By the time I started high school in 1972, I had been on quite a few diets–the Low Calorie Diet, the Dr. Stillman Drinking Man’s Diet, and the Weight Watchers Diet, to name a few. I had lost some weight on the Drinking Man’s Diet, despite being a non-drinking third grader at the time, and I lost a more significant amount of weight on the Weight Watchers Diet, even though I broke a big Weight Watchers Non-Negotiable Rule: I never once ate liver.
In both cases, I gained the weight back, but I also learned just how much I wanted to be thin. I wanted “thin” to be my default mode, and my researches up to that point convinced me that I could get thin in a variety of ways; the challenge was to stay thin. My goal was to lose my extra weight as quickly as possible, and then focus on the real challenge of keeping it off.
My dieting adventures to that point had alerted me to an intriguing fact: people got rich inventing diets, publishing them in books, and then sitting back and beaming as the cash rolled in. Why would I make someone else rich by buying his book and going on his diet, I wondered, when I could make up my diet, lose my extra weight, and become a millionaire? I was now in the business of inventing diets. My first imaginative foray into the world of calories in/calories out was The Sweet Roll Diet.
The Sweet Roll diet was born of my love for the sweet rolls from Fessenbecker’s Bakery; I was a dedicated fan of their chocolate doughnuts, but then they invented a new sweet roll. It was shaped like a Long John but frosted with chocolate frosting instead of white, and it was filled with white buttercream. I had several Calorie Counter Books at home by this time, and my sister Marbeth had taught me that I could look up a food item in all three books and choose the lowest number, thus allowing myself to eat more than I would with just one Calorie Counter. The fact that I was trying to lose weight and that my Ingenious Calorie Counting Trick simply thwarted my own goals doesn’t seem to have penetrated my consciousness.
On this occasion, I looked up “sweet roll” in the Calorie Counters and every one of them came in at around the same number: an average sweet roll ranged from 150-300 calories. Taking the 150 number, I did the math and realized that I could eat eight of these luscious sweet rolls every day and consume a mere 1200 calories; I just couldn’t eat anything else all day. I knew that my mother was not going to approve of my sweet roll diet, but she was more neutral about an occasional fast. So I told her that I was planning to fast for three days, knowing that I would be happily ingesting cream filled sweet rolls, spaced out over the entire day.
I figured that after three days of my supposed “fast,” I would share my secret with my mother and she would agree that I should stay on my Ingenious Eating Plan, since I was losing weight on it, a major goal for both of us. It was a perfect plan; I didn’t see how it could go wrong. I would eat the delicious sweet rolls and still lose weight. When I had successfully achieved a wraith-like thinness, I would share my secret with the world and become a millionaire.
The first morning of the Sweet Roll Diet, I got over to Fessenbecker’s Bakery early in the morning before they ran out of cream filled chocolate covered long johns. I bought my allotted day’s ration of eight, brought them home, and settled into my bedroom. Opening the book I was reading, I bit into the first of my eight sweet rolls with a blissful sigh. I figured I could eat another one in two hours, and another one two hours after that, until all eight were gone and I could go to bed, no doubt to dream of the next day’s diet rations. I was a genius.
Just after I had polished off the last luscious bite of that first long john, my sister Susan popped her head into our bedroom, reminding me that she had the day off from her job. Wouldn’t it be fun, she suggested, to go to the Muskego Beach Amusement Park? I loved Muskego Beach, because it was filled with Roller Coasters and Tilt-A-Whirls and other rides I adored. I readily agreed, but then realized that I had a Sweet Roll Diet Problem. I hadn’t told anyone about my ingenious Sweet Roll Diet Plan, and so Susan thought I was fasting. What to do?
I told Susan I was “in” for a day riding roller coasters, but I had to get dressed and I would meet her downstairs. After she left our bedroom, I pulled my tray of sweet rolls out from under my bed and pondered them. Clearly, I decided, the most reasonable course was to eat all eight sweet rolls before we left. Then I could spend the rest of the day having fun at the park—full, happy, and, best of all, losing weight. This, I thought, truly was a brilliant plan.
I quickly gulped the seven remaining giant sugar filled frosted long johns; my vision had not been one in which I ate so much in so little time, but I looked forward to having a fun day and then having a more leisurely sweet roll experience the next day. Filled with hope (not to mention sweet rolls), I headed out for a “sister day” with Susan at Muskego Beach. I made it through exactly two rides, and didn’t feel too hot on either one. Then we went on a ride that hurled us up in the air, turned us completely upside down and then twirled us around. I barely made it through the ride before my whole Diet Plan Menu came up and out of me—pastry, buttercream, chocolate, and bile. It was not a pretty sight, and it was the end of the Sweet Roll Diet. Not to mention our day at Muskego Beach Amusement Park. I wouldn’t be publishing the Sweet Roll Diet and making my first million dollars any time soon.
I may have given up on the Sweet Roll Diet, but I had not given up on my twin dreams of losing weight and inventing a major money-making diet plan. For my next foray into the world of thinness and entrepreneurship, I invented the Buttercream Diet. The timing for this ingenious diet was perfect; my parents had just gone on vacation, so my mother wouldn’t be wondering why I wasn’t eating any meals. I had developed a minor passion for Russell Stover Buttercreams, conveniently sold at Hayward’s Drugstore across the street from my house. I could polish off a box of those buttercreams in an afternoon’s reading. In despair yet again about my weight, but really craving those buttercreams, I decided that while my parents were gone (about ten days), I would eat twelve buttercreams a day. At fifty calories per buttercream (surely a conservative estimate), that would put me at six hundred calories per day. I was sure to lose a great deal of weight while enjoying delicious buttercreams instead of such boring diet fare as whole wheat bread and fresh fruit.
In order to feel full on a daily ration of twelve buttercreams, I made pitcher after pitcher of diet iced tea (Lipton had an artificially sweetened powder that came in a jar and could be mixed into giant pitchers). Every day, I ate a few buttercreams, washed down with six to eight glasses of diet iced tea. By the afternoon, I would feel positively giddy—lightheaded and woozy. It was a feeling I liked, which was probably not a good sign for my future.
Years after the Buttercream Diet, I read about something called “water intoxication,” in which a person can drink so much liquid that her blood actually gets thinner and fails to nourish the brain as blood is supposed to do, causing the deprived brain to get woozy. I could have accidentally killed myself on several occasions during the Buttercream Diet, becoming perhaps the first teenaged girl to accidentally kill herself with chocolate buttercreams and iced tea.
Once my parents came home, the Buttercream Diet was over. I had lost about ten pounds, though, and I was thrilled. The weight, of course, came back as soon as I started eating food again, so I moved on to the Carnation Slender Diet. I didn’t invent the Carnation Slender Diet, but I did tweak it a bit. On this Plan, two of my three daily meals were supposed to consist only in a big glass of Carnation Slender, a powder bought in boxes of four at the grocery store and blended with milk at home. The official diet required one solid meal, at dinner, but I figured that I would lose weight faster if I drank Carnation Slender at all three meals.
I did lose weight on the Carnation Slender Diet, but I also turned down every social occasion in my life because it involved food; I couldn’t eat and needed to be home with my blender and my Carnation Slender. I was too lonely and hungry to last long on this diet, and I was spending vast amounts of money on sugarless gum to satisfy my craving for something, anything to chew. Unbeknownst to me, the artificial sweeteners in sugarless gum, if consumed in large quantities, had a bit of a bathroom effect—something akin to what would happen if I had eaten a large bowl of prunes every twenty minutes for a week. As much as I wanted to be skinny and gorgeous, I didn’t want to spend the bulk of my high school years in the bathroom.
I was ready to move past my dream of inventing a diet in order to become a skinny millionaire; now I was thinking more about succeeding on a diet someone else had invented but making a million dollars by being so successful at the already-invented diet that I became an “After” diet model. It was time for the Ayds Diet.
Ayds was a diet candy; in the 1980’s, the AIDS epidemic put this unfortunately named diet out of business. In the 1970’s, however, it was advertised everywhere. This diet necessitated buying Ayds Candy, which was very, very expensive—much more expensive than actual candy, and far less tasty. This magical candy was well worth its price, though, because it contained a mysterious ingredient that killed appetite. I suspect, looking back, that the special appetite-killing ingredient was sugar, because the diet required one to consume two Ayds candies with a cup of tea or coffee twenty minutes before each of three meals. The idea was that the Ayds candy would blunt one’s appetite when one sat down to eat, causing one to eat less at every meal and therefore lose weight. In later years, numerous studies showed that consuming small amounts of sugar, especially with liquid, about twenty minutes before a meal helps to limit the appetite. In other words, the Ayds diet was the Buttercream Diet, except with meals added and with much more expensive (and fouler tasting) candy.
The candies themselves came in several different flavors–chocolate, chocolate mint and butterscotch. My first box of Ayds was the chocolate variety. I told no one that I was going on this diet; I was afraid that my brother would make fun of me and my mother would be mad that I had spent so much money on something that I wouldn’t have needed if I had even an ounce of willpower. I figured that I would lose weight, and everyone would notice, and then if anyone found out about Ayds, they would not be critical because they would be so thrilled with my svelte new self, plus my new career as Gorgeous Ayds Model would earn millions and benefit the whole family.
I bought the Ayds candy at Hayward’s, the same drugstore where I bought all of my actual candy, in addition to the potato chips and ice cream I sometimes purchased. When Randy, the clerk there, saw that I was purchasing Ayds Candy with my sweaty dollars and coins, he (mercifully) said nothing. I was determined to succeed, and I had invested my own hard-earned cash. I did lose weight with Ayds, several times in fact, but after losing ten pounds or so, I would go off the diet and gain the weight back. I wrestled with the same eight-to-ten pounds through several boxes of Ayds.
The Ayds Diet ended for good one night while I was watching a Doris Day-Clark Gable movie on television. It was the Late Show, and I was hungry. There was no good food in the house, and all the stores were closed. The only food I had on hand was my unopened new box of Ayds Candy. The drugstore had sold their few boxes of both chocolate and chocolate mint (probably to me), and all that they had left was the butterscotch flavor. Desperate, I had bought the box a few days past but hadn’t opened it yet, planning to get back on the Ayds Diet soon. That night, though, I had no interest in the Ayds Diet. I was hungry, and bored, and sad. I opened the box of hideously expensive, terrible-tasting candy and ate the entire thing while watching the movie Teachers Pet. By the end of the box (and the movie), I felt sick, exhausted from chewing so many chewy caramel-type candies, and disgusted with myself. I had sunk to the level of binging on diet candy. The Ayds diet was over.
Not long after I parted ways with the Ayds Diet, the newspapers began to trumpet an Exciting New Diet called a “protein-sparing fast.” Dr. Robert Linn published a book called The Last Chance Diet, which sounded about right to me. I bought the book, and decided to go on the diet, which involved eating nothing—that was the “fast” part. In order to prevent my body from consuming itself while I methodically starved it, the diet ordered me to drink a liquid protein substance called Pro-Linn; this liquid was sold in drugstores everywhere, no doubt adding considerably to the balance sheet of Dr. Linn himself. The idea was to mix a couple of tablespoons of Pro-Linn with water, drink it down several times a day, eat nothing, and lose thirty pounds in a month. One month—that was all I needed. I could give up food for just thirty days and become so gorgeous and skinny that Dr. Linn would practically beg me to the Official Spokesperson of the Last Chance Diet.
As I did years earlier with “The Drinking Man’s Diet” and “The Story of Weight Watchers,” I studied Dr. Linn’s book as if I were Jewish and it was Talmud. He was a very positive and encouraging fellow, but he was also honest, which I appreciated. Describing the taste of Pro-Linn (for a month, my breakfast, lunch and dinner), Dr. Linn acknowledged that it “was not Beaujolais,” but then he went on to say something like, “what do you want, Fatso? You’re on a diet!” As a young teenager at the time, I had never tasted Beaujolais. The taste of Pro-Linn was so foul that I was never able to drink Beaujolais in my lifetime. Just the word “Beaujolais” summoned a taste-memory of Pro-Linn, and my mouth shivered.
I could not manage to stay on the Last Chance Diet for more than a few days; after a good bit of practice during my other diets, I was used to not eating and feeling tired, cranky, light-headed and weak. No other diet, however, insisted that I drink Pro-Linn. When Alec Baldwin on the television show 30 Rock described a beverage as tasting like “the urine of Satan after a hefty dinner of asparagus,” my mind immediately flashed to Pro-Linn.
About six months after I gave up on the Last Chance Diet, I discovered that I was a fortunate young woman to have had such sensitive taste buds. Pro-Linn was based on collagen, a low-quality protein derived from the hooves and hides of slaughterhouse animals. About sixty sudden deaths occurred among Last Chance dieters; these deaths resulted from abnormal heart rhythms resulting from heart muscle damage and electrolyte imbalances. Pro-Linn was also low in vitamins, minerals and electrolytes. Dr. Linn was apparently putting the “die” in “diet,” and my lack of willpower kept me from an ignominious death. (The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche lost his mind shortly before he died, and started kissing horses. I, on the other hand, was drinking their liquefied hooves. Neither of these options are what I am shooting for as the “cause of death” listed in my obituary.)
There were, of course, other diets. My mother heard about a diet which consisted in drinking a gallon of distilled water once a day for three days. My mother, sisters, cousin and I went on that diet together and cleaned Hayward’s Drugstore out of their entire supply of distilled water. We lost weight, and then we gained it back and then some. There was a Diet Soda Diet, where for three days one consumed nothing but diet soda. I lost weight, but gained it back and then some. By the time I was a junior in college, I had dieted my way to weighing almost 229 pounds. And then, on June 7 of 1979, I went on my last diet. I didn’t know at the time that it was my last diet—every diet I started, beginning when I was seven years old, was my “last diet,” if only in my dreams—but this one was.
I stopped eating sugar. All sugar. Every bit of sugar. I just stopped. I ate two meals a day, and every meal consisted of some fruit, some vegetables, some protein and a tiny bit of starch. And that was it, every day. I walked five miles a day, and I biked ten miles a day. I lost a hundred pounds. I didn’t invent a diet and become a millionaire; I didn’t become a Famous Spokesperson for a diet someone else invented and become a millionaire, but I didn’t care. After fourteen years of dieting, losing weight, gaining weight, and hating myself, I was thin. And being thin was every bit as wonderful as I had ever dreamed. My greatest fear was of regaining the weight, and I resolved that it would never happen. It never did—I kept that weight off—but that, too, came with a price.
In 1980, about six months after I had achieved my “ideal weight” of 128 pounds, I was getting very anxious about the fact that, even when I ate a “normal” amount of food, I was slowly regaining the weight I had lost. I was up about ten pounds, to 137, and I was terrified that it was all going to come back regardless of what I did. Then, one night after dinner, I was lying in my bed reading Glamour magazine and I came across an article about a bizarre new phenomenon showing up on college campuses everywhere in the country called “anorexia nervosa.” To me, anorexia sounded less like a problem and more like a strategy. I decided that maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to develop “just a touch” of anorexia. This, as it turned out, was not a good decision.