Jeanette Winterson's 1986 Diet Book Is Here

The year I was born, Jeanette Winterson wrote a diet book for women — I’m not sure if this means I finally qualify for secondary narcissism or if I simply still don’t understand what secondary narcissism is, but I can’t help but take it personally. A couple of weeks ago I read a review of her latest book, Frankisstein, that gave me pause; I’m usually skeptical when a cis person writes a trans-ish book that implies or states outright that 1. Trans people represent the inevitable future of gender, an imaginative act that immediately turns cis people into scrappy underdogs and 2. There’s something universal about transness that’s not simply relatable but common, which makes those who transition embarrassingly literal-minded. And this review did not make me optimistic about Frankisstein, although it’s always possible I’ll be surprised when I get around to reading it:

Beginning, evocatively, with Shelley composing Frankenstein, the novel leaps confidently into the present day to tell the story of Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor self-described as “hybrid”, meeting Victor Stein, a celebrated professor working at the bleeding edge of “accelerated evolution” through “self-designing” life. His interest in Ry is both sexual and detachedly philosophical. In Ry’s post-surgery body, he sees transhuman implications. “You aligned your physical reality with your mental impression of yourself,” he tells Ry. “Wouldn’t it be a good thing if we could all do that?”

Ry is quick to acknowledge the distinct and in some ways lonely intersection of science and gender fluidity that their existence encompasses. “I live with doubleness,” Ry says at one point. But where Stein sees Ry as a “harbinger of the future” who “chose to intervene in your own evolution”, Ry’s view is rooted more in discomfort with the present. “I am part of a small group of transgender medical professionals,” Ry says. “Some of us are transhuman enthusiasts too. This isn’t surprising; we feel or have felt that we’re in the wrong body. We can understand the feeling that any body is the wrong body.”

Anyhow, I haven’t read Frankisstein and so there’s a limit to how extensively I feel prepared to critique the premise, but I have now read Winterson’s third book (it’s her third book, she wrote it after Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit), Fit For The Future, because I ordered it the second I clicked through to her Wikipedia page from the original Guardian review.

I know, of course, that your first question about the book — as was mine — must be, “Does Jeanette make a joke about oranges in it?”

Here’s the table of contents:

Something I’ve always been a bit embarrassed about is my total receptivity to scolding, admonishing-type diet books, especially those written by no-nonsense women. I don’t usually go in for whatever diets they espouse, but there’s a part of my brain that still believes whenever an enormously together-looking woman yells at me, she’s right to do so, and it’s all for my betterment. Transition has sadly not cured me of this belief. French Women Don’t Get Fat and The Dancer’s Body Book fall into this category, Skinny Bitch is perhaps its apogée. I can never completely rid myself of the idea that a stern, competent, disappointed woman is going to sufficiently externalize my self-loathing for my own squishiness, both physical and spiritual, such that I will absorb her sternness and flintiness into my own body and become resourceful, self-sufficient, masc4masc but in a second-wave feminist sort of way?? And Fit For The Future more than delivers on that front; it opens with “You owe it to yourself to be beautiful,” then demands the reader scrawl this mantra all over every surface in her home. Everything is tied up into ideas of “self-respect” and a certain sort of cleaned-up “wildness,” it’s equally dangerous to become a Bridget-Jones-type diet bunny (stupid, worthless, nigh-unsalvageable) or a diet-unconscious slob (embarrassing, but at least capable of being reformed) – honestly, sometimes it feels like Winterson is trying to build the reader into her ideal girlfriend, stylish and flexible, strong and graceful, constantly tearing off her (still-stylish!) clothes in order to glory in the clean lines of her perfected nudity, and throwing out promises of an improved sex life and sense of self-respect on nearly every other page.

Also, there are a ton of impossible-to-prove-physical claims – that men, even gymnast men, can’t walk on balance beams (?) because their centers of gravity are too high, women’s menstrual cycles prepare them for temperature fluctuations and therefore make them better swimmers (I think that was the point?), “women don’t join clubs the way men do,” the limbo isn’t an Olympic sport because no one respects feminine endurance, “caffeine has the same effect on your body as chocolate.”

I don’t mean to suggest that the only pleasure found in reading Fit For the Future or any old diet book is in feeling morally superior to the author, although I can’t deny that’s also part of the reason I read them. I experience myself as a shuttlecock when I pick up books like this one. One minute I’m a dearly-loved but wayward and erring pupil in need of correction, the next I’m the maximally-enlightened inheritor of feminist tradition correcting their foolish and misguided elders, which means I get to feel both self-pitying and self-congratulatory. Oh dear, I think I’ve finally answered the question as to why I like to read old diet books. And I still can’t even touch my toes.