Fat and folly

Posted: Aug 29, 2003 12:00 AM

Recently, at an all-female gathering, I watched the clock to see how long it would take for the conversation to turn to dieting. Introductions took the first three minutes. Logistical arrangements for the evening's entertainment consumed the next 10. Compliments to the hostess on how well she was looking added another one and half minutes. And then the inevitable question "Have you lost weight?" focused the group on The Topic. A grand total of 14.5 minutes.

It's not that we're hard up for conversation. I once adopted a rule that no discussion of calories, carbohydrates, scales, "cellulite," exercise or water weight would be permitted in my house. The rule lasted about as long as the introductions at the dinner party. And I was the first transgressor.

Scientists fretting about the "greenhouse effect" say our forests are being depleted. Of course they are. We're cutting down trees at breakneck speed so that we can publish more diets. By the time the greenhouse effect gets hot enough to fry us all, there will be no fat in the world left to sizzle.

Losing weight is our national religion, and diet books are our hymnals.

It's easy to ridicule the supermarket checkout magazines with their pictures of "dreamy chocolate pie" on the cover alongside a teaser for "The New Hollywood Weight Loss Plan: Dream the Pounds Away!" Those are the tent-meeting, faith-healing, snake handlers of the national religion.

But obsessive dieting is not just the province of the humble or the ignorant. The "High Church" diet deacons are found in the pages of The New York Times and on the best-seller lists. It was from The New York Times that I learned the solution to an old controversy: eating 100 calories of ice cream and 100 calories of carrots is not equivalent. The ice cream will make you fatter. This religion doesn't ask how many angels can dance on the head of a pin -- it just wants to know if that's a better way to burn calories than aerobics.

I know ambassadors, corporate lawyers and physicians who confess that at least 30 percent of their waking hours is devoted to arithmetic -- the humming calculation of calorie intake -- and another 30 percent to guilt. This religion believes sins of the flesh consist of having too much of it.

A book by sociologist Barry Glassner tells us what madness this is. The thesis of "Bodies: Why We Look the Way We Do (And How We Feel About It)" is that we are all laboring under a "tyranny of perfection." Glassner believes that the diet religion has not "made us, as a nation, any happier with the way we look."

Very wise, Mr. Glassner. We are all being absurd. One-third of girls between the ages of 11 and 18 are on diets. Psychiatric wards are full of bulemics (who binge on food and then vomit) and anorexics (who starve themselves utterly).

Nature is against us. Women are not genetically programmed to be lean and hard. The onset of puberty bestows curves, softness, voluptuousness -- in other words fat. When we starve and exercise to rid ourselves of the sinful softness, or when more than 100,000 of us troop to plastic surgeons to have it vacuumed away by liposuction, we're doomed to disappointment. The ideal is out of reach.

Glassner thinks we should find "other, more realistic options." Very sensible.

But who will start? I confess that in the temple of dieting I am a priestess. I have been on my current diet for -- what day is it? -- eight years. Fried food? Anathema. Cream sauce? Anathema. Cheesecake? Can't even remember what it tastes like.

I know that this is vain folly. The national religion is a false idol. But until the day comes when the words "Have you lost weight?" are an expression of pity, instead of the highest praise, I'll remain a devout dieter, keeping vows of cream cheese chastity.