The Dieter (1989) by Susan Sussman

“I scanned the booklet which listed foods I could eat the first week. A few of my favourites were missing. Dry white wine. Crisp toasted bialys. Milk chocolate Dove bars. I’d have to make substitutions. The book contained some kind of diabolically complicated food exchange system. I tried to decode it. If two ounces of chicken equalled one protein exchange and I was allowed six protein exchanges a day, how many acrobats could stir a ’59 Buick in May?” (35).

I picked up a copy of The Dieter by Susan Sussman at a used book sale. The plot: Barbara Avers quits smoking after losing a friend to breast cancer. Her weight increases from 105lbs to 190lb during her increasingly desperate attempts at dieting.

What I like about Sussman’s book are her observations about the sometimes absurd things we do to change the size and shape of our bodies – liquid diets, cybex machines and those little machines that jiggle your bum to firm [?] your thighs. This isn’t a simple story of weight gained and then lost. Barbara gains weight, splits from her husband, finds a new lover, gets a better job, and finishes the story at a healthy 150lbs. The book is really hilarious and it captures Barbara’s obsession with counting calories, a process so complex that she (and we?) lose site of the pleasure to be found in good food. By the end of the book Barbara has transformed her outlook on dieting:

“I no longer allowed the upward or downward movement of the scale’s needle to determine my mood each day…I didn’t know where my weight would finally settle. I did know I’d never be 105 again. The strange thing was I couldn’t remember, really, why it mattered as much as it had” (341).

Barbara even experiments with fat acceptance in the book, attending a meeting of NAAFA (the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance) with her ‘fat’ friend Kathlyn. She describes a NAAFA meeting like this:

“I went to a party this group gave and saw women than made me look thin, dressed up just like normal people… Blew me away. My whole life I’d hidden my body under tents of fabric and then. Kabang! I was free to be my sexual self without feeling self-conscious” (190).

Fat-women are a part of the narrative of this book, they are not marginal, not a source of ridicule. Barbara and Kathlyn have richer inner lives and complicated feelings about their bodies. It seems to me that “The Dieter” is an unusual artefact of popular culture because of its exceptionally sympathetic portrayal of fat-women and its anti-dieting message. And it is from 1989!

Over the last year or so I’ve been trying to read more fiction from the 1980s, esp. books with female protagonists. Historians still haven’t written much about the eighties and I want to use these books as another way to think about the mentalité of the decade.

Message me if you have any suggestions for a book.

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