Magazines give us food for thought

Ideal life: A magazine cover
Ideal life: A magazine cover
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Women’s magazines laden with slimming advice come under fire for influencing young women to become diet and image-obsessed. But it’s not a new phenomenon. It’s been going on since the 1940s.An expert in nutrition gives food for thought as Sheffield Food Festival approaches

Hairdryers are buzzing to left and right. Above your head, a slip of a thing in hotpants is doing her best to slice away the years with every snip of her silver anti-aging scissors. She’s young enough to be your daughter, you note before you glance down at the magazine she has thoughtfully placed in your lap.

Cultural references: Sheffield University lecturer Dr Margo Barker.           Picture Dean Atkins

Cultural references: Sheffield University lecturer Dr Margo Barker. Picture Dean Atkins

But as you turn the pages, your ego, which you’d handed so warily handed over for her to bolster suddenly takes an even steeper nose-dive. Every page seems to be filled with articles on how to be thinner and why you should be thinner.

Picture features applauding celebrities who have shed pregnancy weight in less time than it takes to change a nappy are followed by cattily-captioned pap snaps deriding women who have had the temerity to gain a few inches and expect to hold onto fame.

Being anything but slender is portrayed as a cardinal sin in women’s magazines. And if that makes 50-somethings feel bad about themselves, make no mistake; it has an equally negative effect on the self esteem of girls exactly like the itsy-bitsy stylist hovering by your left ear. She reads these articles in her lunch-break – probably instead of eating.

But before you get too heated about the negative influence the new generation of size-obsessed magazines have on female eating habits, chew on this: The diets, the pressures to conform to an unrealistic ideal, were all present in women’s magazines as far back as the early Forties, says Sheffield University lecturer, Dr Margo Barker.

Advertising power: Fifties housewives were encouraged to be domestic goddesses, as these images highlight

Advertising power: Fifties housewives were encouraged to be domestic goddesses, as these images highlight

“Even at a time of such austerity, there was an emphasis on a woman’s looks. The message was: if you follow our advice for the War Effort, you’ll look good too. Women were often encouraged to consume food for beauty ends,” she says.

A specialist in human nutrition, Margo decided to research the way articles and adverts in women’s magazines presented food and nutrition from the Forties to present day.

She studied two long-standing British women’s magazines, Woman’s Own and Woman & Home, and will be giving a public lecture on her study as part of the Sheffield Food Festival next week.

Magazines might seem little more than light entertainment, but says Margo: “They were produced right the way through the Second World War and were seen as a very important medium for getting out advice on how to eat as healthily as possible during food rationing,” says Margo,

Advertising power: Fifties housewives were encouraged to be domestic goddesses, as these images highlight

Advertising power: Fifties housewives were encouraged to be domestic goddesses, as these images highlight

“They are still seen as hugely influential today. As recently as 2010 the House of Lords was asking the Ministry of Food if it was using women’s publications to get across its healthy eating messages.”

Margo, a lecturer in Human Nutrition, had set out thinking there would be major changes in the way women and food had been reported over the decades.

Only, as she conducted her historical analysis, she discovered some things hadn’t changed at all.

The emphasis on weight-loss? “What we see today has been going on for decades,” she says.

Advertising power: Fifties housewives were encouraged to be domestic goddesses, as these images highlight

Advertising power: Fifties housewives were encouraged to be domestic goddesses, as these images highlight

“It peaked in the Sixties and Seventies. People had started to put on weight; there was so much more food available and much less food policy and advice coming out from the government.

“And at the same time, a woman’s body image was under siege from the dictates of fashion. The Twiggy look reigned. The ideal was the super-skinny, boyish figure.

“Women’s magazines responded with a plenty of slimming advice. They published diets very similar to the Atkins one people go on today – they were high in protein and low in carbohydrate.”

Pointing out adverts for the lemon drink PLJ and Limmits biscuits, the so-called slimming aids of the Seventies, Margo says: “Manufacturers started making diet products and they were very popular. Actually, modern magazines carry fewer adverts for weightloss products than their Sixties and Seventies counterparts.”

Value in nostalgia

Next time you send a pile of old magazines off for recyling, spare a thought for its historical value.

Researchers might be desperate to lay their hands on such archives. When Dr Barker set out on her historical study of women’s mags, eBay proved invaluable.

Margo and her assistant had been granted access to the archives at Woman’s Own and Woman & Home, titles that ranked in the top three best-selling magazines from the 1940s onwards.

But they could only take photocopies. Finding originals was looking impossible – until someone suggested eBay.

A search of the site struck gold. “We got a big collection of old magazines very cheaply,” says Margo. “I doubt the person selling thought they would be useful to a university project.”

Simple and sensible healthy eating advice

Modern magazines are in danger of over-egging the nutritional advice. Too much complicated information on the health benefits of foods is starting to confuse people, says Dr Margo Barker.

“We know so much more about food nutrition now, I think we are in danger of bombarding people,” she says. “Take the warning messages about fats for example. We used to be told to simply eat less of it.

“But as the science has progressed, the message has got more complicated. Now we’re telling people mono-unsaturated fats are actually good for heart health. There have been findings about trans fat, fatty acids, omega 3 oils... It is too much to take in.”

In contrast, articles penned for housewives in World war Two promoted a lot of simple but sensible healthy eating advice.

Says Margo: “There were three key messages; eat energy-giving foods like bread and potatoes, body-building foods like milk, eggs, meat and pulses and health-promoting foods like fruit and vegetables. It would work well today,” she says. “And so would the economising tips given to women in the Forties.

“Making things go further ruled in the war years and long after and that’s definitely back in vogue today.”

Social significance of changing times

Those faded copies of Woman & Home and Woman’s Own, once flicked through by women sitting under hood dryers, heads bristling with curlers and pins, have also provided Dr Barker with an illuminating social study into the way women’s lives have changed in the past seven decades. She found herself laughing at much of the content.

“The 50s portrayal of the domicile, happy housewife opening the gate for the husband coming home from work was so strong. The message was very clear; the kitchen was almost part of a woman’s identity,” she says. “How different that is to the magazines of today. Many are focused on women’s careers.”

Flicking through a tattered mag from the Fifties, she alights on an advert that sums up what she’s saying in one bold, bright image. The epitome of the 50s domestic goddess, flowery pinny tied about her hourglass figure, is tackling an already pristine-looking floor with a mop.

“When you fancy a little something, Zipp! Have a Fyffes,” urges the promotion for bananas. Ignore the sexist slant, and it’s sound enough dietary advice; the stuff that is still dished out today.

A few pages – and adverts for chips, Ovaltine, gollywog-emblazoned Robertsons Jam and margarine later, there are features on how to bake the crispiest pastry and the perfect bread every time and how to feed a family healthily without it costing you a fortune; none of it would look out of place in a modern magazine. Though instead of true-life stories and celebrity gossip, our predecessors had only Mills & Boon-style short works of fiction and readers’ letters.

Paparazzi shots of the rich and famous? Our mothers and grandmothers got only the carefully controlled view of the official photographer’s lens. They were pointed at the only true celebrities of the time: the Royal Family.

The free lecture Diet Advice In women’s Magazines by Dr Margo Barker is to be staged on Thursday, July 7 at Sheffield University’s Richard Roberts auditorium, Brook Hill, for Sheffield Food Festival Week. For tickets contact j.peat@sheffield.ac.uk/0114 2221030.