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Diets are Forever
Hello, my name is Val, and I’m a diet addict. I exist on a continuous loop of starting a diet, recovering from one, and planning the next. I’m either counting calories, fat grams, carbs, or the number of days until I begin anew (and it’s always "for the last time"). Dieting defines me. It grounds me. If I didn’t have a diet to plan or follow, I’d panic. Going cold turkey on dieting would be a shock to my system. I might have delirium tremens. Or go insane and hallucinate scenes from someone else’s childhood.
Unlike a lot of other chronic dieters, my compulsion is dieting itself. I’m not an emotional eater, per se. I’m an emotional dieter. Restricting food equals self-righteousness. Exercising makes me feel superior, holy, strong of will and limb. On the other ham—I mean, hand—cheating brings on the whiplash of shame, guilt, and disgust. Like numbers on the scale, the emotions of dieting go up and down, up and down.
Although I try to make light of it, the humor of chronic dieting wears thin, even if nothing else does. The alternative to riding the emotional highs and lows? Become what my friend Pam described as "one of those happy, self-accepting fat people." That fantasy—of ordering bacon cheeseburgers with a wink and a cheeky "More of me to love!"—lasted approximately five seconds before I vowed never to give up. Although I’ve quit dozens of individual diets, quitting dieting, as a way of life, would be the ultimate defeat.
My most recent diet was inspired by The Biggest Loser, a reality TV show. The concept was creepy and sadistic and therefore irresistible: Put sixteen grossly obese people of all ages and genders on a ranch in the middle of a desert and make them compete to lose weight for money. As the contestants reduced, they talked to a pantry-cam about feeling reborn, getting their lives back, emerging from a long, lipid-induced waking slumber. Their existential displacement rhetoric was sad as hell. Nearly every contestant cried fat tears of woe or joy, and so did the TV audience (at least, I did). I knew I was being manipulated, but didn’t care. Watching the contestants’ gradual transformations—physical and emotional—over the course of a few months was downright inspiring.
For the competition part of the show, the contestants were weighed on a livestock scale. Some would routinely shed ten, fifteen, twenty pounds in a single week. One guy lost nearly fifty pounds in just three weeks. I’d been struggling to lose twenty pounds for fifteen years. Granted, the contestants started out at 400 pounds. By their standards, I was already an "after." Everyone knew the last twenty pounds was always the hardest. Still, I convinced myself that my Medium-Sized Loser diet would be a snap.
D-day arrived, as it always did, on the first Monday after I got my period after the last major holiday. My inner announcer said, "Start your engines," and I was off and running—or, more accurately, jogging. I was ready. I was pumped.
I was doomed.
However misguided optimism might be, you can’t begin a diet without total commitment. Otherwise, it’d be like marrying a man you hope to grow to love someday. The Medium-Sized Loser Diet (aka The One) would be strict but doable. The rules:
1. Avoid white food (rice, bread, potatoes, sugar, fl our, chips, crackers, etc.).
2. Eat at least six servings of fruit and veggies a day.
3. Drink a glass of water every two hours.
4. Run for half an hour five days per week.
5. Do two thousand crunches per week.
In the throes of the early infatuation period, I was sure this diet would be a piece of (Splendafied) cake. For the record, I did achieve perfection for a solid two weeks. But then life interceded, and my diet was, shall we say, compromised. There was a bake sale at my daughters’ school. I would have just bought the minimal face-saving number of cookies, but Lucy gave me the sad look and said, "We never bake anymore." Muttering, I mixed the batter, repeating the mantra "I will not sample, I will not sample." Needless to say, when confronted with fresh-baked cookies, mantras were useless. I ate seven cookies in the span of five minutes.
I had a new novel out, and a rash of lunch and dinner offers from friends and editors with expense accounts. A very-tightwad, I never refused a free meal, especially at pricey places I wouldn’t go to ordinarily. When you sat down at a two-star New York City restaurant that was famous for its porter house, you didn’t dare order the garden salad. It was an affront, an insult to the chef.
The final nail in my diet coffin was my actor/musician husband’s three-week gig in Alaska. When Steve got work, he took it, wherever and whenever the job might be, regardless of whether it fit into my diet plans. Since Steve was our family’s laundry-doer and vacuumer, his absence doubled my house work load. On top of that, it coincided with the kids’ spring break and a major deadline for me. When dinnertime rolled around (every frigging night), I was too tired and stressed to bake the flounder and steam the broccoli. Pizza came to the emotional rescue.
If the timing had been better or I hadn’t been stressed out, maybe I would have regrouped. Honestly, though, the air went out of my tires during the bake sale debacle. The first cheat created a domino effect (or, I should say, Domino’s). After that, I was cheating regularly, at shorter intervals and with increasing quantities of food per incident. I’d already eaten one slice of pizza, I thought. Might as well have three. What the hell?
It’d taken me six short weeks to go from "This diet is The One!" to "What the hell?" As the saying goes, when I was good, I was very, very good, but when I was bad, I was horrid. General Tso’s chicken for dinner rolled into bacon for breakfast. I said to myself, "Bacon is Atkins friendly!" I had s’mores with the kids and said to myself, "French women eat chocolate!" My own lies were unconvincing— even to me.
When you can’t lie to yourself, that’s depressing.
The guilt and shame of my failure added up more quickly than the calories I was inhaling freely. Did I cut myself slack for erring, being human? No way! I spiraled downhill, despairing. The diet that began with enthusiasm had transformed me—into a depressed, frustrated, stressed-out basket case. Who was three pounds heavier.
When the sugar dust settled, I reverted to the familiar reflective between-diets rest period. I called a couple of diet experts I’d consulted with over the years, shrinks with university jobs who’d become my confidants. Joan Chrisler held up perfectionism as my diet undoing. "Very little in life is perfect. If you expect it of yourself on a diet, you’re riding for a fall." I denied trying to be Polly Perfect. "But you begin a diet on ‘the first Monday after you get your period after a major holiday,’ " she replied. "That’s really about finding the perfect time to start the flawless diet."
Ed Abramson put some nuance on that analysis. "It’s the all-or-nothing mind-set," he said. "You slip once, and it’s over. You see a diet as black or white. On or off. And once you go ‘off,’ it’s no-holds-barred."
Both Joan and Ed talked a lot about motivation. "Why was it so important to diet?" they asked. "Why did you structure your day around an eating-and-exercise plan?"
They might as well have asked, "Why have you structured your entire adolescent and adult life around some eating-and-exercise plan or another?"
Big question. Up there with "Is there a God?" and "If you eat a cookie in the forest where no one can see, does it still have calories?"
Why diet, indeed?
I tried to come up with a decent answer for the eternal question. Was I attempting to lose weight for my husband? Early in our relationship, when Steve and I first fell in love, I was fifteen pounds thinner. Logically, a swing of fifteen pounds wasn’t too significant. I was the same person, regardless of the pants I fit into. Irrationally? Fifteen pounds was a gulf. The difference between a job interview and a job offer. Between a first date and a second date. Between being honored by the nomination and winning the Oscar. The chubby kid I used to be will always wonder which version of me—skinny or fat—is more deserving of love. I knew I’d put pressure on myself to be a good dieter while Steve was in Alaska. I wanted to please him upon his return with a slimmer silhouette. I had the fantasy of his finally walking in the door after three weeks away, dropping his suitcase on the floor, laying eyes on me, running into my arms, and muttering ridiculous sap into my ear, along the lines of "I love you beyond mea sure, every moment apart was sheer agony, your beauty is boundless," etc.
If not for Steve’s sake, perhaps I was a chronic dieter simply out of habit. Diet was what I did. It was all I knew. In fact, dieting know-how had been hardwired into my brain since preadolescence. Thanks to recent advances in MRI technology, we now understand that the brain takes shape according to the stimuli it receives. This was a good argument for forcing a kid to take piano lessons. If she learned to play young, her brain’s nerves and synapses would retain musical affinity forever. I didn’t play piano. Or chess. My teenage brain was honed, forged, and wrinkled for dieting. Reducing was my chief adolescent pastime. I made charts. I logged calorie input and output. I kept food journals. I read diet articles in magazines, ripped through weight loss books (memorably The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet, released in 1979, when I was fourteen). Diet tips and tricks were snaked so deeply into my gray matter, there was no surgical or psychological way to extract them.
Another "why me, diet?" reason? The nagging one that Joan and Ed always brought up, the one that rang loud and clear. Dieting was, as Ed said, "a convenient channel for life’s dissatisfactions. Rather than deal with things that make you unhappy, you narrow the focus to eating."
I’d certainly had my share of problems, and at every stage of life, I’d dieted my way through a lot of the bumpy times—even some hard times you’d think would be immune to the cold comfort of losing weight. For instance, when I was thirty-five, I became a widow. My first husband, Glenn, died of lung cancer. He was only thirty-four. It was an unspeakable tragedy for our family—our daughters were five and almost two when he died—as well as for our extended families and friends. The shock of his death was the prelude to the stress of widowed motherhood, of guiding my daughters and myself through grief, supporting our needs on my income. It was a Herculean holding together. I’d managed it, survived. And, yes, I lost weight during those horrible two years, which didn’t cure Glenn or ensure my daughter’s emotional protection but did give me something to think about when all other thoughts were bleak.
Of course, I re-gained the weight I’d lost, that time, and every other time I’d managed to lose. This predictable outcome raised the same question: "Why?" Why should I, or anyone, diet at all, when many experts in the field believe, and have supportable evidence, that dieting makes you fat? My Medium-Sized Loser Diet was a case in point. I’d starved myself at first; my body’s deprivation mode kicked in, resulting in a slower metabolic rate. When I started cheating repeatedly, those excess calories rushed into a body that was burning fuel at a crawl, instantly converting pizza into fat bulges. With each diet I’d tried, I was farther from my goal weight.
My goal weight, since college, had been 135 pounds. At five feet six inches, that would give me a body mass index, or BMI, of 21.8, dead center of "normal" range. I wasn’t greedy. I wasn’t shooting for a teen-model BMI of 17. My aspirations were for single-digit clothing sizes, bony fingers, a hollow around the cheeks. I’d had that, at brief and glorious periods over the years. Surely I could have it again, or so I’d reasoned a million times, right before starting each new (soon-to-be-failed) diet.
Diet experts would also insist that dieting was futile. Depending on which study you read, 50 to 90 percent of an individual’s weight was genetically predetermined. Or you could see it this way: As an egg in your mother’s ovary, you were already a size twelve. Now, you might be able to diet your way down to an eight, or even a stretch-fabric six. But you’d never be a two, no matter how bad you wanted it. If you were to stop dieting and eat "normally" (have what you crave when hungry, stop when full), your body would automatically assume its preprogrammed shape, its true size, with virtually no struggle or anxiety on your part.
I had no idea what my true size was. I’d been yo-yo dieting (sometimes so-so dieting; always oh-no dieting) for thirty years. My metabolism and eating had always been erratic. My body hadn’t had the chance to automatically assume its preprogrammed shape. My parents were both naturally slim. My sister was small, my brother athletically built. My grandparents on both sides were either slender or athletic. And yet I was a chubby kid. An anomaly? Or perhaps, had I not been a prepubescent diet cycler, I might have burned off my baby fat naturally—and, just as naturally, grown into a slim adult. Slimness might have been my destiny, but only if I was able to let it happen.
On the other hand, it might have been my destiny to be a blimp.
Only one way to find out. I would have to give up dieting. Logically, it made sense. If dieting made you fat and was futile, not dieting should make you thin, effortlessly.
I’d been listing all the reasons for "Why I Should Diet" in my head for thirty years. At forty-one, perhaps the time had come to make a new list, headed "Why I Shouldn’t Diet."
I fantasized about the change, both emotional and physical, about the freedom in reach. I painted a mental picture of what a diet-free life would look like—me, in a sundress, running braless, barefoot, through a field of wildflowers. The idea became a hunger. Not a fleeting craving, but a deep, visceral yearning that, I realized, had always been rattling the cage inside.
I would need a plan. (I might be able to stop the diet cycle, but I would never be able to give up planning.) What would be the opposite of chronic dieting? Regular dieting was about the physical, eating and exercise. The Not Diet would be mental, emotional, concentrating on interior conversations, bad memories, the wiring of my brain. The goal of chronic dieting was to shed pounds. The goal of the Not Diet was to shed light on my self-destructive habits and patterns.
The Not Diet (aka The Last One) would be strict but doable:
1. Forget everything I already knew about dieting. That wouldn’t be easy. It’d be like tearing out the seams of a dress and wearing it anyway. Trying to be perfect hadn’t worked for me, either, so rule number two was…
2. Screw perfectionism. My wobbly first baby step toward screwing perfectionism was to sit down and eat a bowl of ice cream… Okay. Done. And boy, was that delicious. Much easier than I’d thought! I feel confident that I can succeed at imperfectionism. I should call my mother right away and tell her that I’ve found something I am really good at. Then again, talking (inside my head, or through the lips) about eating hadn’t served me well. Ergo, rule number three:
3. Shut the hell up. I’d stop the running mental commentary about food, what I see in the mirror, all the things I’m doing/not doing right, comparing myself to other women. I’d silence my mind regarding weight. That’d be tough. Often I didn’t even realize I was tallying calories until half an hour had gone by. I resolved to fill my mind with productive thoughts, like getting to the big bottom of my bad body image. Which dovetails nicely into the final rule of my plan, the whopper:
4. Do the emotional heavy lifting. Dieting thus far had been a physical endeavor—and a chronic failure. Perhaps what had been missing all along was the emotional regime, a systematic approach to body image bone picking. Skeleton sweeping. I latched on to the idea that each extra pound I carried on my frame represented a past hurt, an emotional injury that took the physical form of belly fat. If I could let go of the shame, embarrassment, anger, and insult from the past (forgive, forget, what ever worked), my body would release the weight. Into the wind. Like magic!
As I already mentioned, I’m nothing if not optimistic.
"Diets don’t have to be forever," I said to my sister, Alison. "I’ve got to stop, or I’ll be dieting until I’m too old to feed myself. Knock wood that I should live so long."
The late summer afternoon was sunny and clear. Maggie, Lucy, and I had escaped the Brooklyn heat to spend the day at Alison’s home on the balmy North Shore of Long Island.
"Speaking of diets, are you eating bread today?" asked Alison. "I made sandwiches."
Alison could eat bread. Great baskets of it. Except for one fluky, chunky year in high school, she had always been petite. In childhood photos, her legs look like flamingos’, stalk thin with knob knees. At five foot three, Alison was small all over. Her feet were a tiny size six, her fingers short. She wore a size two dress. The only big part of her was her thick, curly black hair that pillowed on her bony, narrow shoulders.
Although I was the little sister (fifteen months younger), I’d always been her physical superior—stronger, faster, healthier, bigger. Out of the womb, I was inches longer, pounds heavier. Now, I was larger by three inches, four dress sizes, four shoe sizes, and three bra cups. Alison was a pint; I was a pitcher. When we were toddlers, I was considered the pretty sister, and she was the smart one. Now she was both. And I was … I was just glad to be here!
If not large, Alison had largesse. Generous as always, she’d laid out a beautiful spread of sandwiches, quiches, and salads for her visitors from the city. Despite our closeness in age and her diminutive size, Alison treated me like a protective big sister would. During the teen years, she’d thrown herself between Mom in full rant and me crying in the corner countless times. Mom’s screechy response to her was always, "There’s only one mother in this family, and it’s not you!" Alison, a mother now, had two daughters (like me; like our mother, Judy). Our four girls, the cousins, were outside while Alison and I talked in the kitchen.
I took a tuna sandwich off the platter. Including the bread. "I’ve been toying with an idea. Batting it around like a cat with a hair scrunchie," I said. "What would happen if I were to stop dieting? Besides the earth crashing into the sun."
"You mean give up?" she asked.
"I mean stop walking the walk," I said. "Stop talking the talk, thinking the thoughts. I’ll probably need a lobotomy."
She nodded. "There’s your answer."
"Get a lobotomy?"
"You’ll never stop wanting to be thinner," she said. "Every woman wants to be thinner. It’s part of the human female condition."
"Okay, yes. That’s a given. But I’ve been going about that quest—thinking about it—the wrong way. What if I did the opposite of what I’ve been doing all along? Stopped dieting. Stopped obsessing. Go cold turkey on broiled chicken."
"You’ll gain," she warned.
"Or maybe, if I purged my bad habits, the bad body image, and the bad memories, the extra weight would disappear."
"Purge the bad memories?"
I said, "Get to the root of my body image problem, and thereby expunge it."
"So you’re going to talk to Mom?" she asked, shuddering. "Give me advance warning so I can be five states away."
I’d never had the big talk with Judy about the emotional damage her fatphobia caused me. We avoided that conversation. It seemed pointless, given how much water was under the bridge. We got along famously now, had since my mid-twenties. We enjoyed each other’s company and actually looked forward to seeing each other, which we did often. Both my parents were heroic when Glenn was sick and after he died, for which I would always be grateful. There hadn’t been a good reason for Mom and me to rehash our ugly past. Maybe our relationship hadn’t been strong enough to handle a major confrontation until now.
"Why do you want to do this?" asked Alison.
"I’ve spent the first half of my life dieting, vacillating between hating myself, depriving myself, and disappointing myself," I said. "I don’t want the second half to be more of the same. Anything else would be an improvement. I think it’s possible to let go of the obsession without letting yourself go, in terms of weight."
Alison nodded. She saw the logic. "Not dieting, and getting thin in the process," she said. "It’s worth a try."
"I’ve got nothing to lose," I said. Except the self-loathing— and the excess weight.
Excerpted from Thin is the New Happy by Valerie Frankel
Copyright © 2008 by Valerie Frankel.
Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher