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BILLION-DOLLAR BRAINWASH
HOW THE MEDIA AND THE DIET INDUSTRY ARE MAKING WOMEN MISERABLE ABOUT THEIR BODIES

Terry Poulton used to feel like "a golden girl" -- till she got fat.

"Until then, it semed as if everyone loved me," recalls the former Toronto Star columnist, "and afterward, that no one did, or ever would."

A lot was riding on making young Terry Poulton feel bad about herself for gaining weight.

"The key is money -- money in the pocket of those who sell wanna-be waifs an array of weight-loss products and services currently estimated at $50 billion in the United States alone," charges Ms. Poulton, who had her stomach stapled and went on a liquid protein diet that destroyed her gallbladder.

As a journalist, she landed an assignment that "seemed like every woman's dream."

Chatelaine magazine "would pick up the tab for sending me to nutritional, fitness and psychological counseling if I would promise to lose 65 pounds and write about my experiences along the way." She lost the 65 pounds in six months, was put on the magazine's cover, lost her fiance in the process -- only to gain all the weight back!

But she did gain some perspective as well.

Women are on a treadmill that will only make them fatter, this journalist maintains. A treadmill that churns out beefy profits to big business feeding on the anti-fat ideology.

"Almost all women -- doesn't matter if we're fat or not -- we look in the mirror and we say, yuck!," Ms. Poulton says in an interview.

Businesses make the cash registers ring by pushing the button to make women have "deep feelings of unworthiness" -- to borrow a phrase from Princess Diana's brother -- unless they're impossibly slim.

It's ideal marketing for the beauty, health care, fitness, fashion and food industries -- create a desire for an image that can never be fulfilled, that will continually be pursued. Condemnation of "chubby chic" ensures that women will desperately keep plunking cash down on products that promise escape from criticism of the Rubenesque.

It's brainwashing, says Ms. Poulton, now 52.

Awash in the media images, young women are slaves before they know what hit them. The great irony is that we live in the most democratic country in the world, which encourages this anti-fat fascism to govern women's everyday lives.

Guilt and self-denial, notes the Village Voice's Jennifer Schuessler, are used "to sell us both more diets and more food."

Buffalo attorney Jennifer Coleman decided to specialize in the range of employment discrimination, in part, after she realized that she "would always be the object of sport, derision, antipathy and hostility so long as I stayed in my body."

More women like Ms. Coleman are fighting back, in a new anti-fat-discrimination movement following the fiasco over the dangerous diet drugs known commonly as phen/fen.

Terry Poulton includes Ms. Coleman in her new book, "No Fat Chicks: How Big Business Profits by Making Women Hate Their Bodies -- and How to Fight Back" (Birch Lane Press). At the University at Buffalo, a research project has been started to evaluate a new non-dieting training program designed to help people break free from dieting.

Diet patch propaganda

Still, the deluge of emaciation propaganda pours on. In Western New York, for instance, there seems to be an increase of the direct-mail tactic in which women open envelopes, often with no return address, and the latest dieting scheme falls out.

Consider the language in a pitch for a "diet patch," like a smoking patch, that many Western New York women received in the mail several months ago:

"As soon as you make an entrance, women will look at you with envy because you are thin, and also with just a tinge of jealousy (especially the fatter ones).

"Men, on the other hand, will admire you closely. Very, very closely."

The letter is signed by a Dr. Malcolm K. Canning, billed as a nutritional consultant. On closer inspection, in tiny type on the letter's side, it reads that Dr. Malcolm K. Canning "is a pen name."

A pen name -- even though there's a Dr. Malcolm Canning photo and resume, maintaining that in 1973 he became "the youngest physician of his day in private practice." No age given.

The fictitiously named Dr. Canning also claims that if you lost weight with the diet patches, which could cost hundreds of dollars if you were on them for a year, your husband would be "even more in love with you."

"You are no longer ashamed of showing off in a bathing suit.

"If you are a little overweight, you have probably noticed that certain thin people look at you with that half-pity, half-contempt look. If you are really fat, a lot of people don't even look at you eye to eye." As if you don't have a right to live.

And then there are the testimonials. From "Betty T," a 32-year-old secretary -- "My husband was no longer interested in me and when we went to bed at night he usually turned his back to me and went to sleep . . . without saying a word! I lost 25 pounds faster than I ever thought possible. I don't remember ever being this happy."

From "Cindy R.," a 19-year-old bank employee:

"What fun to finally be thin. People look at me, talk to me, find me attractive, ask me out on dates."

From "Miss Susan W.," a 38-year-old secretary:

"I am the happiest of women after having lost 50 pounds that were ruining my life. If you've ever looked at yourself in the mirror with disgust, you'll understand."

Ready to send your check to Dr. Canning?

At an earlier time, Terry Poulton might have been wearing the patches.

In her pre-fat days, she was a "precocious, pretty and beloved child." Post-weight-gain, "none of my good qualities seemed to count anymore, as praise and friendship were replaced by taunts and ostracism. Although pictures of me as a teen-ager don't look all that bad, I felt like a monster," Ms. Poulton writes. She kept a "tight rubbery girdle on under my pajamas at my first slumber party."

It was the start of her "Sisyphean, totally typical, lifelong battle with excess weight. Although I was never a compulsive binge eater, I led a habitually sedentary life and ate too many sweet, carbohydrate-laden comfort foods. That, plus decades of yo-yo weight levels, slowed my metabolism and strip-mined my body of fat-burning muscle tissue. Like many of the estimated one-third of American women who are overweight -- and the 89 percent who believe they're too heavy -- I'd been on dozens of diets and lost and regained hundreds of pounds.

"Every method worked. But like determined homing pigeons, the pounds I lost always found their way back. And through the years my weight crept up while my self-respect sank lower and lower."

Then that perfect magazine assignment came along in Toronto -- get paid to lose weight.

"If only I were like Oprah, we think, and had the money for a personal chef and trainer, plus a free fitness center in which to go for the burn . . . then I could get in shape and my life would be perfect. Seduced by my 'if only' dream, I had no idea I was beginning the toughest and loneliest time of my life, in which I'd force-march through my own private boot camp trying to meet the scariest deadline of my career."

Scary it was. Despite all the help, and eating little more than carrot sticks, it seemed Ms. Poulton could not lose enough weight quickly enough for that looming deadline. She even left the man she planned to marry, to be closer to her gym. And the relationship crumbled with that separation.

"I was alone in a shabby apartment with nothing but a single chair and a mattress on the floor. In the kitchen, I kept only skim milk and coffee.

"To beat the crowd, I would hit the gym every morning at about 6:30 and work out for at least an hour amid blatantly disapproving stares from skinny patrons. Exhausted and breathless, I would then shower, dress, stumble to my car and race to Toronto to work on writing projects. I had no time for family, friends or anything but the all-consuming need to hit my deadline.

"At the end of days during which I often ate as few as half of my prescribed 1,000 to 1,200 calories, I would zip back to the gym, repeat my morning's workout and then swim 22 laps in the Olympic-size pool."

Buffalo attorney Jennifer Coleman knows the drill.

"I really believed I could infiltrate the ranks of the non-fat and thereby establish my worth," she wrote in a Newsweek "My Turn" column not long ago, "by a regimen of swimming, cycling and jogging that put all but the most compulsive to shame. I ate only cottage cheese, brown rice, fake butter and steamed everything." Fit, but still fat, she wondered: "How was it I was still lazy, weak, despised, a slug and a cow? I finally realized: It didn't matter what I did."

Ms. Poulton took her abnegation further. She had her stomach stapled, only to gain "an unslightly 10-inch scar on my midriff." Five months on a liquid protein diet put her under the surgeon's knife to remove her gallbladder.

Doing some serious research on what she calls "the billon-dollar brainwash," she "found the key that unlocked the psychological prison in which I'd wasted most of my life."

Is she promoting unhealthy obesity?

"On the contrary. What I'm saying is that, once we're all thinking of ourselves, we will be free to choose healthy lifestyles, whatever our weight."

Today, she says, her attitude toward her body has been transformed.

"I now freely choose when I will work out (it varies, depending upon my schedule) and what I eat (mostly vegetables, fruits and complex carbohydrates with very little fat, plus occasional sweets, about which I no longer agonize)."

And since her "one-woman jailbreak, I've been losing weight without dieting."

"I've probably lost 50 pounds, but I promised myself never to step on a scale again.

"I'm not slender, but neither is the average North American woman, especially in middle age. Nor am I 'proud to be fat,' as some advocates for the laudable size-acceptance movement declare. I am just me. And it's finally enough."

To help others -- commodious or not -- do the same, she suggests the following:

Figure out for yourself what your natural body weight seems to be, and what the best reasonable methods are for maintaining it -- starting with the most realistic and reliable of all slogans: If you can burn it, you can eat it.

Understand that for the sake of profit, energy has been diverted, dreams have been dislodged and quests for fulfilling lives have been diminished to a single, senseless pursuit.

Contact magazine editors to point out how it would be in their best economic interest to intersperse authentic images of women among the non-stop depictions of what, for 95 percent of women, are anatomical impossibilities.

Refuse to accept appearance-based substandard treatment from anyone whose services you engage, be they hairstylists or clothing store clerks.

Take a similarly self-respecting attitude with anyone who employs you.

That's what Ms. Coleman did. One of the reasons she struck out on her own was that her superiors told her that "clients looked at me differently."

"The general theme for women is, age and size matter a lot in your career, whether it's the entertainment industry or any other business -- and it matters much more than it matters for men," Ms. Coleman says from her law office in downtown Buffalo.

"Any woman who's overweight will tell you about walking into an interview for a job and having the eyes run over them top to bottom. It's always out there, always a stumbling block.

"And it's unjustified."

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