A diet used to be something you were meant to endure once in a lifetime. After several months of misery you’d reach your target weight and thereafter maintain it through sensible eating, or at least that was the theory. As far as I am aware, this has never, ever happened in real life. In real life you’d have one of four options: fail to lose the weight, lose the weight then regain it, develop an eating disorder, or become Rosemary Conley. Obviously none of these is particularly desirable.
Today our attitude towards dieting has changed. We’ve finally recognised wilful semi-starvation for the total waste of time that it is. Only kidding. We’re still as into dieting as ever only this time, diets don’t even have to promise lasting success. Gone are the days when we’d approach the next diet warily, buying into it only if it promised to be nothing like the others. Beaten down by the ubiquitous cult of thinness, we no longer feel cheated when it all goes wrong. After all, we’ve only ourselves to blame. We are too weak and too greedy. Nothing less than low-level self-hatred shall be our lot.
These days you don’t even need to slip into an unhealthy starve-binge cycle all by yourself. Open the average glossy or “women’s section” of a tabloid newspaper and you’ll find they’ve mapped out the peaks and troughs of a future eating disorder on your behalf. Henceforth there shall be no celebration, no significant cultural event, for which it is not necessary to embark on a crash diet. I’m surprised you can’t already buy calendars with fat days, fast days and binge days already pencilled in.
Right now it’s pre-Christmas diets that are all the rage. According to the Daily Mail, “women keen to drop a dress size for the festive season should start slimming now” (unfortunately that quotation is from 1 November, so if you’ve not started on the celery yet, it might be too late). The Mirror, meanwhile, is promoting the 5:2 Christmas party diet. Forget the fact that they’re recommending a total of eight days on only 500 calories apiece in return for one measly evening’s boozing with people you probably don’t like. What’s that compared to not being able to “fit into your favourite fancy frock”? (A frock that is, by definition, the wrong size for you.)
Anyhow, let’s assume you make it through those weeks of 5:2 hell. You’ll slip into that dress, dance the night away and end up feasting on cheesy chips from a van because you’re so utterly wasted. After that you’ll spend Christmas over-eating because that is obligatory. You’ll end up bigger than you were before but never mind, it’s the New Year and time for yet another stupid detox. Then there’s Lent and Easter which, regardless of whether or not you’re a believer, offer further excuses for disordered eating activity. And then on to summer and the ridiculous bikini body diet, which you will feel pressured to follow even if you have no intention of wearing a bikini in your life.
As far as the tabloids and women’s magazines are concerned, every single year in the life of every single woman is marked by a series of starve-binge repetitions (that’s not even mentioning the added extras such as the “pre-wedding diet” or “losing your baby weight”). For some women this will be a true reflection of life, holding on from one “permitted” binge to the next. For many more, who don’t take Closer diet tips as gospel truth, the diets themselves will be dismissed but the overall message - that you can’t genuinely enjoy holidays and celebrations unless you are thinner - will still sink in.
The notion that a good social event is marked by being able to make a dramatic “ta-dah!” entrance, showing off one’s brand new body, gets under the skin. It’s frankly ridiculous, not to mention narcissistic, but when something is presented not just as happiness but as normality on so regular a basis, it almost feels arrogant to reject it. Who are you to think it’s okay to turn up at your office party in your everyday body, the one your colleagues have seen you inhabiting day in, day out? Isn’t that just rude? You’re meant to make an effort and whereas a generation ago that might have meant a dash of glitzy nail polish, these days it’s four weeks of mind-numbing hunger before you squeeze yourself into control pants and hope you won’t need the loo in the next five hours.
Or at least, that’s what we’re advised. I’d like to think there are more joyous ways of celebrating, away from the idea that in order to appreciate the supposed high points of your life you need to look as though you are a model self-consciously representing “fun”. I’d like to think that even if pleasure is eternally deferred, it can be deferred in a more enriching ways than with the thought of Krispy Kremes. Most of all, I’d like to think all those who struggle with food and body image will find a means of rejecting starve-binge popular culture before too many wasted years have sped by.