I am pretty sure that there is not a diet that I have not been on. My life as a dieter began without me; when I was seven years old, a neighbor commented to my mother that I was “getting a stomach,” and my concerned mother decided that Something Had To Be Done. My father was always battling with an extra twenty pounds; in fact, after my mother’s first date with my father, she asked her sister Bernadette if Jack Maloney was too fat. My Aunt Bernie considered the question for a moment and then said, No, he wasn’t. Close to it, but not too fat. Sometimes late at night I lie awake and ponder the fact that I owe my very existence to my Aunt’s judgment about the relative fat-ness of my future father. Even though he wasn’t “too fat,” my father did struggle with an extra twenty-thirty pounds for most of his life. Periodically, my father’s doctor gave him a mimeographed sheet with a diet on it and recommend that he take off a few pounds. This “doctor’s diet” was a healthy 1800 calorie eating plan; after Mrs. Van Beckum’s declaration that I had a Stomach, my mother decided to solve my problem by putting both my father and me on the doctor’s plan.
If my mother had asked me, she would have discovered that I had zero interest in going on my father’s diet. I had perused the “food plan,” and confirmed that it contained nothing that I liked. The lists of “acceptable foods” were all things I hated, like vegetables, fruit, and lean proteins. The suggested menus were ridiculous, suggesting desserts such as “one-half cup of ice milk.” “Ice milk” sounded like something I would scrape off the front steps in February, and I knew of no human being who ever ate just one-half cup of anything. Besides, I was nowhere near as bothered as my mother was that Mrs. Van Beckum had strong opinions about my stomach. In my mind, everyone has a stomach, so she was stating a pretty obvious fact. Hey, I thought, you have a stomach, too, Mrs. Van Beckum. No one was waving lists of Food No One Wants to Eat in front of your stomach.
But my mother didn’t ask me; I was seven years old, still firmly in the category of “years when your mother calls the shots.” I knew with certainty that this diet business was a done deal the day I sat at my desk in Mrs. Lane’s third grade classroom and opened up my black patent leather Barbie lunchbox. Up until that day, my lunchbox consistently offered me a sandwich, a wax paper bag of potato chips and a cookie or two. On this bleak day, my lunchbox contained a baloney sandwich. Period. Life as I knew it had ended.
I spent the few weeks that I was on this Food Plan in mute rebellion; in true Bartleby fashion, my response to this diet was “I’d prefer not to.” My mother knew that her strategy wasn’t working, and so she made a tactical retreat, wisely concluding that no diet was going to work unless I was actually interested in following it.
Not surprisingly, I continued to gain weight, and eventually I felt as miserable about my weight as my mother and Mrs.Van Beckum did. By the time I started third grade, I weighed 101 pounds. which meant that I was the second-fattest girl in my grade. I knew this to be true, because Christ King School had a ritual twice a year in which each class was marched down to the gym and told to line up. In front of the stage there were two desks, spaced about thirty feet apart and manned by the School Nurse and the Assistant Principal. Next to the Nurse’s desk was a scale—one of those Serious Scales with weights and measures. Each student at Christ King School had to march up to the scale and step on it. The Nurse then shimmied the silver things around on the bars and determined our weight, which she then shouted across the gym so that the Assistant Principal could write it down.
Looking back on this practice, I wonder what on earth they were thinking. Did some of the meanest Nazi Camp Leaders escape their just punishment after World War II and hide out in our elementary schools? I don’t know. But boys who struggled to pay attention to anything that involved reading, math or spelling watched avidly and listened intently for the announcement of everyone’s weight. This was the research they conducted in order to know who to torment for the rest of the year.
It was my luck and Carol Taibl’s misfortune that she was consistently the fattest girl in the grade. Because of that unasked-for notoriety, she endured years of walking down the hallways of Christ King School listening to the boys screech “Run! Taibl Wave!” I always felt an uncomfortable mixture of feelings—empathy and sorrow for Carol Taibl, and deep relief that she existed and therefore took some of the heat off of me.
Christ King School was deeply committed to the health of its students. Those shouted-out weights must have caused real concern to the administration, because starting in second grade, we were marched down to the same gym for “Exercise Class.” Exercise class consisted of our regular teacher putting a record on the turntable and leading us all in calisthenics choreographed by a man on the record who yelled at us a great deal about having “chicken fat!” (If you would like this man to yell at you for being fat, click here: https://youtu.be/EFofqe26t-4). I came to despise that record and that man, and I was none too happy with Christ King School. To this day, I have a deep aversion to chicken fat in all its guises.
Seeing how miserable I was about being the Second Fattest Girl in the third grade, my mother tried valiantly to limit my food intake and prepare healthy food for me, an initiative that was consistently foiled by my deep love for sugar and salt. Then my father went on the Stillman Diet, which was also called The Drinking Man’s Diet–a plan my father could really support. The Stillman diet as practiced by my father involved bacon and eggs for breakfast, about ten cups of coffee throughout the day, two bunless hamburgers for dinner every night, and several glasses of bourbon while he watched the Johnny Carson Show.
My dad lost a lot of weight on the Drinking Man’s Diet, and he looked healthier. In fact, he looked a good deal healthier than Dr. Stillman himself, who did not, in my opinion, look like a man who should be giving out health advice. A lot of compliments started rolling in and I noticed. I wanted some of that love, and so I wanted to go on that diet. My mother agreed that I could join my father on the Drinking Man’s Diet, apparently unfazed that the book outlining the Food Plan had a picture of a martini on its cover. Of course, the martinis and the glasses of bourbon my father enjoyed were not part of the diet for me, seeing as I was in the third grade.
Dr. Stillman ordered me to eat a great deal of D-Zerta Diet Gelatin and as many bunless hot dogs and hamburgers as I wanted; I could also have eggs, bacon, cheese and butter. Not really a typical third grade diet, and difficult to pack into my Barbie lunch box. Because I was young and still growing, Dr. Stillman allowed me two eight ounce glasses of milk a day and one cup of loosely packed lettuce leaves.
I lost about eight pounds on the diet, but I couldn’t sustain it. It was just too hard to live my third grade life on a diet that allowed me butter but no bread, hot dogs but no buns, cheese but no pizza crust. It was also too difficult to do without my primary source of comfort—food.
The first time I made my own decision to lose weight was when I was in the eighth grade. I was going to graduate from Christ King School in June of 1972, and in April of that year, I decided that I was going to wear a size 11 graduation dress. Size 11 was, for me, a magical size that would mean I was thin and beautiful; if my Francie doll were human-sized, I was pretty sure she would wear size 11. I invented my own diet: every morning, I had a half English Muffin with a tiny smear of butter for breakfast, followed by a lunch of twelve strawberries and a two cups of undressed lettuce. For dinner I would eat a tiny bit of whatever my mother cooked, and that was it. I rode my bike through the neighborhood for an hour each afternoon after school. I lost about twenty pounds on this diet, and I did indeed buy and wear a size 11 graduation dress—from The Limited– for my graduation. I also I bought my very first pair of size 11 Levi’s. I felt amazing in those jeans.
Over the summer, though, I started to gain the weight back, and when I started high school, I was about ten pounds over my “ideal weight.” The pounds kept inching back, and I spent my first two years of high school struggling with the same twenty pounds, always somewhere up or down on that scale. During those up-and-down years, I made the decision to go on the Weight Watchers diet. In those days before the Internet, the Weight Watchers diet was a state secret, given only to those who attended Weight Watcher Meetings. The Weight Watchers Organization insisted that attending weekly meetings was essential to the dieter’s success; in order to be granted access to the Official Weight Watchers Materials, dieters had to go the meeting, pay the dues, get weighed, have their weight recorded in a little book, and listen to a pep talk from that particular group’s Leader. In my mind, this approach combined the anxiety of those public weigh-ins at Christ King School with the weekly demand that I show up for my Brownie meetings with my dues in my Official Brownie Coin Purse. I wanted no part of the meetings. I wanted the diet.
Luckily, my sister Marbeth’s mother-in-law Martina had paid for the program and she was willing to share her Official Materials with me for free. In preparation for my trip to Martina’s house, I bought The Story of Weight Watchers by Jean Nidetch, the Founder. I was hopeful and excited by this diet; my cousin Kathy had joined Weight Watchers the previous year, and lost forty pounds even though she worked in an ice cream store after school. Kathy looked and felt fabulous. Even more impressive, she had a boyfriend. I wanted what Kathy had, and I was confident that if she could do this, why then so could I.
Marbeth drove me to her mother-in-law’s home in the suburbs of Milwaukee so that Martina could hand the Weight Watchers Holy Grail to me. She had quit the diet by then, so I didn’t even have to copy the diet from her pamphlets; she let me take them home. My two clearest memories of the pamphlet with the diet in it are these: on a page listing my options for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Martina had written, “at least three hours” between the choices for breakfast and lunch, and “at least four hours” between the choices for lunch and dinner. When I asked her what these notations meant, she explained that her Weight Watchers Leader had told them that is how long they had to wait between meals. Forty-four years later, I still look at the clock when I am thinking about lunch or dinner to see whether enough time has expired for me to acknowledge my hunger.
The other thing I remember clearly from the pink card-stock WW pamphlet were the words on Page Three: “Let your conscience be your guide. Let Weight Watchers be your conscience.” As a Catholic girl, I was familiar with the phrase “informed conscience.” The Church teaches that every Catholic is duty-bound to follow her own conscience in matters of faith and morals, but she is also responsible for forming her conscience properly, by reading and studying the teachings of the Church. The Catholic Church now would have to compete for space in my brain with the teachings of Weight Watchers.
It was a good diet—healthy, balanced, and effective. I lost twenty-five pounds in three months, and my skin cleared up, my hair got shinier, and my fingernails grew. For me, it was like a religion; The Jean Nidetch Story in paperback was my Catechism; I covered it in blue fabric so that no one could see that I was carrying a diet book with me everywhere, and I re-read Jean’s story so many times that the pages of my book began to separate from the binding and fall out. The diet itself was very different in the early 1970’s than it is today, when Weight Watchers has a Points System and lots of flexibility about things like eating in restaurants. When I was on it, the Weight Watchers Diet did not value flexibility.
In those days, there were no points, but there were a great many rules. Every day, I was ordered to consume three pieces of fruit, five servings of vegetables, one teaspoon of fat, two pieces of bread, and two glasses of milk. Certain fruits and vegetables were forbidden: bananas, potatoes, and corn were off the diet. I was allowed unlimited amounts of water, diet soda, salt, pepper and bouillon. I was limited to four eggs a week and two servings of beef, none of which could be—ever–hot dogs, lunch meat or bacon. I could have a total of four ounces of cheese a week, but none of it could be high fat cheese. I was obligated to eat fish five times a week, but it could not be shellfish, which was high in fat, and the tuna had to be packed in water rather than oil. I was mandated to eat liver once a week.
Out of this collection of rules and choices I constructed my menus for each week. Up to that point in my life, the only fish I had ever tasted were the fish sticks my mother sometimes fixed for us on Friday nights, which I doused heavily in ketchup and enjoyed very much. Neither fish sticks nor ketchup, of course, were allowed on the Weight Watchers Diet.
My mother didn’t cook fish, and did not want, under any circumstances, the smell of a “fishy house.” Thus, nearly all of my five “fish meals” per week were tuna from the can or, as a treat from my mom (because it was expensive and she had to figure out how to cook it), halibut. My mother would purchase the pricey halibut steak for me once a week and bake it. Weight Watchers did not allow any oil or butter, and cooking spray was still years away from being invented. In my mother’s view, fish only improved its flavor with baking time, and so she baked my halibut steaks for a very, very long time. Sometimes the fish would be so thoroughly stuck to the cookie sheet after a few hours in the oven that we would have to pry it off with a large flat knife, leaving an outline of the fish, like a chalk outline of a crime victim, on the pan.
Since I had never tasted tuna in my life, I had no idea what it was supposed to taste like, and the only way my mother ever ate tuna was mixed with a healthy dollop of mayonnaise (not allowed on Weight Watchers—also something I had never eaten in my life nor had a desire to), so I guessed at how best to prepare it. I packed a lunch every day, and so every day I brought a tuna “sandwich” with me to Divine Savior-Holy Angels High School. I had the one piece of allowed bread, and on top of that I mixed my four ounces of tuna with chopped celery, cucumbers and radishes (the vegetables most reliably in our refrigerator). Cucumbers are watery, and so my “sandwich” was always a bit of a watery, tasteless mess. I didn’t mind, though, because to me that sandwich tasted like hope.
As I continued on the diet, I started looking for some variety in my limited menu, and thus it was that I searched out and found some sanctioned Weight Watchers Recipes. (At this point in the Evolution of Weight Watchers, there were no such things as frozen meals or Weight Watchers brand snacks. I was on my own.) My go-to breakfast became my Weight Watchers “pancake,” which I made by putting my piece of bread in our blender with some of my allotted milk and one of my allotted eggs for the week. I’d whir it up and cook it in a nonstick Teflon pan. Voila! Pancake!
On the weekends, when I was home and had access to the oven (there were no such things as microwaves), I looked forward to my Weight Watchers Pizza, which had to be constructed according to strict Weight Watchers Rules. First, I toasted my allotted slice of bread, and topped it with “tomato sauce,” which I had to make by boiling tomato juice (allowed vegetable) in a pan to reduce it by half and thus thickening it. Atop that I was allowed to place one ounce of sliced American Cheese and as much oregano and garlic salt as I desired. I would then broil this “pizza” until the cheese melted and I had my very own cheese “pizza.” I adored it. Especially when I could accompany it with one of my sanctioned Weight Watchers “milkshakes.” These also required a blender, and necessitated the buying and using of something called “chocolate extract,” which could be found in the aisle with vanilla and food coloring. Into the blender would go my allotted cup of milk, three ice cubes, one teaspoon of vanilla extract, and one teaspoon of saccharine. I would whip that up into a froth and enjoy. It didn’t taste exactly like a chocolate milkshake, but it was filling and sweet in a chemical way, and I loved it. Sometimes I mixed things up and left out the chocolate, instead adding a teaspoon of vanilla.
After mastering these amazing basics of Weight Watcher Cooking (these recipes had been in the pamphlet that Martina had given me), I was ready to take on some new challenges, so I went to the Wauwatosa Public Library and checked out the Weight Watchers Cookbook. That initiative was less successful than my first forays, because the Weight Watchers Cookbook was full of recipes I knew I would never, ever attempt because either they sounded disgusting (mackerel “pudding!”) or involved ingredients I didn’t have or want to buy (liver paste) or would never figure out how to prepare (multi-step Weight Watchers “white sauce.”) Once I narrowed the recipes down to the ones I could prepare and was willing to eat, I had just a few left. I remember two of them total clarity: Weight Watchers Root Beer “Floats” and Weight Watchers “Roasted Peanuts.” The Root Beer “Floats” were simple to prepare: pour a can of diet root beer into a bowl and whip it into a foamy frenzy with an electric mixer. Pour six ounces of the resulting brownish-grey foam into individual dessert glasses and freeze. After a few hours in the freezer, share and enjoy. This was not a recipe I made more than once.
The recipe for Weight Watchers “Roasted Peanuts” was the high water mark for honesty in the Weight Watchers Universe. It entailed purchasing canned whole mushrooms from the store (mushrooms were another thing I had never tasted until the Weight Watchers Diet), salting them liberally (as anyone who has ever tried them knows, canned mushrooms are already extremely salty), spreading them on a cookie sheet and baking them for several hours in a low oven until they are brown(er) and shriveled (“resemble cashews.”) At the very bottom of the recipe were the words, “Do these taste like roasted peanuts? No. But you are on a diet!” Somehow, I always remembered and respected that level of honesty, especially from Weight Watchers, who exponentially increased world-wide use of quotation marks with its books filled with recipes for “pudding,” “ice cream,” “soup,” and such.
I did not swerve from my Weight Watchers diet even once for the several months it took me to lose twenty-five pounds. I brought my own food to outings with my friends, or ate before I left and drank diet pop for the rest of the night. I felt good, and I looked good. Then I got sick. It wasn’t Weight Watchers’ fault; I caught the flu. But I got very sick, and missed nearly a week of school. I was too sick to prepare my Weight Watchers meals, and my mother was working part time by then for the University of Wisconsin, so I started eating food instead of “food.” By the time I got back to school, I was eating sugar again and remembering why I loved it; I had lost my momentum.
The Weight Watchers diet worked for me, but when I went off of the diet I gained all the weight back. Mine was the typical pattern for dieters: I would go on a diet, lose weight, then gain it all back along with a few more pounds besides. By the time I finally went on my last diet when I was a junior in college and lost the extra pounds for good, I had been steadily dieting from the age of seven. After the Stillman Diet and the Weight Watchers Diet, I moved on to the Sweet Roll Diet, the Buttercream Diet, the Last Chance Diet, the Distilled Water Diet, the Scarsdale Diet, and the Atkins Diet. Stay Tuned.