Being Overweight, Circa 1954

by Anne Bennett on March 26, 2013


Dorothy Bradley standing outside a Lane Bryant store in Kentucky. From Life Magazine

“The most serious health problem in the U.S. today is obesity.” That quote from a prominent American magazine could have been written today, but it wasn’t. It’s from a 1954 Life Magazine article titled, “The Plague of Overweight.”

It featured a young Kentucky woman named Dorothy Bradley as she stuggled to whittle her weight down from 205 pounds through diet and exercise. A sub-title from the article suggests that Dorothy’s plight was a discouraging and difficult one: “Despite claims, will power is only cure.”

What this meant 60 years ago was that Dorothy had to endure a regime that prevented her from eating what most other Americans ate. At the drugstore lunch counter (pictured in the article) she didn’t have the 21st century option of ordering a grilled skinless chicken breast sandwich on whole grain bread.

Nor were there diet foods back then to quell her appetite or subdue cravings; no Greek yogurt, string cheese or 100-calorie packs of cookies. Dorothy was pretty much left to her own, drastic dietary devices.

I know, because I was born in 1950 and I was a chubby kid. I often ate at the Woolworth lunch counter with my childhood friend Kathy McCullough. We regularly celebrated going on a diet (which always began the next day) by ordering banana splits as a ‘last hurrah.’ We ate a lot of banana splits because we were always going on a diet.

Like Dorothy I shopped at Lane Bryant for my clothes. They were horridly made and ill-fitting. My mom ended up sewing a lot of my clothes to save me the humiliation. I once had a Lane Bryant bathing suit that was so flimsy she had to tie the straps together in back to keep them from falling down when I swam.

The Life Magazine article claimed that in 1954, five million, or 3%, of Americans were obese. Today more than 30% of all American adults are obese.

We’re growing fat at a faster rate than ever, and given our plentiful supply of cheap, processed foods, there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight.

Life Magazine was prophetic: being overweight really has become a plague.


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