The anti-diet revolution is poised to sweep the nation, but are we really ready for a brave, plump new world?

Published January 6, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

american dieting has it all  nearly every pathological strand in our national character twists into this banal tangle of obsessions. We're the fattest country in the world, and the most diet-prone. Our fixation on eating and body size betrays our desire for saintly self-discipline and rampant consumption, conformity and self-expression, purity and pollution, quick fixes and bootstrap striving, the craving to be rescued and the impulse to rebel. Read up on it and you'll find that nearly everything anyone has written on the subject (no matter what eating plan they advocate) fits one of two classic types of American public discourse: the declaration of independence and the evangelical personal testimony.

At the moment, a revolution is brewing; in fact, by all appearances, it's reaching a boil. On the barricades is journalist Laura Fraser, author of the new book, "Losing It: America's Obsession with Weight Loss and the Industry that Feeds on It." The buzz in the publishing world is that "Losing It" will be the next "Backlash" or "The Beauty Myth"  the kind of book read by millions of women whose vague feelings of beleaguerment come into sharp, testy focus by the time they turn the last page.

After many years spent writing about weight loss and body image for various women's and health magazines, Fraser, a former bulimic, has assembled a formidable pile of evidence demonstrating that virtually every aspect of the commercial weight loss industry is a complete fraud. Supported most convincingly by the findings of a National Institutes of Health panel convened to survey a range of scientific evidence, she argues  as most experts do today  that diets don't work. That includes crash diets outlined in bestselling books, the programs advanced by commercial diet groups and centers, doctor-supervised weight loss plans, meal substitutes and fat-free processed foods, intestinal surgery and the whole range of pills, potions and elixirs that promise to burn our fat for us.

every human body, Fraser maintains, has its own baseline healthy weight and will resist any attempt to starve it smaller with a bag of metabolic tricks. At the end of a diet, as over 90 percent of dieters know from firsthand experience, the weight comes back, plus a few pounds more. The body, convinced there's a famine on, tries to store even more energy and resets its baseline at an even higher level. Dieting doesn't merely fail to create permanent weight loss — it actually makes us fatter.
Fraser is joined in her ire by Glenn A. Gaesser, the author of "Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health," and an associate professor of exercise physiology at the University of Virginia. Gaesser, like Fraser, fumes that the popular press and many physicians persist in blaming excessive weight for a variety of health problems, including hypertension, heart disease and diabetes. He's got even more studies than she has, all proving that overweight people can be perfectly fit, provided they exercise and adopt some healthy eating habits — which won't necessarily lead to weight loss. If anything, Gaesser is angrier than Fraser (who keeps a cool, reportorial head); he's nearly apoplectic that the medical establishment continues to push the "panacea" of weight loss, against all evidence that it's irrelevant or even dangerous to peoples' health.

Gaesser and Fraser aren't alone. Dieting has become so discredited that weight loss gurus like the buzzcut infomercial queen Susan Powter and books like Barry Sear's "The Zone" tout themselves as offering "eating plans," while still promoting draconian dietary restrictions and promising impossible bodily "perfection." And people are still buying it, big time. To Debra Waterhouse, eating disorder expert and author of "Like Mother, Like Daughter: How Women Are Influenced by Their Mother's Relationship with Food — And How to Break the Pattern," the "culture of dieting" is so destructive that only extreme measures will do. She urges mothers to "legalize" all foods and eating habits — a radical abdication of control that her patients find outright "terrifying" initially — trusting that eventually, if they really listen, their bodies will point them toward reasonable eating decisions.

These three books are manifestos of sorts, and therefore rather thrilling. Fraser's spirited, methodical damning of an entire industry that's founded on — let's face it — making many people feel lousy, exhilarates, even if, like me, you haven't dieted in years. Gaesser's respect for his overweight patients and righteous indignation on their behalf is exactly what's lacking in most health care professionals. And Waterhouse, by demanding that women jettison their myriad little dramas of eating control and abandon, and walk head-on into the territory that scares us most, is issuing a more radical challenge than most feminists have in years.
What if we just up and decided it was OK for otherwise healthy people to be a bit fat, to blithely disregard the prevailing gaunt ideal? I suspect that most of us would feel nervous at the prospect, an unease we'd disguise as derision. There's something un-American about letting yourself go, giving up on the dream of slenderness.

Critics have speculated endlessly on why, in direct contradiction to all previous human history, thinness has become a requirement of contemporary beauty. (Fraser provides an excellent, concise summary of their conclusions.) My pet theory is that it's rooted in our secret obsession with class. The mania for slenderness began around 1910, after hordes of immigrants from the European peasantry arrived here intending to "better" themselves. Generations of hard rural life had selected for bodies equipped to handle physical labor and annual cycles of want and plenty: stocky and fat-storing. These new Americans could build fortunes, buy fine houses and send their children to the best schools, but they couldn't circumvent their genetic heritage. The naturally svelte frames of old money elites have become the most elusive status symbol, a way of sorting out the riff-raff, and there remains a high correlation between poverty and obesity. Fat is the last front in our covert class war.

Just as the fantasy of getting rich spawned a genre of pulp writing — the Horatio Alger story — so has the dream of getting thin. Susan Powter's "Stop the Insanity" is a modern classic in the field, the tale of an angry, self-described "housewife who figured it out" after being deserted by her husband, ballooning to a size 22 and finally whittling herself down to a flawless hardbody (no thanks to "the boys at the American Medical Association"). The new anti-diet books have their equivalent. Emme — a "plus-size" model who posed nude for People magazine — and Dee Hakala — an aerobics instructor and fitness advocate who weighs over 200 pounds — are both publishing their autobiographies this month ("True Beauty" and "Thin is Just a Four Letter Word," respectively). Both stand up before us to relate their journeys from misery to triumph. Each had her crisis, her moment of truth, her conversion, like a wayward sinner standing up at a tent revival testifying how he saw Jesus reflected in a pool of beer on a barroom floor. But, unlike Powter and her ilk — whose revelations led to drastic weight reduction — these two simply learned to accept being large.
That's where we leave Fraser as well, content to be plump but healthy after years of grueling and pointless "Adventures in Dietland." But are we really ready to settle for just that, ourselves? Diets proffer the American dream stripped down to biological brass tacks: with enough gumption and stick-to-itiveness you can transform yourself into an entirely different person. The growing ranks of anti-diet agitators present overwhelming evidence that we aren't, after all, created equal. That's downright un-American, so can we accept it?

We can, writes Richard Klein, author of the peculiar but pleasing "postmodern diet book" called "Eat Fat," if we can convince ourselves to love fat. A chubby professor who's also written a book in praise of cigarettes, Klein has drafted his own manifesto, the first salvo in the battle to convince us not just to resign ourselves to fat, but to revel in it. "It's easy to be fat today, but hard to love it," he observes, even though throughout history people have mostly favored adiposity. The truth is, for the many Americans clinically or merely cosmetically overweight, fat is "the most sustained focus of our concerned attention, the single most important material object of meditation in our lives." So why not enjoy it?
Surprisingly, Klein's frisky little meditation on fat and its discontents made me believe that might just be possible. Veronique Vienne, the French-born editorial director of Mode, a new major fashion magazine directed at the 60 percent of American women size 12 and up, thinks it is. "In the past six months, we've reached the point of no return," she told me. "You can feel it and see it. The majority of women are over size 10. It's an undertapped market. Women are stronger. We elected Clinton and now we're saying enough is enough. We have a voice." The magazine hopes to "retrain the eye of readers" to appreciate larger bodies and sell "a fantasy with curves." Vienne says that while interviewing prospective models it takes her 15 or 20 minutes to go from thinking "she's really big" to the "revelation" that these women are often "more self-aware, gracious and elegant" than the "stiff" standard models. Mode will run no diet articles.
Perhaps Vienne is right and the times are finally changing. It would certainly make life more interesting. Looking up from reading "Eat Fat" on the bus, I spotted one of those Streetfare Journal placards placed for passenger edification on public transportation. It sported a Mae West quote, "When choosing between two evils, I always like the one I've never tried," accompanied by a drawing of two ice cream sundaes. We all know that hefty Mae was thinking of something spicier than butterfat when she made that quip. Do our "sins" have to be so small and dull?
Maybe they do. Klein makes a passing, but very apt, comparison between the public spectacle of fat and the scarlet letter worn by Hester Prynne, Hawthorne's famous literary adulteress. We might be willing to give up the perverse narcissism of dieting, a miserable practice that allows us both to hate and mortify our bodies and to focus on them obsessively. Are we also willing to surrender the right to enjoy condemning our fellow citizens for the feckless self-indulgence we believe their fat betrays? In a society where 54 percent of respondents told a survey gatherer that they'd rather be hit by a truck than become obese, fat people seem to be flaunting the fact that they just don't care what we think, and that really bugs us. How dare they not subject themselves to the daily grind of self-denial and guilt the rest of us endure? How dare they buck our disapproval for the sake of pleasure?
This superpower is still a Puritan village at heart, and that, finally, is the mentality that the anti-diet movement must combat. We might be convinced to cast off our habitual sufferings if writers like Fraser persuade us they're futile, but can we forswear the daily opportunity to feel superior to everyone fatter than we are? It would be big of us.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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