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Reducing Betty: Food & The Suppression of Appetites

When is a chocolate chip cookie not just a cookie? In a season four episode of Father Knows Best entitled “Calypso Kid,” the Anderson’s oldest daughter Betty (who is attending the local community college at this point in the show’s narrative) is in the kitchen and a plate of chocolate chip cookies lies tantalizingly in front of her. Betty picks up a cookie as she speaks, only to have it snatched away by her father. He then orders her to fetch an item necessary for Jim’s plan to manipulate his son, Bud, to attend a party and impress a girl by showing off his recently-acquired bongo skills. As Betty leaves the kitchen, Jim flashes a satisfied grin at the camera and eats the cookie. This small scene, in an episode that centers on Bud and his desire to win a competition with a rival for the affections of a girl, reflects larger themes about the repression of hunger for teenage girl characters in 1950s sitcoms. In essence, Betty’s appetite is denied and repressed by her father in order to help assist the brother (Jim’s surrogate younger self) in fulfilling his own romantic and sexual appetites. Betty, the 1950s platonic ideal of a young woman, is meant to be immune to the manly indulgences of food and sex. When she considers satisfying her desire (in this case for a chocolate chip cookie), her father appears to remove the tempting item from her possession and to redirect her energy to a more important cause—assisting her brother in the pursuit of his sexual/romantic desires. He then satisfies his own hunger, visually exerting his patriarchal dominance.

In this article, I will examine the visual and verbal messages communicated within 1950s family sitcoms in regards to adolescent and teenage female characters and their appetites. What was normalized? What was taboo? As young baby boomer women consumed this media, what values about food and slenderness did they absorb through the actions and reactions of the characters who were meant to be role models and idealized versions of their future selves? How much had changed in the US decades after the ascension of the Victorian cultural expectation that a thin “physique symbolized rejection of all carnal appetites?”1

In the 1950s sitcom world, teenage daughters routinely performed a version of femininity that prized the denial of appetite in the pursuit of a thin 1950s figure that would ensure their future transformation into perfect housewives. Repeatedly, television sitcoms posited that teenage daughters needed to obtain and maintain ideal 1950s bodies in order to secure happiness both in their current situation and in their imagined futures as the next generation of perfect white American wives and mothers. This article will use case studies from 1950s television family sitcoms to interrogate the visual and narrative enforcement of thinness and repression of appetite.

Four sitcoms were chosen for their inclusion of a teenage girl as part of the main cast/central family. The Goldbergs was broadcast on network television from 1949 to 1956 after having made the jump from radio. With a cast led by producer, writer, and star Gertrude Berg as the matriarch of the family, Molly Goldberg, The Goldbergs featured the a Jewish-American family. In addition to Molly as the mother and wife, the family included her husband, Jake, her children, Sammy and Rosalie, and their live-in relative, Uncle David. Another sitcom that made the transition from radio to television, Father Knows Best, aired from 1954-1960 and centered on the Anderson family. The family consisted of a happily married couple (Jim and Margaret) and three children: Betty, a high school or college student for the run of the show, Bud, the middle child and only son, and Kathy (Kitten), the youngest daughter. The Donna Reed Show, airing from 1958-1966, starred the eponymous Donna Reed as Donna Stone, wife to Alex (a pediatrician), and mother to Mary and Jeff. The final sitcom examined here is Bachelor Father. Bachelor Father, 1957-1962, diverges from the other sitcoms. Although it, too, features a teenage daughter character, Kelly, Bachelor Father’s main family was non-traditional, consisting of the titular father, Uncle Bentley, who became a parent after the untimely death of his sister and brother-in-law (Kelly’s parents). The role of domestic caretaker (normally filled by a wife) was filled by Bentley’s “houseboy,” Peter, a Chinese-American man.

Researchers in fields from psychology to sociology to women’s studies have conducted various qualitative and quantitative studies of the impact of media on female viewers, particularly on younger female viewers (adolescents and college-aged women).2 As a composite, they present a picture of white female viewers from the 1980s to the present who largely internalized the positive correlation with thinness and dieting on broadcast sitcoms, and the subsequent negative verbal and nonverbal responses to fatness in the same, and report dissatisfaction with their own weight and bodies, even in instances when they are statistically average or underweight. 3 There is significant disagreement in the scholarly literature in regards to the impact of television on African American girls and women. Some studies on African American women and adolescent girls also have shown a similar impact, but that black subjects tended to identify heavier ideal bodies, while others see no measurable correlation between television viewing and damaging body image.4 Still, researchers such as Kristen Harrison and Veronica Hefner have concluded that that “television viewing predicts disordered eating in preadolescent girls.”5 As such, I would argue that one can reasonably extend these studies to young white female viewers of the 1950s, even though contemporary studies of the effect of television on female satisfaction with body image do not exist.

What has been well-documented is the increasing attention/consumer market for dieting books and organizations in the 1950s. Popular magazine frequently carried advice for women explaining how they could “reduce” and ran advertisements for slenderizing clothes for what they dubbed “chubbettes”—because “How happy can a chubby girl be?” Weight loss groups and programs such as TOPS (Taking Off Pounds Successfully) with its PIG Line and mixture of support and shame also began in the early 1950s. At TOPS meetings, women who had gained weight were publicly humiliated—forced to stand in the PIG line and endure the chanting of a song that cast them as uncontrolled animals in their eating habits. According to a 1963 Life Magazine story, during meetings women would “pin cardboard pigs on the nonlosers and serenade each other with ‘we are plump little pigs/Who ate too much/ Fat, fat, fat.’”6

The public shaming aspect did little to discourage membership. Women flocked first to TOPS meetings and later to Weight Watchers, anxious to “reduce” regardless of the cost, psychologically or financially. The CEO of TOPS became a nationally-feted success, and featured stories in national magazines like Life only brought more overweight women to her program.7 With both the chubbettes and the TOPS program, the equating of happiness and success with a slender body was clear and unquestioned. To be thin in the 1950s was to be happier and more feminine.

The 1950s were also the time period in which two competing types battled for the preferred female body idea: the “mammary madness” women typified by Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren, and the slim, refined body types associated with Grace Kelley and Audrey Hepburn.8 Both shared one thing in common, a tiny waist that was prized at all costs.9 Scholars have repeatedly shown that, starting in the 1950s, Miss America contestants and Playboy centerfolds have decreased in their average weight as the average American woman has increased in weight.10 Philosopher Susan Bordo has argued that the celebration of more rounded female figures was consistent with the reification of the domestic female ideal in the 1950s.11 Yet, this new idealized figure was not inclusive of truly curvy body types. Even the rounded female model sported a tiny waist centered between slightly ample breasts and non-boyish hips. Particularly on television sitcoms of the decade, the ideal female body was quite slender and the ever-present cinched-waist dresses created the illusion of a more hourglass figure.

According to scholar Regina Casper, the 1950s marked the beginning of an over-emphasis on weight that resulted in increased numbers of anorexia cases. Psychologists and psychiatrists reported seeing more women who explained their anorexia with language that centered on their desire to avoid becoming “fat,” rather than the religious and spiritual motivations that had previously been common in anorexia cases. “By the sixties, in the minds of patients thinness has become a symbol for independence, autonomy, innocence, vigor, frugality, and moral excellence, instead of merely reflecting admirable and enviable slenderness.”12 Casper credits this change to the post-Depression access to food and the correspondent American cultural recognition of “plumpness.” Subsequent work on eating disorders has questioned Casper’s timeline and reread historical documents to discover more oblique mentions of “fear of fatness” in cases that predated the 1950s, but they largely do agree with her assertion that bulimic disorders were much less prevalent prior to the 1950s.13

While scholars have looked into the effects of the amount of television watching on obesity rates in the United States and elsewhere, much less work has been done on the ways in which the visual messages of the medium may have influenced 1950s Americans’ conceptions of normal body weight and eating habits. Bordo has examined the ways in which the 1950s neo-Victorian ideal resulted in the restriction of feminine expression by requiring clothing that exerted physical control of one’s body. Within these rigid beauty standards, women were prized for confining themselves materially and reducing themselves to fit the ready-made, restrictive clothing.14 Certainly, as television programing matured in the 1950s from its radio roots, fewer and fewer examples of non-slender female actresses existed. Gertrude Berg, and her approachably plump figure, was an early holdover from radio days, but even The Goldbergs eventually targeted her character Molly’s weight as problematic and pathological. Her successors as TV mothers were, to a woman, slender, conventionally attractive, and WASPy. Donna Reed, Margaret Anderson, and June Cleaver fastened aprons around their tiny (girdled) waists, signaling their moral fortitude and perfection, as well as their continued sexual attraction and viability.15

It was rare for a 1950s sitcom to focus the main plot on the dieting of the daughter character; more often, writers and directors wove in more implicit messaging about female bodies and food. The Goldbergs, as mentioned previously, attempted such an episode in its last season.16 In the episode, Molly is persuaded to go to a “fat camp,” where she and other overweight women were put on a restrictive diet and required to exercise. Molly was miserable and figured out a way to subvert the rules of the institution. Faking a series of dental emergencies, she was granted permission to leave the grounds and seek dental care in town. While there, she purchased forbidden foods and smuggled them back to share with her fellow dieters. Her plan was discovered when the women all gained weight despite the draconian regime that was enforced within the institute.

Molly’s inability to control her food intake was part of her frequently eccentric and othered characterization. As an immigrant woman, and, specifically, as a Jewish mother, television creators and audiences did not require her to adhere to the same standard of slenderness demanded of her gentile counterparts. Molly’s weight disqualified her from romantic and sexual attraction in the world of 1950s sitcoms, in the same way that her immigrant status and Jewish religion did. It is no accident that the Goldberg’s marriage was also the least romantic and physically affectionate of the married couples on 1950s family sitcoms. Although The Goldbergs was groundbreaking in many ways, it rarely, if ever, challenged prevailing 1950s stereotypes about Jewish mothers. Gertrude Berg, in her portrayal of Molly, as well as in her position as writer and producer, did not subvert presumptions regarding Jewish families, but rather glided through them, centering the universality of an American family experience to connect with her audiences while mining humor out of the disconnect between the Goldberg family’s expectations and norms and that of their neighbors.

While Molly’s battle with weight was played for laughs, her daughter, Rosalie, was shown to be more disciplined and therefore properly slender. A June 1, 1954 episode of The Goldbergs demonstrated the ways in which slenderness and a lack of appetite could be used to signal the successful Americanization of teenage girls from immigrant families.17 The episode centers around the Goldberg’s family’s response to the gift of an abstract piece of art, entitled the “Bronx” from Mrs. Barnett, a genteel neighbor. Molly doesn’t understand Mrs. Barnett’s modern art piece and becomes self-conscious about her lack of cultural knowledge in light of her family’s expressed admiration for Mrs. Barnett and her art. According to the show and Molly’s expressed insecurities, this inadequacy on the part of Molly once again marked her as an uninformed and unsophisticated immigrant woman and demonstrated her deficiency as a model for her daughter, Rosalie. Twice marked, as a woman and as an immigrant, Molly was depicted as ill-equipped to appreciate the finer things. Within the world of the show, she could not be Americanized.

Molly then tries to impress her family by showing off her own talent—cooking—but both Mrs. Barnett and Molly’s male family members question what she will do in the future when she no longer has a family to cook for. Molly thus faces an additional limitation, as she can foresee a future in which her children have left the nest and her somewhat older husband and cousin have died. Without appreciative diners, a mother, especially an immigrant mother, would not be able to fulfill her primary role within the household. As the show had, at this point in its run, continually highlighted Molly’s pride in her cooking, viewers immediately understood the ways in which food preparation was tied inextricably to Molly’s self-identity.

At a dinner scene early in the episode, Molly amply dishes out liver for each member of the family. Rosalie’s charger remains empty longer than anyone else’s. Once she is finally served and picks up the small plate, Rosalie places it on the larger plate, and then picks up and puts down her fork, never moving food to her mouth. In contrast, the men at the table continue to eat and talk, savoring the food as Mrs. Barnett joins them in their enjoyment of the meal. The camera pulls out a bit to include portions of the men, Sammy, Molly, and the other woman—excluding only Rosalie. As the camera tracks back even further, Rosalie’s untouched meal moves into frame, as does her empty seat. Rosalie is first marginalized and then completely eliminated from the tableaux of the family dinner.

Eventually, Rosalie reappears on screen. Molly relocates to the kitchen, and when she passes her daughter, Rosalie asked after the “A-1” sauce, a condiment that would mask and change the taste of Molly’s traditional cooking into something more mainstream for an American palate and befitting Rosalie’s status as a more Americanized girl. The camera then lingers in the kitchen to follow Molly’s conversation with Jake and to capture her distress. For the viewer, and presumably for the character, Rosalie’s dinner remains uneaten. Rosalie, thus, will remain thin and, therefore, an attractive candidate for marriage. Moreover, Rosalie rejects both her mother’s gift of love via food by not eating it and her Jewish heritage by inquiring after the American A-1 sauce. These rejections, while difficult for Molly, reassure the home audience that Rosalie has become sufficiently Americanized and will not follow in her mother’s overindulgent footsteps.18

One of the major themes throughout the run of the series was the conflict between the first generation of immigrants (Molly and Jake) and their second-generation children (Rosalie and Sammy). The show led its characters through a process of Americanization—ultimately resulting in the family’s move to the suburbs. Molly was often the character who struggled most with the Americanization process and retained markers of her status as an immigrant woman. As such, the disparity between her behaviors and appearance in comparison with her neighbors became a symbol of her otherness and her Jewish immigrant identity. On the other hand, Rosalie, as her more American daughter, adhered even more strictly to the expectations of 1950s white (assimilated) American beauty and behavior—expectations that required extreme slenderness, chasteness, and demureness—than her non-immigrant counterparts. In order to succeed as an assimilated American girl, Rosalie needed to scrupulously avoid any behaviors that might reflect poorly on her reputation or that could feed into negative stereotypes about immigrants.

Quite frequently, the script and direction explicitly removes the daughter character from the dinner table by giving her somewhere to be off-screen. When a daughter was not included in a family meal, her lack of inclusion helped to signal her disinterest in eating and her commitment to weight maintenance. In an earlier 1954 episode of The Goldbergs, Uncle David is setting the table for dinner and chatting with Rosalie.19 She then excuses herself to babysit for a family in the apartment building (reflecting her trustworthiness and her maternal capability even as a teenage girl). David offers her dinner before she leaves, to which she responds that she is “not hungry.” He persists, cajoling her to at least take fruit, “an apple, an orange,” but again she rejects the food. The scene lingers on, as the writers needed to build up to a phone call for Molly, and Rosalie continues to evade offers of food. In subsequent episodes, Rosalie spends much of her screen time during dinner scenes fulfilling the role of server or clearer for her family. Often, Rosalie passes the entirety of the dinner scenes performing domestic duties to ensure that her brother, uncle, and father eat, while she herself avoids the consumption of calories. During vacation episodes, when the family visit Pincus Pines, Rosalie demurs when others suggest she should go to breakfast and is only shown with an empty plate at dinner scenes.20

Even in scenes in which Rosalie consumes food, the script mentions the importance of slenderness for her future. An episode entitled “Rosie’s Nose,” in which Rosalie attempts to raise money to surgically correct what she believes to be a disproportionately large nose, includes a rare instance in which Rosalie actively eats in a scene.21 For once, she is the center of attention, as her family works to boost her confidence in order to dissuade her from plastic surgery. As she hurriedly eats dinner on her way to babysit (again showing her maternal instincts), Molly comments that she hopes Rosalie won’t eat too much food, so that she can maintain her “beautiful figure.” This admonishment about weight gain is intended as a compliment from Molly’s perspective. Rosalie has the slender figure Molly lacks and desires, according to multiple episodes. Her slenderness is a visible sign of her potential to more fully Americanize into the suburban environment in which the last season of The Goldbergs is set.

For Rosalie to become the Americanized woman of her immigrant parents’ dream, she scrupulously avoids food to preserve her figure, refuses to scrub pots to maintain the beauty and delicacy of her hands, remains virginal and chaste (rarely dating, certainly much less frequently than her counterparts in other 50s sitcoms), and demonstrates competency in the domestic arts.22 By Rosalie becoming the American ideal of a young woman, the Goldbergs (the parents) and The Goldbergs (the show) could ensure a future life as an American housewife for Rosalie, signaling their assimilation into white American society despite their ethnic and religious differences. Unlike Betty (Father Knows Best) and Mary (The Donna Reed Show), who were destined to become replicas of their own mothers, Rosalie has to move away from her mother’s example in specific ways. Success for Rosalie involves her transformation into Donna Stone or Margaret Anderson—forever thin and attractive by the standards of the day.

Perusing popular magazines of the 1950s and early 1960s, one notices the way in which certain terms were repeatedly used by a variety of advertisers to denote femininity. Foremost among them was “daintiness.” Products ranging from toilet tissue (Desley) to feminine hygiene items (Modess) emphasized their suitability for the daintiness of young women in particular. Even zippers were prized for being “the daintiest.”23 By purchasing items that would protect “daintiness,” female consumers could bath daintily with Stanley brushes that would “guard [their] daintiness and charm”; clean their trousseau garments with a dainty Stanley brush made for dainty hands and delicate work; apply “Stoppette” deodorant body powder—”a new development in daintiness”; step outside in “Neolite” shoes that promised “new daintiness at the instep”; and, of course, take care of personal hygiene needs with Delsey’s toilet tissue as it “meets women’s special need for extra absorbency—extra daintiness.” Tampax and Modess also promised to preserve a woman’s daintiness, with Tampax’s slogan declaring that its products were to be the last word in daintiness.24 All of this daintiness was packaged and could be purchased. According to magazine and television ads, a woman could buy her way to daintiness in the most feminine aspects of 1950s life—self-care and domestic work.

Daintiness was an important and telling word choice used by marketers to reference a specific type of 1950s femininity. Femininity in the 1950s was defined in opposition to the ideal of early Cold War manliness. To be a man was to be a strong, tough, commanding, and an imposing provider. Through the embodiment of those characteristics, a man could then be a suitable father and husband. In order to complement her future husband, women were fetishized for their daintiness—a characteristic that implied the type of vulnerability and frailty that required the oversight and protection of a man.25 Slenderness, of course, was a visible sign of daintiness. And daintiness could be used to describe the limited food consumption and eating habits that would ensure slenderness.

Underlying many magazine advertisements was the assumption that American women were or should be restricting calories. Bread companies cautioned women that “reducing” did not mean cutting out bread and its attendant “nutrients and vitamins.” Instead, the Wheat Flour Institute advised women to “cut calories” not to eliminate bread. Similarly, the sugar industry published a full-page advertisement in 1955 to inform women of the important role of sugar in a weight-loss regimen. According to the text, sugar helped dieters by raising blood sugar levels while curbing appetites.26 In a 1950 issue of Life magazine, Kellogg’s Corn Soya cereal promised to assist women who wanted a “fine body,” and advertisements for more indulgent products (like chocolates and whipped cream) avoided showing women ingesting any of those sweet treats.27 Housewives in need of a stiff drink after taking care of their families and homes could turn to Bacardi cocktails, featured in a 1956 edition of Life magazine. The ad touted the low-calorie count of Bacardi cocktails, which had fewer calories than that ubiquitous diet food of the 1950s, cottage cheese.28

Much like the magazine features and reality shows of today, 1950s periodicals also publicized extreme weight loss. A 1954 issue of Life magazine centered on the story of Dorothy Bradley, a woman who wanted to lose weight in order to become “attractive” and because she wished to become a doctor.29 The accompanying sidebar was clear and direct about the “plague of overweight.” According to Life, “the uncompromising truth is that obesity is caused by gluttony” and the “only cure is will power” at “the table.”30 Photos focus on unflattering images of Dorothy and moments in which she looks longingly at other, thinner girls enjoying milkshakes and dances. Dorothy, because of her weight, can do neither. Moreover, Dorothy despaired over her marriage prospects, noting that “No boy I’d have would marry me at this size.”31 Dorothy triumphed by the end of the article, shedding 60 pounds, gaining a nursing degree and job (“no money for medical training”), and a date to the Navy Ball.

Besides the brief mention of a “strict diet” prescribed by a doctor, very little attention was paid to how Dorothy managed to lose the weight. The focus, instead, was her sad, lonely life prior to weight loss and her more joyful, successful life after her successful reduction. The disappointment in her inability to fund medical school was cheerfully glossed over in favor of breathless exclamations about her joy at having reached a lighter weight. Why should a girl want to be a doctor when she could be a slender wife? Other than the argument that only self-control was necessary for weight loss, no other details were necessary or provided for Life readers. Instead, they could look to advertisements to instruct on which foods to purchase or avoid and how to cover, control, and ameliorate any excess weight they held. Girdles and shapewear could camouflage a less than perfect figure, while a diet of cottage cheese and low-calorie cocktails could assist women as they sought to shed weight and the necessity of shapewear. Dainty, thin bodies resulted in marriage proposals, career success, social advantages, and freedom from the girdle, according to Life.

Other advertisers bypassed the coded language of daintiness in order to directly highlight the ultimate marker of femininity in the 1950s, a thin body. Playtex ads that ran in Life magazine at the start of the decade forecasted that “the figure of the 1950s is a slim, Playtex figure.”32 likewise, Warners lured women to their products by promising they could create a “flat hip look,” eliminating curviness and creating a slim silhouette.33 Cameo stockings advertisements trumpeted their ability to “slenderize” ankles and calves.34 Women who were not sufficiently dainty or slim could use their role as consumers to purchase these garments that would allow them the outward appearance of slenderness.

Of course, women donning these garments discovered unpleasant limitations in their freedom of movement. Girdles designed to hold in any bump or lump also restricted breathing and movement. Flexees trumpeted the ability of their Figurama girdle to allow unprecedented “freedom” with a full range of leg motion thanks to improved design. The underlying assumption was, of course, that most girdles made it difficult to walk or move, as American women traded motion for slenderness.35 Because Playtex, Flexees, and Warners products were worn under clothes, women could mask any problem areas. For young women on television, however, their slenderness had to be natural and effortlessly obtained in order to further their image as idealized symbols of American femininity. At the same time, they could and did express interest in maintaining their figure even if such maintenance was not a struggle for them.

Television ads also reinforced the American woman’s desire to reduce and become thin. Regimen Tablets promised consumers in television, magazine, and newspaper ads in 1959 that they could lose weight without changing their diets just by taking their product. To further draw in business, the advertising agency and marketers for the drug, Kastor, Hilton, Chesley, Clifford & Atherton, Inc. and Drug Research Corporation, broadcast television ads in which women were weighed each week live on television to prove that they were successfully losing weight as a result of the medication. In 1964, the advertising agency, marketing company, and drug maker were indicted on 58 counts of fraud for making knowingly false statements. The successful dieters had not been “doing it without special eating.”36 Instead, they had been placed on restrictive diets to ensure weight loss.37 Eventually, Drug Research Corporation and its owner, John Andre, were found guilty on forty-two counts, all of which were affirmed after appeal in 1966.38

Female adolescent characters on 1950s sitcoms represented the feminine ideal. Their slenderness—shown through tiny belted waists rather than form fitting clothes in order to preserve their modesty and chasteness—was an outward symbol of their dainty feminine character. This daintiness signaled their fitness to attract a husband and complete the transition into wife and mother. In The Goldbergs, both Molly and the mother of Sammy Goldberg’s girlfriend voice concerns over the need for their daughters to safeguard their daintiness. Each mother, in separate but mirrored scenes, forcefully reminds her daughter to avoid scrubbing pots in order to preserve the softness and daintiness of their hands. To scrub pots would be to “spoil … beautiful hands” and thus jeopardize one’s femininity.39 Across religious and ethnic lines, the message was the same—young women in their family homes should perform any and all domestic chores except for ones that would mark them as too coarse to attract a potential mate.

Similarly, Mary, the Stone family daughter in The Donna Reed Show, expresses her dismay over her lack of “sex appeal” in a season one episode. Her brother volunteers that he had heard people talking about how to quickly lose ten pounds of ugly fat, directly relating Mary’s concerns over her appearance to her weight. Mary snaps out of her reverie over her unrequited crush to anxiously ask for the secret. Jeff, the brother, then supplies the punch line—”you just cut off your head!”—to which Mary responds with anger, having made herself vulnerable by expressing interest in a weight loss trick.40

In other episodes, Mary self-reports skipping lunches. She initially describes this strategy as a way to save money but also acknowledges it being necessary so that she can lose weight. Notably, in a season three episode, “The Lean Hungry Look,” the main plotline involves Donna struggling to “reduce” to fit into a favorite dress rather than have it altered.41 Throughout the episode, she hungrily watches her children and husband devour cake and sweets. Midway through the episode, her husband, Alex, realizes he also has gained weight and tries to rapidly reduce through exercise, injuring himself. Donna, as always, emerges triumphant in her perfectly fitting dress while Alex hobbles on a cane, a victim to excessive exercise, rather than Donna’s more sensible reduced food intake and moderate calisthenics. The episode ends with a joke at Mary’s expense—even though she and Jeff had both indulged in cake and sweets throughout the episode, it is Mary who is revealed to have gained too much weight to fit into a newly purchased cardigan in her usual size.

Bachelor Father also plays the teenage girl obsession with weight loss for laughs. Although Bachelor Father lacked a steady, thin maternal figure for Kelly to model herself after, Bentley romanced a new, slender woman each week. In a season three episode, “Bartered Bride,” Kelly’s concern over her “figure” is a source of humor. Kelly complains that a rival girl had gifted her chocolate, hoping that she would gain weight and not be able to fit into her cheerleading uniform. Kelly vows “not … to touch one calorie of it,” as the houseboy, Peter, promises to bake her low-calorie cookies instead. In the next scene, Bentley confesses to his secretary that he needs to keep candy away from Kelly, as “She’s straining at the seams of her cheerleading costume right now.” Kelly’s alleged struggles with weight are quickly forgotten as the episode moves on to the main (and also weight-related) plotline—Peter is being tricked into marriage through an unscrupulous broker. Unsurprisingly, given the previous set up, Peter is most horrified that his bride-to-be is not a “delicate flower,” but instead “Miss Chicken Fat of 1955.”42 Both Kelly and the potential bride, Precious Jade, are mocked and insulted for their inability to resist chocolate and rice respectively. Weight gain is a problem for women, according to Bachelor Father, and a sign of their lack of self-control.

In contrast to their sisters, teenage boys and younger daughters are given wide access to feed their appetites with abandon.43 The unending hunger of a teenage boy was a trope embraced by 1950s sitcom writers. In Season 1, Episode 16 of Father Knows Best, “Bud the Snob,” scenes highlight Bud seizing food out of the refrigerator, to feed not only his physical hunger but also his anger.44 After consuming an entire bag of peanuts, Bud humorously declares he had lost his appetite and storms off again, leaving a mess of shells to the invisible domestic work of his mother and older sister. Similarly, Kathy spends portions of the same episode devouring snacks and eating in the living room—behaviors that would never have been tolerated if Betty had been the one indulging. In numerous episodes, Betty must navigate around Kathy, who occupies space in the house in a way otherwise reserved for her father and brother, often as Kathy indulges in a variety of foods.

The world of 1950s sitcoms clearly posited that pre-adolescent girls were allowed to perform gender with few limitations, especially inside the domestic sphere. Kathy wears jeans, evades chores, gets dirty, eats with abandon, and enjoys football and other sports. In “Betty, Girl Engineer,” Kathy deposits herself on the stairs in her house, ravenously eating jammed bread as she comments, derisively, on her sister’s failed attempt to break into a male-dominated field.45 In the Kathy-centric episode from season three, “Spelling Bee,” Kathy is motivated to win the spelling bee with the promise of cake, even as she notes that cake is better when it is forbidden.46 As a prepubescent girl, Kathy is free to indulge her appetites, free from the correlation to sexual appetites or the demands of maintaining a slender figure to attract boys. The other members of her family remark bemusedly on her eating habits, implying that the desire to eat large portions of good food is a childhood stage that she will soon outgrow.

Similarly, fathers are expected to have healthy appetites and to have their desires catered to, with few exceptions. In “Margaret Learns to Drive,” Season 3, episode 8 of Father Knows Best, Betty acknowledges the male head of household privilege when she observes that her father is unique, as most men would be furious to arrive at a breakfast table devoid of eggs and toast (at a minimum).47 This statement underlines both the standard domestic expectations for 1950s fathers and the way in which Jim is ostensibly being particularly kind and understanding in not losing his temper at his wife’s dereliction of duty.48 Betty visually reinforces the subtext by refusing breakfast—leaving the table, returning to push a spoon around a bowl, and then departing for the day. In many ways, this scene mirrors and furthers the subtext that sexual and physical hunger were unsuitable for teenage girls in 50s sitcoms, echoing the previously described scene in which Jim seizes a cookie from Betty.49

“Betty, Girl Engineer,” a season two episode of Father Knows Best, initially assumes a progressive perspective on the issue of equality and equity between the sexes, particularly in regards to opportunities for young women. Yet, as the plot develops, the episode shifts from one that is sympathetic to Betty’s expressed desire to pursue engineering in a job shadowing program to one that mocks her suitability for a “male” career.50 In the waning minutes of the episode, Betty abandons her jeans for a pretty dress and her engineering career for a chaste date with an engineering student at a local college. Her new suitor, Doyle, who spent most of the episode schooling her on the proper division of labor and responsibilities for women and men, impresses Jim with his solid, old-fashioned values and presents Betty with a box of chocolates. Jim delightedly (and voyeuristically) watches Doyle and Betty agree to a date and helps himself to Betty’s gifted chocolates. The audience is thus reassured that Betty’s sexual appetite is suppressed (there is no kissing and Jim observes from around the corner) and that her physical hunger is denied (Jim eats the candy).51

Popular 1950s family sitcoms continually used their female characters to reinforce harmful views regarding gender beyond the overarching thesis statement that all young women should aspire to be housewives. Adolescent and pre-adolescent female viewers watching Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, The Goldbergs, and Bachelor Father repeatedly witnessed narratives and asides that argued for the primacy of a thin figure and the necessity of the suppression of appetite for teenage girls. Viewing these episodes, young American women saw a repeated visual message: teenage girls should not eat. To indulge in food would be to ruin one’s chance of romantic happiness; only males and prepubescent girls could eat freely and for pleasure. These damaging messages may not have directly resulted in anorexia, but years of research indicates that these media images cause long term harm to young women’s body image and self-esteem. The cultural representation of teenage daughters in the 1950s and television’s emphasis on the necessity of deprivation reinforced unrealistic and unhealthy ideas about the correlation between thinness and happiness.


Antler, Joyce. You Never Call! You Never Write: A History of the Jewish Mother. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Bachelor Father. 1957-1962. CBS, NBC, and ABC. Produced by Harry Ackerman, Everett Freeman, and Robert Sparks.

Banner, Lois. American Beauty. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Becker, A.E. “Television, disordered eating, and young women in Fiji: negotiating body image and identity during rapid social change.” Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry (2004): 533-559.

Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Botta, R.A. “Television images and adolescent girls’ body image disturbance.” Journal of Communication 49, no. 2 (1999): 22-41.

Bray, Abigail. “The Anorexic Body: Reading Disorders.” In The Body: Readers in Cultural Criticism, edited by Tiffany Atkinson, 116-124. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Brook, Vincent. 1999. “The Americanization of Molly: How Mid-fifties TV Homogenized The Goldbergs (and Got ‘Berg-larized’ in the Process).” Cinema Journal 38, no. 4 (Summer 1999): 45-69.

Brown, Timothy A. and David H. Barlow. Casebook in Abnormal Psychology, 5th edition. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2017.

Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

Casper, Regina C. “On the Emergence of Bulimia Nervosa as a Syndrome a Historical View.” International Journal of Eating Disorders 2, no. 3 (Spring 1983): 3-16.

Desjardins, Mary R. Father Knows Best. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2015.

“DIET-FRAUD LAID TO AD AGENCY; 2 Concerns and 3 Persons Also Indicted by U.S. Jury.” New York Times. January 24, 1961: 1.

Father Knows Best. 1954-1960. CBS and NBC. Produced by Murray Bolen, Ken Burton, and FranVan Hartesfeldt.

Habermas, Tilmann. “The Psychiatric History of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa: Weight Concerns and Bulimic Symptoms in Early Case Reports.” International Journal of Eating Disorders 8, no. 3 (May 1989): 259-273.

Harrison, Kristen. 1997. “Does interpersonal attraction to thin media personalities promote eating disorders?” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 41, no. 4 (May 2009): 478-500.

Harrison, Kristen and Veronica Hefner. “Media Exposure, Current and Future Body Ideals, and Disordered Eating Among Preadolescent Girls: A Longitudinal Panel Study.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 35, no. 2 (April 2006): 153-163.

Hartmann, Margaret. “BIC for Her, Finally a Pen that Ladies Can Use.” Jezebel. March 10, 2011. Accessed July 7, 2020. (

Hesse-Biber, Sharlene, Patricia Leavy, Courtney E. Quinn, and Julia Zoino. “The Mass Marketing of Disordered Eating and Eating Disorders: The Social Psychology of Women, Thinness and Culture.” Women’s Studies International Forum 29, no. 2 (March-April 2006): 208-224.

López-Guimerà, Gemma, Michael P. Levine, David Sánchez-Carracedo, and Jordi Fauquet. “Influece of Mass Media on Body Image and Eating Disordered Attitudes and Behaviors in Females: A Review of Effects and Processes.” Media Psychology 13, no. 4 (December 2010): 387-416.

Marling, Karal Ann. 9-49. As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mock, Erin Lee. “The Horror of ‘Honey, I’m Home!’: The Perils of Postwar Family Love in the Domestic Sitcom.” Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 41, no. 2 (Fall 2011): 29-50.

Probyn, Elspeth. “Beyond Food/Sex: Eating and an Ethics of Existence.” In The Body, edited by Tiffany Atkinson, 156-166. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Quick, Virginia M. and Carol Byrd-Bredbrenner. “Disordered eating, socio-cultural media influencers, body image, and psychological factors among a racially/ethnically diverse population of college women.” Eating Behaviors 15, no. 1 (January 2014): 37-41.

Raymond, Jeanne and Michael Bovet. 2015. “Preferred Women’s Waist-to-Hip Ratio Variation Over the Last 2,500 Years.” PLoS One (April 2015): 1-13. (

Schooler, Deborah, L. Monique Ward, Ann Merriweather, and Allison Caruthers. “Who’s that Girl: Television’s Role in the Body Image Development of Young White and Black Women.” Psychology of Women Quarterly, 28, no. 1 (March 2004): 38-47.

Sieczkowski, Cavan. “BIC Pens for Her Get Hilariously Snarky Amazon Reviews.” Huffington Post. August 30, 2012. Accessed July 7, 2020. (

The Donna Reed Show. 1958-1966. ABC. Produced by Tony Owen and William S. Roberts.

The Goldbergs. 1949-1956. CBS, NBC, and DuMont. Produced by Gertrude Berg, William Berke, Richard Clemner, and Worthington Miner.

“Tops Club.” Life, February 8, 1963: 15. Accessed 17 April 2020. (

“TOPS Takes Off Pounds.” Life, April 9, 1951: 137-140. Accessed 17 April 2020. (

US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit - 366 F.2d 423 (2d Cir. 1966). “United States of America, Plaintiff-appellee, v. John Andreadis A/k/a John Andre and Drug Research Corporation, Defendants-appellants, 366 F.2d 423.” Justia US Law. September 1. Accessed May 28, 2020. (

West, Lindy. “Bic’s Ridiculous Lady-Pens Cost 70% More Than Identical Regular Pens.” Jezebel. August 28, 2012. Accessed July 7, 2020. (


  1. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 179. ↩︎

  2. A.E. Becker, “Television, disordered eating, and young women in Fiji: negotiating body image and identity during rapid social change” Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 28, no. 4 (December 2004): 533-559; Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); R. A. Botta “Television images and adolescent girls’ body image disturbance” Journal of Communication 49, no. 2 (June 1999): 22–41; Kristin Harrison, “Does interpersonal attraction to thin media personalities promote eating disorders?,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 41, no. 4 (1997): 478-500. ↩︎

  3. Botta, “Television images,” 32; Bordo, Unbearable Weight; Sharlene Hesse-Biber, Patricia Leavy, Courtney E. Quinn, and Julia Zoino, “The Mass Marketing of Disordered Eating and Eating Disorders: The Social Psychology of Women, Thinness and Culture” Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 29, no. 2 (March-April, 2006): 208-224. It’s important to note that these effects are complicated. I concur with the argument made by Abigail Bray that anorexia is not directly caused by unrealistic body images. Instead, I contend here that these unrealistic body images are part of a larger set of cultural images that contribute to women’s and girls’ dissatisfaction with their bodies not that television is the sole cause of disordered eating; Bray, “The Anorexic Body: Reading Disorders” in Tiffany Atkinson, ed., The Body: Readers in Cultural Criticism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 116-124. ↩︎

  4. Gemma López-Guimerà, Michael P. Levine , David Sánchez-Carracedo, and Jordi Fauquet, “Influence of Mass Media on Body Image and Eating Disordered Attitudes and Behaviors in Females: A Review of Effects and Processes,” Media Psychology, Volume 13, no 4 (December 2010) 387-416; Kristen Harrison and Veronica Hefner, “Media Exposure, Current and Future Body Ideals, and Disordered Eating Among Preadolescent Girls: A Longitudinal Panel Study” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Vol. 35, No. 2 (April 2006): 153–163; Virginia M. Quick and Carol Byrd-Bredbenner, “Disordered eating, socio-cultural media influencers, body image, and psychological factors among a racially/ethnically diverse population of college women” Eating Behaviors Volume 15, Issue 1 (January 2014): 37-41; Deborah Schooler, L. Monique Ward, Ann Merriwether, and Allison Caruthers, “Who’s that Girl: Television’s Role in the Body Image Development of Young White and Black Women” Psychology of Women Quarterly, Vol. 28, no. 1 (March 2004): 38-47. ↩︎

  5. Harrison and Hefner, “Media, Body Ideals, and Disordered Eating,” 162. ↩︎

  6. “TOPS Club,” Life, 8 February 1963, 15. ↩︎

  7. “TOPS Takes off Pounds,” Life, 9 April 1951:137-140. ↩︎

  8. Lois Banner, American Beauty (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983), 283-285. ↩︎

  9. Banner has noted that this style diverged from the more comfortable styles of dress over the previous four decades. Unlike the easier to wear dresses that emerged from female designers, the cinched waist dress was created by a male designer (Banner, American Beauty, 278). ↩︎

  10. Timothy A. Brown and David H. Barlow, Casebook in Abnormal Psychology 5th edition (Boston: Cengage Learning, 2017), 156-157. Jeanne Bovet and Michel Raymond have studied the same phenomenon in terms of waist to hip ratio over time in order to gauge changes in male sexual preference for females. See “Preferred Women’s Waist-to-Hip Ratio Variation over the Last 2,500 Years” PLoS One. 2015; 10(4):10.1371/journal.pone.0123284, accessed 12 May 2020. ↩︎

  11. Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight, 208. ↩︎

  12. Regina C. Casper, “On the Emergence of Bulimia Nervosa as a Syndrome a Historical View,” International Journal of Eating Disorders 2, no. 3 (1983), 3. ↩︎

  13. Tilmann Habermas, “The Psychiatric History of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa: Weight Concerns and Bulimic Symptoms in Early Case Reports,” International Journal of Eating Disorders 8, no. 3 (1989): 259–273. ↩︎

  14. Banner, American Beauty, 277-278; Karal Ann Marling, As Seen on Tv: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 9-49. ↩︎

  15. Banner, American Beauty, 284-286. ↩︎

  16. The Goldbergs, “Milk Farm,” aired 1955 on CBS. See also, Joyce Antler, You Never Call! You Never Write: A History of the Jewish Mother (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 67. ↩︎

  17. The Goldbergs, aired June 1, 1954 on CBS. ↩︎

  18. On the Goldbergs and Americanization, see Antler, You Never Call, 68 and Vincent Brook, “The Americanization of Molly: How Mid-fifties TV Homogenized The Goldbergs (and Got “Berg-larized” in the Process)” Cinema Journal, vol. 38, issue 4 (1999): 45-69. ↩︎

  19. The Goldbergs, aired May 11, 1954 on CBS. ↩︎

  20. The Goldbergs, aired July 13 and 20, 1954 on CBS. ↩︎

  21. The Goldbergs, “Rosie’s Nose,” aired October 27, 1955 on CBS. ↩︎

  22. In a series of 1954 episodes in which the Goldberg family retreat to the mountains for a summer vacation, Rosalie begins to date a young doctor who is referred to more than he is seen. As mentioned above, these episodes once again feature Rosalie walking away from an empty plate while others eat. The Goldbergs, aired July 13 and 20, 1954 on CBS. ↩︎

  23. Life Magazine, 13 February 1950, 52. ↩︎

  24. Life Magazine, 29 May 1950, 93; 21 July 1952, 61; 20 March 1950, 74; 15 July 1957, 96. Lest we think that these types of ads are incredibly old-fashioned and out of date, in 2012, BIC sold “Bic for her” pens. Their promotional copy highlighted the “sleek silhouette and jeweled accents.” They not only cost significantly more than regular BIC pens (designed for men?) but also received a huge (and amusing) consumer backlash resulting in scores of satirical reviews on See Margaret Hartmann, “BIC for Her, Finally a Pen that Ladies Can Use,” Jezebel, March 10, 2011, (, Accessed July 7, 2020; Cavan Sieczkowski, “BIC Pens for Her Get Hilariously Snarky Amazon Reviews,” Huffington Post, August 30, 2012; (, accessed July 7, 2020; Lindy West, “Bic’s Ridiculous Lady-Pens Cost 70% More Than Identical Regular Pens,” Jezebel, August 28, 2012, (, Accessed July 7, 2020. ↩︎

  25. One of many contemporary popular culture examples of these gendered expectations can be found in the portrayal of Jim Stark’s (James Dean’s) parents in the 1955 movie, Rebel Without A Cause. The film posits that Jim’s troubles stem from his father’s insufficient manliness and his mother’s unfeminine behavior. ↩︎

  26. Life Magazine, 17 January 1955, 103 & Life Magazine, 11 April 1955, 4. ↩︎

  27. Life Magazine, 13 February 1954, 25, 46, 100, 123. ↩︎

  28. Life Magazine, 17 January 1955, 64. ↩︎

  29. Life Magazine, 8 March 1954, 120-124. ↩︎

  30. Life Magazine, 8 March 1954, 120. ↩︎

  31. Life Magazine, 8 March 1954, 122. ↩︎

  32. Life Magazine, 15 January 1950, 5. ↩︎

  33. Life Magazine, 13 February 1950, 23. ↩︎

  34. Life Magazine, 13 February 1950, 122. ↩︎

  35. Life Magazine, 8 March 1954, 148. ↩︎

  36. “Clinical Proof of weight loss viewed by millions on TV Networks,” Life Magazine, 21 September 1959, 60. ↩︎

  37. “DIET-FRAUD LAID TO AD AGENCY; 2 Concerns and 3 Persons Also Indicted by U.S. Jury,” New York Times, 24 January 1964, 1, Accessed 28 May 2020. ↩︎

  38. US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit - 366 F.2d 423 (2d Cir. 1966), United States of America, Plaintiff-appellee, v. John Andreadis A/k/a John Andre and Drug Research Corporation, Defendants-appellants, 366 F.2d 423, (, Accessed 28 May 2020. ↩︎

  39. The Goldbergs, aired May 11, 1954 on CBS. ↩︎

  40. The Donna Reed Show, episode 15, “Mary’s Double Date,” directed by Oscar Rudolph, written by Alan Lipscott and Bob Fisher, aired December 31, 1958 on ABC. ↩︎

  41. The Donna Reed Show, episode 90, “The Lean Hungry Look,” directed by Robert Ellis Miller, written by Tom & Helen August, aired December 29, 1960 on ABC. ↩︎

  42. Bachelor Father, episode 59, “Bentley and the Bartered Bride,” directed by Earl Bellamy, written by Bob Fisher, James Hong, Alan Lipscott, and Eleanor Middleton, aired January 21, 1960 on NBC. ↩︎

  43. Bordo, Unbearable Weight, 208-212. ↩︎

  44. Father Knows Best, episode 16, “Bud the Snob,” directed by William D. Russell, written by Roswell Rogers, aired January 16, 1955 on CBS. ↩︎

  45. Father Knows Best, episode 56, “Betty, Girl Engineer,” directed by William D. Russell, written by Roswell Rogers, aired April 11, 1956 on CBS. ↩︎

  46. Father Knows Best, episode 93, “The Spelling Bee,” directed by Peter Tewksbury, written by Roswell Rogers, aired on April 17, 1957 on CBS. ↩︎

  47. Father Knows Best, episode 109, “Margaret Learns to Drive,” directed by Peter Tewksbury, written by Paul West, aired November 20, 1957 on CBS. On television, cars, and gender in the 50s, see Marling, As Seen On TV, 128-163. ↩︎

  48. The underlying threat of male violence in 50s sitcoms has been well-documented by Erin Lee Mock. “The Horror of ‘Honey, I’m Home!’: The Perils of Postwar Family Love in the Domestic Sitcom” Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies Vol. 41, no. 2 (Fall 2011): 29-50. ↩︎

  49. On hunger and sexuality, see Bordo, Unbearable Weight, 206 and Elspeth Probyn, “Beyond Food/Sex: Eating and an Ethics of Existence” in The Body, edited by Tiffany Atkinson (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 156-166. ↩︎

  50. Mary R. Desjardins has argued in her book on Father Knows Best that the introduction of these challenges to the patriarchal status quo were disruptive to the traditional narrative and therefore should be viewed as advancing the cause of gender equality. I respectfully disagree and conclude that the dismissal of these attempted critiques of 50s patriarchy merely solidified the show’s commitment to the standard 1950s domestic power structure in popular culture. Betty may have questioned gendered limitations, but she always accepted them at the end of the half hour. See Desjardins, Father Knows Best (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2015). ↩︎

  51. Father Knows Best, episode 56, “Betty, Girl Engineer,” directed by William D. Russell, written by Roswell Rogers, aired April 11, 1956 on CBS. ↩︎

About the Author: 

Dr. Sarah Trembanis is an associate professor of History and the faculty coordinator of the Associate in Arts Program-Dover at the University of Delaware. She is the author of The Set-Up Men: Race and Resistance in Black Baseball (McFarland Press, 2014) and is currently working on a monograph about teenage daughter characters in 1950s TV sitcoms. Her research interrogates the nexus among identity, race, gender, and culture in twentieth-century America. Dr. Trembanis is the co-chair of the American Studies area for MAPACA.

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