Celebrity Gluttony

ELLEN GOODMAN

January 08, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- I have long regarded every trip past the checkou counter as the supermarket's version of a journey through the valley of death. It's a narrow and dangerous passage with candy bars to the left of you, tabloids to the right.

I am caught in a cross-fire, trapped between junk food for the stomach and junk food for the mind. Mars Bars volley against extraterrestrial visitors. Sugar and fat thunder against sex and celebrities.

But lately, the fare on one side of the aisle has changed substantially. The tabloid menu which once offered up a steady selection of sexual adventures among the rich and famous, now offers up a diet of diets. Morality tales about fat.

It appears that celebrity adultery is now less interesting than star-studded gluttony. Tales about Hollywood's sleeping habits are less appetizing to enquiring minds than tales about Hollywood's eating habits. Or better yet, its not-eating habits.

Consider the National Enquirer's recent swimsuit -- yes, swimsuit -- issue. The illustrated sport they covered was major-league celebrity weight watching.

One of the star players was of course Liz Taylor. Once the public was fascinated by her marital ups and downs. Now people want to read about her scale's ups and downs. Yo-yo dieting.

Then there was Oprah Winfrey. Remember when paparazzi were paid to catch stars in their love nests? Oprah was photographed cheating -- not on Stedman mind you -- but on her spa diet. She was caught on her way to the nachos.

The Enquirer was not the only tabloid to weigh in on this issue. Two other such news sheets featured Paula Abdul and Angela Lansbury recovering from their near career-ending injuries: their encounters with pounds of fat. A third tabloid had a pregnant Kathie Lee Gifford on page one, while on page four she was advertising Ultra Slim Fast.

I was not surprised at the eating obsession of the supermarket press, though it may be worst in January when the top resolution made by Americans is to lose weight. Weight Watchers ads appear on television this month almost as frequently as Ed McMahon.

But what is amazing is how the thinner-is-better moral coexists in the popular culture with stories about eating disorders. Go back a minute to the Enquirer.

One of the celebrity regimens discussed at length is that of Princess Di. If indeed she was anorexic or bulimic as reported earlier on those same pages, then writing cheerily about her health program is like publishing a book on the late Karen Carpenter's Tips for Staying Trim.

The National Examiner carries the same mixed message. It features a crash diet on its cover. Then, on page 2, features a lengthy celebrity story about adolescent anorexics.

It's possible to move up the media scale without changing focus. Check out -- literally -- the story in this week's People magazine. The glitzy cover photo of three glamorous models is headlined: ''Famous Models, Dangerous Diets.'' Their searing words are about starvation. What they describe even now as their ''normal'' eating is someone else's strict diet.

But the photos that go with the piece are not about hunger and health, they're about glamour. What's the message? One picture is worth 600 calories a day?

Speaking of Glamour, every women's magazine has done its piece on eating sensibly. There is, by now, some consensus that the pressure to be lean below the mean distorts the lives of women.

So in this month's Glamour we find dozens of skinny role-models, a cover story on weight warnings, and one requisite page about dieting, eating disorders and self-esteem. It sits as self-consciously and uselessly as the warning on a cigarette pack.

You don't have to sit counting fat grams in front of pictures from Somalia to recognize the bizarre in the national obsession with fat. Something as natural as eating has become as unnatural as the alien psychics and resurrected JFKs that grace the other pages of the tabloid press.

A range of body shapes has been recast into two body images: truly thin and too fat. More and more of us think that there are only two choices: eating too much and eating disorders.

Maybe what we need isn't sex education in the schools, it's eating education. In the meantime if you find an American who doesn't know her weight, never counted a single fat gram and is delighted with her body, send her name to the tabloids. That's an American story as rare anything you'll find across the aisle from the Snickers.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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