Life and Death in 1938: Part One

It all started with an advertisement.

“Y-E-A SKINNY!” a bunch of (presumably obnoxious) healthy-looking kids are yelling at a skinny girl.  “Skinny? New easy way adds pounds—so fast you’re amazed!,” the headline promises, next to woman in a bathing suit who, readers are told, is 5’4”, 120 lbs, with a 35 IN BUST, 26 IN WAIST, 36 IN HIPS, 21 IN THIGH, 14 IN CALF, 8 ½ IN CALF.

Now, I’ve seen older (1930s and 1940s) advertisements for products to help the user gain weight before, so I wasn’t surprised by that aspect of the advertisement. I wasn’t completely surprised by the extra-detailed measurements of the model’s legs, either—if you look at any 1940s or 1950s pinup girls, you’ll notice that the focus was as much on legs as cleavage. A well-formed pair of legs was an asset to display in the 1930s and 1940s, more so, perhaps, than currently.

But 120 pounds for a 5’4” woman? I’m 5’2”, and the last time I weighed 120 lbs, I was bitching about my algebra homework and telling myself prom was just a dumb thing the popular kids did. Hollywood, in which this advertisement appears, isn’t a teen magazine, although its readership might have included teens. So how realistic is this model of a 1933 woman’s body? Or, I should say—how much is this advertisement distorting women’s body images in order to sell stuff? I started looking for data on women’s height and weight in the first half of the twentieth century.

(Funny anecdote (at least to me): searching for this data inevitably involved a lot of waiting and a lot of InterLibrary Loan requests. After receiving one such request, I brought it back to my office and did a triumphant hunter-returns-home-with-the-kill dance. (I’m a writer. I get excited about these things.) One of my officemates asked what I was doing, and when I explained that I was looking for data on women’s height and weight so that I could compare historical women’s body size against contemporary media and advertising depictions of women’s bodies, she looked at me like I’d grown another head. “That’s like a graduate thesis in women’s studies,” she said.)

So anyway, I finally did get my hands on some height and weight data.

Engrossing reading material (for a nerd).

My source (generously lent by Southern Methodist University) is a 32-page booklet titled “The Build of Women and Its Relation to Their Mortality: A Preliminary Report.”

The authors are Louis I. Dublin and Herbert H. Marks, employees of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company of New York (yeah, Snoopy’s life insurance company). The report was presented at an annual meeting of the Association of Life Insurance Medical Directors of America in October 1937.

Life insurance? Snore, you’re thinking, if you even read the above paragraph all the way though. (I can tell when you’re just skimming the text, Jimmy.) And it’s true—the raw data isn’t exactly exciting stuff. But when you start to crunch the numbers . . . interesting things happen.

But first, a note on the data: the women whose lives comprise these statistics were “drawn from the salaried and wage-earning classes in the urban areas of this country and Canada[:] … housewives, factory workers, stenographers, and clerks.” (5) They were, for the most part, a healthy group, qualifying for standard rates of insurance which excluded the sick, the very underweight, and the very overweight. The data on their height and weight was, for the most part, self-reported—which means that some underweight individuals reported themselves heavier, and some overweight individuals reported themselves lighter, and everyone was just guessing at their height.

The descriptive tables are based on 329,627 policies and the mortality tables are based on 308,228 policies, with the difference between the two coming from policies which were cancelled early and excluded outliers (very, very tall and very, very short women).

So, boring stuff out of the way: Is Miss I-Used-To-Be-Skinny typical of her time? How does she stack up against other media images of women?

How do you measure up to a woman of the 1930s? Average weight categorized by height and age.

The answer the first question is: it depends. If I-Used-To-Be-Skinny is seventeen years old, 5’4” and 120 lbs makes her an almost perfectly average middle class woman. At age 24, however, she’d be 3.5 pounds below the average and at age 34 she’d be 13.4 pounds below average (underweight by insurance company standards). So maybe that Ironized Yeast isn’t working quite as well as the company thinks.

How about other media portrayals of women?

Since I am not trying to write a graduate women’s studies thesis, I’m not going to try to come up with some kind of biometric photo measuring system to compare the size of women in advertisements with the insurance company averages. Instead, I’m going to borrow some data from the May 1931 issue of Screenland, which includes heights and weights for 15 early-career actresses.

Yeah, like a bunch of actresses are going to let their real weights be printed in a magazine.  True—I think it’s reasonable to assume that the practice of lying about one’s weight is timeless. (There’s a great scene in the 2005 documentary Double Dare in which stuntwoman Zoe Bell arrives in the US and is working on her CV with her mentor, Jeannie Epper. When they get to Bell’s weight, Epper tells her to list herself as lighter than she really is, because “the actresses all lie. They tell everyone they’re 110 and they’re 130.”) Thus, with the caveat that the women are likely both shorter and heavier than they admit, of fifteen emerging actresses in 1931: two are 5% or less underweight, compared to most American women; seven are 6-10% underweight; and six are 11% to 16% underweight.

Actresses heights, weights, and ages, and comparisons to their insurance-industry average counterparts.

I’m curious whether 1931 magazine readers were as skeptical as I am when it comes to truth in Hollywood. Would a 1931 reader have read that Carmen Barnes was 5’5” and 111 lbs and assumed that Screenlandwas reporting her weight accurately? Or would she have assumed (as I assume) that both the photo of Barnes and the biometric stats provided originated from an agent’s desk, and bore about as much resemblance to reality as Barnes’ novel? In the late 1920s and early 1930s, some popular backlash was occurring against perceived “excesses” of Hollywood that included film portrayals of immorality and criminality, and film-industry scandals. The majority of the discontent was expressed through conservative religious groups, and led (eventually) to the creation (1930) and enforcement (1934) of the Motion Picture Production Code. So some were skeptical of Hollywood—though it’s impossible to say if that skepticism included the publicity materials of the stars.

Carmen Barnes, actress and novelist.

But what about I-Used-To-Be-Skinny, the woman that started all this? This is where things get interesting: of the four actresses who are the same height (5’4”) as I-Used-To-Be-Skinny, all are lighter, weighing between 104 and 117 pounds. I-Used-To-Be-Skinny, remember, brags about weighing 120 pounds in her ironized yeast ad.

She used to be skinny

What does this mean for the 1930s standard of beauty and its relative achievability for women of the era? At the very least, I think we can say that beauty standards in the 1930s were heterogeneous: both the slender, elegant women of the 20’s and the more full-figured women of the 1930s had a place in the hearts (and libidos) of the early 1930s. A more tenuously supported conclusion is that women readers of the 1930s may indeed have been aware that actresses lied about their weights, and that their ideal body shape (as expressed in the Ironized Yeast ad) was closer to the average body shape.

Next time I get around to posting: Life and Death in 1938, Part Two! More cool data from the files of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.


One thought on “Life and Death in 1938: Part One

  1. I found this through Pinterest, and I followed it because she’s my exact measurements. I was thinking, that’s so cool- I’m 5’4″, 120lbs, same bust and waist, and seeing what the rest, hips also. I love it because it IS realistic. I’m a full time mom, I get exercise, but I’m not exactly a fitness nut. I’m not trying to weigh anything- in fact I don’t own a scale, but I know my weight from the last doc’s office visit. So to me, at least, she’s totally realistic. It’s weird that people can’t accept that women come in every variety of sizes…. we’ve always come in every variety.

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