Nobel Prizes for self-help books, British journalist Mimi Spencer, the author of 101 Things to Do Before You Diet: Because Looking Great Isn’t Only About the Weight, would rightfully be taking her place on stage in Stockholm. And if the plentiful tips in her primer are any indication, she’d look like a cover girl—her best features played up, Spanx sucking in her “soft tummy,” her posture perfect, her heels slimmingly high, her cheekbones perfectly contoured.
The Daily Mail style columnist certainly deserves some kind of award for brilliantly deploying self-help conventions to take on its cash cow: the fad diet book. The fact her “not-a-diet” primer will be found in the diet-book section is richly ironic, given its central message that the obsessive focus on diets of the grapefruit and Zone variety is the problem behind yo-yo weight gain, not the solution to it. The first of her 101 things “to do”: “Don’t read diet books.”
Spencer writes in the style of the smart, witty, plugged-in girlfriend encouraging her dowdier pal to become her most fabulous self: “Stop measuring yourself against a warped societal norm, and start enjoying what you’ve got,” she advises.
As an observer of the industry that warps societal norms, Spencer knows her stuff, from the best brands to buy to the healthiest hors d’oeuvres to hoover at cocktail parties (go for the protein). Her “play up the positive, neutralize the negative” dictum to “access your slender self” begins with “shapewear,” a subject on which she could write a Ph.D. A saucy corset and properly fitted bra are must-haves. Of the “immense tummy-flattening” power of denim she waxes poetic, devoting pages to asset-enhancing jeans.
“Wear fit clothes, not fat clothes,” she counsels. A flattering “diet dress,” defined as “the absolute axis of a slimline life,” is her wardrobe staple. There’s a difference between an empire line and baby doll, she warns: “An empire needs to be sleek and assured. It does not need to suck its thumb and ask for a lollipop.” Fashion is all about illusion and Spencer passes along popular trompe l’oeil tricks such as wearing V-necks and black shoes with black opaque tights that “make your legs go on for miles.” Heels must always be high (but never with ankle straps or round toes; they make legs look stumpy). Her list of clothing no-nos includes quilted jackets, sweater dresses and the turtleneck: “A turtleneck will make you look like a turtle,” she writes. “This is bad.” Velvet and corduroy thicken the body by adding light, as does shiny fabric. On one point she’s especially adamant: no miniskirts after age 39!
On how to drop actual pounds, Spencer quotes the great British comic actor Stephen Fry: “How did I lose the weight? Prepare to be astonished—I ate less food.” The wisdom she imparts is so simple it reads like a Zen koan: “Focus on what you eat rather than what you don’t eat.” That should be fresh, high-quality, seasonal fare. But she throws in “miracle foods” (almonds and metabolism-boosting green tea) and “cheats” to lighten the load: substitute olive oil for butter, drink water to feel full, avoid restaurants, don’t drink any kind of pop, don’t use a tray in a cafeteria (studies show you’ll just fill it up), and wrap leftovers in foil—not plastic wrap—so they don’t beckon from the fridge.
On the fattening perils of alcohol, Spencer is savvy: if you must drink, drink martinis (in moderation) rather than calorie-laden wine, she advises. And her best tip: “Never be hungover or stoned,” which is a “fast route to the fast-food joint or fridge.”
Her fitness schedule is similarly accessible: start by taking the stairs and walking. More important is shedding body obsession: get involved in a cause, take up a hobby, anything to stop obsessing about your thighs.
101 Things to Do Before You Diet hinges on a truth many self-help books ignore: massive, lasting change requires many small steps; the more you achieve, the more you’ll attempt. The book cleverly practises what it preaches: there’s just enough insider gossip, celebrity name-dropping and research to make its well-worn advice and common sense seem fresh and newly stylish. How you look has “very little to do with your weight,” Spencer concludes, “but it owes everything to your confidence.” Luckily for her, there are enough confidence-seeking people who will happily shell out $30 for her book. It’s a small price to pay for never going on a diet ever again.