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Underwear As A Diet Plan? Please.

Blame the salesman, sure. But those who knowingly buy snake oil aren't without fault. In this photo, models return backstage following a run-through of the GS Shop Lingerie show during Fashion Week Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, in New York. (Kathy Willens/AP)
Blame the salesman, sure. But those who knowingly buy snake oil aren't without fault. In this photo, models return backstage following a run-through of the GS Shop Lingerie show during Fashion Week Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, in New York. (Kathy Willens/AP)
This article is more than 6 years old.

I like stories with good guys as much as anybody. This is not one of those stories.

Lawsuits up and down the East Coast claim that certain brands of underwear designed to miraculously melt fat do no such thing. The sellers “prey upon women’s insecurities about their body images,” in the words of a Massachusetts suit. In case you missed the point, they are "PISSED,” New York Magazine said of buyers who sued in that state. They have reason to be: whether or not the lingerie companies are lawbreakers, they qualify as vultures. Yet try as I may, I can't muster pity for customers who swallowed this pipe-dream bait.

The suits target Maidenform Brands and its Flexees Instant Slimmer, along with Wacoal America, which sells the iPant. These products, running $38 and $60, respectively, contain minerals and nutrients that ooze into your body and can vaporize some fat. Or so the companies claimed. While Wacoal declined The Boston Globe’s request for comment about the lawsuits, Maidenform said it had learned its fabric supplier might not be able to substantiate the corporate claims and buyers could request refunds. But the firm defended its Slimmer nonetheless, according to the newspaper.

People who, in defiance of science, think that they can shop their way to fitness only reinforce the stereotype of Americans as mindless materialists.

To steal a phrase, even if the courts say the firms have a right to market their (under)wares this way, that doesn’t mean they are right to do so, any more than payday lenders and telemarketers are right to scavenge off the gullible or financially pinched. Business ethicists I interviewed pointed to a hoary tradition of the beauty industry monetizing women’s societally pressured desperation to look attractive.

You can believe the foregoing and still believe that consumers also have some responsibility. If we were discussing climate change, I’d cite the scientific consensus that it’s real. If the topic were evolution, my start point would be the science undergirding that concept. Well, medical science is similarly unambiguous: aside from a minority of people who are obese due to underlying disease, there’s just one way within our control to lose weight: eat right and exercise regularly. Period. (It's interesting that many putative liberals look down on deniers of climate and evolution science while demanding empathy for those who reject nutrition science.) People who, in defiance of science, think that they can shop their way to fitness only reinforce the stereotype of Americans as mindless materialists.

I know — I just made “eat right and exercise regularly” sound as easy as breathing, when it’s not. I also interviewed a sociologist who argued (indisputably) that contempt for overweight people is real, and, further, that individuals can’t control their weight, a privilege supposedly restricted to the affluent with their pricey diet and exercise regimens. That’s where she lost me.

First, people who drop up to $60 on a pair of panties probably aren’t on food stamps; their bank accounts simply exceed their IQs. Second, the number of people for whom obesity is but a symptom of underlying disease is small. It is true that more than 80 percent of dieters regain the weight they’ve shed after two years. Read on in that last link, and you’ll see the likely explanation: people try diets that are too restrictive and calorie-deprived. Permit me a personal anecdote here.

Two decades ago, my doctor told me I could stand to lose 10 pounds. (You know you’re in trouble when you’re naked on the exam table and the physician says, “You’re carrying around a little extra, aren’t you?”) I immediately surmised the font of my fat: that massive slice of cake or pint of Ben & Jerry’s I wolfed down for dessert every night. Rather than give up dessert — a straitjacket regimen I doubt I could have maintained — I replaced sweets with healthier foods (nuts, cheese, chips and salsa). Call it the Dirty Harry Diet, from an interview years ago in which Clint Eastwood said he stayed lean not by counting calories, but by choosing only healthy food and then eating as much as he wanted. I lost the weight and kept it off.

You can believe the foregoing and still believe that consumers also have some responsibility.

This is not to deny that emotional triggers — stress, sorrow, etc. — can drive even disciplined people to destructive behaviors, including overeating. But the temporary interruption in a diet from a one-time crisis is not what bedevils those who struggle with their weight. It’s unhealthy “yo-yo” dieting, the serial up-and-down cycle of overeating and weight loss. Against that, there’s only one workable strategy: set realistic diet and exercise goals, and then stick to them.

No amount of apologetics can spin an excuse for the credulous seeking an easy, and expensive, way out. How expensive? Ask the litigants who paid for overpriced underwear, and now must shell out attorneys’ fees.


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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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