ANOTHER New Year brings another raft of promises to keep up with a diet. But did you know that dieting is not a modern phenomenon?
In fact, none other than the Dispatch district’s most famous son, Lord Byron, was one of the first diet icons and helped kick off the public’s obsession with how celebrities lose weight, says historian Louise Foxcroft.
There has never been any shortage of celebrities who have followed diets, endorsed them or tried to sell us one of their own devising, even back as far as the 1800s.
The “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” Lord Byron was thought of as the embodiment of the ethereal poet. But he actually had a “morbid propensity to fatten”. And like today’s celebrities, he worked hard to maintain his figure.
At Cambridge University, Byron’s horror of being fat led to a shockingly strict diet, partly to get thin and partly to keep his mind sharp. Existing on biscuits and soda water or potatoes drenched in vinegar, he wore woolly layers to sweat off the pounds and measured himself obsessively. Then he binged on huge meals, finishing off with a necessarily large dose of magnesia.
In 1806, Byron weighed 13st 12lb but he was under 9st by 1811 — a huge weight loss of nearly 5st.
We know all this from records at Berry Bros & Rudd, a wine merchants’ of St James’s, London. Here, stylish men-about-town weighed themselves on hanging scales.
At the infamous Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, in 1816, Byron was living on just a thin slice of bread and a cup of tea for breakfast, and a light vegetable dinner with a bottle or two of seltzer water tinged with Vin de Grave. In the evening, he stretched to a cup of green tea, but certainly took no milk or sugar.
To suppress the inevitable hunger pangs, he smoked cigars. By 1822, he had starved himself into a very poor state of health, even though he knew that obsessive dieting was “the cause of more than half our maladies”.
In a mirror-image of today’s celebrity-obsessed society, because of Byron’s huge cultural influence, there was a great deal of worry about the effect his dieting was having on the youth of the day.