In an era of waif-like models and beefy heroes, a vocal anti-diet movement is urging people to set realistic goals

MARY NEMETH May 2 1994


In an era of waif-like models and beefy heroes, a vocal anti-diet movement is urging people to set realistic goals

MARY NEMETH May 2 1994



In an era of waif-like models and beefy heroes, a vocal anti-diet movement is urging people to set realistic goals





Clad in T-shirts and sweat pants or skin-tight spandex, they break into rhythmic jumping jacks, bouncing and flapping like recruits at boot camp. In a slightly malodorous room across the hall, men and women pedal stationary bicycles or labor on rowing machines, computerized to calculate the calories burned with each stroke—one slice of chocolate cake down, another to go.

Clad in T-shirts and sweat pants or skin-tight spandex, they break into rhythmic jumping jacks, bouncing and flapping like recruits at boot camp. In a slightly malodorous room across the hall, men and women pedal stationary bicycles or labor on rowing machines, computerized to calculate the calories burned with each stroke—one slice of chocolate cake down, another to go. Others sprawl on benches, straining against pulleys laden with stacks of weights, or hoist barbells as they study themselves shamelessly in floor-to-ceiling mirrors, which, in the critical eye of the beholder, are not always kind.

It is a uniquely late-20th-century ritual, this noon-hour workout, and the temple is any health club in any Canadian city. Devotees % sweat and pant for healthy hearts and lungs, for flat stomachs and firm buttocks, for granite biceps and chiselled pectorals. In the locker rooms, at hour’s end, they strip and shower and rearrange themselves for the afternoon at the office. A few women seem a bit uneasy, wrapping towels conspicuously around their bodies, or changing half-covered behind the locker door. A few men, reliable reports indicate, seem to linger a tad long, with nary a shred of clothing, as they shave in front of the washroom mirror. The self-conscious shivers and the preening peacocks, and everyone in between, engaged in a battle over form, and function.

Swimsuit season is fast approaching, and across the country the fight against fat is heating up. Who can miss those info-mercials promising “Buns of

called a conspiracy by the diet, cosmetic and plastic-surgery industries to keep women self-conscious and in their place. Now, the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, which has about 3,000 members, including 100 in Canada, has designated May 5 as International No-Diet Day, urging people to picket diet or weight-loss surgery establishments, feed the hungry and enjoy a hearty meal. And organizations like Toronto’s Eating Disorder Information Centre have been running TV advertisements decrying society’s preoccupation with thinness and warning about the dangers of yo-yo dieting.

In the United States, meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission targeted the five largest mainstream commercial diet companies last fall. The FTC alleged, among other things, that the firms engaged in deceptive advertising by making unsubstantiated weight-loss and weightmaintenance claims. Three of the companies—Diet Center, Physicians Weight Loss Centers and Nutri/System—agreed to settle with the FTC by signing consent agreements; while those are not admissions of wrongdoing, they do require companies to explain that weight-loss testimonials may not reflect what every client can expect to achieve. Two outfits, Weight Watchers International and Jenny Craig, chose to litigate the FTC charges. Responding to the allegations, Marguerite Neri, southern Ontario general manager for Walmar (Eastern Canada) Ltd.,

which owns seven Weight Watchers franchises in Eastern Canada, says: “False advertising has not been the way we’ve built our business.”

In fact, medical studies about the merits of dieting can seem contradictory. And the issue is further muddied by the likes of Susan Powter, the newly slim, hair-cropped author of Stop the Insanity! (25 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list), which indicts the

steel,” or the women’s magazines ballyhooing the latest slimming plans?

“A better body, fast!” trumpets Glamour, with an eight-week workout program in its May issue.

Mademoiselle sounds even more urgent: “Yikes! 30-day bikini countdown.” In a Toronto newspaper advice column last week, 30 days just did not seem long enough. “Now that spring is here again, I am terrified,” wrote one desperate youth. “At this time, I panic about my weight.” And while women try to live up to the impossible standards set by such supermodels as skinny Kate Moss and curvy Claudia Schiffer, men confront the hard-body images of action-hero Sylvester Stallone and unwrapped rapper Marky Mark. In fact, about 83,000 Canadian youths—mostly young men—now take muscle-building steroids, a growing proportion of them for purely cosmetic purposes (page 52).

Exercise is obviously healthy. But is all that focus on body image healthy, too? A vocal anti-diet movement—made up of self-acceptance advocates, feminists and many health professionals—is increasingly crying, “No.” American feminist author Naomi Wolf helped ignite the movement with her 1990 book The Beauty Myth, an attack on what she

diet and exercise industries even as it offers up its own advice on how to get fit. What is indisputable, however, is the seriousness of the issue. In extreme cases, experts say, an obsession with body image may be a factor in such eating disorders as anorexia nervosa (page 50). And the vast majority of women simply feel bad about their bodies—an estimated 90 per cent, according to the Eating Disorder Information Centre.

Yet as the battle over body image rages, the anti-diet forces are making tactical gains—even among dieters. Crash diets are out of style; low-fat recipes, moderate exercise and realistic weight loss are in. “I think there’s a quiet revolution—a lot of women aren’t buying into that weight thing any more,” says Mary, a 37-year-old mother and part-time legal researcher in Toronto who asked that her last name not be published. Mary joined Weight Watchers after the birth of her third child, when she weighed 174 pounds. “But I want to have a healthy eating style—I’m hying not to focus on the weight aspect as much,” she says. ‘When I was 19 or 20 years old, I kept my weight at 115 to 120 lb. But I know what a struggle it was. I never ate. Now, I don’t care if I see that side of 140 again.”

In fact, even among young women—the group most likely to be ob-

In an era of waif-like models and beefy heroes, a vocal anti-diet movement is urging people to set realistic goals



sessed about thinness—there has been a dramatic shift. Canada’s latest Health Promotion Survey found that 28 per cent of women aged 20 to 24 were underweight for their height in 1990, down from 42 per cent in 1985. As well, a survey by Toronto-based Market Facts of Canada Ltd. found that in 1993 Canadians were slightly less likely to be concerned about how many calories they consume each day than they were in 1988. But they were more likely to avoid high-fat foods, eat high-fibre foods and exercise regularly. At Toronto’s World’s Biggest Bookstore, general manager Ross Gorrie reports, 32 feet of shelving is devoted to nutrition books and more than 85 per cent of them are of the healthy-lifestyle, low-fat/high-fibre variety.

Five years ago, he says, at least 75 per cent were the fad-diet type.

Statistics Canada, meanwhile, reports that Canadians spent $321 million on health clubs and recreation associations in 1992, up from $217 million in 1986.

New Year’s resolutions fuel a rush on fitness clubs in January, and cold weather brings another group of exercisers indoors in September, says Norma-Jean Hogg, director of health and fitness at the Calgary YWCA. The other peak period is April, when the countdown to swimsuit season brings in new women members. “Having to shed our clothes and realizing that our bodies will be more visible is a motivating factor,” says Hogg. “But we prefer that people work out for health and well-being, not for body image. Once people join, we try to change that motivation to health.”

When she was in her 20s, Sarah King used to diet, and even took diet pills. Gradually, though, she grew comfortable with her weight—more comfortable than the trainers at some of the health clubs she tried. “The first thing they say is, ‘Oh, you want to lose weight,’ ” she says. “And they are absolutely shocked when you say, ‘No, not particularly.’ ” Now 48 and a technical writer in Vancouver, she gets plenty of exercise, and attends the In Grand Form fitness class for heavier women at the Vancouver YWCA. “I lift weights, I do aerobics,” says King. “I’m in very good shape. Not for a fat lady—I’m in very good shape, period.”

While such classes are proliferating, and the crash diet phenomenon may be passé, that is not to say Rubenesque women and portly men are suddenly all the rage. The popularity of supermodel Moss—a super-slender five feet, seven inches and about 105 lb.—is testimony to that. In line

with the new thinking about dieting, People magazine urged Moss to put some meat on her bones in a recent issue dedicated to “diet winners and sinners of the year.” But the magazine also praised actress Roseanne Arnold and country crooner Garth Brooks for shedding weight—and chided Britain’s Prince Andrew for gaining 20 lb. The shape and weight of athletes—so conspicuously recorded in official programs—is also fodder for public debate. Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick commented on the difficulty he had trading heavyset first baseman Domingo Martinez, despite his strong minor-league performances. “He’s not a real appealing player,” Gillick told reporters, after finally trading him to the Chicago White Sox in March. “He doesn’t have a real good body. He’s not impressive.” Despite the gains of the anti-diet movement, most Canadians would still like to lose weight: 75 per cent of all women and half of all men, according to the Health Promotion Survey. And relatively few of them actually need to worry, medical professionals say. Statistics Canada reported this month that about one in four adult Canadians are at risk of developing health problems because they weigh too much. But the medical community is also concerned that 37 per cent of normal-weight women, and eight per cent of those who are underweight, still want to shed pounds. True, fewer young women are underweight now, says Cora Lynn Craig, president of the Ottawa-based Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute and one of the authors of the Health Promotion Survey. “But I wouldn’t give up and say the battle’s won.”

Of course, there are plenty of social imperatives for being thin. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine last fall examined 10,039 randomly selected people over a seven-year period in the 1980s. It found that overweight men were 11 per cent less likely to marry than their normal-weight counterparts. Women were 20 per cent less likely to marry and 10 per cent more likely to live in poverty, and their household incomes were, on average, $8,253 lower.

The students at Rosedale Heights Secondary School in Toronto do not need a medical journal to tell them what they already know: the pressure to be thin, especially on teenage girls, is often overwhelming. Sitting in a youth worker’s office over lunch hour, five attractive girls aged 16 to 19 blame the ubiquitous images of

Virtually no one escaped youthful teasing about being too fat, skinny, short, tall or flat-chested

For women, ideal body shapes have been as changeable as fashion, from the Rubenesque look to the stick figure of Twiggy. For men, rippling muscles have only recently gone mainstream—even Tarzan had a relatively smooth build.

svelte models and actors, as well as comments from peers and siblings. Friends will not say, “You’re fat,” says Shanel Knoebelreiter, 17. “But they might say, ‘Look at that girl, she’s so big.’ I look and I think, “What are they saying about me?’ ”

Two of the girls say they used to starve themselves for three or four days at a time, enduring frequent dizzy spells. “People said it would shrink your stomach,” explains Tiffany Ruffolo, 16. She finally quit fasting after she fainted. And all five have participated in seminars about body image or related issues. “I think things are changing,” says Amanda Sedgwick-Enright, 18. “I don’t care any more what society thinks.” And when Ruffolo says that she would lose a few pounds if she weren’t lazy, Elisha Yoder is quick to challenge her. “That’s conditioning telling us that women are lazy when we have meat on our bones,” she insists. Still, Yoder, 19, concedes: “It’s hard when you intellectually know something and your heart wants to conform to society’s image. It’s a conflict within yourself.”

Society’s ideal image, of course, varies from culture to culture, from generation to generation. Women were expected to emulate the waspwaisted, corseted look in centuries past, then the dangerous curves of Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield and later the boyish figure of 1960s model Twiggy. The current crop ranges from waifs to the ample model Anna Nicole Smith. But the ideal, says Dr. Blake Woodside, director of inpatient eating disorders at the Toronto Hospital, are women who have a “totally flat figure except for large breasts, which is physiologically impossible.”

Men don’t have it easy, either.

Men’s magazines feature a growing number of articles on body toning and the benefits of healthy living.

And the bare male torso has become an advertising staple. The massively muscled Arnold Schwarzenegger-style action hero

is a stark contrast to past icons—in the 1930s, even in the movie Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller had a relatively smooth build.

Richard Gruneau, a professor of communications at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., notes that, at the turn of the century, images of energetic, athletic young men co-existed with images of portly older men. “Girth was a sign of affluence in the time of the robber barons,” he says. As late as the 1960s, adult men did not seem overly concerned with having an athletic body. “The idea of my father being involved in competitive sports as an adult is mind-boggling,” says Gruneau, 46. “It would no more have occurred to him than flying to the moon. And he wasn’t concerned about the look of his body in the way people are now. He would pat himself and say, ‘Gee, I’m packing on a few too many pounds here.’ But it was done very informally, haphazardly.”

Bodybuilders used to be considered narcissistic, adds Gruneau. It was not until muscle building for strength, rather than appearance, began catching on with football players and other athletes in the late

Beauty in the Nineties

Today, there is a wide variety among celebrated icons—but increased pressure to live up to often impossible standards


1960s that it gained respectability. At the same time, professional sports were winning ever wider television audiences, and the athletes themselves were earning ever greater salaries and social status. And then along came Schwarzenegger—the Mr. Olympia featured in the surprise 1976 hit movie Pumping Iron—who,

Gruneau says, “took that body imagery to the centre of popular culture.” There is still a wide variety among celebrated adult male body images, he says. “For every Hulk Hogan,” notes Gruneau, “there is a JeanLuc Picard”—the lean starship captain in Star Trek:

The Next Generation. But, Gruneau adds, “What’s new is that the gym-built body has gained a legitimacy it never had before.”

Of course, even back when portly was fine among men, overweight boys suffered schoolyard taunts.

“Big people are treated differently,” says Stewart O’Neill, 29, who grew up in Halifax and now lives with his wife and son on Lennox Island, off Prince Edward Island. “When I was a kid,” says O’Neill, “you’d get called all kinds of names—people can be cruel. It was hard and sometimes it hurt.” O’Neill says that he had enough self-confidence to shrug much of it off. But he has encountered negative notions about weight well past childhood. “When you’re a big guy, people just want to give you labor jobs, they don’t think you can do anything else,” says O’Neill, who is now unemployed but hopes to find work with the fixed-link project to connect Prince Edward Island with the mainland. “It is hard to feel too good about yourself. Let’s face it—you don’t see too many big people selling stuff on television.”

Stephen, a 33-year-old Toronto actor, knows about 1 that. He was 202 pounds when he joined Weight

Watchers two months ago, has shed 18 pounds and is | hoping to lose another 20. “There is no reason I “ couldn’t do beer commercials or car commercials,” says Stephen, who asked that his last name not be used. “But it’s very rare you see anyone who’s heavier. I guess that’s where a lot of the pressure on men comes from—I see it in all the jobs I don’t get.”

Tears well in Helena Spring’s eyes when she talks of a close family member who once said: “You’re so fat, I can’t stand to look at you.” Young men, she says, have taunted her on the street. And she knows other women who have had strangers accost them in supermarkets, taking items out of their carts. “Fat prejudice is the only prejudice left that’s acceptable,” says Spring, 45, Eastern Canadian co-ordinator of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. There is nothing wrong with fitness or a healthy diet, she adds—Spring herself has been concentrating on healthy eating to lower her cholesterol level. But the motivation, she insists, should not be obsessive weight loss.

In fact, there is a lively medical debate about the merits of dieting. A panel convened by the National Institutes of Health in the United States in 1992 found little evidence that popular weight-loss tools— anything from appetite suppressants to liquid diets—offered much chance for long-term success. Studies considered by the panel showed that up to 95 per cent of dieters regained whatever weight they lost within five years. As well, an analysis of the Institutes’ ongoing Framingham Heart Study, published in 1991, showed that people whose body weight fluctuates have as great a risk of cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease as people who are consistently obese.

Other researchers suggest that severely restricting calorie intake could actually slow down the metabolism, making weight loss increasingly difficult over time, and speeding up weight gain after the diet.

And some now argue that each individual has a genetically coded set point that determines weight—and that some people’s set point happens to be far heavier than the norm. By that theory, dieting and even exercise cannot significantly and permanently alter a person’s preordained weight.

On the other side of the debate are physicians who continue to urge seriously overweight people to stick to long-term weight-loss and exercise plans. While some agree that yo-yo dieting may be detrimental, they insist that being obese is worse. ‘There clearly are statistical population relationships between obesity and degenerative diseases, like heart disease, like diabetes,” says Dr. Paul Pencharz, director of clinical nutrition at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. “Being fat is not good for your health.” True, Pencharz says, “obesity runs in families.” But research indicates that obese children and adults eat 25 to 30 per cent more than normal-weight people of the same gender, age and height. And even if obesity is genetically determined, he says, it should be fought with an integrated approach that includes behavior modification, counselling and reducing calorie intake to a normal level. Some comprehensive weight-loss programs, says Pencharz, have shown 30 to 40 per cent success rates.

Not surprisingly, that view is echoed by diet companies. Jenny Craig, co-founder of the Del Mar, Calif.-based Jenny Craig, Inc., maintains that her company offers a program of long-term weight management, not a diet. And, she says, “the anti-dieting movement often fails to address the health risks related to obesity.” Weight Watchers’ Neri argues that not fighting obesity because it is genetically determined “reaches a point where it’s an excuse.” At the same time, she claims, people must be realistic. “We can all reach 100 pounds—for a week,” she says. “For us, a goal weight is something that someone can maintain for a lifetime.”

Of all the industries involved in honing body image, none has come under more intense fire than cosmetic plastic surgery—especially surgery involving synthetic breast implants. More than 150,000 Canadian women have received the devices in the past 30 years, 80 per cent of them for cosmetic reasons. Two years ago, in both the United States and Canada, there were moratoriums on implants filled with silicone gel following numerous complaints, and lawsuits, alleging that the devices can rupture and cause autoimmune diseases. But critics contend that, safety issues aside, all kinds of cosmetic surgery, including salinefilled breast implants, tummy tucks and liposuction—as well as new pectoral muscle implants for men—are misguided solutions to overblown body-image pressures.

Dr. Lloyd Carlsen, director of the Cosmetic Surgery Hospital in Woodbridge, Ont., recalls appearing on a TV talk show when the host, also a medical doctor, challenged him to justify occupying hospital beds “for such frivolous surgery” when others are waiting for heart operations. “You are taking care of your patients and I am taking care of mine,” Carlsen responded. “I have a scalpel and I’m creating a surgery of happiness.”

Carlsen insists that he talks people with low self-esteem out of plastic surgery. Most of his patients know what they want and are well-informed, he says, “but they hate what they see in the mirror.” A typical patient is a 45-year-old woman with a couple of children who wants to wear a bikini again without embarrassment. “I give her back what she lost and she is ecstatic,” he says. But a growing proportion of patients are men: 18 per cent of his 1,500 patients last year, up from about nine per cent in 1980. “Our society is becoming more image conscious,”

says Carlsen. “People want to improve their bodies, thereby improving their inner selves.”

Last October, Laura, 42, a widow who runs a small marketing business from her suburban Toronto home, underwent extensive body contouring at Carlsen’s Cosmetic Surgeiy Hospital. Laura, who spoke on condition that her last name not be published, had liposuction on her waist, stomach, thighs, buttocks, calves and ankles. She also lost about eight pounds through dieting. Before the cosmetic surgery, she was a size 10 above the waist and a size 14 below; now she is a straight size 10. “I’ve always been heavier in the legs and waist,” says Laura. “It really bothered me all my life. It was not socially acceptable.” Now, she says, “I feel better about myself. I’m not so self-conscious.” As for critics who say people should accept their bodies as they are, “that’s fine,” says Laura, “if you can accept it and are thick-skinned enough.” But, she adds, “if your self-confidence is suffering, and if you’re doing it for yourself and not someone else, then you should do it.”

Ultimately, of course, a potent brew of personal and social factors contribute to any individual decision about dieting and plastic surgery, fitness and bodybuilding. Virtually no one escaped youthful teasing about being too fat, skinny, short, tall, big-bellied or flat-chested. No one can completely ignore the unattainable shapes of a Schiffer or a Stallone, nor stop the next generation of image icons from mounting their pedestals. But it is worth noting that, generally speaking, people are their own harshest judges—and the only ones who can grant themselves a reprieve.

With SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER in Toronto, JOHN DeMONT in Halifax and ADRIENNE WEBB in Vancouver


Buttock dermolipectomy

Reshapes a hanging buttock, usually by removing skin across the top and pulling up the rest.

$3,000 to $6,000

Medial thigh dermolipectomy

Removes loose and sagging skin in the upper portion of the inner thigh. $2,000 to $6,000

Pectoral implants

Solid premoulded silicone implants are placed behind the muscle in the chest. $4,500


Fat can be surgically removed from many parts of the body, including the outer thighs, the waist, abdomen, knees, calves and ankles. $1,800 to $5,000

Testicular implants

Solid silicone implants are inserted into the scrotum.



Lengthening the penis by cutting ligaments that tie it to the pubic bone ($3,200); or thickening it with fat grafted from the patient’s abdomen or buttocks. $1,200

Calf Augmentation

To improve spindly, underdeveloped legs, an implant is inserted in the calf.


Augmentation mammoplasty

Saline-filled implants are surgically inserted behind each breast. $3,500 to $6,000


Sagging breasts are raised by removing excess skin from underneath and reshaping the breast. $3,500 to $5,000


Loose skin and fat are removed from a bulging lower abdomen, and the muscles are tightened.

$3,500 to $5,500