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How it feels to look like everybody else.


"Well, Joe, I've succeeded in making you look pretty much like everybody else," said my doctor. It was his nunc dimittis, the signal that I might depart in peace after three months' reducing. In a way, I suppose my doctor was right. I'd lost rather more than a quarter of my total poundage. My stomach no longer suggested the burial mound of a prominent Indian chief; it had shrunk a foot at its most imposing circumference. All up and down the line there had been large reductions, and even my legs, always in pretty good training from having been champion weightlifters during their whole career, were noticeably smaller. The struggle, thank God, was over, and I departed accordingly. My unaltered clothes bagged about me more loosely than any burnoose, and I felt a mere thread paper of a fellow.

I was pleased by my rapid transition from a billowing 240 to a normal 175 pounds' weight, but frankly, I was also a little bewildered. When you suddenly find yourself fat no longer, after a lifetime's fatness, the world seems as different to you as it did that time to the wicked Earl of Rochester, when his brain cleared of a sickbed delirium, and he saw with sober eyes for the first time in six years. So many of life's little landmarks disappear along with your excess poundage.

The Fun of Crossing Your Legs

For instance, crossing your legs--when you're fat, crossing your legs is about as easy for you as it would be for a penguin, but, once thin, you discover you can do it with an easy grace. I spent days crossing and uncrossing my legs just for fun, after I made that discovery. Then brief, violent exertions don't paint pretty patterns of black and purple spots all over your field of vision. Retrieving small dropped objects no longer requires of you a movement like an elephant's majestic kneeling. You can even visit your tailor without hearing delicate suggestions that you would be far, far easier to fit if you would wear something called a "little retainer"--kin, I believe, to the corset. One way and another, all your days are flavored with a strong underlying taste of surprise, in which the simple but always astonishing fact that there is so much less of you is by no means the least important element.

I hesitate to write of the most astonishing thing of all--I'm still mildly incredulous about it. Yet, there's no denying it. With my extra foot of waistline gone, 10 or 15 years have dropped off my age. It isn't only that I look what I am--27--instead of any age from 37 to 50. I actually feel younger. I'm not merely lighter on my feet. I'm lighter-hearted and lighter-headed. Of course, it's against nature, and I'm frightened about what it might lead to in the end, but there it is. And, after all, this whole business of being made over must have its frightening side.

Now, I don't accept a mere temporary plumpness, a piddling 20 or 30 pounds overweight, as true fatness. If you want to call yourself fat, you must feel, in a bathing suit, that people are wondering how soon you will begin making your living in a circus. You must make the business of getting out of a low chair resemble a localized earthquake. In fact, you must be really fat. The late President Taft was fat, if you like. So was the Emperor Vitellius, who is said to have had eight extra chins. So was I, until I tried a diet which flourishes at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

I was a good long time getting around to trying that. As a boy, I believe I was known as the fattest kid in town. As a youth, I was the fattest member of my college class, and had to act for one gruesome week as the heavyweight member of the freshman wrestling team. No aptitude for the sport was involved, of course; the coach had merely heard that the rival institution's freshman team boasted a 230-pound heavyweight giant, and hoped that my poundage would give me powers of passive resistance. Eventually I declined the dangerous honor, but you can never escape the consequences of fatness. Recently, newspaper work has taken me to Washington, and I've had a certain difficulty with the purer type of politician--a rare animal, to be sure--because my prosperous-seeming poundage suggested that I must be a servant of the rich and wicked interests.

It wasn't for want of urging that I was so long about seeing what Johns Hopkins could do. If you're fat, you know that sadism is the commonest trait of human nature, and that its commonest form is an abnormal passion for seeing others reduce.

Your Best Friends Tell You

Personally, I always took as friendship's harbingers that first sadistic gleam in an acquaintance's eye, that first piece of advice straight from the shoulder, to "Go to Bill's gym; he's rather brutal, but he's taken 40 pounds off Brown," or to "Eat nothing at all every other day, and exercise until you're black in the face." I liked to think that they were signs that the adviser thought he'd gotten to know me well enough to be frank. All the same, I never paid any attention.

Then, as intimacy grows, your sadist friends become mere gentle reformers, full of painless remedies for fatness. I could write a book about these strange nostrums. There were the pills, made of something like dynamite. They gave you the jitters, and were more than likely to blind you. There was the tapeworm treatment. It only gave you a tapeworm, but that seemed enough to me. There was the diet of bananas, speciously said to be painless because one was allowed to eat so many bananas. There was the Chinese worm oil, suggested to me in a spirit of international amity by a Japanese charwoman. There was an ointment, to be applied before sunbathing, which had melted 28 pounds off someone or other. I might have tried that ointment, if anyone had remembered its name or the name of the fortunate loser of 28 pounds.

And then again, I mightn't, for I was happy enough as I was. If you've always been fat, as I'd been, you don't know what it's like to be thin and you suffer from no discontents. I felt about being fat as I feel now about not being able to drive a car. I can't drive a car--every time I've started to learn, my shuddering teachers have given up after the first lesson--yet I've always gotten to every place I ever wanted to get to. To this day I can't understand why the ability to drive a car should be a sine qua non of the abundant life, and until the Hopkins diet changed me, I never could see what was so desperately dreary about being fat.

To be sure, I did make one earlier effort to get thin. Why, I don't remember; I'm only certain that it was not because of my kind friends' urgings. About eight years ago, anyway, I decided I'd been fat long enough, and arranged to spend the summer at a sort of prison camp on the Hudson. The camp was run by an immensely disagreeable old gentleman who had a name for regularly beating the pounds off his clients. I never did find out whether he used a stick or a dog whip, because I broke my ankle half an hour before I was to take the train for his camp. And I ended up spending the summer in a long chair at my grandmother's, reading Proust, gaining about a pound a week, and consoling myself with a growing conviction that an all-wise Providence meant me to be fat and get fatter. Now that I've lost 65 pounds in 90 days and feel, improbably enough, like a fighting cock, I can see that I was wrong; but I kept thinking that Providence would interfere again up to the very moment on April Fool's Day when I was safely installed at Johns Hopkins Hospital, examining my room's view of Baltimore and wondering dolefully what starvation without alcoholic stimulants would be like.

You may well wonder what landed me in Johns Hopkins. I sometimes do myself, although I know perfectly well that it all began last winter, with a general physical examination which was my customary biennial oblation on the altar of family peace. While I was fat, my family always thought I was moribund, and every couple of years I had to prove to them I wasn't. This time, as usual the doctors found all my internals in perfect working order, but they fooled me by painting a pretty horrid picture of the future. Besides hinting that I'd soon become liable to a hideous catalog of diseases, they intimated that I'd get fatter and fatter. I gathered that before long I'd be in the condition of poor old George IV, when he abandoned his corsets to please his Whig ministers. Watchful Mr. Creevey recorded the historic moment of the early 19th century.

"Prinney has let down his belly," he wrote excitedly; "it falls to his knees."

Quantitative Reduction

So I gave in. My powers of resistance collapsed as completely as a spokeless umbrella, and after 27 years of holding firmly out against reducing, I consented to be reduced. Without a murmur I agreed to return to Johns Hopkins--the doctors said it would be quicker in a hospital--to take exercises, to go on the Hopkins diet, to do anything they asked. Six hundred and fifty calories a day I might have, they told me, and added, as a happy afterthought, that I seemed to be used to getting between four and five thousand.

I did return to Johns Hopkins on schedule, telling myself all the way that if Arctic explorers could support life for weeks on bits of boots, I could stand the Hopkins diet. And then the diet gave me the first of the long series of surprises which added up to the final, vaguely incredible experience of getting thin. The surprising thing about the diet is that the sagacious doctors who perfected it six years ago arranged things so that you lose a couple of pounds every three days without ever feeling hungry. You live on the edge of starvation, but you never have that primeval sensation at the pit of your stomach which tells you that, if you can't get steak bearnaise, an endive salad with a good Stilton, and ananas au kirsch, it's time to kill the nearest edible animal or drop in at a drugstore for a little tuna fish on marble cake. Indeed, I found that there were times when I could scarcely swallow the mountains of meat and mounds of vegetables on which the Johns Hopkins diet kitchen fed me. You can see what a deal of forage they gave me from my first day's bill of fare:

* Breakfast: Two-thirds of a water glass of orange juice; silver of honeydew melon; omelet made with one egg and two extra whites, cooked in mineral oil.

* Lunch: Cup of meat broth with the fat skimmed off; two and a half ounces of fish cooked in mineral oil; the white of a hard-boiled egg; half a cup each of string beans and cauliflower, both boiled and butterless; a raw tomato; half a cup of strawberries.

* Supper: Cup of meat broth with the fat skimmed off; two and a half ounces of chicken white meat cooked without fat; large serving of boiled and butterless asparagus; large cup of fresh pineapple.

With this, which totals nearer 600 than 650 calories, I was given four pills of vitamin concentrates daily and as much water, coffee, tea, salt, pepper, vinegar, and spices as I wanted.

I found that mineral-oil cookery made food taste like engineer's waste, so I repudiated the mineral oil and had everything boiled or raw. Otherwise, that first day's eating was typical of the rest. If you can bear a brief trip through the alimentary canal, I will now attempt to explain how I could eat so much--as much in bulk as any ordinary person eats on any ordinary day--and lose so much so fast. The reason is, no fats. Fats, it appears, are the villains of the dietary drama. If you want to reduce, fats are regular succession powders, aquae tofanae, poisons of the Borgias, and the Hopkins doctors fixed their diet so that, while you get plenty of lean meats and just enough starch, in vegetables and fruits, to keep up the essential structure of your body, you get almost no fats at all. Incidentally, you also get so you think of sweet butter as a greater delicacy than caviar, and of a plain rare steak, well-grilled, with plenty of juice and brown butter oozing about the plate, as better than ortolans and nightingales' tongues.

You keep up the essential structure of your body simply because your body uses virtually all the food you eat, all the meats and vegetables, to make muscles and bones. Under the circumstances, it has to burn its own fat for energy. Here are the basic daily requirements for this strange diet: For every 11 pounds of your ideal weight, five grams of absolutely lean meat; 40 grams of carbohydrates in low-starch, high-mineral-content vegetables and fruits; vitamins A, B, D and E in pill form, and, on alternate days, half a tumbler extra of orange juice and half a glass of whole milk.

There you are. My loss of two pounds every three days was by no means abnormal on that diet, and my total loss of 65 pounds was picayune compared to the poundage others have said good-bye to at Johns Hopkins. The prize patient was an elderly ex-policeman, who came into the hospital with a weak heart, short breath, bad liver, swollen ankles, and pretty nearly every other intimidating symptom possible. He weighed 340 pounds when the doctors put him on the diet. In six months he'd lost 120 of his pounds; his symptoms had disappeared, and he's a well man today, enjoying his ex-policeman's pension.

On the Edge of Starvation

But while you ponder the case of the lucky ex-policeman, remember one thing: If you take the specifications I've laid down and try to work them out with a homemade scale on the kitchen stove, you will certainly become a prompt victim of excessively painful acidosis, and most likely the glanders and the botts, too. The Hopkins diet keeps you hovering on the narrow edge of starvation, and only the closest supervision will prevent you from going over. I don't mean that the principle of the Hopkins diet can't be applied in home reducing. It certainly can, and it should be, because getting thin by avoiding fats is the easiest and safest way to get thin, but go to a doctor first, and let him work out the modification of fat-free eating best suited to your case. And remember, if you do go, that fat-free eating isn't the most delightful thing in the world.

If it hadn't been for avoiding fats, I'd have passed a quite normal, happy three months at Johns Hopkins. Keeping your starches low is easy enough. You simply have to give up breads, potatoes, sweets, the three best summer vegetables-greeen peas, corn and lima beans--and heavy-bodied fruits, like apples. But avoiding fats deprives you of all food cooked, as most good food must be, with butter; of olive oil and any other oil or lard, vegetables or animal; of all the pleasant organs of animals, like livers and kidneys; of all good cuts of meat, like steaks and chops; of any fish whose flesh is at all greasy. You're condemned to a perpetual round of fowl, poor meat and the lower forms of seafood, and you can't drown your sorrows in drink, because alcohol turns out to be just so many calories in sinister disguise. As nearly as I can describe it, the Hopkins diet is like feeding freely on boiled rugs. You get as much rug as you want.

Glutton by nature, something of an Epicurean by education, I gave a good part of my three months to vain imaginings. If it hadn't been for my imagination, my time in Baltimore would have been most agreeable. The Maryland races are good, the Baltimore book shops are first-class, the surrounding countryside is ridiculously pretty, and Marylanders are genial people. But every time I settled down to enjoy myself, my imagination would get to work.

Dark, spicy marinated lamb, beautiful steaks with homemade green-tomato pickles, the new paprika chicken, so delicate, so wickedly rich with cream--they haunted my mind, until I wished to be a boy again, at home on the farm with my family, eating my little head off. I thought of oyster crabs, of guinea fowl in casserole with juniper butter, at the Lafayette. I didn't want to, but I couldn't help it. I thought of Josephine's incredible seafood dish, all ocean's lovely flavors suspended in one white winetinct cream, at Lily and Bill's. I thought of Foyot's raspberry souffle, like an Olympian''s dream of the fruit, in Paris among the senators.

Against my will I remembered restaurants, the little place near the Madeleine where you lunch for an hour and a half on fantastic hors d'oeuvres and top them off with wood strawberries in sour cream; the Cavendish of the old days in London, when all the dishes you got there were Edward VII's particular favorites, and half a dozen others. I even invented dishes myself; the best was tiny hot pastries of smoked turkey, to be served with Creme Vichyssoise's iced white velvet embroidered with chives' green. And I thought of wines--but this way madness lies, and I mustn't go on.

Poise Through Avoirdupois

Possibly I sound a bit greedy, but I'm unashamed. The scorner of good food is a natural barbarian, to my way of thinking, and very likely a fratricide, false speaker, and potential defaulter into the bargain. Don't believe most people who say they care for nothing for food. They're pious frauds. But when you do find a man who honestly dislikes eating, suspect that man of simony, grand and petty larceny, barratry, and every other crime on the calendar.

One of the great pleasures of being really fat is that you can eat just as much as your digestion will stand. If you're really fat, you're past petty repairs, and you watch unhappy calorie counters with a detached pity. I know. I was fat from my first year until my recent ordeal at Hopkins and, from my wealth of experience, I've concluded that being fat is just a way of letting yourself go--that is, of course, if your glands are all right. It's a form of beachcombing without a beach, a self-indulgent man's way of going native without the discomforts of a grass skirt.

Sooner or later, being fat colors every aspect of your life, and not altogether unpleasantly either. When you are young and fat, you give yourself up to orgies of doing nothing. In summer you read endlessly in the cool house on hot afternoons, or, while the others have a quick swim and are up and doing, you float for hours in the languid waters of a summer river, watching the kingfishers dart for perch almost as lazy as yourself, keeping to the banks where the sun, filtered through the green shades above, only dapples the brownish waters. In spring and autumn you watch the wonders of the year's birth and death at your leisure, and in winter, when the year is dead indeed, you are under no compulsion to stray from the warm hearth. You need worry about nothing, be bothered by nothing except your elders' reformist spasms. And in the end your fat passive resistance will always defeat these efforts to make you walk a mile before breakfast, or learn to ride when your flesh gives you a seat like a bifurcated balloon.

Sins of Omission

Later on, the compensations for being fat take a less idyllic form. You must work, if you want to support your fatness undiminished, but you can always let boring letters go unanswered, or let troublesome bills go unpaid, or fail to perform all sorts of other dreary duties. If you're fat, your conscience hardly troubles you about sins of omission, and I've always thought that sins of omission could be almost as tempting as the more lurid variety.

One of my favorite sins of omission was not keeping accounts. This is a matter with which thin people are much harried by their consciences. I once knew a Boston woman who kept her accounts and did her checkbook faithfully for 30 years, without ever coming out right with the bank at the end of a month. The accounts and the checkbook took her two days each month, and the row with the bank, which the bank always won, took another day. Late in life she married a fat husband, who persuaded her to give up arguing with the bank. She still kept her accounts, but she used to take the monthly difference between the bank's figures and her own, write it into her books as "Error by Bank," and go on from there with the bank's figures. Of course, she was a very thin woman, and she had a shockingly cruel conscience.

As for me, I've never kept accounts, and besides all the time I've saved for better things, I've had the keen annual pleasure of answering the government's income-tax-blank question, "How do you keep your books?" with the simple negative statement, "I don't." That always made me feel as though I'd heroically shot a tax collector.

Curiously enough, I find that once you are thin, the sins of omission lose their savor. I haven't got to the point of keeping accounts yet, but probably I shall soon, and take a nasty pride in it too. There are signs. Take exercise, for example. In the Bible, as I recall, Jeshurun waxed fat and kicked, but when I was fat, my impulse always was to move no muscle unnecessarily. The only exercise I can remember liking was baseball in my first year at school. I was unquestionably the worst player at that school--I could neither catch, throw, bat nor run--and I was the only substitute on the very lowest team. The very lowest team had the very poorest field, behind which was an interesting, cool, swampy wood. As the catchers on the very lowest team couldn't catch much better than I, my duties all that spring and early summer were to sit in the wood and watch for the balls they let pass. I also captured three wood frogs, which earned my election to the Natural History Society. But now things are quite changed. I really like exercise. All those awful, old chestnuts I used to hate so on my friends' lips, about "feeling better after a good workout," and "there's nothing better than a good sweat," have amazed me by coming true.

Naturally, I had to exercise during my three reducing months. The doctors warned me that if I reduced without exercising, my muscles would be draped around me with all the tautness of an unoccupied string hammock. So I exercised, at a remarkable place called the Children's Hospital School, a place with a staff of genuises who could, I really believe, take a muscle and turn it into anything from a tea cosy to a new cable for the Brooklyn Bridge. They gave me "localized calisthenics," which is another name for wiggling one muscle at a time until all the important ones have some slight tension in them. At first my version of localized calisthenics looked like a serious form of convulsions, but in the end I got so I could do them quite well. That was how I found out that you stop seeing spots when you get thin.

In the end, as I've said, I even learned to class exercises among the pleasures of being thin, or, at least, of being in the state that is described by my doctor as "looking like everybody else."
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Title Annotation:dieting
Author:Alsop, Joseph, Jr.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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