Register Monday | March 4 | 2024

The Shrinking Woman

How fad diets conquer our dignity, not our fat.

One belief accounts for the extreme success of diet trends: self-hatred. We deserve to eat vast quantities of animal-hoof pulp, bacon and pineapple. We deserve to join Orwellian weight-loss groups for astronomical fees, to pay for the privilege of eating boilable pouches of bile. We deserve to have our intestines hacked, our stomachs stapled, our fat vacuumed. We deserve Jazzercise. We should pray for thinness and redemption. We must die and be born again if we want to be skinny. And if we simply die, utterly exhausted? Oh well. We deserve that too. We are fat, after all.

One day when I was five, my mother came home grinning at me through clenched wired teeth. She spoke with a terrible metallic lisp. I thought she was a monster. “Mum’s going to be this thin,” she said and she showed me with her hands, palms facing each other, nearly together, as in prayer.

For six months, nothing but liquids. Broth, skim milk and spinach, blended into a drinkable pulp. I once watched her polish off an entire carton of chocolate-chip ice cream in a fit of hunger, the chips getting stuck in the wires, the insides of her mouth blackening. At the deli where she worked, she said “shorry” to the customers and then smilingly pointed to her mouth.

She told me later that she wired her teeth shut to surprise my father. He was working in Egypt then, and in a few months we’d be heading over to meet his family for the first time. My mother, in typical French-Canadian fashion, wanted to make a good impression. She also wanted to prove to my father that she could lose her pregnancy weight, a feat he thought was well beyond her.

“He didn’t even notice,” she said afterward. But I did. My mother was a ghost of herself. She became gangly and saggy, stooped over like she had been punched hard in the stomach. She was thinner than that fissure of light between her hands. For a year after the wires came off, she managed to stay that way by starving herself. Then, she began to eat. The eighty pounds came back quietly, viciously, inevitably.

Jaw wiring was very common in the eighties—as common as liposuction, gastric bypasses and stomach stapling are today. Though it could be extremely dangerous (not able to throw up freely when she was ill, my mother almost died twice by choking on her own vomit), the trend was seen as a legitimate and successful method of dealing with the problem of excess weight. “Because hunger,” sagely noted a self-styled food expert and dentist, “begins with the mouth.”

Today, there are countless weight-loss trends endorsed by celebrities and “experts,” advertised on billboards and in pop-up windows, or profiled on piano-accompanied exclusives onOprah. Magazines, in particular, love the tale of the shrunken woman. How Suzanne sipped away 130 pounds. How the needle on Nancy’s scale never settled on one number very long. How Cathy overcame her cellulite with the help of unbuttered popcorn and prayer. And there are always the haunting Before and After pictures. Before: a red-faced Pam with a bad perm exploding out of her polka-dot pants. After: a glamour shot of a tiaraed ghoul in pastels. Triumphant and skeletal, she stands in one leg of her old fat-pants, extending the waistband as far she can.

Between us, my mother and I have been on nearly every popular diet, some of them more than once. I have lost and gained and lost again a total of 300 pounds, from prepubescence to my present age of twenty-six. My mother’s fluctuations were more vast and violent still. For as long as I can remember, one of us was always either rapidly shrinking or rapidly expanding. Sometimes we did it together, clasping fat hands, making solemn vows. “Tomorrow,” my mother would soberly declare, “will be dayone.”

The first time I was inspired to diet was in 1988, at the age of nine, when I weighed one hundred pounds. The most popular trend in weight loss back then was the Beverly Hills Diet—a “California”-themed plan that encourages people to eat fruit almost exclusively. The details were laid out by Judy Mazel in her 1981 book,The Beverly Hills Diet , a 262-page tome that spent over seven months on bestseller lists and enjoyed immense success throughout the decade. Our neighbours were on it. My mother’s co-workers were on it. I was on it.

The Beverly Hills Diet promised exotic fruits and unlimited champagne—how eighties. It was a diet for the “movie stars, the jet-setters, and the ultra body conscious who are hardened to flimsy fads.” To be Beverly Hills–thin was to join the ranks of the celebrity elite. I imagined myself dressed in white among the palm trees, and I was willing to suffer for that child’s dream. Little did I know that to join the ranks of the elite meant that the more time I spent on the toilet, the better.

Whatever the intestinal fallout, the Beverly Hills Diet made money. And not only because its Californian setting sparked the imagination of its demographic—soap-opera-fed, dreamy-eyed women. It also promoted Mazel as someone who knew the fat person’s pain from personal experience. “All my life I have loved to eat and lived to eat,” wrote Mazel. “…I know I’m an emotional eater…I eat in response to a feeling. And I can’t stop those feelings from happening.”

The Beverly Hills Diet has an extensive pedigree, which dates back to the nineteen-twenties and the Hollywood Eighteen-Day Diet—a 585-calorie-per-day plan involving little more than grapefruit, oranges, Melba toast and hard-boiled eggs. The Beverly Hills Diet counsels a very dangerous regimen: ten days of nothing but fruit, followed by a month of fruit and the occasional steak or ear of corn. It’s what’s known as a “food combining” diet—a weight-loss program that is based on the dubious scientific theory that consumption of one food group at a time (protein, starches, fruits, etc.) prevents improper digestion and waist expansion.

“It’s all a bunch of baloney,” my mother roared from her island of couch. The Frankensteining of her teeth ushered in a period of her being wary of diets. Her new-found denial presented a problem at my tender age: I couldn’t do my own shopping, and my mother—in what I now recognize as wisdom—refused to buy me the inordinate amount of pineapple and melon required for the diet. I made do with apples, bananas and oranges. It lasted two weeks. I was young. I had no patience for hunger-—yet.

I learned fast. In 1990, twelve and ever so impressionable, SlimFast’s “Give Us a Week, We’ll Take Off the Weight” campaign had me by the tits. Though the company claimed that it sought to surpass “the popularity of fad diets which promise to magically melt away the pounds,” it was their slogan, bastioned by commercials of women in white bathing suits running along rocky shores, that won the hearts of pudgy girls like me. My mother wouldn’t let me go on SlimFast, so, behind her back, I pooled some money with my friends from school and purchased the rank powder myself.

In existence since the Depression, the liquid diet first peaked in popularity in the seventies with Robert Linn’s The Last Chance Diet: A Revolutionary Approach to Weight Loss. Partially composed of animal hides and tendons, Linn’s drink and similar liquid diets were temporarily banned in 1977 when they were linked to fifty-eight deaths. Yet the public’s desire for a liquid solution never waned, and the trend roared on. In 1988, my mother and I watched Oprah publicly wheel out a wagon full of fat meant to represent the sixty-seven pounds she had lost through Optifast (another liquid diet). We watched her gain it all back over the next four years, but this did not seem to shake the public’s faith in beverage-based diets.

The whole point of liquid dieting, of diets in general, is to lift our minds into a realm of the make-believe and the hypothetically possible. In reality, according to nutrition historian Hillel Schwartz, the “formula diet” is a regressive one, “tacitly and technically derived from diets for infants, the infirm and the psychotic.” SlimFast shakes tasted to me like the rancid insides of a vitamin jar. I now wonder why I bothered. All they did was transform my normal desire to eat into a primal urge to devour.

My experiment in secret dieting ended in tears in some godless fry hut. I told my mother that I had been using the shakes for over a month. Her “I told you so” response was, in retrospect, inevitable. She hated the fact that I was dieting and told me so. “Just be a kid, for Christ’s sake,” she pleaded. “Enjoy your life.” I had no idea what she was talking about.

Following my parents’ divorce in 1991, my mother and I moved from Montreal to Toronto so she could take a job as a restaurant manager in a hotel. I didn’t adjust. Not only did the move from a private girls’ school to a co-ed public school make me more keenly aware of my teenage body, but the lipsticked girls in my classes intimidated me with their discussions of sex and starvation methods. I spent the first year of lunch hours frowningly eating cookies in a stall in the girls’ washroom.

That summer, my mother sent me back to Quebec for tennis camp, hoping to get me into exercise. I was so badly teased for being heavy that I returned heavier still, with a massive chip on my shoulder and a death-dealing serve. My mother made us play tennis every night so that I could lose weight in the remaining weeks before my first high school year. We played for hours. But just as I had dieted in secret, I was now eating in secret. I didn’t lose a pound.

After another school year of sighingly eating in corners, I snapped and tried exercising again. I swam one hundred laps twice daily at the local pool, my mother applauding from a lawn chair. I soon became a tall, angular, 140-pound girl with brittle, green hair. I continued my regime for two years, joining the high school swim team, winning medals. My mother, who couldn’t swim, was terribly proud.

When I was fourteen, my mother had a heart attack. She remained in the hospital for a little over a week, scowling at the urine-coloured walls while my grandmother and I watched her heart blips on the monitor. “Deux p’tites nouilles pour souper,calice ,” she snorted about the small amount of food on her tray. My grandmother laughed, “B’en non, t’en as trois.” I looked on in horror. I didn’t think it was funny—eating, I was certain, was what had got her ill in the first place.

As my mother recuperated, I exercised more. In addition to swimming, I jogged five to seven kilometres daily, did aerobics classes at the Y and stopped eating meat. That summer, I went away to work at a hotel in British Columbia. At 138 pounds, I was already quite thin for a girl of five feet ten. But even at this, my very thinnest, I wasn’t thin enough. The day I arrived in BC, I began a crash diet I had read about in Diet and Exercise Magazine.

Diet and Exercise is a publication that deserves to be banned: it does nothing but offer quick fixes, advise you to chew your food slowly and report what C-list stars do to maintain their “celebrity-slim” figures (Vanna White, I remember reading, favours roast chickenwithout the skin). My nameless crash diet told me I could lose ten pounds in seven days, so I followed their one-week menu (750-calories-a-day) for four weeks straight. I lost thirty pounds. I was smug and sickly for about a week after, but then hunger broke in me like rain. In less than two months, I had gained the weight back twice over.

When I returned to Toronto, my mother was a new woman—slender, smoking, wearing jeans (my jeans) and telling everyone to love themselves. Along with Oprah and her willing executioners, my mother had “made the connection” (the slogan of Oprah’s infamous wellness program and the title of a 1994 book she co-wrote with her personal trainer, Bob Greene). My mother didn’t exercise, but she did own a gratitude journal and she certainly watched a lot of talk shows. She took off the weight by not eating much. She ordered croissants and I ate them for her. “Moderation is the trick,” she’d say. “A few bites here and there.” I nodded like I knew exactly what she meant. I bought burgers, took a few bites out of them, threw them away, and then dug them out of the trash in the middle of the night and finished them off in the dark.

Now sixteen, I took up smoking in secret to reduce my appetite. It didn’t help. I was famished and terrified at the vastness of my hunger and my inability to control it. All attempts to get myself back into a draconian regimen—eating nothing but fruit, drinking nothing but Diet Coke or even consuming nothing at all—failed after a day or so. I no longer had the strength for hunger. Working part-time at Mmmarvellous Mmmuffins (oh, the shame), I crouched behind the counter and ate an obscene number of mmmuffins. I became a fat, morosely introspective teenager who liked to read Russian novels by candlelight.

By the mid-nineties, my mother and I had both grown monstrous. It was then that we attempted, briefly, to love ourselves. To this end, we read Terry Poulton’sNo Fat Chicks: How Big Business Profits Making Women Hate Their Bodies, a highly subversive polemic about how the dieting industry has made billions convincing women to hate themselves.

And we joined Weight Watchers. We counted points, we ate frozen microwaveable mini-meals of gloopy pasta and pineapple-chunked chicken, which left us starving. We sucked hunks of brown ice on a stick for dessert. I refused to attend the weekly meetings but my mother sometimes did. “So inspiring,” she would say, and then she wouldn’t go again for weeks. We discussed our feelings at Burger King. There, high on grease, we made new resolutions to stick with it. We just weren’t trying hard enough, we reasoned. Weight Watchers was, after all, “thesmart choice.”

Weight Watchers was started over forty years ago. Right from the beginning, it presented itself as a therapeutic form of dieting. Meetings involve AA-style confessions, communal weigh-ins, and time with a counsellor. From TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) to Weight Watchers to Jenny Craig to Curves, weight-loss “communities” claim to be about and for women. Their founders are almost always former fat chicks who have struggled with their weight. Weight Watchers creator Jean Nidetch, for example, continued to try on her size 44 dresses each month for a year after she had trimmed down to a size 12. “I pray I’ll never get to the point where I’ll think I’ve always been thin, successful and at the end of the rainbow,” she wrote inThe Story of Weight Watchers. “I don’t know of anybody who has been fat who ever feels totally safe again. We know we’re not cured. We’re merely arrested.”

The idea that a woman could never be safe from her flesh, even its ghost, is crucial to understanding why collective dieting is so successful. Thinness is discussed as a precarious condition, requiring eternal vigilance, and fatness is a state of abject alienation. Both turn your weight—whatever it is—into a position of weakness. The Weight Watchers prescription is strength in numbers, solidarity and a lifetime commitment. For Weight Watchers alone, to say nothing of its corporate dieting clones, that eternal vigilance translates into us$2.5 billion a year.

The “healing process” further involves atrocious and mandatory food, which companies sell to their members at staggering prices. I remember crank-calling Jenny Craig a few times as a morbid teenager. Recently, though, I called in earnest. “Hi,” answered a woman, in the sort of voice a kindergarten teacher uses on children who have just wet themselves. “My name’sNadine. What’s yours ?” I didn’t tell her. I said I was calling to confirm the twenty-dollars-for-twenty-pounds advertisement I had seen on the website and to ask if there were other costs. She chirped: “Just the food! Thirteen to nineteen dollars a day!”

The sight of a cellophane-wrapped, Weight Watchers cannelloni log will forever make me shudder, but Jenny Craig food is exponentially worse: frozen pseudo-veggies, canned cream of crap, boilable pouches of bile (distilled from compounded tears of fat women, I imagine). Nadine asked me if I was interested. I scoffed and told her that I was only confirming the prices for a magazine article I was writing.

“You can’t publish any of what I’ve just said,” she said sternly.

“Why not?”

“You just can’t,” she replied, giving me the number for the Canadian head office: 1-800-JENNY-CARE (yes, that’s nine digits instead of the usual seven, because Jenny Cares so very, very much).

“Of course you can publish these prices,” cooed the Stepford wife at head office. “It’s not a secret, after all.”

Amazingly, my mother would later go back to Weight Watchers even though she’d only ever gained weight on the diet. The company is so successful in marketing its collaborative methods as the healthiest, wisest, most manageable choice for women that the idea of not succeeding seemed shameful to her. If she failed, she felt she could only blame herself.

In the late nineties, my mother left her hotel job to take a corporate position at Starbucks. Now in university, convinced that all diets were futile, I lived in my head and ate what I wanted. Judy Mazel—blonde, born again, and still wielding her pineapple—had recently resurfaced withThe New Beverly Hills Diet . The updated book focussed on her emotions even more obsessively than the first, as befitted the decade of feelings: fat-woman confessionals, an openly shrinking and expanding Oprah, books likeReviving Ophelia . To speak to a nineties audience concerned with the spirit as well as the body, Judy made herself into a kind of evangelical mother. “I’ll send you a graduation certificate—or should I say a birth certificate for a Born-Again Skinny.” Growing thin through her method was about more than weight loss—it was a bona fide religious opportunity: “Now give me your hand you little Skinny, and I’ll lead you out of the valley of the Shadow of Fat, and together we’ll revel in the Land of Hipbones.”

For me, the Land of Hipbones seemed far off. Now morbidly fat, I had grown philosophical and misanthropic through many failed diets. Judy Mazel seemed like precisely the bug-eyed and bejewelled bitch my mother had made her out to be all those years ago. I understood that my mother’s hatred of this diet was rooted in just how condescending and insulting its author was toward her readers, but perhaps she hated it all the more because she had attempted its methodological cousin, laid out in the originalDr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution of 1972.

When Atkins re-emerged back on the scene in the late nineties, protein—long maligned in the dieting underworld—experienced a renaissance. My mother, who had tried and hated the original revolution, went along with it a second time. She felt it suited her perfectly. His 1992 book,Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution , promises liberal amounts of fatty foods and claims to work wonders for heart patients: “If you’re hungry, eat. That’s what God gave you a mouth, tongue and lips for,” says the good doctor to a patient with a cholesterol level of 284 and a triglyceride level of 1,200. My mother, a heart-attack veteran, was thrilled.

One understands why a diet involving bacon was such a success. But with thirty million followers, Atkins was not merely successful. He was arguably responsible for causing a fundamental shift in eating habits and attitudes about weight loss—a shift I would describe as a catastrophe of common sense.

From the beginning, this was no mere diet. Atkins successfully marketed himself as a misunderstood revolutionary hero, fighting the establishment on behalf of the overweight, whom he enlisted to help drive his visionary campaign. The “establishment,” in Atkins’s case, was balanced diets based on the calorie theory, a “system” that he characterized as the real culprit. “The calorie theory has become one colossal hoax with which commercial interests and the nutrition establishment have been successfully victimizing the hungry dieting public for so long.”

Atkins triumphed by redefining the fat person as a victim—not of their own eating habits or metabolism, but of the very diets that claimed to be helping them. The nutrition system has failed you; the diet industry has robbed you; the medical world has misunderstood you; and, most importantly, your body has betrayed you. Atkins pushed his “revolutionary never-hungry-no-limit-steak-and-salad-plus diet” as a healthier, more doable, countercultural alternative to mainstream methods. To follow him was a political act, a way out of feeling fat, hungry and confused.

Once again, my mother failed miserably with Atkins. She followed the plan doggedly for months at a time; then, she inevitably cracked, began eating bread and ballooned. In his FAQ glossary (under “F-Forever”), the question is posed: “Will I never be able to have my favourite carbohydrate dish?” The doctor answers: “Sure, anytime you’d like to gain three or four pounds.” My mothergained twenty, then thirty, then forty.

It was around this time—in mid-2000—that she left for Seattle to take a higher-up job with Starbucks. I was in the middle of a university year in Toronto and couldn’t go with her. “It’s better if you stay here,” she said. “I think you need to be on your own for a while.” I don’t know why, but my mother was convinced that her leaving would solve my weight problem. I began to believe it too. When she left, I was the fattest I had ever been in my life: 263 pounds. Not a month later, I began to shrink.

I lost weight by following a low-fat, low-calorie version of Atkins prescribed to me by a doctor. I wiled away evenings chain-smoking, watching cooking shows and reading cuisine books. I went to grocery stores in the middle of the night, stomach roaring like a vacuum cleaner, and wandered the candy aisles, touching the packaging, scouring the nutritional information, fumblingly putting the items back, shoving my hands in my pockets and running back home.

After fourteen months, I had gouged a full-sized woman out of my own flesh. I felt old and emptied and tired. Yet my fists were forever clenched with hunger and anger. I called my mother and cried. She sighed and said, “Honey, I know it’s hard...but you’re doing so, so well.”

The faults of diets pale in comparison to our desire to change, fast and forever, the fact of our flesh. Diets are the immensely profitable by-product of a culture that holds a physical impossibility as its ideal. “There is one crime against the modern ethics of beauty which is unpardonable; far better it is to commit any number of petty crimes than to be guilty of growing fat,” scolded Vogue in 1918. And all we have heard since is its hollow echoes, reverberating across the vile soundboards of magazine and screen. The alarm of the “obesity epidemic” has jingled commercially for over a century.

Nutrition experts such as Hillel Schwartz, Terry Poulton and Peter Stearns have all pointed out that our cultural obsession with slimming preceded our actual weight gain. I know, for instance, that neither my mother nor myself were very big women when we started dieting. But we became so, in part, because of the diets themselves. “Fatness,” notes Schwartz, “is so obstinate a problem in our society precisely because it is so richly situated at its centre.”

How paradoxical that at the cultural centre of the fattest continent on earth is a blonde celebrity yearning to escape. Bone, teeth, hair and husk comprise the poster girl of our obsession. Nicole Kidman, Brittany Murphy, Mary-Kate Olsen, Lindsey Lohan, Kelly Ripa: their emaciated emblems, gauntly gloating on the covers of magazines, are both the medium and the message.

I’ve come a long way since my supermarket days, but I’m still struggling with the same problems. No matter how much knowledge I accumulate, no matter how much I scold the diet industry and the media, I am still vulnerable to their message—just like my mother. She wasn’t a vain woman. She was not losing weight in order to emulate the glamorous dregs of the televised female form. I know she wasn’t losing weight to meet an absurd ideal. She was doing it just to be worthy of a basic standard of respect. She was losing weight to be free from the cultural, medical and political branding that comes with being a large person in North America.

She was still trying to lose weight when she died in 2004, at the age of fifty-four. She died because of what this obsession did to her heart. When I flew to Seattle to pack her things, I found bags and bags of fat clothes in her office, ready to be given away. I went through them all, hugging each shell of her, all the ghosts of all the mothers my mother had ever been. Her fat-girl dresses told their history in perfume and sweat. My mother’s history. And mine.


(From the Pop issue, Oct/Nov 2005).