Changing advice

May 25, 2007

Women's magazines have long been preoccupied with food - and have taken for granted that it is women who usually provide it.

With human nutritionist Margo Barker, I have been examining the food content of two magazines - Woman's Own and Woman and Home - from 1940 until the present, looking at how they construct responsibility for food provision and the types of pressure, nutritional and otherwise, they put on readers.

We found that both these things have shifted over time. From 1940 until 1954, the magazines gave significant coverage to the impact of the Second World War's rationing and the need to stretch resources, manage morale and ensure sufficient nourishment for a population at war, or just recovering from its impact. However, other issues are also present, including taste, nutrition, hospitality, economy and ease of digestion. There are also many examples of food being used to manage the emotions of family members through the pursuit of compliments and avoidance of complaints.

From the mid-1950s until the 1970s, the magazines placed radically increased importance on home baking and the complexity of "cordon bleu"

recipes and the intricate presentation and richness of foods, with a marked European influence.

The late 1960s and the 1970s saw a shift towards the importance of weight and body size as things on which women were supposed to act, and non-food slimming aids - supplements, meal biscuits and sweeteners - became a feature, with little other nutritional advice.

During this period, concern with body size was taken to be an issue for the reader and not the rest of her family. Nutritionally, the focus was firmly on calories and fat and the importance of reducing them in the diet. This continued into the 1980s and 1990s, when sections of the magazines became specifically devoted to diet. But here the emphasis on diet and health was no longer restricted to the reader - Jit concerned the whole family.

Moreover, nutritional advice became far more technically elaborate. Not only are women expected to balance a range of different concerns when providing food, but the one broadly "nutritional" concern now also includes a raft of different highly complex and often competing demands.

Joseph Burridge is research associate at Sheffield University.

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