Let’s say it’s the 1920s, and you’re one of the richest and most glamorous short-story writers in America. Let’s say housewives and shopgirls pounce on everything you publish, the Communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky knows whole passages of your writing by heart, and even critics who can’t stand your work end up praising it, out of sheer admiration for the fan base. Let’s say you’re married to a dashing pianist, and that your friends include poets, novelists, movie stars, and Eleanor Roosevelt. And finally, let’s say you’re a passionately outspoken feminist who once told the press that nothing was healthier for a woman than to have a job and earn her own money.
“If feminine means dependent and weak, then the sooner they get unfeminine the better.”
Now, take a look at this newspaper article about you, an article that you cut out and sent to a friend because you were so thrilled at the way the reporter described you. “Brilliant writer?” “Courageous feminist?” “Role model for millions?” No, none of these. The reporter called you “slender.”
I’m trying to get a grip on Fannie Hurst, the prolific author of such legendary melodramas as Back Street and Imitation of Life, who turned her success at losing weight into a new mini-career and became the first celebrity dieter. Her manifesto, No Food With My Meals, appeared as a magazine article in 1926; she kept right on dieting, and eight years later, her figure had changed so dramatically that the same magazine wanted a new version of the article. She produced it quickly and then managed to publish it yet again as a hardcover book. They didn’t call it “monetizing” back then, but she was extremely good at it.
But there’s a disconnect. Why would a sharp, principled feminist decide her own body was the enemy? Fannie should have been the last person on earth to cave to some arbitrary definition of a correct female shape. She certainly had no trouble rejecting all the other restrictions imposed on women. In 1915, she marched in the New York Suffrage Parade carrying a banner that read “MOVE OVER, GENTLEMEN, WE HAVE COME TO STAY.” She was a charter member of the Lucy Stone League, named after the abolitionist and suffragist who refused to take her husband’s name. And she was one of the lucky feminists invited to join Heterodoxy, an uproarious Greenwich Village luncheon club described by the labor activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn as being for “women of the future, big spirited, intellectually alert, devoid of the old ‘femininity.'”
In fact, all the progressive issues of her time were hot buttons for Fannie. She spoke out on pacifism, workers’ rights, racism, poverty, and, as early as 1935, Hitler. What’s more, she wove these issues into her books. Lummox, her second novel, was written from the perspective of one of society’s throwaways — a hardscrabble servant named Bertha, whose labor keeps her employers well-housed and well-fed although she earns only condescension, humiliation, sexual assault, and a bare-bones wage. “There’s nothing right about the way the world’s run nohow,” shouts Helga, one of Bertha’s fellow servants. “Those that got the drudgery to do get the hard beds to sleep on. Those whose bones are rested from easy living get the soft beds — where’s the right of it, I ask you?”
Why would a sharp, principled feminist decide her own body was the enemy?
Yet even while Fannie was composing this howl of female outrage, she dreamed of a different body. She was about 5’6″, a stocky Midwesterner who had been an eleven-pound baby, a chubby toddler, and a plump teenager before climbing to an adult weight of 185. She did love food. In the diet book, she looks back longingly at the huge breakfasts she was raised on: “Oatmeal in a covered dish was served out with plentiful additions of butter, sugar and yellowish cream. A platter of bacon and eggs. … Toast or hot biscuits or both … hominy or grits or stacks of griddle cakes with apple jelly or molasses. Coffee and plenty of it … and, more often than not, crumb coffee cake, still hot, and thickly sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.”