You Are What You Do Not Eat: The Problematic Relationship between Fashionable Bodies and the Consumption of Food from Nineteenth-century France to Now

Content Warning: The content of this piece engages with the topic of eating disorders. 

As I was scrolling through my Instagram feed one morning, I stumbled across an “inspiration” page. Among snapshots of long-limbed models posing in Parisian couture ateliers and close-up shots of clavicles protruding from power pink, feather-stitched garments, appeared images of decadent food—chocolate-covered croissants, overflowing cheese boards, and creamy pasta dishes. The page staged a clear aesthetic cross-fertilization between economic wealth, physical slenderness, and rich, “pretty-looking” food. The trickery and the dishonesty of this association lies in thinking of this fattening food as being consumed by the emaciated beauty who appears in the picture beside it. Although the women looked positively starving, the ostentatious display of food hinted at their supposed—probably contrived—bon vivant nature. Perhaps unwittingly, this entire page tapped into stereotypical representations of femininity in French culture, where changing fashion trends, cultural roles, and dietary regimes require that, while she must remain slender, the French woman never holds back.

Nuremberg and Venetian Women, Albrecht Dürer

The gazelle-like creature of the “ideal” model goes back to mid-nineteenth-century France, during which time both dresses and bodies were getting slimmer and longer. Women were becoming more active, leaving their stovetops for more enthralling pursuits. The corset’s tyranny was fading and women’s bodies were starting to be liberated from centuries of restraint and decades of containment. Paul Poiret’s designs were much more draped than they were structured, thus liberating women’s upper bodies and elongating their silhouettes. Coco Chanel made hemlines go up and waistlines go down, and clothing—rather than supporting and shaping the body—was slowly but surely reclaiming its own space. 

Meanwhile, although access to good quality food improved during the nineteenth century, the typical French diet remained meagre. In his book France Fin-de-Siecle, Eugen Weber describes the eating habits of the French as “a continuous fast” (Weber, 65). Fashion magazines and beauty manuals of the time encouraged women to not overeat: overeating was described as gastrolary — harmful to gut health — and perceived as greedy, almost immoral. In her Cabinet de Toilette, the Baroness Staffe recommends the following daily diet: a glass of milk for breakfast, an egg and a vegetable for lunch, and a light dinner that must exclude meat, liquors or wines, condiments, and spices. She even encourages eating to be done secretly, safe from the prying eyes of husbands or domestic servants. But around the dinner table, it was recommended that women continue to adopt the air and attitude of someone who both enjoys and engages in the arts of the table. 

In nineteenth-century France, economic wealth and access to food have always gone hand-in-hand. The type of performative eating on display at the dinner table was limited to the women of the bourgeoisie, those who could afford a great deal more than what they were encouraged to consume. In the nineteenth century, a slender figure could be obtained through voluntary self-inflicted hardships rather than through a painful remodelling of the body by items of clothing. As dangerous and unsafe as it was, a corset could have made a plump body look slimmer. As the corset fell out of vogue, it became harder for women to look thinner than they actually were, since food restriction required time, commitment, and consistency. 

Nowadays, fitness and Instagram models have attempted—sometimes with success—to restore the reputation of the corset’s cheap sister: the waist trainer. However, thinness achieved through food control remains a popular method. While the deformation of the body by fashion(able) objects sounds bad enough, a self-inflicted method of starvation seems even worse to me. Food restriction may cause irreversible damage to the organs and the flesh, including thyroid malfunction, severe dehydration, heart failure, and other complications. But in order to reach the highest peak of glamour, I argue that one must never make this sacrifice visible. A woman appearing to indulge in decadent eating is perceived as glamorous as long as she physically looks like she never does. 

We can observe the unfolding of this specific stratagem in modern fashion videos. The world renown fashion and lifestyle magazine Vogue recently started publishing short videos of models getting (runway) ready, giving viewers a glimpse into what their daily lives look like. In a video showcasing the Victoria’s Secret model Taylor Hill, simply entitled “Bergdorf! Bodegas! Hot Cheetos!”, we see Hill lying on the floor of a luxurious fitting room at Bergdorf Goodman, one of New York City’s most famous and costly stores. She is wearing a sumptuous baby blue gown covered in silver sequins and taffeta flowers, with a bowl of chips nestled between her breasts. “I can eat a whole bag [of Cheetos] in, like, one go,” she says after having already taken a bite out of a lobster sandwich. Suki Waterhouse, in Vogue’s “Diary of a Model” video, is seen ordering a grilled cheese and fries at a restaurant before going to a Jeremy Scott fashion shoot. In “How Model Birgit Kos Gets Runway Ready”, the twenty-four-year-old Dutch model enthusiastically asks for a plate of crepes. 

In none of these videos, however, do we ever see the models take more than one small bite of the junk food in front of them. Indeed, Vogue seems to force-feed the spectator with the distorted idea that stick-figure models eat vast quantities of food every day. The magazine also intends to trick us into thinking that these models’ staged behaviors are absolutely authentic. Could this be an attempt to make the women seem more relatable? Could it also serve the false depiction of the model-like figure as a surreal or unreal creature? A goddess whose body would not be subjected—like us—to the laws of nature? In any case, we are given an idea contrary to the familiar notion that a woman must suffer for beauty.

As a fashion scholar and a freelance model myself, I find it to be the most extraordinary insult to the legitimacy of the fashion industry to make fashion enthusiasts believe these icons are no different than the girl next door, to make it look like the woman who embodies timeless, mysterious, modern beauty standards also has fingers covered in Cheeto dust. This is not to say I wish for Vogue to showcase proudly starving models, nor do I assume that models who claim to eat nothing other than kale and lettuce are lying. I think that fashion should avoid going out of its way to convince us that traditional beauty standards can be achieved through unhealthiness and excess. I believe this process actually takes away from the enunciative role of fashion as an elaborate creative system, both capable of producing beauty and rendering us sensible to it. Instead, it convinces us all that fashion beauty standards are attainable, even and especially when one engages in excess, and reminds us that a true mark of effortless elegance—in good old French tradition—is to seemingly engage in excess without ever truly doing so. 

Fake News and the Agency of Women in Viking Age Iceland

[A note on pronunciation of Old Norse: ‘ð’ and ‘Þ’ are both pronounced ‘th’; ’æ’ is pronounced like the ‘e’ in ‘bed’; ‘j’ is pronounced like ‘y’.]

We live in an era of ‘fake news.’  Fraudulent Facebook accounts and alternative facts have shined a new spotlight on the importance of equal and uncompromised access to the truth. Are biased information sources purely a modern symptom of today’s politics and the unregulated wilderness of the internet? The women of Viking Age Iceland might beg to differ. At times, disinformation and false reporting were utilized to devastating effect in the sagas recorded by medieval Icelandic authors. Even within this temporally distant and culturally distinct context, we can examine how fake news was wielded against medieval women in explicit efforts to undermine their agency.

In 1000 CE, on a small, glaciated island almost a thousand miles from mainland Europe, news meant oral testimony carried on horseback from homestead to homestead, or ferried across storm-tossed oceans on the tongues of travelers. In a world of slow, oral news, far removed from the infrastructure of modern media, we can revisit basic questions about the dissemination of information we moderns might take for granted. What was newsworthy? Where did news come from? Who was responsible for its circulation? How was information verified, and who was able to access it? All of these questions are difficult for scholars of the Viking Age to answer; written sources of the period are few, and those that do exist don’t privilege oral news. In other words, no letters, newspapers, or notice-boards tell us how information was presented in 11th-century Iceland. 

With limited contemporaneous textual records of Viking Age Iceland, we have to turn to alternative sources to piece together answers to these questions. What we know about the lives of Viking migrants and Icelandic settlers around the turn of the first millennium comes primarily from archaeological sources, genealogical records, and the later Icelandic sagas. The sagas were written in Old Norse during the 12th and 13th centuries CE, two or three hundred years after the settlement of Iceland, by Christian clerics, or other church-taught men, in large vellum manuscripts. The sagas relay entertaining legends of Icelandic settlement and details of fiery family feuds, but they are a problematic source for a historian of the Viking Age, given the centuries-wide gap between their creation and the time being described. Whether or not the sagas can be treated as settlement-era sources, they can tell us what 12th-century Icelanders believed or hoped life was like for their ancestors, and they can reveal the attitudes and morals of their later (elite, male) authors.

As is the case for many medieval written sources in Western Europe and beyond, the sagas and other Icelandic texts of the period privilege the actions and perspectives of men. Icelandic laws, first written down in the 13th century but likely codified in an oral tradition much earlier, suggest that women had little de jure authority, though they did have the right to divorce their husbands (for, among other reasons, wearing low-cut shirts). 

Despite the fact that women had fewer rights and limited access to wealth or education, the Icelandic sagas are notable among other medieval sources for their rich depictions of outspoken and intimidating woman characters wielding de facto power within the family and sometimes in society at large. The 13th-century Laxdælasaga, or Saga of the Laxdalers, is so sensitive to the experiences of women that some scholars even suggest it may have been written by a woman. 

Whether or not it comes from a woman’s hand, Laxdælasaga revolves around a host of complex women characters. Many episodes detail the frustrations of navigating social, legal, and physical structures created by and for men. One of these obstacles is the process of obtaining information, a relatively tedious project for everyone in the medieval world, but particularly so for women living on isolated farms, where news traveled only as fast as the fastest Icelandic pony could tölt

Generally confined to the home and discouraged from travelling on their own, women probably relied on male visitors to relay news from the outside world. Middlemen controlling women’s access to information results in notable and familiar problems for which we now have modern buzzwords, such as ‘gaslighting’, ‘alternative facts’, and, of course, ‘fake news.’ 

Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir. Illustration by Andreas Bloch, “Vore fædres liv” (PD-US)

Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir is one of the protagonists of Laxdælasaga, a beautiful and intelligent farmer’s daughter who nonetheless has difficulty finding and keeping a good man. Her first marriage to Þorvaldr is brief, unhappy, and ends in divorce. Her second husband, Þord, drowns at sea. Finally, Guðrún meets the dashing saga hero Kjartan Óláfsson. They flirt in secret, defying her father’s wishes, and fall passionately in love. 

Before they marry, Kjartan tells Guðrún he wants to seek his fortune in Norway. Angry, Guðrún demands that Kjartan take her with him on the voyage.

“Guðrún said: ‘I want to go with you this summer. Then I could forgive you for arranging this trip so suddenly. After all, it isn’t Iceland I’m in love with.’ ‘It can’t happen,’ said Kjartan. ‘Your brothers are young and your father is old, and there won’t be anyone to take care of them if you leave home. So, wait for me for three winters.’” [Translated from Old Norse by the author]

Kjartan’s decision to sail to Norway alone, despite Guðrún’s request, is a catalyst for the tragic conflict that occurs later in the saga. Like all good romantic dramas, Laxdælasaga involves a love triangle. Guðrún loves Kjartan, Kjartan loves Guðrún…and so does Kjartan’s closest childhood friend, Bolli. Because of their friendship, Bolli accompanies Kjartan on the journey to Norway, but he doesn’t forget about the woman left behind.

Though Kjartan doesn’t explicitly point to Guðrún’s gender as the reason for refusing to bring her along, his dismissal of her desire to travel highlights a clear division between gendered spaces in medieval Iceland. Women tend to the home while men are left to farm, to fish, to study, to vote, and to travel abroad. Kjartan reminds Guðrún of her responsibility towards her younger brothers and elderly father, who will be left unprotected if she were to pursue her desire to travel. 

Emphasis on a woman’s domestic role as grounds for impeding her movement appears in many modern studies of the migration of women. For example, women who emigrated from the country of Georgia in the 1990s were vilified for leaving their families behind. Referring to the “feminization of migration” in Georgia, social scientists Hofmann and Buckley observe, “most respondents described it as unnatural, challenging the male role as breadwinner and female responsibilities for childcare and eldercare.” The clear delineation of gendered occupations is deployed as a barrier to women’s movement outside the home as much today as it was a thousand years ago. Confinement to the home means prohibition from male spheres of political, social, and economic exchange—more often than not, the places where news happens. 

The knowledge and experience gained from travel abroad are traditionally available only to men. In Laxdælasaga, the first thing Kjartan and his followers do when they arrive in Norway is ask other men for tíðindi, or tidings. They catch up on the gossip, such as it was in early medieval northern Norway, undoubtedly including plenty of rumors about who won what battles, the best English beaches for landing a raiding party, and who the king’s sister currently favors. Disinformation and fake news, as we’ll see later on, can be a powerful tool of political and psychological maneuvering in a world without third-party fact-checking services. As the saga continues, Kjartan cozies up to the Norwegian king and starts to make a name for himself as a competent warrior and all-around Icelandic heartthrob. 

Bolli returns early to Iceland, leaving Kjartan at the Norwegian court. He heads straight for Guðrún, armed with all the instruments of modern psychological warfare. Bolli deliberately turns Guðrún against her former lover, describing how Kjartan is enjoying his newfound fame in Norway. He insinuates that Kjartan’s heroic qualities have caught the eye of the king’s marriageable sister, and implies that Kjartan has forgotten Guðrún and their old attachment. 

Guðrún at first refuses to believe him, but Bolli enlists the help of her father and brothers, who together spin stories about Kjartan’s reprehensible behavior and undermine Guðrún’s convictions, until she begins to believe that Kjartan is not the man she thought he was; a classic example of what would today be termed gaslighting. Without any way of communicating with Kjartan, and unable to travel to Norway to ascertain the truth for herself, Guðrún is coerced into marrying Bolli instead.

When Kjartan returns to Iceland a few months later, he is distraught to discover that Guðrún is married to his best friend. News of his arrival and the truth about his stay in Norway reaches Guðrún, revealing Bolli’s deceit. She confronts her husband about his campaign of misinformation, but he demures: “Bolli declared that he had said what he knew to be the truth.” You can almost imagine the deafening shrug. Here, news is weaponized against a woman by a man armed with the facts and determined to twist ‘the truth’ to his own ends. 

Kjartan, dead on the lap of Bolli. Illustration by Andreas Bloch, “Vore fædres liv” (PD-US)

Resentment rages between the three characters, even as Kjartan moves on and marries another woman. After a series of escalating offenses occurs over several years, Bolli, egged on by his brothers, finally takes up a sword against his friend. Kjartan, refusing to fight, casts away his shield and allows himself to be fatally stabbed. Bolli takes the dying Kjartan in his arms and pours out his remorse at being driven to such a terrible act. Soon after, Kjartan’s sons avenge their father by killing Bolli. 

The tragic conclusion hints at an unexpected but relatively lucid Viking Age moral. A great deal of grief originates from Bolli’s decision to modify facts, and from Guðrún’s isolation from the masculine realms of movement and information exchange. If Guðrún had accompanied Kjartan on his journey as she requested, if she had been supplied with all available information or been able to verify the news she received some other way, the saga’s tragic conclusion might have been avoided. Based on the arc of this episode, it would seem the author of Laxdælasaga regards the obstruction of a woman’s movement and access to information as inappropriate and potentially perilous. Manipulation of facts and deliberate misinformation leads to two deaths and an unhappy ending for everyone involved. 

Other brief but telling episodes in medieval Icelandic literature hint at a tacit approval of the movement of women. We see Viking Age heroines throughout the western diaspora (Iceland and the British Isles) commissioning their own ships, setting out on long journeys, and striving to form their own networks of information exchange through kin and marital ties. It may be that these women are simply literary figures playing out imagined fantasies that would never have been possible for real women of the time; or, perhaps these examples reveal some awareness of the importance of the agency of women. 

In this modern era of fake news and alternative facts, we might do well to remember some of the simpler lessons of Icelandic history. Honesty, as a medieval Icelander would probably tell you, is the best policy. Obscuring the truth leads only to blood feud and bitter regret.