23: The Tiny Waist of the Fifties

23: The Tiny Waist of the Fifties

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: For Mom, with Love

The Tiny Waist of the Fifties

Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.


She looked like June Cleaver except for her red hair. Like many young mothers in the fifties, mine often did housework in what she called a “housedress.” It was nothing like the slouchy sweats I wear today to tackle the toilet bowl, the kitchen floor, and the cobwebs in the corners.

The housedresses our mothers wore then were unique. They were cotton and had to be ironed. They buttoned down the front to about six inches below the waist or nearly to the hem. The waistline of that dress still amazes me after all these years. Mom’s waist could not have been more than twenty-two inches. The dress always had a belt that defined her tiny waistline.

That housedress, with its tiny belt-covered waist, represents an era when people didn’t discuss or worry about weight control. It was something that happened due to lifestyle. Diet programs and books were much less prevalent.

Most of my adult life, I fought to keep my weight under control. It was a struggle at which I had varying degrees of success. I tried fad diets as well as healthy diets. The struggle occupied too much of my time and thought, almost to the point of obsession.

About three years ago, the image of my mom’s belted housedress began to flit across my mind frequently enough that I deemed it important. I decided to evaluate her lifestyle compared to mine. Surely there was something about how her generation lived that kept most of them trim even into their later years.

Here is what I found:

• We never ate more than one thin pork chop each. When Mom opened a can of vegetables, it was shared by four of us. Our hamburgers were probably about a sixth of a pound. Weekday breakfasts were a piece of toast, milk, and juice. Yet, I never remember passing out from hunger. Conclusion: If we eat smaller portions, we will survive until the next meal.

• We ate a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Living in an agricultural community, we had access to fresh produce, which Mom canned. Although we had meat at most meals, produce dominated our plates. We always had some type of starch with our meals. Conclusion: Starch is not bad. Meat is not bad. The idea is to use them as additions to our meals rather than the mainstay.

• We ate food close to its source. We did not have packaged food until I was in high school. About that time, the infamous frozen potpie arrived. It was totally disgusting, so we seldom ate it. Conclusion: There’s something about real food that promotes good health.

• Neither of my parents ever obsessed about food. If we had homemade ice cream, we all enjoyed it. I suspect Mom’s bowl was smaller than Dad’s, but she never mentioned the fact. We all enjoyed the ice cream guilt-free. I think my mom’s idea was that if she could get enough veggies into us during the meal, there wouldn’t be a lot of room for dessert. Besides, most of our desserts came from the fruit bowl. Conclusion: No food is bad. And, it may be that spending too much time analyzing one’s diet causes problems.

• Mom and Dad did all their own work. Mom did the shopping, cleaning, laundry, cooking, sewing, and childcare. Dad did the yard and repair work. They raised chickens and put them in the freezer to enjoy through the year. Together, they painted and papered walls, waxed floors, and cleaned rugs. Conclusion: There was no need for a gym membership when there was so much to do at home.

• Television and computers didn’t dominate our lives. Even after we bought a TV, we chose to be active. Although we weren’t jogging or working out on a piece of machinery, we were moving most of the time. Even our winter taffy pulls burned more calories than sitting in front of a screen. Conclusion: An active lifestyle is conducive to trim waists and good health.

• We ate supper at six o’clock and had nothing else to eat until breakfast. That gave us about a twelve-hour fast each night. Conclusion: Bodies do well not having a continual inflow of food.

After I looked at how a family of the fifties lived, it was apparent that our twenty-first-century lifestyle was responsible for the differences in our waistlines. I decided to make some changes.

I knew any modifications needed to be gradual so I could fully embrace them. Drastic changes usually end in failure.

I set up these guidelines, knowing it would take time to totally adopt them:

• Decrease portion sizes drastically. Picture the one-fourth-can serving size of my youth.

• Plan for my plate to be two-thirds plant-based food, light on white starches.

• Quit talking and thinking about food and diets.

• Increase the amount of work I do in the house and yard. Include regular gym-type exercise because I use work-saving devices not available fifty years ago.

• Decrease screen time.

• Eat supper early and then fast until breakfast.

Has it worked? It has been three years. During that time, I have very gradually lost fifteen pounds. That is not the “fifteen pounds in two weeks” many fad diets advertise. But slow is okay, because I know I am changing.

I changed how I think about food. I know that I will not fall over if I eat a light meal. It’s okay to leave food on my plate. I learned that a meal heavy on meat makes me feel sluggish, so I look for ways to get more vegetables on my plate. I eat my larger meal at noon and try to have a light supper early.

I changed how I feel about exercise. It is now like the air I breathe — necessary for my wellbeing, rather than something I force on myself. I do some weight training and yoga. I walk outside if the weather is nice, or I watch the news while I’m on the treadmill. I have a shelf for my computer in front of the treadmill, allowing me to watch inspiring or educational videos.

What is in my future? I may never totally adhere to my guidelines. I sometimes eat too much. There are times when I eat late. I don’t think about food and diets as much as I once did, but here I am writing about them now.

However, I don’t believe I will ever again have an issue with weight. I expect to slowly lose a few more pounds until I am where I should be. I doubt I will wear housedresses with belted waists even if they do come back in style. It is enough to be strong and healthy, and to have more pleasant things on my mind than the number of calories in a food or whether or not it is “on my diet.”

~Carole A. Bell

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