Slimming Down, originally published in 1973, is a product of its time. In McMahon’s meal plans, he recommends a cup of Sanka and a half grapefruit for breakfast; a lone glass of Tab for lunch; and for dinner, a steak, asparagus, and hollandaise sauce. (You know, for health.)
In the coming days, I devoured the book, eagerly reading out excerpts to my family, who met them with delight. We visited a used bookstore, and I found myself bringing home copies of I Prayed Myself Slim and What Would Jesus Eat?
In the years since, I have amassed a commanding collection of old diet books, cackling at their bizarre proclamations about health and size. Some insist that fat must be cut at all costs, drenching recipes in low-fat, high-sugar ingredients. Others insist that carbohydrates—or, as McMahon calls them, carbo-cals—are the real culprit, and that fat is nothing to fear. Like so much of diet culture, these books are replete with contradictory, over-confident advice that is rarely backed up by more than anecdotal evidence. And nearly all seek to universalize a stubbornly individual experience, insisting that their authors’ successful weight loss is proof positive that one person’s experience can and will work for every other person.
The nutritional values of these foods haven’t changed over time, but these diet books are replete with food fads. Diet books from the 1970s heavily feature carob, Tab, and grapefruit. The 1980s focus on calorie counting, many frankly recommending extremely restrictive diets that verge on what most experts now would consider disordered. Diet books from the 1990s recommend fat-free foods, like sugar-laden Yoplait yogurt (c’est si bon) and Snackwell’s cookies.
As I read one outdated diet book after the next, I was surprised by how much unexpected insight they offered into how diet culture operates. All of these books took for granted that most of us will spend a lifetime at war with our own bodies. And all proclaimed that theirs was the miracle cure we’d all been waiting for—a one-size-fits-all approach to finally losing what so many ominously refer to as “the weight.”
It was strangely comforting to read these books and be reminded of what we already know: that most of us pursue weight loss despite the fact that evidence has been clear for decades that we simply don’t know how to ensure lasting weight loss through diet and exercise.
The collection, too, unveils so much about the social roots of diet culture. Now, years later, my diet book collection has reached nearly 100 titles, and almost none mention health risks of being fat. As it turns out, that public conversation largely didn’t ramp up to its current fever pitch until 2004, when then-Surgeon General Richard Carmona, M.D. declared childhood obesity his number crisis to solve and then in 2005, said that "Obesity is the terror within...it is eroding our society."
Instead, older diet books proudly champion the social benefits of thinness. I Prayed Myself Slim (1960) doesn’t just promote prayer as a weight loss strategy—it readily suggests that thinness is a visible mark of piety. How To Take 20 Pounds Off Your Man (1984) tells readers to use “stealth, subterfuge, trick, and treat” because “he alone cannot save himself.” “A woman’s work is never done.” I snort as I read it. As a fat, queer woman, I couldn’t be happier to forgo this “woman’s work.”
Now, as then, our shared fixation on controlling our bodies runs much deeper than just looking out for our health. Diets—even “lifestyle changes”—are as much about performing our identities as they are about losing weight. Dieting is, at least in part, about showing others the kind of person we are: health-conscious, yes, but also loved, lovable, successful, pious, enviable. Our bodies become solutions to entirely unrelated problems. In the world of these books, as in diet culture as a whole, losing weight is the assumed solution to a stalled career, a lackluster relationship, deep-seated insecurities about who we are and how others see us. They are replete with magical thinking, healing fantasies of the lives we believe we will lead when we finally, blessedly become thin.
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