Extreme Dieting: The Worst Diet in the World

Jennifer, the webmaster, age 8 (First Communion, May 1959)
Photo by Harley D. Semple

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I was eight when The Worst Diet in the World was first foisted upon me.

My grandmother and doctor decided that I was getting a bit too chunky, so I left the doctor's office with a very low calorie diet and two prescriptions: one for diet pills (amphetamines) and the other for thyroid pills (later, I discovered that, having a perfectly normal thyroid, I never needed the thyroid pills).

Off and on, for the next 10 years, I would go on this roller coaster diet of pills and draconian dieting: losing, gaining, losing, and gaining...

I suppose it never occurred to anyone that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result was not really working out. As the diet pills lost their effectiveness, my hunger increased and grew into a voracious monster. The body is funny that way; it wants what it needs, despite any artificial appetite suppressants, and it will tend to overcompensate.

The more I was deprived, the more I wanted, and the more I wanted, the more my grandmother dug in to make sure that "illegal" foods were hidden away.

But I was an inventive child; I would use my allowance and purloined spare change from my grandfather's top dresser drawer for treats from Bill and Mary's, the corner grocery store. I would hide in my room and eat peanut butter cups, Lick-em-Aid powder (grape was my favorite, followed by cherry and orange), and sunflower seeds.

In theory, I wanted to lose weight, but only because everyone was telling me how fat I was, and that if I didn't get my appetite under control, the consequences would be dire: no man would ever want to marry me, and I would be relegated to enforced spinsterhood, fat and unhappy.

Before The Worst Diet in the World, I never even thought that much about food--it was just something annoying that interrupted play time. At lunch and dinner, my grandmother would call me in, I would wolf down my food, and dash back outside to play with my friends.


Jennifer, age 7
A year before The Worst Diet in the World
Photo by Harley D. Semple
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I'm not sure why I became a little chunky and why my grandmother panicked about my weight, except that in the 1950's, chubby children were a rarity. Most of my friends were rails, all stick arms and legs, and I was rounder and fleshier. Back then, it was important to fit in and not stand out in a negative way, and excessive weight was not a positive attribute.

I suspect that if my grandmother had not made a huge issue about my weight and made sure that I was being served healthy foods at meals, I would have grown out of my chubbiness. Food would have never become such a major issue in my life.

But in the 1950's, the approach to weight loss was simplistic: you put less fuel in the engine, you will eventually deplete it. The idea of deprivation and its psychological effects, especially on children, simply were not widely known or researched.

So that long-ago visit to the doctor's office has changed my life in a most profound way, launching my 50-year battle with weight.

In 1990, I wrote "Are You Thin Yet?," an essay, later published in a thematic anthology (food issues), about my diet journey up to that point in my life:

"Are You Thin Yet?"
Those words, arriving one day--cloaked in a birthday card and sizable check from a great aunt in California--will remain forever grooved in my mind.

So will the words that followed: "I hope so because, if not, you'll have to spend your birthday money on fat clothes, and we know how ugly they are. And you have such a pretty face."

Happy 13th birthday.

I'll never forget the pain from that cruel and cutting message, perceiving, somehow, that love and acceptance were doled out according to how close I could get to my ideal body weight, that fat was a sacrilege, a dirty family secret to be eradicated like a communicable disease, even if it meant sacrificing a little girl's self-esteem.

At 13, I was a shell-shocked veteran of the diet wars, having already embarked on reducing regimens, ranging from the downright fad diets ("eat sugar and lettuce for every meal for one week") to the downright dangerous (amphetamines prescribed by my family doctor who himself weighed in at a whopping 300 pounds).

So I was an expert in attack strategies required for tackling those extra pounds, having begun several years before the vicious cycle of food deprivation, weight loss, bingeing, weight gain, guilt, more food deprivation, more weight loss, more bingeing, more weight gain, more guilt, a cycle that has stalked me throughout my adulthood.

I started picking up unwanted pounds when I was eight. At first, my family teased me about being "pleasingly plump" and "a whole lot to love." Yet, as I look back on old pictures, I wasn't overly obese; perhaps I was simply going through a stage where my height hadn't yet caught up with my weight.

I'll never know, however, because my family would not accept me as I was, and (with the best of intentions, I'm sure) started me on my diet merry-go-round.

First they tried "scare tactics": "If you eat those potato chips, we'll need a derrick to get you to school." Then it was "let's-hide-the-food-from-the-kid-and-maybe-she-won't-notice" approach.

I noticed all right and took steps to compensate by raiding my piggy bank and sneaking down to the corner grocery store for Reese's Peanut Butter cups; I could always depend upon my good friend chocolate to fill that empty spot in my stomach. Once, when I was home alone, desperate to fill that void with something warm and soothing and yet too frightened of fire to light the pilot light on the stove, I heated Campbell's Chicken Noodle soup in the electric percolator.

So by the time I had received the fateful birthday message, I was still not thin, even though my family and doctor had tried just about everything, including thyroid pills, even though my thyroid was (and still is) perfectly normal.

By now, the verdict from my family, peers, and media was obvious: I was not okay. I was fat; therefore, I was stupid, oafish, somehow sub-human, unfit to play with "normal" children. And they let me know about it, too, calling me "Fatso," "Heifer," "Fatty-fatty, two-by-four, couldn't-get-through-the bathroom-door."

I hated myself, and, even though I was raised in a staunch Catholic family, I once considered selling my soul to the devil "if only I could eat all the peanut butter cups in the world and still lose weight." Instead, with my immortal soul intact and my self-esteem shot to hell, I began, in earnest, my self-imposed cycle of food deprivation, etc.

By high school, I was still not thin, but my regimen now included days of total fasting, followed by sheer bouts of gluttony. I was completely out-of-control, and, except for periods of self-imposed exile into "Dietland," remained out-of-control on into adulthood.

In 1986, I embarked on my last regimented diet, a grueling journey through the Optifast Program, certainly the hair shirt, the sack cloth and ashes of all programs, The Ultimate Food Deprivation Diet, the Just Punishment for the Fat, my last crack at formal self-flagellation: for twelve weeks I ate no solid food, limited to drinking 70 calorie milk shakes six times a day. During that three months, I became totally obsessed with food; I counted the days when I could finally put one bite of poached chicken breast into my mouth; I had sexual dreams about food, bacchanalian banquets where the line between good taste and raunchy sex blurred; my senses sharpened, my eyes grew gaunt, my temperament developed a steely edge.

So was I thin yet?

Of course not, because the minute I stuck that first bite of real food into my mouth, I was fat again, no matter what the scale told me. In a matter of weeks, I was fat again, simply reinforcing what my head had known for years.

I finally gave into my old enemy food, eating whatever I wanted, feeling guilty after every bite and every binge, hating myself more and more. I was mired in a four year feeding frenzy.

August, 1990: I found myself facing 40--and still not thin yet. For the first time in my life, I actually considered suicide; however fleeting the thought might have been, the possibility was frightening enough to send me scurrying for professional help. I know this revelation will shock my loved ones, including my husband, but I have to tell my story like it is.

Two months later, after receiving some excellent psychotherapy in conjunction with a workshop on overcoming food obsession, I'm finally coming to terms with my love/hate relationship with food. Most importantly, I'm discovering that I need to learn how to love and accept myself--no matter what my weight is and no matter what others (including my family) think about me--unconditionally and without reservation. I'm not quite there yet, but for the first time in my life, I feel hope, real hope.

Sometime in late September--I'm not exactly sure why or how--I made a decision to toss away all the diet baggage I've been carrying around for all these years. Now I ignore all the diet gurus and their snake oil remedies and have vowed to get on with the rest of my life.

Also, I have given myself unconditional permission to enjoy the foods I love, in whatever quantities I desire, and whenever I want--guilt-free. Moreover, I have called a moratorium on foods I never really liked in the first place but felt I had to eat because they were "thin" foods for "unthin" people.

In essence, I have thrown out all the old diet rules. After all, generally speaking, people who are naturally slender and have a positive self-image don't put themselves through a lifetime of agony over food. And, now, neither will I.

Am I thin yet? No, but, hey, I'm a heck of a lot happier now than at any other point in my life. Even at slightly under 200 pounds, I am able to look at myself in the mirror and see someone I could genuinely like--even love.

Will I ever be thin? I honestly don't know. I do know that ever since I have purged myself of useless guilt, I have not binged. I'm not sure what significance this has in the long term, but I now realize that my future success must be measured in the way I feel about myself, not by the scale or public consensus.
At the time of this essay, I had bought into the anti-dieting movement and was determined never to diet again.

Of course, that didn't happen; the siren song of thinness kept calling. I eventually took up dieting again, off and on. It simply didn't occur to me I was dieting all wrong--that I was approaching it as temporary nuisance.

In the past year, I have had to redefine the very word "diet" to mean "permanent lifestyle change," not as a temporary state to be endured until I could eat that piece of pecan pie again. Now I realize that I can have a slimmer body and eat my pie.

Don't get me wrong. While I no longer agree with every aspect of the anti-diet movement, it does offer some important positive messages:
Celebrate yourself and your accomplishments, no matter what you weigh, and live life in the present.

Don't allow others to define how you should feel about yourself and your body. If they define you by your weight, then it's their problem, not yours.
I am fortunate that The Worst Diet in the World did not turn me into a amphetamine addict; in fact, it may have had the opposite effect, for, in general, I abhor pills and only take them when I absolutely have to.

Had I been another kind of person, the consequences could have been dire, but instead of turning to pills, cigarettes, or alcohol, I turned to food.

I no longer blame my grandmother or even the doctor for The Worst Diet in the World; the best science of the time indicated that diet pills could help overweight people, including children, lose weight.

I know my grandmother loved me and wished only the best for my welfare; she simply did not have any experience in dealing with overweight children, so when my doctor prescribed thyroid pills and amphetamines, she accepted his professional diagnosis and treatment.

My success is all up to me now, and I have chosen to move forward and to look back only when I can learn something from the past, not to assign blame.

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"Are You Thin Yet?," copyright 1993, by Jennifer Semple Siegel, originally published in Eating Our Hearts Out: Personal Accounts of Women's Relationship to Food, edited by Leslea Newman, The Crossing Press (1993).

This essay may not be republished or reposted with permission from the author/webmaster.

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