In 1977 Vogue published this “crash diet” for women:
The recipe originally appeared in 1962, in the New York Times best selling book, Sex and the Single Girl: The Unmarried Woman’s Guide to Men, by American writer (and later the editor of Cosmopolitan) Helen Gurley Brown. It offered advice on dating, “sexual friendships,” affairs, work-life balance, economising, styling, eating, and drinking. It was then republished in the Vogue Body and Beauty Book in 1977, before resurfacing as a meme splashed around on Facebook. And this is where I found it.
Gurley Brown’s diet was for just two days, which she recommended for a weekend as it makes you “fuzzy.” But on the upside, she promised that if you consume nothing but eggs, wine, steak, and black coffee, you’ll shed 2.5 kilograms.
And that’s why I decided to try living like a 1970s socialite. For three days.
Day One, Sunday: 60.9 kilograms
I started the day by going to the butcher to buy three 150g steaks. She had to cut the fillet four times before they were small enough. Then I went to my local wine store to buy Chablis, which is a fancy wine from a specific region in France. There I discovered the cheapest Chablis cost $78, so I went with the $14 “Classic Dry White.”
Back at home, my hungover boyfriend Nick offered his farts to me as sustenance. I hadn’t even started yet and I was already cranky. “Are *we* going to make it through this?” he asked. I wanted my egg.
Nick ate avocado, goat’s cheese and prosciutto on sourdough, the asshole. I choked down slippery quarters of egg like a performing seal performing. “Don’t rush it, remember that’s all you’re getting,” said Alex my housemate.
The wine? I was necking cat bile, but at least my hangover was cured. Tipsy on a Sunday morning, life was alright.
For lunch I ate more egg and it turned out that more egg was the last thing I wanted. The problem became not how hungry I was, but how the eggs were the only things to soak up a stomach of acid. I was drawing out the torture too by sipping my two glasses of wine painfully slowly. Buzz gone, energy gone. I was feeling the full depressant effects of the alcohol.
Who knew steak with lemon was so tasty? By this point I wasn’t actually that hungry and it was a bit of a struggle to eat it all. Did that mean I was in starvation mode? As soon as I finished, however, I felt amazing. My body rejoiced. After being totally drained all day I got a sudden burst of energy, which I used up drunkenly giggling before crashing at 10 PM.
Day 2, Monday (working from home). 60.3 kilograms
Normally once my alarm goes off I’m up, but that morning I felt as drained as I did the time I got tropical flu in Vietnam. But my stomach was a hell of a lot flatter than it was 24 hours earlier.
This diet was advertised as the answer to unlocking happiness and confidence. “If you are already mounds of pounds overweight, you must do something, or you can’t hope to be blissfully single,” Gurley Brown wrote. But as I stood up out of bed I was walloped by a sharp pain in my kidneys. And I was constipated. A non-blissful picture of total non-health.
My housemate Erin baked a cake. Eggs in halves this time to get it over with. But it turns out half an egg slushing around your mouth is just as bad as a plate of egg mush. This breakfast glass of wine proved a reliable energy boost. After breakfast I was surprisingly not hungry! Maybe this was how the diet worked. It was just a diet of appetite suppressants. But 20 minutes later I was starving and my stomach was stinging. The noises it was making were changing from dull gurgles to higher pitched whale calls.
Later that day I found an online archive of US Vogue magazine covers from 1977, the year they published their version of the diet. While most of the cover text for the year was about make-up, July’s subheading was “How to look great, feel alive!” I was pretty convinced that this diet was neither making me look great nor feel alive, yet the beautiful Vogue women smiling at me looked so effortlessly sexy. “How can I look like that?” asked every American woman in 1977.
Eggs in quarters was definitely the way to go. Plain eggs with no other padding are kind of gross and I held my nose and chewed through them. Maybe this is how the diet works: it makes you rather eat nothing for three days. My biochemist friend told me that a water-only diet would probably be better for me. “Wine and eggs just don’t make sense,” she said.
I didn’t get the same kick from my lunch wines as I did from my morning wines. I spiralled very rapidly after lunch.
I couldn’t work anymore. I’m was in bed with a throbbing headache. But “Being in bed [alone] is sexy,” writes Gurley Brown. Was this sexy?
“Don’t look at me with those dead eyes” said Nick, pounding an entire bag of cheese corn chips.
After dinner I was tipsy, but it was a new and not particularly fun tipsy. I felt dazed and disconnected from my physical self, like I was just getting used to a second-hand body from a donor with liver problems. My guts were bubbling away and I was burping a lot. My eyes were heavy and I went to bed at 9 PM.
Day 3, Tuesday (office day). 59.7 kilograms.
I woke up feeling shaky and fatigued, I felt physically feeble and short of breath. My stomach pain changed gears into a kind of encompassing all-organ pain.
I looked skinny and grey. But skinny.
Gurley Brown’s book has an entire chapter titled “How to be sexy” in which she basically lists her dos and don’ts on how to win male approval. “Flesh not secured firmly to the bone” is not sexy, she wrote. I read this, feeling withered, like my flesh might drop off at any minute. I don’t think that was what she was going for.
She then went on to argue that men who claimed they like “plump” girls “aren’t sure of their masculinity.” Therefore, according to Gurley, emaciated skeletons would make him feel like more of a man? Fabulous.
Some work friends knew what I was doing, but I didn’t tell my superiors so that I wouldn’t have to explain my drinking at work. So I drank my breakfast wine at my desk from a thermos flask.
As I drank wine, starved, and tried to concentrate, the letters on my keyboard danced around à la magic mushrooms. “Feeling tipsy?” quipped one of my in-the-know co-workers. I was so tired I didn’t know anymore. I didn’t know if I was drunk or just in limbo. The nice Riesling I treated myself to for my last day tasted like pure vinegar. My tastebuds were only picking up the acidic flavours to warn me to: Stop. Eating. Acid.
I was finding it very hard to breathe normally. My stomach, guts and kidneys hurt, I had a headache, my teeth and jaw ached, and I wobbled when I walked. I could hear Gurley Brown’s voice: “Being able to sit very still is sexy.”
This diet was originally advised for the weekend. But I wasn’t swanning about at home smoking cigarettes and reading Vogue, I was trying to work.
“Good health is sexy. Tired girls are tiring!” writes Gurley Brown. “I know a man who says he married his wife because she had so much vitality.”
WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME, HELEN?! WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME, MEN?!
Each sip of wine made my stomach seize and finally I lost it. I went to the bathroom to make myself vomit, but nothing but a dribble came out. Trying to force yourself to vomit at work? That’s not normal, nor OK.
I told Nick about what happened through tears and he told me to eat the avocado on my desk. I did. I broke the diet before the end because a) yes, I’d felt its full effects, and b) I didn’t want to cause myself pain anymore.
“You literally already look so much better,” says my colleague, after two mouthfuls of avocado. I was drowning in relief.
So, what did I learn from all that?
I'd called off the diet eight hours early, but I still lost only 500 grams—hardly the 2.5 kilos I was promised. But emotionally the diet hit me like a 9,000-ton avalanche.
It’s unbelievable that women were advised to do this diet for over a decade. Here’s how to give off the illusion of sexiness while you feel like the sludge at the bottom of a compost bin.
In the “How to be sexy” chapter, Gurley Brown wrote that “being sexy means that you accept all the parts of your body as worthy and lovable.” But getting mulched under pressure to endure such pain does not equal sexy.
Instead I resolved to wholly “accept all the parts of [my] body as worthy and loveable.” Fuck the patriarchy, fuck beauty standards, fuck shitty white wine.