Can Tapeworms Make You Beautiful?

Apr 23, 2022 0 comments

“The loveliness of a rival eats into a girl’s heart like corrosion;” says The Ugly-girl Papers: Or, Hints for the Toilet. The Victorian era novel by SD Power may be chewed up and spit out by many of you, but there were large sections of the corset-wearing society back then that swore by its stringent standards of beauty. Even today, many might not know of the existence of the book, but societal discrimination and self judgement keeps them hunting for alternative ways to meet the prevalent notion of prettiness. Fad diets have been a part of these regimens for long now, and one of the strangest in the chest of trending menus has been the tapeworm diet for weight loss.

Tapeworms have been monopolising this world of beauty since the Victorian 1830s. The ideal of beauty back then was a little different than what it is today—think pale complexion, dilated pupils and a frail physique like that of a tuberculosis patient. Naturally, achieving these unnatural heights of “beauty” required unnatural methods. That’s when bathing in chemicals like arsenic and ingesting poisonous ammonia came into play. Another external tool, which many would have considered less hazardous than exposure to toxins, was the tapeworm.

What? Why? How?

Prescribing tapeworms was no less than a clinical practice in the Victorian era. Women of the time would ingest tiny pills that contained larvae. Once inside, the larvae would metamorph into a worm that would feed on a parasitic relationship with its host body. Women could either wear choking corsets that would alter the shape of their body for the perfect 16-inch waist; But that would also bring in a world of pain and discomfort. Or they could let a worm do the work for them: they would continue to eat to their heart’s content, while the tapeworm in their body would eat most of the food that hit their stomach, reducing the final amount of calorie intake. “No danger, no diet, no exercise.” as it was later described in the 1920’s.

But sometimes, things are too good to be true. The perfect weight loss method would reveal its imperfections near the end. To remove tapeworms from the body, Dr. Meyers of Sheffield created a cylindrical tube that would be filled with food and inserted into the patient’s digestive tract. They would be asked to avoid eating for a few days, until the worm got hungry and moved towards the pill for food, where it would get trapped. By the time that happened, many women choked to death, the journey of their inch loss abandoned in vain. The other way was to insert a pail of fresh milk towards the anus to coax the worm out.

The reports were all anecdotal claims which left the veracity of pills’ effectiveness in murky waters. There was barely any evidence to suggest that the pills contained tapeworm larvae in the first place. Many contained arsenic in small quantities too, a fact that was conveniently left out of the elite advertising tactics of the 19th century. Women would consume more than the prescribed doses in hopes of losing more weight, but would end up being poisoned instead. The end result was often fatal, earning the tapeworm diet an ill reputation. That, until notions of beauty began to demand once again, this time around the 1920’s. A slender, curveless body was not easy to attain, but women were resilient. A fad diet started once again with tapeworm pills being circulated in the markets. News of antiparasitic pills floated up: the pills would hopefully kill the tapeworm in the body and the dieter could excrete it out (not without its own rectal complications).

As late as 2013, a woman in Iowa reportedly ingested a tapeworm to lose weight. A warning from the state’s department of public health soon followed, for the side-effects of the so-called diet were now in the open. Tapeworms can grow as long as 30ft in length. If beauty comes from within, this would be a distasteful sight. Moreover, tapeworm diet can cause nausea, headaches, vision impairment and also dementia and epilepsy. Over the years many cases of unconscious ingestion of tapeworm have been reported in hospital emergency rooms across the world. Bad food or other conditions would cause the worm to make its way into the body, causing extreme cases of diarrhea.

The world is progressing as a collective entity, but clearly a few continue to cling to shunned ideas of health and dieting. There was some truth to what Power said, people out there do compete with rivals for a better place in society’s heart. But isn’t it important to be better in our own eyes before being better for others?

# Atlas Obscura


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