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To Swift women, dieting is a bloodsport

One of the challenges of hailing from a family of four girls is the competitiveness. For instance, one of our great fears is being "the fat one" at family reunions. Is this barbaric, superficial, and destructive? Yes, yes and yes. But keep in mind you are talking to women who grew up in an era where beauty trumped comfort or safety.

Tammy Swift online column sig revised 3-16-21.jpg
Tammy Swift, Forum columnist.
The Forum
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FARGO — In the Swift family, dieting is not just dieting — it's a bloodsport.

One of the great challenges of hailing from a family of four girls, all born close together, is the competitiveness. Most of it is unspoken, but it is nonetheless threatening.

For instance, one of our great fears is being "the fat one" at family reunions. Is this barbaric, superficial and destructive? Yes, yes and yes. But keep in mind you are talking to women who grew up in an era where beauty trumped comfort or safety. Women "slept" — or attempted to sleep — with their hair rolled on orange juice cans to straighten their locks into Susan Dey-style perfection.

We ate saccharine, drank Tab by the gallon and lost weight by subsisting on nothing but grapefruit and cabbage soup. We slathered ourselves in baby oil and iodine and laid out on reflective foil mats to intensify our tans.

Pretty much everyone dieted in the 1970s. It's no mistake that I read my very first article about anorexia in a Cosmopolitan magazine at that time. Unfortunately, it shared space with countless images of coltish Jerry Hall-types and SlimFast and Figurine ads.

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Actually, one of the most hotly awaited magazines in our family wasn't even Cosmo. It was the latest issue of Weight Watchers magazine. Our mother, who has been on Weight Watchers for so long that she should really be named Customer of the Century, subscribed to the magazine. It was easily the most popular periodical in the house.

I almost always paged first to the centerpiece story, in which celebrities like Wonder Woman Lynda Carter and even supermodel Cheryl Tiegs — Cheryl Tiegs! — shared their struggles with weight.

I actually remember waiting for my weight to hit three digits so that I could fit in with the rest of the family and start my first diet. For a whole day, I whined and dined on ghastly veal patties from Schwann's, iceberg lettuce with a watery diet dressing and slices of extra-thin toast covered with cottage cheese and broiled pineapple. By 7 p.m. that evening, I was sneaking Nutter Butters out of the cupboard.

And I've pretty much followed that pattern ever since.

The worst was when we all joined Weight Watchers together. We would fill our refrigerator with an array of wretched-tasting diet foods, including a fat-free white goop that laughingly called itself "Lite Mayonnaise" and a diet margarine that should have been named, "I Can't Believe It's Not Motor Oil."

We would obediently fix low-cal meals, followed by desserts made from Jell-O and diet soda. We would rigorously follow the diet plan in front of each other, although I'm sure more than a few fudge-oatmeal bars were secretly gobbled over the sink when no one was looking.

At the end of the week, we would weigh in and triumphantly record the results. Afterward, while still talking obsessively about the finer points of "staying on the plan," someone would casually mention dinner. And before you knew it, we were "treating ourselves" with pie and french fries at the diner across the street.

"Oh well," we'd say. "We'll get back on the wagon tomorrow."

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You're probably noticing a theme here.

We have intermittent fasted, counted points, Noomed and eaten expensive, prepackaged diet foods. We have wrestled with everything from the glycemic index and carbohydrates to foods that supposedly rev up metabolism while triggering ketosis.

Our most recent get-together showed things haven't changed much. One sis has gone low-carb and lost 40 pounds over the last year. Another had just started Jenny Craig, and followed it so vigilantly that she wouldn't even eat her own cake on her birthday.

My mother is also the slimmest I've ever seen her, although I wouldn't wish the health problems that caused it on my worst enemy. Even so, she watches every bite of food she eats. Interestingly enough, her main concern is no longer simply about looking good, but about keeping hypertension and a 98%-blocked coronary artery at bay.

Funny, isn't it? If we could only get past our obsession with aesthetics and truly understand what overeating does to our insides — how it affects everything from our livers to our hearts — we might be more successful.

Perhaps that's the trick: We need to think less about the price of fitting into skinny jeans and more about the dangerous price of skinny arteries.

Related Topics: NUTRITIONFAMILYHEALTH
Tammy has been a storyteller most of her life. Before she learned the alphabet, she told stories by drawing pictures and then dictated the narrative to her ever-patient mother. A graduate of North Dakota State University, she has worked as a Dickinson, N.D., bureau reporter, a Bismarck Tribune feature writer/columnist, a Forum feature reporter, columnist and editor, a writer in NDSU's Publications Services, a marketing/social media specialist, an education associate in public broadcasting and a communications specialist at a nonprofit.
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