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The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls.

"Religion is a form of nourishment," Simone Weil wrote. She fasted to resist the Nazis, and some would label her an anorectic -- and a suicide -- pointing out that her death from tuberculosis was hastened by her minimal food intake. But one of her biographers, Robert Coles, believes that this view is simplistic: "Her hunger was for God, not a slim waistline."

Still, since the 1890s, when the ice cream sundae was invented and the first weight-loss fads began, a cultural connection between thinness and saintliness has been forged. Now fat acceptance activists -- or anti-dieters -- have been trying to jettison the guilt and castigation associated with girth. They believe the rigid dieting practices that made overeating an unholy crime cause eating disorders as well as more obesity.

Richard Klein, whose previous book was Cigarettes Are Sublime, admits in Eat Fat that "recommending that you EAT FAT seems irresponsible, on the face of it." It may even seem "immoral." But he hopes readers will understand that his aim is not to encourage obesity. "This is a post-modern diet book," he writes, "which starts on the other side of the realization that diets don't work. Even if your fat is unhealthy, which is far from being sure, trying to lose it will increase it in the long run, and may well do harm, in the meantime, to body and mind."

Most overweight people are healthy, this professor of French at Cornell claims; it's the compulsive exercisers, strenuous dieters and diet-pill poppers who are not. He is angry at the tone of moralistic doctors, though his anger is tempered by oddball humor. He believes in "the blessing of chocolate, the balm of chicken soup" and "the comfort of a nicely schmeared bagel." And he has interlaced his butter-yellow book with pin-up photos from the zine Fat Girl.

Laura Fraser reveals in Losing It that she started counting calories in kindergarten. But she isn't thin today. "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."

Fraser, like Klein, is tired of our habit of commingling spirituality with slenderness. Her chapter on "diet gurus" includes Jack LaLanne -- "the Billy Graham of muscles," as a columnist christened him years ago, and LaLanne didn't demur. "[Graham] puts people in shape for the hereafter," LaLanne said. "I get them fit for the here and now." Be sure to get plenty of "vitamins F in G, Faith in God," LaLanne often told viewers of his sixties TV exercise show.

Other recent self-help books about eating disorders are anti-morality, too. Mary Pipher in Hunger Pains suggests to women struggling with anorexia, "Look for opportunities to be less strict or judgmental with yourself.... There's a big difference between self-care and self-ish." And Janet Bode, in Food Fight, tells young readers, "Don't judge yourself," though she also says, "There's nothing wrong with dieting if you're doing it the right way and for the right reasons." But Peggy Claude-Pierre's jargon-filled The Secret Language of Eating Disorders takes the logic to an illogical conclusion and could be considered simply silly if it weren't directed at a desperate -- and growing -- population. (Ten percent of college students, more than 90 percent of them women, is the current conservative estimate.) From Claude-Pierre I learned that anorectics are too kind: "Humanists of the first degree," they sacrifice their need to develop their own identities "for the sake of healing the world." What these victims need, she says, is unconditional love and the chance to let somebody take care of them. That happens at her Montreux Life Clinic in Victoria, Canada, where, using the Montreux Wellness Scale, she measures an anorectic's progress toward recovery and, presumably, away from the shackles of her "sensitive, caring nature." Or his. For, Claude-Pierre claims to have observed, as more men become kinder, they become more prone to anorexia.

Expect more books of wildly varying quality by, for and about anorectics and bulimics, since the publishing industry has found this subject profitable, to judge by the magnitude of Claude-Pierre's promotional tour and by the "substantial six-figure advance" Hyperion paid for Stick Figure, a first-person account by Lori Gottlieb, based on diaries she kept between ages 11 and 13. A comparable memoir, Wasted, by 22-year-old Marya Hornbacher, has been scheduled by HarperCollins for January, the traditional month for launching diet books.

Yet, as anti-dieters like to point out, diet books don't seem to be doing any good. The National Center for Health Statistics announced that for the first time in American history, overweight people outnumber those who aren't considered overweight by federal guidelines. Instead of trying to dedemonize fat, it may be more productive to learn why we have connected the ideas -- thinness and rightness -- in the first place.

Looking for clues, I read a novel, Eve's Apple by Jonathan Rosen, with an anorectic character at its center. It's unfair to judge fiction for its topical information -- Rosen wanted to transcend facts and even cultural issues; the universal meanings of hunger and its lack were his true subjects. Even so, I was disappointed not to find a usable insight. I also worried that it might be read as a kind of fairy tale: as if someone like Rosen's Ruth Simon might well suffer from anorexia; get over it, but still be pleasingly slender; and live happily ever after. That isn't exactly what happens to her, but by novel's end she is walking along West End Avenue holding hands with the man who loves her, both of them "dreaming of a new beginning."

Ruth isn't the first anorectic in fiction. Joyce Carol Oates's American Appetites (1989) had one; so did Marge Piercy's Fly Away Home (1984) and Thomas Berger's Reinhart's Women (1981). But those three were unappealing -- sullen, bitchy or spoiled. Ruth is as "likeable" as publishers often hope their authors' heroines will be. She is also physically attractive, even when she's gravely ill, her naked body standing in "self-starved marble pride."

Ruth's portrayal should worry Stanford eating-disorder researcher Traci Mann, since her study shows that testimonials by slim, poised, healthy-looking former victims may be counterproductive. And Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of Fasting Girls (1988), reports that not until the seventies, when anorexia first began receiving media attention, was there both a greater likelihood of diagnosis and a significant increase in the number of girls who learned about anorexia and "chose" it.

I am more than familiar with Fasting Girls, because Brumberg used my girlhood diaries when she wrote it, though she and I have never met. (The diaries are deposited in the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, at Radcliffe College.) Brumberg, a professor of history, human development and women's studies at Cornell, told me after she got my permission to look at the diaries ten years ago that m high school I was an anorectic of the "non-pathological variety." Recently, though, in another phone conversation, she said I had not been an anorectic at all but "the classic sixties dieter" for wanting to be 5'4" and 110 instead of 117.

We were speaking because she wanted permission to use my diaries again for The Body Project, in which my pseudonymous self is labeled a "restrictive eater -- that is, someone who habitually monitors food consumption." And while I wonder if Brumberg's own standards of illness and health have altered in a decade, maybe because the problem has gotten worse, her thesis is much the same as it was. She believes that someone who wants to lose weight in order to "be a changed and better person outwardly -- to fit [her] inner self" (my own long-ago words), has substituted internal controls for the external controls of years past, like corsets and Victorian morality.

The Body Project ventures beyond weight-control issues. Using numerous other diaries besides mine, from the 1830s on, she discusses acne treatments, orthodontia, contact lenses, body piercing, plastic surgery and more. The whole body, including one's bikini line, is now "the central personal project" of the American girl.

But Brumberg's isn't a scholarly work, so she doesn't go into depth. Unlike Fasting Girls, it's meant for a popular audience, and in the end opts for pure advocacy. Brumberg not only wants girls to shed the notion that chubby thighs are a sign of moral failure, she wants adults to help them forge a new code of sexual ethics. In "Girl Advocacy Again," she asserts that "girls who hate their bodies do not make good decisions about partners, or about the kind of sexual activity that is in their best interest." This leads to date rape, teenage pregnancy and girls being sexually exploited rather than sexually expressive in a "postvirginal age."

Brumberg's new moral code would preserve personal freedom and expression. But it's a difficult task she assigns us, because many adults, the girls' presumed leaders out of the wilderness, are as steeped in the culture as adolescents. As Brumberg herself says, at least in middle-class America, "girls grow up hearing adult women talk about how much they hate their own thighs."

In a traditional scholarly work, Fat History, Peter Steams compares American habits and tendencies with those of the French. A history professor at Carnegie Mellon, Stearns believes that dieting became a "moral category" because, starting in the twenties, modem consumer indulgences and new sexual pleasures made our puritanical nation feel guilty. In search of a counterbalance, we made the bathroom scale our moral clock. In France, fat people are not sinners; they are merely ugly. The French feel no need to improve their character in order to lose weight -- they reach instead for thigh creams and other quick fixes of dubious worth, while Americans feel that weight control requires exceptional personal traits. Hence, our fascination with "salvation stories where grossly obese people achieved striking slenderness -- the diet equivalent of sinners redeemed." (Fat History was published before the fen-phen recall. So I'm left wondering if Stearns thinks the drugs' popularity was partly the result of a weakening of the godliness-slenderness bond. If it was, I wouldn't call our situation improved.)

Seeing fat as the result of personal failure causes additional failures, Stearns argues. He also believes the inability of many Americans to stick to rigid diets makes them feel hopeless, so they eat even more, and gain more. And the diet-industry profiteers don't mind a bit our odd mixture of "slim ideals and bulging realities," since prodigal customers keep coming back for more special foods, more paid supervision, more salvation.

Fraser, by contrast, thinks that it's weight-cycling -- or yo-yoing -- and the attendant metabolic chaos that causes fat people to get fatter; while Klein may or may not be serious when he proposes that the nation is getting fatter because of some mysterious evolutionary process. Meanwhile, Michael Fumento, in The Fat of the Land, dismisses them both as "fat people trying to justify their conditions rather than change them."

Fumento says he has the proselytizing zeal of a "convert," since he dropped the extra twenty-five pounds he has carried around since age 18. A resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and author of The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS, he believes in (no surprise) personal responsibility in weight control. "A lot of people are going to hate me for what I've done here," he writes. "I've taken away their excuses about abnormal thyroids and slow metabolisms.... But I hope at least some of them will realize the favor I've tried to do them. I've tried to immunize them against their own excuses." Fumento also claims one publisher turned down his book proposal by implying that diet books had made the house so much money he dared not publish a book that may make people stop buying diet books. As if.

That ideal weight standards -- and moral judgment -- have been harder on women than men for biological as well as cultural reasons is something Fumento won't concede. In a section titled "Fat Is Not a Feminist Issue" he claims there are "just about as many obese American men as women," although he fails to footnote the assertion.

Stearns gives women's special gender issues the complex treatment they deserve. He also notes that Men's Health magazine now features at least one diet article per issue, just like comparable women's magazines, and that the press repeatedly ridicules Bill Clinton for his weight problem; this didn't happen to any other stocky President, not even our fattest one, Taft.

Stearns concludes that our "largely unrecognized cultural history" makes us "prone to grandiose campaigns that lead at best to temporary success, at worst to a sense of powerlessness." A culture like ours that is "contradicted by actual behavior makes for some agonizing social issues and self-judgments," he writes. Unlike Brumberg, he has just one small, not unreasonable hope. He wants us to seek more understanding of ourselves -- at the least it may help us, "in some ultimate sense, to be alert to the prisons we create for ourselves, even if we stay in jail."

More understanding means more books. If that's what it takes, let them come. But after reading all these titles, I know only one thing for sure: Nearly every writer on this subject at some point reveals his or her own current weight status. (Even the scholarly Stearns does.) I still weigh about what I did in high school. And I may be a so-called restrictive eater, but I'm healthy, too.

Only Fat History, and to a lesser extent The Body Project, offer new, reliable information and insights; but neither will help anybody with a pressing eating problem. The tone of the self-help titles must be rubbing off: I wish I could offer my own advice. Maybe just pray.
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Author:Schinto, Jeanne
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 3, 1997
Previous Article:Eve's Apple.
Next Article:Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West.

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