Chewing the fat with the girls

The Dutchess of Pork and the Dershowitz of dieting serve up this seasons most fascinating diet books.

Published February 9, 1998 10:56AM (EST)

It's no coincidence that publishers flood the bookstores with diet books during the heartless winter months. We've all sprouted Beanie Babies on our hips and thighs thanks to all that Brie en croûte we downed between Thanksgiving and New Year's. We've dashed into Bloomingdale's for tush-concealing chenille and latex-infused black leggings, only to be mocked by the gaily colored scanties of the "cruisewear" displays. Hardened by our New Year's resolutions, battered by Seasonal Affective Disorder, we're primed to rush, momentarily aerobic, to the diet and fitness racks at Barnes & Noble.

As an acquiring book editor, I am practically immune to the charms of diet books. I believe, deep down, that every one of us already knows everything we need to know to lose weight, and my editorial lip curls reflexively when a literary agent breathlessly pitches me the next "guaranteed bestseller" with the unbeatable hook. Will it be the celebrity promoter (why hasn't Pat Buckley stepped up to the plate?), the new food group (my money's on wheat berries and the juice from jars of maraschino cherries), the new twist on results ("lose 10 pounds in 10 days or we'll pay for your liposuction!")? But as a prospective consumer with a few Beanie Babies of her own, I am deeply conflicted about the issue. I deplore women's abiding unhappiness with their weight. I wish I were a more highly evolved being, far above the Battle of the Bulge. But I'm not, and I'm not alone. So a scan of two of the season's most fascinating offerings is in order: Susan Estrich's "Making the Case For Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Dining with the Duchess: Making Everyday Meals a Special Occasion" "by" Sarah, Duchess of York, and Weight Watchers.

Estrich -- the first woman editor of the Harvard Law Review, legal scholar, Michael Dukakis presidential campaign manager and professor of law at the University of Southern California -- poses the question most of us duck: How can we be so totally competent at work but such failures when we diet? Estrich argues that basically it's because we save the mental firepower for everybody but ourselves. "You know the mindset you use to succeed -- the smart, competent woman who pulls off the near-impossible every day. The one who gets up in the night, finds the Motrin, takes care of the kid with the fever, gets out of bed three hours later to get the other one ready for school and to get to work yourself, where you keep six balls in the air, while you have the drugstore on hold trying to find the prescription the pediatrician called in. You know this woman. What if she went on a diet? ... I'm here to tell you, you can resist a dried-up danish."

Estrich has studied all the diet books and knows that we want the gimmick. We need the gimmick; boredom is the enemy, and shiny objects distract us. Hers is to put us in the courtroom, complete with a legal contract, interrogatories and memos to the file, building a lawyer's case for dieting aimed at our heads when our hands are reaching for the muffins. The idea is we'll negotiate the terms of the diet ahead of time, we'll sign the paperwork, and then negotiating time is over, baby -- the case is bound over for trial, appeal denied. Then it's on to Phase Two, Susan's Miracle Diet: three days of "The Bad Girls Diet" (crash dieting), five days of the "Hollywood Diet," five days of the "Fresser" all-you-can-eat-of-bunny-food diet, five days of the "Anything in Moderation" diet, then on to the final "Grown-up Diet" and summation.

Prepared to loathe the book and rubbing my palms together in anticipation of the fun I would have at Estrich's expense, I found myself instead rooting for her book's success. Hers is a thoughtful, amusing, honest, readable book. How terrific to have One of Us, a smart, funny girlfriend, making a legally airtight case for why we can diet successfully this time, arguing calmly and compellingly from principles of case law rather than hectoring, cheerleading or making us count fat grams.

I confess I had my moments of doubt. Shouldn't this legal eagle be fighting for the forces of good over evil, making the same airtight case that we should love our bodies as they are and sidestep supermodel madness? On the other hand, I give her huge credit for being honest enough to admit that she's vain about her looks (so sue her). "Embrace vanity," Estrich writes. "I'm all for vanity: it's the only hope against the cheeseburger." OK, then, couldn't this distaff Dershowitz for dieters cut us a back-room deal? Find the legal loophole that would allow us to plea-bargain a coconut Mounds bar down to one serving of fruit? Alas, no. I'm sorry to report that the foundation of "Susan's Miracle Diet, Part l" is -- the heart sinks -- cabbage soup. Susan, mon petite chou, I'd do anything for you, so grateful am I that you've brought a measure of wit and sagacity to the dieting dog fights, but I'm still swallowing hard.

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At the other end of the dieting spectrum is the more traditional slimming tome, "Dining With the Duchess," by Sarah, Duchess of York, and Weight Watchers -- l25 recipes with the usual tips, fat gram tallies, etc. This book's got a double-barrelled hook -- endorsement by the downsized former "Duchess of Pork" and the marketing heft and credibility of Weight Watchers. Discerning readers of the book's flap copy will be gratified to find that "each recipe features the company's revolutionary new l*2*3 Success (TM), the weight-loss plan designed for busy people who want to cook and eat delicious meals without guilt." This plan, we're told, is "easy to use, there's no complicated counting, and there are no forbidden foods." Oddly, this revolutionary plan is never explained in the cookbook itself, nor are we told what to do with the mysterious points accorded to each recipe. (Do we add them up until we get to 3? Are prime numbers involved?) I presume this code is cracked once one ponies up the dough for a Weight Watchers membership.

But the duchess is there in spades. Refreshingly, Fergie admits that she very rarely graces a kitchen and employs a full-time cook among her fleet of helpmeets to cater to her tastes. Determined nonetheless to put her stamp on the cookbook bearing her name, she punctuates each of the menus with light-hearted divertissements, inviting us into a life of schussing down the slopes, enjoying high tea with her daughters, table-hopping at charity balls, cavorting at Ascot, traversing the lush landscape at Balmoral in happier times.

"Dining With the Duchess" offers tantalizing glimpses of life among the royals (climbing the steps for exercise when she's traveling "drives my security men mad!"). Fergie serves up armchair psychology ("I now realize overeating is only a symptom of suppressed feelings" and "the road to happiness is not paved with a thin body, and no one need struggle alone when it comes to weight"). She thrills us with moments of high drama ("I remember once [Herbert, a pony] stood stock-still when my foot caught in the stirrup. Most little ponies would have run away, but not Herbert") and incisive, you-are-there travelogue ("I do find it difficult to compare and contrast the [United] states because each one is so individual and distinctive in its own way"). It's possible she missed a career as a movie critic ("I love watching videos and all kinds of films ... 'Dances With Wolves' holds a special place in my heart"), but not as a social critic ("That particularly American trait of always seeing people for who they really are -- and not being swayed by the judgment of the press and its opinion -- is truly refreshing").

But, hey, if the book isn't exactly deep thinking (I suppose she saved the real soul-searching for her autobiography, which "forced me to collect the emotions and thoughts I had amassed over my lifetime and try to put them into words"), it does reveal Fergie to be a consummate Girl, someone we could easily spoon Häagen-Dazs with, straight out of the container. And "her" recipes look absolutely delicious. We loved her when she was the Duchess of Pork, we stood by her through the unfortunate Toe Tasting Period and we love her thin and trim. We're all secretly hoping she'll make another go of it with Andrew, who for all I know can decode that 1*2*3/Point thing.

So, do you diet with the Girlfriend or the Girl? Personally, I'm lunching
with the Girlfriend. Estrich is so smart and convincing, I bet she could
even persuade me that I like cabbage soup.

By Elizabeth Rapoport

Elizabeth Rapoport is an executive editor at TimesBooks/Random House. Her last story for Salon was How many working fathers does it take to screw in alightbulb? She is a contributor to "Mothers Who Think: Tales ofReal-Life Parenthood," edited by Camille Peri and Kate Moses, forthcoming from Villard Books in May.

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