The U.S. slimness industry -- fraud, insanity

February 02, 1997|By Lisa Schwarzbaum | Lisa Schwarzbaum,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Losing It," by Laura Fraser. Dutton. 336 pages. $24.95.

Before you read this persuasive and well-researched case for the cessation of all dieting, do this: Spend a week watching TV shows that are aimed at women. More to the point, watch the commercials rolled out between chat guests, the ones promising the reward of glorious weight loss if only you buy the right "chocolate-y" drinks, personalized "food plans," and abdominal exercisers shaped like contraptions out of "The Road to Wellville."

Primed by despair, outrage, hope, cynicism, or curiosity about -- such aggressive salesmanship, you're now ready to understand Fraser's very personal attachment to the subject of weight. Others have written in recent years about white America's preoccupation with slimness, but Fraser's relationship to her food is particularly fervent: A contributing editor at Health magazine, she says she started counting calories in kindergarten, flunked Weight Watchers for the first time in junior high school, and became bulimic in college, gripped by a potentially fatal disease that took years to overcome.

"Fifteen years after a serious eating disorder, I now live fairly cheerfully in my body," she writes. "I'm twenty pounds heavier than I was when I was vomiting every day, and I'm less attractive by cultural standards. But I'm no longer paralyzed by self-scrutiny, and I'm much, much healthier."

The thing to do, Fraser reports, is to exercise regularly, eat a lot of fruits, vegetables, and grains, and cut way down on the intake of fat. But before she reaches that elegantly simple conclusion, the author surveys the history of changing aesthetic ideals of body shape and weight. (Although not limited to women's pursuit of thinness, the obsession is inevitably a female one, since men generally subscribe to only one half of the maxim that one can never be too rich or too thin).

She sketches the history of slenderizing, tracing its beginnings to Charles Dana Gibson's illustrations of sylph-y Gibson Girls a century ago. And she then proceeds systematically to dismiss every diet philosophy, trend, and guru of the past hundred years, backing her dismissal with scientific data.

(Susan Powter, Dr. Dean Ornish, and campy Richard Simmons all make their sales "by exaggerating the psychological, physical, and moral problems associated with being fat"; diet pills and thigh creams are scams; commercial diet groups such as Weight Watchers rely on "semi-starvation diets," etc.)

"Losing It" may disappoint readers still convinced that life begins when the scale reads 125 pounds, but it should encourage many more who feel "guilty" that they have "failed" when the last 10 or even 20 pounds refuse to melt away. Fraser can get carried away at times. "I don't eat much junk food because I find it too obviously, pornographically flavored," she boasts way too smugly. (I love junk food, and it ain't the same high as renting dirty videos).

And she can go on a little too long about the way wonderful "Italian friends" turned her into a "wannabe-Italian" in her quest for fine cooking ingredients (Note to the San Francisco-based author: Not everyone has time to bike to a charming farmer's market for "beautiful" produce).

But Fraser's solid research, combined with her I've-been-there believability, make this an important weapon in the war to stop the insanity, avoirdupois-wise.

Lisa Schwarzbaum, a critic at Entertainment Weekly, was previously a feature writer at the New York Daily News and has worked for the Boston Globe and the Real Paper.

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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