicious. Just don’t do anything that in any way shape or form resembles these terrible diets from history:

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Getting Consumption

In the 1800s the consumptive look — a disease with was accompanied by extreme weight loss — was super in. The 19th century physician Thomas Trotter lamented that, "So unnatural and perverted are fashionable opinions on this subject, that a blooming complexion is thought to indicate low life and vulgarity in breeding. What a false standard for beauty: to prefer a sickly sallow hue of the countenance to the roses of health!"

The Victorian muse Lizzie Siddal’s appeal seemed to hinge largely upon the fact that she appeared to have tuberculosis (though today she’s thought to have been anorexic and addicted to opiates), and around 1800 the physician Thomas Beddoes complained that women were giving themselves consumption so they could look more delicate. Anyone who got tuberculosis would indeed lose weight. However, they’d also begin coughing up blood — sometimes up to two cups worth — and the tissue of their lungs would be destroyed. And they’d die. So, those are downsides.

Image: Science & Society Picture Library/Getty

Swallowing Actual Tapeworms

GET READY TO BE GROSSED OUT, GUYS. In the Victorian age many women were attempting to lose weight in order to accommodate new fashions that demanded a tapered waist. One way to lose weight fast was to ingest a tapeworm, which would live in your intestines and absorb the food you ate. Now, that didn’t entail eating a live tapeworm. Generally they were sold in pill form and would hatch once you’d swallowed them.

The really disgusting part, however, was extracting the tapeworm, especially since they can grow to be 30 feet long. Pills were sold that would hopefully kill them. However, if that didn’t, one method suggested sitting with your mouth open in front of a bowl of milk. The tapeworms were supposedly attracted to the smell and would crawl out their host’s mouth. Whether or not this actually worked is disputed, but if it did I imagine the giant worm exiting your mouth cancelled out any sexy appeal of your tapered waist.

Cigarette Diet

Image: Science & Society Picture Library/Getty

Cigarettes were originally marketed as a weight loss tool. Not only would they help a 1920’s flapper have a cool masculine edge (great when she was heading off to vote!) they’d also help her look svelte in her corset free dresses. A 1929 ad proclaimed, "Light a Lucky and you’ll never miss sweets that make you fat." And that was a major part of their advertising angle!

Other ads proclaimed, "Is this you five years from now? [Picture of an overweight woman] When tempted to overindulge, reach for a Lucky instead!" or "To keep a slender figure no one can deny, reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet." Though maybe to avoid lung cancer you should reach for a sweet instead.

Empress Sisi’s Diet

Anything eccentric rock stars are doing today, beauty-wise? The 19th century Vienesse Empress Sisi put them to shame. She used to sleep propped up with raw meat slathered all over her face. In order to maintain her 19 inch waist, she subsisted mainly on broth made from the juice of raw ducks. She even had a special "duck squeezer" for the process! The cabbage soup diet isn’t looking so bad now, is it?

Bathing in Wine

Hannah Woolley's 1690 book The Ladies Dictionary suggests that bathing in all manner of bizarre substances will help you lose weight. The idea of bathing in wine sounds kind of fun (provided you don’t have to clean the tub afterwards) though the fact that it had to be infused with wormwood, calamint, chamomile, sage and squinath sounds a little more arduous. Also, obviously, this one doesn’t really work. But that’s just as well as the book goes on to claim, "Bodies that are very Lean and Scragged, we must own, cannot be very Comely: It is a contrary Extream to Corpulency and the Parties Face always seems to carry Lent in it."

Pray Yourself Thin

Image: Boris Spremo/Getty

There’s a certain level of egotism to people thinking that God cares about their high school basketball game, but that is nothing compared to the conviction that the Devil wants you to be fat. Seemingly, that didn’t deter any of the buyers of the popular 1977 diet book, Help, Lord – The Devil Wants Me Fat! C.S. Lovett, the author of the book, insisted that you ate because the devil had dropped "eat ideas" into your mind. Just like he did to Eve!

Those terrible, hungry ideas could be combatted by prayer and a bunch of exercises where you visualize yourself as a skinny, tennis-playing Mary Tyler Moore type. You should also undertake a 10 day water fast and read the Bible when the rest of your family eats dinner. Oh, the whole thing is illustrated with pictures of overweight woman that Lovett clearly finds hilarious. You know, maybe, you could just take up playing tennis.

The Sleeping Beauty Diet

I’m not going to lie this sounds kind of appealing. Both the character Neely O’Hara in Valley of the Dolls and — supposedly — Elvis Presley liked this method. Dieters were heavily sedated for a few days, the logic being that if they were sleeping, they were not eating. The problem with that is that the heavy doses of sedatives used on practiconers could wreck havoc on their health and also destroy their natural sleep cycle. They’d also be ravenous upon waking, so they would engage in some binge eating sessions. And you might die during the session. Maybe just try to sleep in this weekend, that sounds nice.


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