I know better than to diet constantly. Dieting makes you fat. Dieting makes you distracted. Distracted women tend not to make history. And yet here I am. Dieting. Even a global economic meltdown and a historic election could not take my mind off the fact that I have gained nearly 10 pounds and my wardrobe doesn’t fit. And I can’t afford to buy new clothes. Which means not only that I haven’t managed to find a way to take the shortest break from obsessing about my pants size, my dieting isn’t even working. But I don’t know any other way. My mother put me on my first diet when I was in the sixth grade, and I’ve been gaining and losing ever since.
It turns out I’m not alone -- my experience mirrors that of Valerie Frankel, self-help journalist and author of 19 books, including The Accidental Virgin. Thirty years after her mother put her on a diet to lose her baby fat, Frankel was still riding the dieting rollercoaster. She had vowed to keep her own daughters off it, but as they approached puberty, she began to suspect that not sabotaging their body image wouldn’t be enough.
"They had eyes and ears," she writes in her wry and affecting memoir, Thin is the New Happy. "They saw and heard what I put myself through: my dieting cycles, anxiety about food, dread of bathing-suit vacations, rising and falling and rising weight. I was a bad example."
Her efforts to become a good example required nothing less than a head-to-toe exorcism. She confronted her unrepentant mother, who said that if she could go back she wouldn’t act differently, even after Frankel catalogued the damage her mother’s harping had done. Frankel counted the number of negative thoughts she had about herself and her body every day (triple digits). She phoned one of the toughs who had taunted her in junior high. She posed naked in Self magazine. She asked her former Mademoiselle colleague Stacy London, now host of TLC’s "What Not to Wear," to help her throw out her figure-hiding, all-black wardrobe. And finally, she developed the Not-Diet, which had just four rules: Eat what you want. Stop when you’ve had enough. Don’t insist on perfection. Work out four times a week. Within a few months, she had reached a healthy weight and has maintained it, and her sanity, ever since.
Frankel and I were classmates at Dartmouth, where I witnessed several of the events (and diets) in the book. We caught up by phone -- she in Brooklyn, I in San Francisco.
Stephanie Losee: You dedicate your book to The Last Fifteen Pounds with a little poem that reads: "I don’t miss you/Not one tiny bit/You bitches." What did those 15 pounds represent to you?
Valerie Frankel: They represented a lifetime of failure, the measure of what I can’t do, as opposed to being just 15 pounds I just carried around. It was a symbolic unworthiness that a lot of women feel about their extra weight. A symbol of being not deserving of a lot of things -- of love, of sex, of happiness, of success. And of self-love.
SL: Your mother put you on your first diet when you were 11, and your victory over chubbiness and the approval you received from observers turned you into a lifetime dieter. How did that diet affect your mind-set?
VF: There was a conspiracy among the mothers of my friends not to give me snacks, because my mother got everyone involved in this project for me to lose weight when I was, in fact, at a healthy weight for my height and age. So I felt totally on the defensive and persecuted. And I didn’t understand what the problem was. I didn’t feel fat. I also just plain missed food. When you’re a kid, you love candy and cookies and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, and I just missed being a kid. I did lose weight on that first diet -- success! And I recognized that I was thin now and that I was getting a lot of compliments and approval -- my mother liked it, the other mothers liked it, even my teachers in sixth grade praised me.
So I got the approval I was looking for and not getting when I was 10 pounds heavier. I liked that a lot. I still liked food though, and I started eating again, and guess what, the weight came back on. It was a choice between food and approval, and I realized I can’t have both. When you’re 11 years old, and you realize you can have the approval from friends and strangers, or you can eat what you want, that’s not the kind of quandary that an 11-year-old should have to face.
SL: I had a hard time reading about your mother forcing you onto the scale and weighing you, since my mother did the same thing to me. Do you think those episodes have shaped our generation?
VF: Certainly. Whoever had to endure that has been permanently affected by it. I quote a statistic in the book that 80 or 90 percent of kids who were criticized about their weight end up with permanent issues with it. It wires insecurity into your hard drive. Criticism from your mother turns into self-criticism; anything your mother says sticks. The gray matter is shaped around that. So instead of learning to play piano when you’re an adolescent, you learn to hate your body. The women of our generation can get over it; we just have to be willing to face those memories.
SL: Throughout the book you try to get your mother to see the hurt she caused you by obsessing about your weight, but she won’t admit she was wrong. Why do you think that is?
VF: It wasn’t just my mother -- it was a generational thing. Most women of her generation didn’t work. So instead of obsessing about their job or their ambition, they put their focus on their children, especially their girl children, to be good representations of their family out there. It’s the children-as-accessory idea. My mother totally admits this. "Yes, I didn’t want a fat kid; I think that’s unattractive. I wanted you to have everything, I wanted you to enjoy the advantages of being thin."
But her criticism was relentless. She could have helped me get more exercise. She could have bought me flattering clothes. Instead, she got me the clothes she wanted me to wear, and if they looked terrible on me, my needs were just thrown out the window. I have one daughter who is skinny and one who is normal size. I don’t push her toward the skinny jeans, I push her toward the clothes that will flatter her -- boot-cut jeans and trapeze tops, things like that. She puts them on, and she looks great and she feels great. Mothers should help their daughters, not hurt them. It seems elementary to me.
SL: You call dieting "the family tradition," but isn’t it an American tradition?
VF: Absolutely. I went on a talk show about eating disorders, and I went out there and said that the most pervasive eating disorder in America is chronic dieting. Other eating disorders affect a relatively small percentage of the population. Binge eating is about 5 percent, and anorexia is 1 percent, bulimia about 1 percent, too, but how many people do you know who are dieting? Everybody.
SL: Dieting gave you "something to think about when all other thoughts were bleak," even during your first husband’s diagnosis and death from lung cancer at 34. During 9/11, during the recent stock market crash, friends I know -- myself included -- were still obsessing about the number on the scale. Why can’t we change the mental station, even during crisis?
VF: It’s easier to think about your weight than about death or taxes. It’s a convenient distraction from real problems, real issues. So instead of thinking about huge threats like the economy right now, or death, or losing a job, you think about what you ate, or whether your pants fit, or whether you got to the gym today, which are controllable things. It does take a lot of mental thought, time and energy to diet. It’s a huge time suck.
SL: In the course of the book, you conquer your diet demons by confronting the people who handed them to you, beginning with your mother and ending with a boy from your childhood who taunted you about your weight. But the encounter was quite different from what you expected. What happened?
VF: I was so terrified of him that my heart pounded when I picked up the phone, but I didn’t even end up asking him why he tormented me, because when I called him it turned out he was a really boring, uninteresting Joe Blow that I had built up in my mind all these years. In junior high, he was this charismatic leader, sports star, girls-liked-him kind of guy. I found that as an adult, he hadn’t done anything extraordinary, or even interesting, with his life: He was just some boring guy. My sister referred to it as the banality of evil. He just wanted to retire and play golf. He said he had never had dreams for himself, he had never had any goals, he just wanted to be a good dad. I had this plan to say, well, how would you feel if someone bullied your kid like you bullied me? But it became irrelevant, because I realized that we had this bad history, our paths crossed because we lived in the same town, but there’s nothing he could say that would undo what he did.
I think if I saw this guy on the street now, my heart would not start beating faster. Talking to him erased the terror. Facing your fears serves that purpose.
SL: You eventually started following something you call the Not-Diet. Let’s say you’re sitting down to an expense-account lunch at a buzzed-about restaurant. What goes through your head?
VF: If I were going to a five-star restaurant, I would order the best thing they had, and I would eat it and enjoy it. Unlike before, when I would probably order it and have guilt and feel like shit about it. If I were full, I would take the rest home to eat later. On the chronic dieting thing, you give yourself permission to eat and then stuff yourself until you’re sick.
Now, I’ll order the same thing, enjoy every bite of it and save some of it to enjoy next day. I have emotional goals -- I don’t have weight-loss goals anymore. What happened is I ended up losing weight anyway. If you’re feeling good about everything, you do recognize when you’re full and stop eating, which doesn’t happen when you’re shoving food into your mouth because you’re so conflicted about eating it in the first place. You stop saying any food is evil or bad.
SL: This reminds me of Geneen Roth’s books about learning to stop abusing food by trusting your hunger.
VF: That’s it: Eat when hungry, stop when full. I think the cavemen did that. It’s not revolutionary, but when you’ve been a chronic dieter for 30 years -- eating what you’re told to eat, following eating plans -- eating what you want and stopping when full takes an adjustment. You have to unlearn. Even now, it’s been two years of not-dieting, and I still have little flare-ups of shouldn’t, couldn’t, but then I say, 'no, that’s dieting mentality, that’s not what I do anymore.' My weight is stable. It’s not as low as it’s been when you get to the low weight you get to on a diet before you gain it all back. But I would rather not chase that weight and be comfortable with the weight I am. I’m sort of letting that go.