In my real life I proofread children’s books, and the other night I dreamt that I was thumbing through the just-published pages of one of them. It’s something that’s coming out–in real life!–this next season: a cute, fun rhyming book about girl power. In my dream I glanced at the text on one page and I saw the word “diet” in one of the verses. I thought, what the hell is that doing there?! Right in the middle of this rhyming list of ostensibly awesome things girls do was the word diet.
I thought, oh God, I hope nobody complains about that, and then I flipped through some more pages and saw it again, in some upbeat and horrifyingly wrong line like, “Go girl! You eat your diet food, uh-huh!” I got a terrible sinking feeling and thought, this is awful! People are going to hate this! They’re going to write angry letters and scream and get all pissed off and they’d have every right to do so, of course, because somehow I overlooked the appalling fact that the word DIET was in a book for little girls. In the dream, the authors themselves weren’t responsible; somehow the word just crept in there on its own, and I’d failed to see it because I am a dreadful person with obviously twisted notions of girlhood. And so, of course, I might as well have inserted the word since I was just as guilty for not deleting it. I am so dead, I thought.
Then I woke up and remembered that in real life, the book does not have the word “diet” in it anywhere, for Christ’s sake. Little girls will read it and they might just grow up normal, and if they don’t, it won’t be my fault.
One day my mom picked up The Woman Doctor’s Diet for Teenage Girls from a sale table at Kroch’s and Brentano’s. She brought it home and explained that she didn’t think I needed to diet, but if I ever did, she’d want me to know the things I should and shouldn’t do. I think I was eleven or twelve. I had sort of dieted before. I thought it was sweet of my mom to get it and I was actually a little excited about it, in the same way getting one’s first box of Teen Slender Regular Tampax was exciting. It wasn’t one of my mother’s diet books; it was just for me! The book had a glossy white jacket and the title was in navy blue and pink letters. The woman doctor had nice hair.
I don’t remember what the diet was, exactly. I’m pretty sure it was sensible as all hell, where you’d get a chicken breast for dinner on Day 1 and a lamb chop on Day 2; it was one of those deals with those daily menus, with those little measurement and condiment and beverage details; all of it stingy and earnest, like a cafeteria run by elves. But what I really got into were the stories in the book. The woman doctor had these case studies that were supposedly true, and she or someone else had written them up to sound an awful lot like YA fiction.
There was the one about the girl who was determined to wear a size 8 prom dress. She’d gained weight after having mono and could only fit into a 12 but she really wanted to go back to the 8. So she had nothing but juice for two weeks. She wore the size 8 dress to the dance and looked great and then passed out and her prom was ruined and she gained the weight back.
I read it and thought, ha ha, dumb bitch. I’ve never worn a size 8.
Then there was the story of Beth and Roger. Beth was a fat girl who somehow managed to be dating this hot guy named Roger. No one at Fictional High could believe it, but Roger was really into her. That was the first thing about the story that fascinated me.
Bizarro fate struck a few paragraphs in: Beth got her wisdom teeth out and had a bad reaction to the anesthesia. Doctors scrambled to save her! Roger pounded on the door to the operating room, screaming, “let me see her!” Poor Beth wound up in the hospital for days and days and days, too sick to eat, wasting away. Oh, it was terrible. Then she recovered and saw how much weight she lost and made an effort to lose a little more, and suddenly she was skinny and foxy, or so the book said.
But of course someone at Fictional High was up to no good, and was putting brownies and cookies and cakes in Beth’s locker in a devious, subtle scheme to make Beth fat again. No, really: they even put fried chicken in her locker. It seemed like Nasty Head Cheerleader, who’d always resented Beth, was behind it all. But it was Roger.
Roger? I thought. Oh my God! I was genuinely surprised. It was so strange. In the principal’s office, Roger confessed that he was jealous that other guys were noticing Beth now. He liked when Beth was fat and he had her all to himself. Aw, I thought, in spite of it all. But Beth didn’t appreciate the sabotage and dumped his ass. The moral of the story was that guys like Roger are freaks and it would be really cool to get sick enough to lose 50 pounds.
Oddly enough, at about the same time I was reading The Woman Doctor’s Diet for Teenage Girls, I was also thumbing through my mom’s copies of Fat is a Feminist Issue and Such a Pretty Face. I didn’t read them straight through and I didn’t understand them completely, but I knew that there was something very important about these books, and they had some personal stories that were interesting to read, too. Maybe I’ll go back and read them again.
One of them, Pretty Face I believe, had a chapter about girls at a fat camp. It made me wonder if a fat camp would do anything for me, even though I knew I wasn’t really fat enough for fat camp. I felt better and not better at the same time. It was probably the first time I read something that came out and said, look, fat people are just fat, okay? And it can really suck sometimes, it said. Eventually diets seemed really sad to me. So instead, I fantasized about slipping into comas and waking up thin.
So anyway, I kind of hate these teen magazines lately. They’re all like, Hey girlfriend! Don’t diet! Yeah, I know, whatever. And war, war is stupid. Whatever.