Weight Watchers

February 18, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- I was not among those who wanted to award Kathleen Sullivan a scarlet A for losing her journalistic virginity. If she can make a living losing weight, good luck to her.

When she reappeared last month with dye on her hair and inches around her waist, it reminded me a bit too much of the return of the prodigal daughter. ''One moment I'm a network anchor and the nextwell, look at me,'' she said, her oversized sweater covering her body.

Ms. Sullivan, the mouthy morning anchor without the ''anchor hair'' had not only lost her job and her money. She had gotten fat! The Compleat Failure. Older, wiser and, alas, tamer, she is working for Weight Watchers -- portraying Everywoman who ever wanted to lose weight fast while eating peanut butter sandwiches.

The credibility gap for me came in an interview on ''PrimeTime Live'' when Ms. Sullivan insisted that she only wanted to lose the last 12 pounds for her health. ''I mean I had no problem being heavier,'' she said in a prickly voice. ''I mean I could be happy being heavier.''

Well, you show me a woman who only wants to be thin for her health and I'll show you a man who buys Playboy just to read the interview.

Nevertheless, it's a turning point when a pitchwoman for a diet company is reluctant -- embarrassed? -- to admit that she's dieting only to improve the way she looks. Those who watch weight-watchers can see the national obsession with dieting gradually being matched by a national obsession about the obsession.

At any moment more than half of adolescent girls and three-quarters of adult women describe themselves as on a diet. In a poll in last month's Esquire, half of the 18- to 25-year-old women proclaimed that they would rather be dead than fat. And in a recent book on education, "Failing at Fairness," the authors note that girls and women discuss losing weight the same way boys and men talk about sports.

I suppose it's true. Women all learn the stats. They know how much they weigh -- and should weigh. They know the number of calories in everything that comes across the plate. They measure success by the numbers. As players, they feel good or bad about themselves according to their scorecard.

But lately a certain amount of anger has crept into the scorekeeping. Anger directed outward at the pressure to play and inward at the fact that we stay with the game.

For one thing, we've learned just how often women would rather be dead than fat. Anorexics, bulimics, X-ray women and waif models have become poster girls of the era.

We've learned that the enforced female standard is not all that playful. A study showing that fat women are less likely to marry and more likely to be poor turned up last fall in nothing less sober than the New England Journal of Medicine.

We've also learned that for all the cheering and struggling, the goals achieved one year are often lost the next. The sport of dieting becomes a yo-yo tournament. And we've become much more conscious of what it costs women emotionally to play.

So the messages have become as mixed as the covers of People magazine. One week, they do a story on the celebrities who got fat and fit. Two weeks later they do one on Tracy Gold, who starved to a near-death experience of 80 pounds.

We alternate between thinking we should love it -- fat -- and being sure we should lose it. Between rejecting the imposed ideal of a thin woman and trying to conform to it. Between admiring the women who break the mold and wondering why they let themselves go. We are angry that fat-watching is a spectator sport -- see Oprah go up and down -- and angry that we are spectators.

Is it any wonder that the most popular diet video is called "Stop the Insanity," or that its goal is a leaner body? Is it any wonder that Kathleen Sullivan is paid to lose weight? Or that she says her motive isn't looks, it's health?

The shame of being fat is now accompanied by a shame of being ashamed. And of supporting a $3 billion-a-year diet industry.

A recent ad captures the mood perfectly. ''How much of your life has been stolen by that voice that nags, worries, obsesses about your weight?'' asks an announcer as a woman swims across the television screen. ''And what would you do if you could have that time back?'' Good question. Alas, it's being asked -- and answered -- in a pitch for Jenny Craig's diet.

As for Kathleen Sullivan? She made her reputation 10 years ago covering the Olympics. Now she's made her comeback in the national female sport. This is truly a losing game.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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