TERRY PRONE: The unspoken hazards women negotiate over eating and dieting

When women return to work after the long Easter weekend, you’d think they’d arrive in citrus colours, in keeping with the season. Or pastels. Or neons. 

Instead, many, in the next few days, will wear funereal black. Head to toe. That wardrobe choice dictated by the need to conceal the weight gain caused by a calorie-sodden Easter.

Easter used to be the great dietary jail-break weekend. You were SO good during Lent, never touching a chocolate — with the exception of St Patrick’s Day, which was a bit like getting out on parole — that the Easter weekend wasn’t long enough to celebrate sweet (literally) freedom.

Every year, coming up to the sugar-coated weekend, journalists would find a reason to worry about chocolate consumption on an industrial scale. 

One year, when scriptwriting for the predecessor to the Sean O’Rourke radio show, presented by Gay Byrne, I varied the weekly shopping basket item by purchasing about a dozen popular eggs, stripping them of their outer, gilded clothing, and weighing them. 

I then compared them with the quotidian, bog-standard bars of the same brand and revealed — shock, horror — that consumers were paying as much as four times more for an ovoid version in a box. This was because the chocolate egg was so much thinner than solid blocks of the same confection. 

Afterwards, a friend (female, inevitably) told me she loved that radio item, because she interpreted it as making Easter eggs more virtuous — i.e., lighter — than bars, thereby giving her permission to eat more of them with less guilt.

This year, the equivalent story was studded with quotations from obesity experts. Not that obesity experts really see the Easter blowout as a major contributor to the problem they have to address. 

The real reason for the outbreak of chocolate censorship is that hacks have to find a way to worry, and worrying in print without the authority of an expert is no good. (Worrying on social media doesn’t require an expert. Any headbanger will do.)

Eggs have improved in variety over the years, with manufacturers such as Lindt entering the market. It’s also possible to buy an egg with one’s name carefully embossed in gold on it — I know this, because a friend gave me one.

Despite all this, some people have stopped buying into the chocolate-egg imperative. It’s not that hard, particularly when it comes to children. They get so many eggs over this weekend, they’ll never miss the one you don’t give. 

One friend came up with a deadly alternative this year, giving the toddler daughter of a friend an Easter bunny clutching a basket in which nestled half a dozen plastic eggs. Once opened, each egg contained the toddler’s favourite ‘sweet’ — blueberries. 

The unspoken hazards women negotiate over eating and dieting

As long as the child could be kept away from the rest of the sugar-drunk children of her age for the duration of the festival, that was nothing short of genius. 

No deprivation, and all the fun (for the child) of tormenting her parents to open the plastic eggs, each of them like a tiny, primary coloured Fort Knox.

I have been reminded that the binge-and-regret process seems to be pretty much the monopoly of women. A new social history book explores the lives of six famous women through the food they ate. Or didn’t eat. 

Two of the five twentieth-century women about whom Laura Shapiro writes were much more concerned about dietary restriction than consumption. 

Adolf Hitler’s wife, Eva Braun, harboured a deep contempt for overweight women, including for Magda Goebbels. The latter took her own life around the same time as Braun bit down on a cyanide capsule in the Berlin bunker they shared.

Braun dieted rigorously and constantly. Helen Gurley Brown, ditto.

Helen Gurley Brown was the woman who, in 1962, captured the zeitgeist with her racy book Sex and the Single Girl. This earned her a hospital pass in the form of a magazine named Cosmopolitan, which was on its last legs. 

Could she rescue it? Yes, she could! Of course she could! She could edit any piece of text into positivity and then add exclamation marks! 

Or get double the value by putting a one-word statement at the end of a pleasingly short sentence and sticking an exclamation mark beside it. Delicious! Perfect!

She took the magazine, rescued it, and ran it for three decades, based on two certainties. The first was that cleavage on the cover sells. The second was that every woman wants a man and, having subordinated herself in every way to his needs, can marry him. 

Every edition of the magazine had listicles of self-abnegation: ‘Ten Ways to Make Him Feel He’s Special!’ Or ‘The Five Sex Tricks No Man Can Resist!’

Helen Gurley Brown, 1964.
Helen Gurley Brown, 1964.

In many ways, Gurley Brown’s life was the template for Cosmo girl’s behaviour. She boasted, in print, that she had it all. Including a trophy husband.

“David is a motion picture producer, forty-four, brainy charming and sexy…and I got him! We have two Mercedes-Benzes, one hundred acres of virgin forest near San Francisco, a Mediterranean house overlooking the Pacific, a full-time maid and a good life.”

The only thing she never had was food sanity. 

She cooked for her husband, but never ate with him or with anybody else, because she mostly didn’t eat at all, so focused was she on the theory, articulated by Wallis Simpson, that a woman can never be too rich or too thin. 

She was hungry all the time and what she consumed was calorie-counted so obsessively that she once warned readers not to kid themselves that lettuce was calorie-free.

Every night, she consumed sugar-free jelly, not made with the pint of boiling water recommended by the manufacturer, but with a quarter of the right amount, in order to produce intensely saccharined rubber, amenable to lengthy chewing. She boasted about having “a little” anorexia.

I met Gurley Brown in my extreme youth and her extreme age. I had been brought to the US at Easter by Seventeen magazine, as Ireland’s ‘outstanding teenager’. 

A meeting was set up with Gurley Brown, for no reason I can remember. She talked about interviewing Barbra Streisand’s younger sister, of whom nobody had ever heard, then or since, but who seemed to serve the needs of the magazine as an example of sibling rivalry, of which she had a lot. 

The Streisand sister was also, according to Gurley Brown, thirty pounds overweight. Maybe more. 

I looked guiltily down at the crumbs of the croissant I had eaten while she talked, only to find her skeletal forefinger on my plate, sticking together a tiny tower of pastry flakes the way a forest ranger would spike up a series of dry leaves. Totally unbeknownst to her starving self.

I found myself mentally commenting in her style. The Calories You Don’t Notice You Eat! How to Avoid Those Tempting Leftovers! Delicious Ways to Starve!

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