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2 Comments | Dec 30, 2009

The Swain Diet

bookstore_shelvesHaving frequently stood in wonder before the capacious bookstore shelves that pitch Atkins, Scarsdale, Cambridge, South Beach, etc., I have long fantasized about writing a diet book of my own—to be called, cleverly, The Swain Diet. It seems a road to certain riches, and if that plethora of available selections is any indication, it would appear to require precious little thought, preparation, or special expertise to crank one out, just the ticket for someone with my work ethic. And the beauty of this industry (and rest assured it is an enormous one[1]) is that it is, to all appearances, completely and indisputably arbitrary and capricious, changing both in time and content from one edition to the next. If you don’t believe it, select any two books from the diet book section and you will, almost with a certainty, find completely contradictory admonitions[2]. This is, self evidently, critical to the continued success of the industry, for if there were, in fact, one truly foolproof way to lose weight, someone would write the book, everyone who wants to would buy a copy, and that would be the end of it. Indeed, the very absence of such a book speaks to either the cynical self-serving nature of participants in this industry, the unconscionable lack of research being expended on finding the one true answer, or, most likely, both. Taken to its logical extreme, if you were to somehow aggregate the advice from all extant and past diet books, the net outcome you would arrive at is that you can, in fact, eat nothing at all, which is, common sense would suggest, pretty much the ultimate diet anyway. Thus, given what seems a cornucopia of opportunity, I have concluded that I too ought to climb on board this gravy train and create a diet of my own.

There’s a problem though, and it is that my publisher will not be terribly pleased because the book won’t sell very well, if at all, the reasons being twofold: a) the diet management and weight loss techniques recommended in The Swain Diet will not convey the sort of uplifting, self-esteem-supporting message expected by the typical consumer (as it were) of diet books, and b) the book will only comprise two pages[3]. In fact, upon this short bit of reflection, I think it only appropriate that I save everyone a great deal of time and trouble[4] and simply publish the entire book here and now, to wit

Page 1 – Stop eating so goddamn much.

Page 2 – Get off your fat ass and exercise once in a while.

- The End -

Like I said, not exactly the sort of trenchant guidance the gravitationally challenged are seeking in an advice book, particularly not a hard-back that retails for $24.95[5] plus tax. Oh sure, I could, with a great deal of additional effort, blow this out into a three-hundred pager, replete with recommended foods and recipes, specially formulated exercises, perhaps even directions for using some arcane new piece of inquisition-inspired exercise equipment[6]. But what it really boils down to is the single insurmountable dilemma that all would-be diet book writers, present company included, must face square-on and accept as an ineluctable facet of human nature (aside from the near universal willingness to exchange hard-won cash for diet books, which characteristic works rather to our advantage). This sad simple fact is that when it comes to health in general and dieting in particular, humans are insufferably lazy beings who long for the cosmetic[7] results that come from a life of hard work and discipline, but who want to obtain it all without in fact undertaking any of the hard work or discipline.

Which brings us back, in somewhat circuitous fashion, to the reason there are so many diet books at your neighborhood book store to begin with, viz it is vastly easier to read a book (or better yet, listen to an audio book or watch it on television[8], in all cases activities best performed recumbent and snacking on something unhealthy) than it is to actually do (or avoid doing) the things one is exhorted to do (or not do) in said book. But hold on, for there’s an even more intriguing and insidious element to this process. Because many people are, in fact, astute enough to realize, if they take a minute to think about it, that reading a book will, in and of itself, not cause them to lose weight, it is nonetheless psychologically important that they be able to look in a mirror and tell themselves that by bringing the diet book home they have taken a step, i.e., set themselves on a path, by which they might, at least plausibly, lose weight. If I seem to have digressed from my original thesis (i.e., that my diet book will, by definition, be a marketplace failure) consider the relationship between the couple of psychological observations offered thus far and the terse but unequivocal guidance provided in the book whose complete text I’ve so thoughtfully provided back on page two.

My working hypothesis throughout the remainder of this treatise will, if substantiated, accomplish two important goals. It will explain not only why virtually no one actually loses weight by reading a book, but also why, that paradoxical fact being widely known, diet books, nonetheless, continue to be one of the fastest selling categories in the book industry. Without wallowing any farther into the deep end of the psychological pool than we have already, here’s the nut of it[9]. Even more important than actually losing weight is the ability to credibly convince oneself (and others) that one has no control over the matter (of one’s weight), i.e., that it is not, after all, simply a matter of discipline and hard work (over which aspects of one’s life one presumably does exercise control), but rather exogenous factors one is helpless to control. Achieving this leap of credulity requires but a single critical skill, i.e., facility in externalizing blame.

And here at last we come to it. But first, one last contextual digression—There is a phenomenon in behavioral psychology known as cognitive dissonance, which, defined briefly, means that when we purchase something and then get home and discover that what we bought is either a piece of shit or that we got ripped off in buying it, more often than not, rather than run back to the store for a refund we instead set about telling ourselves a story, i.e., some version of how awesome the purchase actually is, because if it isn’t great, or we really did get ripped off, then that would make us an idiot. And since no one wants to be thought of as an idiot (least of all by oneself) we convince ourselves that, in fact, we acted intelligently and that it truly was an inspired purchase, and a hell of a deal to boot. Which brings us back, again rather circularly, to the diet book thing.

If I drive to my neighborhood book store and select, from the hundreds on offer, a book that promises I will look like Gwyneth Paltrow in four weeks while eating nothing but cheesecake and pork rinds, and if, after said four weeks, this result fails to accrue, I then need some way of making myself not be the stupid person in the equation. At which point much creativity ensues, including excuses ranging from “big bones” and “bad genes” to, far more commonly, simply blaming the author for their lack of clarity and directness in writing the book. Recall that the overarching goal throughout this exercise is to successfully deflect blame away from oneself while simultaneously creating the illusion of holding one’s fate in one’s own hands, i.e., taking active steps toward weight reduction, a delicate balancing act, one has to admit. As it happens, shopping for a trendy diet book, effecting the purchase, implementing (to at least some degree) the recommended steps, and then whining about the complete failure of the endeavor to anyone who will listen, nicely satisfies all of these criteria at a stroke.

But note the single important element upon which this entire edifice of cognitive subterfuge is constructed, i.e., the obtuseness and opportunity for (mis)interpretation inherent in any best-selling diet book. Not only does expanding the two simple and salient concepts of The Swain Diet into a three hundred pager give credibility to the author when he charges $24.95 for it, but that same obfuscation that derives from unnecessary prolixity gives the reader what they are really after from the book to begin with, viz the effortless ability to blame failure on something other than their own sloth and bad eating habits. Imagine, on the other hand, the disappointment that would ensue were someone to buy a copy of The Swain Diet, open the svelte volume, and discover to their horror the fifteen words staring back at them with laser-like clarity, words that cannot possibly be misinterpreted. “Well,” their friends will say after they start whining about the diet’s failure, “did you, in fact, stop eating so goddamn much? Did you get off your fat ass and actually go out and exercise?” There is no escape for the reader. Even one possessed of a second grade education cannot plausibly suggest that they didn’t understand the author’s instructions, or somehow missed one of the book’s key tenets. Which lands the blame for failure squarely back on the reader. Not exactly a recipe, if you will, for spending a year on the New York Times Best Seller List.

There is an irritating yet pervasive tendency among those attempting to lose weight, particularly those who have been at it a long time. No, I am not talking about their tendency to whine about how difficult it is to accomplish—whine about it with such verve that if they were to channel that very energy into exercise instead of whining, they would look like the lead in a Tim Burton movie in a matter of days. Where I am headed with this final point is not, however, entirely unrelated to that irritating proclivity. I am thinking, instead, of the tendency to dismiss healthily proportioned people as some sort of freaks of nature for whom staying in shape is somehow easy or natural, i.e., a result achieved without any sort of effort or dedication or any of the other attributes that they themselves so sorely lack and so which they cannot stand to think might reside in abundance in others[10]. This tendency is yet another example of the broader trait that I hope I’ve established to this point by which one strives to deflect all blame onto others for one’s personal failings. Thus, the list of blame-deflection possibilities grows—not only was the diet book’s author unclear, but people who are already thin don’t have to work at it, which gives me a license to revile them, and makes comparing myself to them an exercise in futility and frustration.

In summary, given my fervent desire to make a fortune while not expending the time or energy to write a three-hundred-page diet book, which in the end would say basically what my original version says anyway, I am left with a bit of a conundrum, i.e., how to minimize my own work while reaping the rewards and recognition that attend the publication of a best-selling diet book. One possibility is to add a brief disclaimer at the beginning along the lines of:

NOTE: If this book does not help you to lose weight, it is someone else’s fault, not yours[11].

Alternatively, or in addition, I could add an appendix (I feel my workload growing already), that lists all of the other individuals who might be blamed for the reader’s failure to lose weight:

  • The author for not making his weight loss technique clearer[12]
  • The publisher, agent, publicist or any other support personnel who played a role in bringing so ineffectual a diet book to market
  • The bookstore chain and its employees for selling the book
  • Any critics who wrote laudatory reviews the book.
  • One’s parents for passing on bad genes and for failing to instill proper exercise and weight management habits at a young age.
  • The public education system (or private school if applicable) for causing one to endure endless ridicule from thin peers and for providing unhealthy lunches every day for twelve years.
  • The American food industry for offering so many unhealthy, inexpensive options that make it easier and cheaper to eat bad food than good food.

Notice, however, that this proposed appendix to The Swain Diet book, to which list could easily be amended numerous additional recipients of blame, has already become a good deal longer than the diet proper, and that while it arguably begins to address the reader’s concerns, it does little but exacerbate my own.

All of which causes me to conclude that things are best left as they are, i.e., with the original diet published above in its entirety and copious words of clarification and caution thereafter. Because let’s be real for a moment—if we’ve established nothing else through this analysis, it is that dieting is not really about losing weight, aside, that is, from the weight of the cash in one’s wallet. Dieting is about becoming comfortable with your psychological self, albeit frequently at the expense of your physical self.

[1] The Bharat Book Bureau (whoever that is) quotes in its biennial study on weight loss and dieting a $58.6 Bn annual market size, placing it roughly halfway between the GDPs of Belarus and Sudan at numbers 65 and 66 in the 2008 CIA World Fact Book.

[2] Try, for example, a side-by-side comparison of Atkins with South Beach sometime.

[3] Excepting copyright page, dedication, table of contents (which will be almost entirely superfluous, for reasons shortly to be obvious), indices (ditto), acknowledgements, etc, etc.

[4] Not least some poor sop of an agent who would otherwise have to sell the damned thing.

[5] Less 20-30% at most big-box book stores (not including membership discounts), but still…

[6] Which I would then be duty-bound to pitch on a late-night infomercial.

[7] And let’s be honest – this entire 50-odd billion dollar publishing monstrosity described earlier is really all about appearance, i.e. not health per se. It is, for example, an extremely dubious thing to suggest that six-pack abs or fifteen-inch biceps are in any way correlated with improved health or longevity.

[8] Whatever it takes to be able to talk with your friends over lunch about the diet and sound reasonably informed about it.

[9] Or applying a suitably food-related analogy, “the crux of the biscuit”, to quote the sagacious Frank Zappa.

[10] That said, I am prepared to concede that there is a non-trivial role for genetics in the weight issue. I have met plenty of people who struggle with weight issues their entire lives. Similarly I have met people who eat junk food more or less constantly and who nonetheless never appear to be terribly out of proportion, at least not with reference to the ever-expanding garment-sizing standards that are now accepted as normal in this country, whereby last month’s size 6 is today’s size 4, etc. Marketing gurus understand that self-esteem moves product, and if that means continually altering the truth, so be it.

[11] This approach is potentially flawed in that it exposes the author to unpleasant and expensive litigation.

[12] Ibid in extremus


BKS 12:23 am - 31st December:

Guess it depends on which store and which book. I do know that many are highly marked down, besides which having a member card can lower the price still further. Of course competing with Amazon forces them to do this. Indeed, many of these stores claim that the only actual margin they make these days is on the Starbucks or other concessions that are there, i.e. not on book sales.

Marc B Davis 9:30 pm - 30th December:

Regarding footnote [5]: You may be understating the discount offered by Big Box Stores. It’s more like 50%-70%.

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