What’s rare is beautiful. Drop Chris Hemsworth back in Shakespeare’s day, and no matter the Australian hunk’s 21st-century attractiveness, 16th-century folks would probably consider him plain. Everyone was ripped back then because everyone was starving. Fatter was better. Fatter signaled wealth and power. Fatter was hot AF.
Eventually, the pendulum of idealized beauty swung toward leanness, giving rise to a checkered health-and-fitness industry that has brought us a buffet of bizarre, silly, and dangerous ways to lose weight.
Omaha Magazine has gathered some of the weirdest, worst weight-loss techniques developed over the years. Those who are sighing over that bowl of post-holiday lettuce salad with boiled egg or dragging themselves to their new live-streaming machine for the third time this year can be grateful they are not doing any of the following (hopefully).
Oscillo-manipulator, or Belt Vibrator
The granddaddy of dubious exercise devices, the oscillomanipulator (also known as the belt vibrator, the belt exerciser, or the belt machine) shakes your body violently while you stand there looking cool. Invented in 1850 by Swedish physician Dr. Gustav Zander, the belt machine operates on the principle that vibrating the body knocks harmful toxins and fat cells loose, like a jackhammer on concrete.
You may have seen these machines in old movies. The oscillomanipulator gained popularity in the early 1900s, fell out of favor in the 1930s, and experienced a resurgence from the 1950s through the 1970s, according to the Kansas Historical Society website. Of course, as exercise science (and anyone who has ever used one) could tell you, they don’t work. They might make you feel like your bones are buzzing, but they won’t shape you up.
Sadly, companies are still trying to push the concept of vibrational exercise. A recent analysis of Amazon search results conducted by the writer of this article features 47 vibrating platforms for sale, all paired with the words “fitness,” “exercise,” “slimming,” and/or “workout.” These machines range from $75 to $4,000. There’s even a portable “heated slimming belt” for the truly gullible.
Unlike the belt machine, the mechanical horse might actually help a person get fit by strengthening their core. It didn’t do President Calvin Coolidge any favors. When word got out that he rode a mechanical horse for exercise three times a day, his political opponents and the press savaged him, according to the Washington Post. Eventually, Coolidge grew tired of the horse, and ditched the device for a gizmo the Hartford Courant called an “electrical vibration machine claimed to reduce the waistline,” which should sound familiar. A modern version of the mechanical horse is sold today as the Equicizer, possibly the cleverest name of all time, but it ditches the weight-loss claims and instead purports to help horseback riders stay in horse-riding shape during the off-horse season.
Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS)
In 1761, scientist Luigi Galvani discovered that electric current can activate skeletal muscle, and people are still talking about it. The EMS machine uses electrodes to deliver ostensibly fat-burning electricity into your body. That’s the idea, anyway, but it’s not so great in practice. According to the FDA website, the agency has received reports of shocks, burns, bruises, skin irritation, and pain associated with EMS devices, as well as potentially lethal interference with pacemakers and defibrillators. If getting into shape is (at least partly) about looking good, perhaps one would be wise to skip this machine. Burns and bruises are not a good look for anyone.
The Tapeworm Diet
The tapeworm diet works by swallowing a pill that has a tapeworm egg inside. When the egg hatches, the tapeworm will grow inside your body and eat whatever you’re eating.
This diet started in the Victorian era, a time when women so desired to be thin, they broke their ribs and wore corsets to bring their waistlines down to less than 20 lines around. It’s no wonder, then, that they thought a ingesting a parasite was a fine idea. A tapeworm can attach itself to other organs or tissues outside your digestive tract and cause serious damage, not to mention the unpleasant side effects of nausea and diahhrea that help with the weight loss. There are some people who still subscribe to this diet.
The Wine and Egg Diet
Feeling bored and want to ruin the next three days? Limit yourself to a 5 oz. grilled steak, three hard-boiled eggs, a half-pot of coffee, and one bottle of wine per day. With the Wine and Egg Diet, you can expect a loss of consciousness, five pounds, and possibly your job. It may not be the healthiest program in the world, but it is accurately named.
This dizzying diet first appeared in Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 classic Sex and the Single Girl, an otherwise farsighted book advocating women’s financial independence and sexual empowerment. Vogue reprinted the regimen in 1977. It went viral last year in meme form.
Any weight lost from this extremely calorie-restricted and dehydrating diet likely comes from muscle glycogen, water, delirium, and perhaps a small amount of body fat. Aside from the obvious toll that eating like this will take on your health, no one knows why Gurley Brown thought the Wine and Egg Diet would help increase women’s agency. It’s hard to destroy the patriarchy when you’re jittery, buzzed, and starving all day.
The slapping machine, or mechanical slapping massage device, was purportedly located in the Battle Creek, Michigan, sanitarium of late 19-century health guru John Harvey Kellogg; the same inventor of a variety of breakfast cereals. It appears to have involved straight-jacket belts and an elaborate pulley system to slap the user at various places around the body. That is all we need to know about it—some of the best art defies explanation.
There you have it, a few of the oddest weight-loss methods of the past century. Diet and exercise regimens will always contain fads, so those who are thinking of ingesting a tapeworm or cotton balls today may want to think about what research will think about this method tomorrow.
This article was printed in the January/February 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.