...Henry was a graduate trainee from the year before. He was friendly and jovial and took me under his wing. He introduced me to the library, a high-tech cave where we could access government statistics, market research reports, and view hours of old ads. Using these resources, we trainees who sat around outside would make ourselves into instant experts on the tea-bag market or the shaving market, or cobble together briefings on ‘Aspirational Values in the Wine Market’ or ‘The Shopping Process for Small Electrical Appliances.’ We would try to understand the motivations of ‘housewives’ or ‘car owners’ or ‘cereal buyers,’ and all the other types into which we now classified our fellow citizens.

Henry was a new experience for me. This was the first time I had a friend with whom I could discuss the ins and outs of weight gain. Henry also binged and then felt bad about it, and it was strangely satisfying to find that his anecdotes were so close to my own. Much of our companionship was based on dieting together. 

It was Henry who got me on to the Scarsdale Diet some months later. Henry had heard about it from Marianne, his boss and the only female director on the board of the agency. Motivated by her impending wedding, Marianne had shed about two stone (13 kg), transforming herself from a sofa to an hourglass in front of our very eyes. Convinced of the Scarsdale’s unique effectiveness, Marianne was putting the formidable skills she normally used to sell to the public into selling the diet within the agency.

Henry started one Sunday, and by Wednesday he had already marked up a loss of some six pounds. Marked up, that is, on the chart pinned above the bench where he and I worked. Despite being somewhat disturbed by his greenish pallor, glazed eyes, and slurred speech, I couldn’t help being impressed. The diet only lasted two weeks and you could lose up to twenty pounds. Twelve pounds would surely be a cinch.

Henry described the scheme to me. He hadn’t read the Scarsdale book, but the general feel of the diet was clear to him from conversations with Marianne. The basic idea was one fruit with one thin slice of toast for breakfast and two pieces of fruit for lunch. Supper was a lean steak or a skinned chicken breast, with free quantities of vegetables, cooked without fat. All this to be washed down with unlimited water, black coffee, tea, and diet drinks. Fruit, Henry clarified, was virtually any fruit except bananas.

When, later, I looked up the official details of the diet, I found it was less strict on quantities than Henry’s version and put more emphasis on eating grapefruit, but he was correct on the main points. I started the diet a week after he had, on the following Sunday.

That next week we sat at our bench with a shared hoard of celery and carrot sticks (the only snacks allowed in this extremely rigid diet). We took it in turns to go to the vending machine downstairs for cans of diet soda (the stairs became steeper each day). Every morning we charted up our losses. We didn’t count calories, but I guess we must have been eating about four hundred calories a day. Henry was flagging by this stage, threatening to throw in the towel, but I was there to fire him with my fresher enthusiasm. The agency interior was reminiscent of a nursery school and that week our mental age converged towards the décor. I achieved little useful work during those days and Henry got his report on the watch market thrown back at him by Marianne: ‘Henry, nobody spends more than £20 on a watch because they want to know the time. Find me the real reasons.’ It was unusual for Marianne to be bad-tempered.

We went our separate ways for the weekend and regrouped on Monday morning. Henry was in before me, sitting in his place with (I could hardly believe my eyes) a can of diet cola and a MARS BAR! ‘Henry…what on earth…Mars bar???’ I squawked—my speech had become oddly staccato as starvation gripped. He motioned to the chart: his last x, for that morning, was clearly under his eleven stone target. ‘Off the diet,’ he grunted, his mouth sticky with milk, glucose, creamy caramel, and thick, thick chocolate.

I was incredulous. How could he make such mammoth efforts, torture himself for a fortnight, suffer what I was at that very moment suffering so acutely, and yet chuck it all in a day later? ‘I’m going out for a Chinese at lunch,’ said Henry.

I was still feeling intense and determined and I shrugged off Henry’s ominous example as some peculiar self-destructive madness that was special to Henry.

Three days later (the evening of the twelfth day) I went to some advertising do and bumped into an old acquaintance from my first year at university. ‘Gosh! You’ve lost weight!’ she gasped, correctly assuming I would forgive a personal remark so clearly prompted by admiration. I was over the moon. Thinner than I’d ever been: my legs, in black stockings and high heels, were practically free from those annoying sacks just above and behind the knees. No matter that I couldn’t cycle home that night because I felt faint. I’d been working for six months and had just had my first pay rise—I could afford a taxi. And I was on my way to becoming extremely thin.

The second Monday arrived. I chalked up eight stone three on the chart and told Henry that I certainly wasn’t going out for lunch. I’d spoken to Marianne (who had read the Scarsdale book) and she’d earnestly insisted that I respect the ‘Keep-Trim Eating Plan’ that you were meant to follow after the ‘Fourteen-day Medical Diet.’ It was based on a list of fourteen DON’Ts—sugar, cream, chocolate, butter, sausages…fourteen deadly sins. It didn’t sound particularly interesting, but I understood the idea was not to binge immediately you stopped the strict phase. Well, obviously!

I was watching TV that Monday night when a weird, spiritual thing happened to me. Weird, but maybe not surprising after such rigorous fasting, and quite interesting as this is the only time in my life I have personally experienced revelation. Rather like Joan of Arc’s voices, my revelation took the form of a numinous message telling me what I must do.

I did not have to rid my country of the English (luckily, since I live here). In my case, the instructions that I could neither question nor disobey were simply to bake a chocolate cake. No harm in that, not a dangerous mission. I shared my vision with Peter. Pete, the supportive spouse, was surprised but gently encouraging. Indeed, up to this point I had proved less keen on bakery than he had hoped a wife might be. So I gave him a slice. The other five slices I ate myself, while they were still hot.

Next morning at the office I asked Henry if he was up for lunch. ‘Fancy the Green Dragon?’  he asked. Although part of me was desperate to hold on to the slimmed-down body that filled me with joy and pride, my raging hunger got the better of me. ‘Mmm, beef with rice sticks for me,’ I replied, grinning and slobbering. It was hateful to know that eventually I would have to force myself back into dieting, but I could not hold back the tide of my weight.

We all have our extreme diet stories to tell: you, me, and Oprah Winfrey. They are often similar to this one, where fasting acts as some sort of metaphorical catapult where you pull and pull yourself back and then, just when you reach your goal, WHAM! You find yourself catapulted into the nearest Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet stuffing a bucket of twenty chicken wings—or whatever it is for you. This is not some peculiar self-destructive madness special to Henry; it is what happens when you crash diet.


Crash Dieting

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